When you think you have seen everything in Israeli politics and nothing could surprise you, think again – or better yet, think Netanyahu. If you thought no one could drag Israeli politics any lower, think again or better yet, think Netanyahu.
Being speechless is not a quality usually associated with one who writes opinion commentary, but the unscrupulous political twists and turns of the Israeli prime minister last week were breath-taking for all the wrong reasons. An extraordinary week that started with negotiations to bring the more centre-left Zionist Union party into the coalition, seems most likely to end with an even more extreme clerical-nationalist government to lead Israel over the next few years.
Instead of the Zionist Union, Netanyahu opted to lure the ultra-right Israel our Home, led by the ever bellicose Avigdor Lieberman, into his already very uncompromising religious-nationalist government. Most astonishing, was the way Netanyahu discarded the services of his Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, offering what is probably the most important and sensitive post, to the controversial and deeply divisive Lieberman.
Joining forces with the Zionist Union, which consists mainly of the Labor party, had its own merit. It is the second largest party in the Israeli Knesset with 24 MKs, and holds, ostensibly, a more moderate stand on the peace process. Consequently, it might have projected a more dovish image of Israel to the international community and an apparent readiness to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
A more cynical view is that they would have served as no more than a fig leaf for a prime minister, who has no interest in making any of the required concessions to advance peace. It would have been no more than a ploy to ease some of the pressure to participate in the international peace conference, which the French are offering, diverting attention away from the expansion of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, or from the Palestinian’s request for recognition in the UN Security Council.
A mere exercise in biding time, which is the essence of Netanyahu’s politics in his never ceasing attempt to stay in power. Netanyahu is on a hell-bent mission to become the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history. David Ben Gurion, the only prime minister to have served longer than him, founded and built a country. Netanyahu is destroying the soul of this very country.
Netanyahu might find that this was one act of opportunism too far, ending in presiding over a government which swerves out of control to the right and is ravaged by personal discordYossi Mekelberg
Cynicism and opportunism
It is this very cynicism and opportunism that led him to shift attention and flirt with Lieberman, with whom he has a long history of mutual despise and distrust. Joining forces with the Zionist Union could have resulted in a mini-rebellion within his own Likud party and other members of the coalition. Netanyahu has long planned to expand his coalition, fearing that relying on the narrowest of majorities possible, of 61 MKs, will not be enough to survive a full term until the next scheduled elections.
A recent disagreement with his Defense Minister regarding the right of senior officers to express their opinion on the morality of military actions, gave him the pretext he was looking for to remove Ya’alon from his post. Ya’alon, a former general himself, jumped before he was pushed and resigned last Friday, but did not do so without an alarming parting shot.
In his statement following his resignation, he asserted that: “extremist and dangerous forces have taken over Israel and the Likud movement and are destabilizing our home and threatening to harm its inhabitants.”
Absurdly Ya’alon and the generals, who pro-actively lamented the decline of moral standards in the Israeli society and in its military, were “accused” of going soft, turning into lefty-liberals – an unforgivable sin – in the eyes of the current Israeli government. The outgoing minister has never been any of the above. He is a hardliner hawk, with little empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians.
But what separates him from the Netanyahus, Liebermans and Bennets of this world, is that he is a man of personal integrity and honesty. His calculations are not of a narrow political nature, focused on personal gains. In the bigger picture his actions, throughout his military and political life, contributed to perpetuation of the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, probably more than many other members of the current Israeli government.
Nevertheless, as a professional soldier he could not turn a blind eye to instances such as the emptying a full magazine of bullets into a young Palestinian girl, or the cold blooded killing of a Palestinian assailant, while he was laying injured and defenselessly on the ground. Actions that could only be regarded as war crimes and are rightly condemned by the military commanders. Netanyahu’s show of sympathy for those who commit these crimes, reveals that he is neither a statesman, nor a military leader with any moral backbone.
Appointing to the position of Minister of Defense, one of the most contentious politicians of Israeli politics in recent history, with a cloud of impropriety constantly hanging above his head, can only be regarded as irresponsible. A defense minister who calls for the re-occupying of Gaza, transferring of Israeli Arabs, and advocates the death penalty for terrorists, will only lead the country to more conflict and bloodshed.
Netanyahu might find that this was one act of opportunism too far, ending in presiding over a government which swerves out of control to the right and is ravaged by personal discord.
Time will tell whether was this week’s act of political trickery will lead to the beginning of Netanyahu’s political demise. Or, if it was a further affirmation that the state of Israel and the Zionist dream of being liberal, democratic and living in peace with its neighbors, have further parted ways and in the process alienated its international allies. I will not be surprised that it might be a case of both.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.