Want to turn your foes in to friends? Do it the Bibi way and try a P.R. disaster.
Since before the general election last February which resulted in him becoming Prime Minister, he’s been regarded as “Teflon Netanyahu”. That is to say, political and P.R. disasters don’t seem to scathe him. Now we’re seeing that they have the strange effect of winning him the sympathy and support of his foes.
A former maid is suing his wife, Sara, for treating her unacceptably and paying her below the national minimum wage. Since the suit was filed earlier this month the media has been strongly critical of Mrs. Netanyahu, claiming that she meddles in state affairs.
But with the country’s media mauling Mrs. Netanyahu, and by implication her husband, Haaretz’s Gidon Levy usually one of the Prime Minister’s strongest critics, leapt to the couple’s defense. In this article in which he argues that the public’s treatment of Netanyahu is “tainted by more than a hint of despicable male chauvinism.” He contrasts the treatment of Mrs. Netanyahu with the treatment of the husband of opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Despite being heavily involved in his wife’s political activities, Livni’s husband is accepted and respected. “What a man married to a female public figure can do a woman married to a male public figure can,” claims Levy.
Judging by the title, sparks were going to fly. A much-anticipated session at the second annual Israeli Presidential Conference, today was called “Jerusalem, Washington, US Jewry — Is the Honeymoon Over?”
The honeymoon is over, implied Elliott Abrams, former policy advisor to President George W. Bush, saying that he “had a wonderful honeymoon with Sallai,” referring to fellow panelist Sallai Meridor, former Israeli ambassador to America.
But while panelists agreed that relations are being put to the test and should become more intimate, in the main they were circumspect, and at points upbeat. Meridor, who was ambassador when Obama took office, said that whatever the clashes between Obama and Netanyahu, both leaders’ desire to make history will keep them on track. They both “see things in a very strategic historic manner,” he said.
I think that Netanyahu looks at his term as a historic term more than a personal term and I think that President Obama looks at his presidency as an historic phenomenon.
I think that both individuals from my impression, beyond ideology, and both of them have a strong ideological basis, are strategic and are looking make major changes and if they are able and I hope they are to find the middle ground … the right thing for the world, for America, for Israel.
I think this would take precedence for them over political considerations.
Stanley Greenberg, former advisor to President Bill Clinton, cited another reason why ties are not in danger. He pointed to the “continuity and depth of support” between the two allies, saying the “bottom line” is that the US-Israel alliance “is grounded in real things, values, deep support on both sides.”
But when, in a later session, participants heard from one of the most powerful figures in the Israeli government, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, there was indication that a major fault line is already opening up.
Those in the handpicked crowd at the 92nd Street Y Thursday night weren’t the only ones who heard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak of being inspired by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Earlier in the day, he told the Israeli press roughly the same story about the Rebbe’s message to him, which stressed the importance of standing up for truth when speaking before the United Nations.
Watch Netanyahu’s comments to the Israeli press, with English subtitles here:
On a normal day, Israelis couldn’t care less about their politicians’ whereabouts. Today, however, it’s all that people are talking about. Where did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu get to for 12 hours on Monday during which he apparently vanished?
He reportedly left his office on Monday morning without saying where he was going, all appointments canceled.
On Tuesday, after he had resurfaced, Palestinian newspaper Al Manar suggested that he had gone for talks in an Arab state that doesn’t have ties with Israel.
Then yesterday, the widest-circulation newspaper Yediot Achronot claimed that he had flown to Russia to talk about planned arms sales to Iran. He had, the report said, decided not to use an Israeli Air Force jet and instead leased a private jet from millionaire Yossi Meiman’s Merhav Group. The Yediot story is summarized here.
The Prime Minister’s office insists that Bibi didn’t leave Israel but rather was visiting a security installation inside Israel, though there was a most odd admission by Meir Kalifi, Military Secretary to the Prime Minister, to Channel 2 yesterday that “in matters of national security, I take the prerogative of not saying the whole truth.”
Up until a few hours ago the Kremlin said it knew nothing about a Russia visit, but confirmation now appears to be leaking out — the Russian paper Kommersant is quoting a senior Kremlin official saying Bibi did indeed go to Russia. If you can’t make sense of Kommersant’s site because it’s in Russian, the Jerusalem Post has the story here. Kommersant quoted experts speculating that such a trip would only be justified under extraordinary circumstances, “for example, in the case of Israel planning to attack Iran.”
According to this report on Ynet, even following the Kommersant report the Prime Minister’s office is standing by its version of events, claiming: “The Prime Minister was busy with secret, classified activity. The military secretary took his own initiative to defend this activity.”
He flew in to London on Sunday, as part of a four-day European trip. Many expected lengthy tirades against him in the media, but none have been forthcoming – maybe because he is said to be coming around to a settlement freeze, or perhaps because many journalists are away on their summer vacations. Nobody expected flattering articles, and there haven’t been any. In fact, the press has paid scant attention to his trip … with the exception of one angle.
Britain is up in arms about the premature release of Lockerbie bomber Abdul Baset al-Megrahi, He was released earlier this week after serving just eight years of a life sentence handed down by Scottish judges of 270 counts of murder for his part in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The decision to free him was taken by Scottish Parliament, which has devolved powers in Scotland even though Scotland is governed in many matters by London.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had seriously frustrated the British public by refusing to comment on the decision. Then today, after meeting with Netanyahu, at a joint Brown-Netanyahu press conference he broke his silence, distanced his government from the move, and spoke of his “angry and repulsed” at the scenes of jubilation in Tripoli. Video and text is video available at the Times of London.
When Rahm Emanuel was first tapped by President-elect Obama to be his chief of staff, Jews kvelled. Amid uncertainty and anxiety in some quarters over Obama’s views toward Israel, the selection of the son of an Israeli veteran of the pre-state Irgun militia as the White House chief of staff offered some reassurance.
Since then, of course, Rahm has become a special point of contention in the increasingly contentious Israeli-American “special relationship.” Indeed, it was recently reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu had called Rahm and fellow senior White House staffer David Axelrod “self-hating Jews” — a report that a Netanyahu spokesman eventually denied, but not before the alleged remark in question was cited on The New York Times Op-Ed page.
Now, Rahm Emanuel’s dad has been dragged into the fray. The last time Benjamin Emanuel spoke to the press, his son ended up having to issue an apology to Arab Americans. Now, in remarks to a Haaretz reporter, the elder Emanuel expresses exasperation over attacks on his son, and insists that he himself is a Netanyahu backer. He tells Haaretz:
I’m simply surprised that in Israel they jump down his throat. I love the country, my children are Zionists, they came to Israel every year, and I don’t know why they’re attacking Rahm. I support Netanyahu, I was a member of the Etzel [Irgun].
As to his son’s views, he said:
We don’t talk about his work. I don’t have anything to say about it. And I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t talk to journalists. My son told me not to talk to any journalist, not an American, not a Frenchman. I spoke once and they turned everything upside down.
Read the rest of Haaretz’s lengthy profile of Rahm here.
And if that’s not enough to sate your Rahm appetite, check out this hilarious spoof video that the irascible Emanuel made touting his qualifications to be vice president.
There are only a few days left until Benjamin Netanyahu descends on Washington, and preparations within the Jewish community are in high gear. That means, of course, that it’s time for some inter-organizational fighting.
The first question is who will get to meet Bibi. The Israeli embassy is putting together a list of 40 communal leaders that will cram into the Blair House meeting room on Tuesday to hear the prime minister sum up his first visit with President Obama.
So far, based on a partial sample of Jewish organizations, all the major mainstream groups are in, as are some of the smaller political groups (Zionist Organization of America, from the right, and Americans for Peace Now, from the left). Notably absent is the up and coming dovish lobby J Street. Not a big surprise considering the group’s harsh criticism of the Netanyahu government and their call for U.S. pressure on Israel to move forward with the peace process.
Then there’s the substance.
All Jewish advocacy groups are pitching in to tell Congress, the administration and even the Israelis what exactly should be said and done at the May 18 meeting between Netanyahu and Obama.
AIPAC is lobbying for a Congressional letter supporting the White House’s drive for peace, but stating that “the parties themselves must negotiate the details of any agreement.”
J Street is pushing for a different letter, which calls for a policy that will “actively working to de-escalate conflict and advance peace.”
But that’s not all: Americans for Peace Now put out an action alert calling on its activists to urge Obama to “stick to his guns,” and not give up on the two-state solution. And the Israel Policy Forum out a letter, signed by former ambassadors to the region, encouraging Obama to take an active role in promoting Israeli–Palestinian peace.
So, which of the letters will the president have read as he sits down with Netanyahu in the Oval Office?
Given his extremely busy schedule this week, probably none of them.
One day after Atlantic writer and blogger Jeffrey Goldberg announced that he would be “checking out for a while” — taking a blogging break to “buy some horseradish, among other things” — Roger Cohen, in a New York Times op-ed that referenced Goldberg’s recent interview with Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Goldberg (a Forward alum) of being the prime minister’s “faithful stenographer.”
Goldberg, who had spoken with Netanyahu on the topic of Iran, isn’t the only one at the receiving end of Cohen’s accusations. Cohen, in the aforementioned op-ed, charges Israel with “crying wolf” and Netanyahu with “fear-mongering” about Iran. The op-ed columnist writes that leaders of the Jewish state have long exaggerated both the timeline of the regime’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the likelihood that, when they are acquired, they would be used. He takes issue with Netanyahu’s description, in his conversation with Goldberg, of Iran as a “fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above self-interest” and “a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation” — contending that the mullahs prize self-preservation, above all. Cohen’s evidence: Their regime “has survived 30 years, ushered the country from the penury of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, shrewdly extended its power and influence, cooperated with America on Afghanistan before being consigned to ‘the axis of evil,’ and kept its country at peace in the 21st century while bloody mayhem engulfed neighbors to east and west and Israel fought two wars.”
The accusation Cohen levels against Goldberg is odd. That’s because Cohen, of late, has been taken to task for allegedly parroting in this and other op-eds the Iranian regime’s contentions of its munificent treatment of the Islamic Republic’s remaining Jewish residents. In a February column, Cohen wrote:
Still a mystery hovers over Iran’s Jews. It’s important to decide what’s more significant: the annihilationist anti-Israel ranting, the Holocaust denial and other Iranian provocations — or the fact of a Jewish community living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility.
Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words, but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.
That may be because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran. Or perhaps I was impressed that the fury over Gaza, trumpeted on posters and Iranian TV, never spilled over into insults or violence toward Jews. Or perhaps it’s because I’m convinced the “Mad Mullah” caricature of Iran and likening of any compromise with it to Munich 1938 — a position popular in some American Jewish circles — is misleading and dangerous.
Following the publication of that piece, Cohen visited a Los Angeles synagogue and sparred with Iranian expats — many of whom expressed concern that “Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naive at best and, at worst, a mockery of their own experiences,” according to a JTA report. At that Los Angeles event, Cohen acknowledged that, during his recent reporting trip to Iran, he had paid $150 a day to an Iranian translator, who was also responsible for filing a report on his activities to Iranian authorities. It’s hard to dig too deep when you’re being tailed by a minder.
This morning, on the heels of his Passover hiatus, Goldberg wrote this “Memo to Roger Cohen” on his Atlantic blog:
Everyone knows that the first rule of writing a New York Times column is: Never attack your critics, particularly in personal terms. Columnists for the Times have scaled the Mt. Olympus of punditry; when they attack their critics they demean their lofty position, and inevitably draw more attention to the criticism than it would otherwise receive. Roger Cohen never learned this rule. Please don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to have gotten under Cohen’s skin. He is a Jewish apologist for an anti-Semitic regime, and he should be reminded often that he has debased himself. But in a way, I’m disappointed that he’s so easily rattled.
Three questions created by the installation of the new government:
1). Just how hawkish will it be?
Everyone has had their crack at answering this question, but the most notable attempt must be that of the London-based Guardian. It got so carried away that it ended up printing this correction in today’s paper: “In an article headed Netanyahu ready to take charge as wrangling ends, 31 March, page 19, we said that Avigdor Lieberman and Binyamin Netanyahu were reported to have struck a deal last week to build 3,000 new settlements around East Jerusalem. In fact, the alleged deal involves 3,000 new housing units.”
2). Can you trust what Netanyahu has to say?
How the public loves it when a politician’s words come back to bite him, and that is just the spectacle we are seeing at the moment. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done exactly what he has been dead against in the past, namely constructing an enormous government.
After giving cabinet posts to everyone he promised during coalition agreements there are 30 ministers, eight deputies, and new furniture in the cabinet room to accommodate everyone. In fact, it is the biggest government in Israeli history.
When Olmert built a 25-member cabinet Netanyahu described it as wasteful to an unprecedented degree.
He went on to strongly support a bill to cap the government at 18 ministers.
One of the instigators of this move was Likud lawmaker Gideon Saar who is now education minister. At the time, Saar said, “The cost of appointing so many ministers constitutes a waste of public funds at the expense of essential needs.”
3). Mission (allegedly) accomplished, will one of the nation’s favorite newspapers fold?
This most unusual question is being discussed in media circles.
Yisrael Hayom (translation: “Israel Today”), founded in 2007 by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has always promoted a right-wing agenda. It has been rumored that he only started the paper to get his friend Netanyahu in to office — a claim given exposure last year in a New Yorker profile of Adelson.
So what now? If it has achieved its aim, will it fold? In interviews this week, Adelson said no.
Even if it does close, its journalists shouldn’t be too worried. After all they did to swing the election, and given the new ethos on cabinet building, they could probably find jobs in Netanyahu’s new cabinet.
Israeli Arabs have never been so in demand, and they have the strong showing of the hard-line anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu party to thank. This is the thesis of the novelist and satiric columnist Sayed Kashua in Haaretz. Kashua, one of the country’s best-known Israeli Arab writers, has a knack of giving a great insight in to the complexities of Israeli-Arab identity, which he alludes to so entertainingly this essay.
Late last week when President Shimon Peres chose Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to form the new government, every Israeli, whatever their political opinions, had reason to celebrate.
This is no endorsement of the hawkish Likud party. Rather, it is a simple observation that in the days between the election and Peres’ decision, newspapers here became as dull as dishwater.
For almost a fortnight, newspapers had nothing to say, except to speculate which party’s leader various factions would recommend to Peres. And it was hardly rocket science to predict that the right-wing parties, a majority, would endorse the right-wing option, Netanyahu.
There was even detailed coverage of Kadima going to tell Peres whom it favored for Prime Minister (amazingly its own Livni) and Likud going to make its nomination (yes, Netanyahu).
Every month, Tel Aviv University pollsters gauge Israeli public opinion. Here are the numbers, just in, from their latest poll:
• 17% of people are happy with the election results and 43% are disappointed.
• 90% of people would vote the same way if given the chance to vote again.
• Kadima is more popular than Likud, like it was in the election. If polls were held again, 30% of people would vote Kadima and 27% would vote Likud.
• Regarding their preference for Prime Minister, 37.5% of people want Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and 37.6% want Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.
• 36% of people want a unity government of Likud, Kadima and Labor. 22% want a Likud-led rightist coalition and 16% want a coalition of Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu.
• Some 77% of people think that the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit should be a prerequisite to any Israel-Hamas ceasefire agreement.
• A third of people are content with the results of the recent Gaza operation (Operation Cast Lead); 36% are disappointed.
How could a populace that rates Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir” the third best Israeli film of all time have voted to make the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party the nation’s third-largest faction? That is the question posed by writer and Israeli army veteran Liel Leibovitz in an essay published on The Nation’s Web site. Leibovitz suggests that, in the minds of many Israelis, waging war and making thought-provoking movies about waging war somehow balance each other out. He writes:
[F]or the most part, Israelis have become adept at using art as a mantle, a colorful cloth under which they can hide from the harrowing implications of the policies they support.
… As I stepped out of the cinema [after seeing “Waltz With Bashir”] … I muttered a silent rant, to no one in particular. Let them wage war, I thought. And let them make movies. But let them never pretend that the two have anything in common, or originate from a common mental space that is fundamentally just and contemplative and resorts to arms only when inevitable.
Israel of today is not Ari Folman’s. It is Avigdor Lieberman’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, the country of the countless men and women crying out for revenge. As we root for “Waltz with Bashir,” if we want to truly honor that film’s message, let us never forget that. Otherwise, all we have is just a pretty animated film.
Barack Obama is going to be pretty busy on Wednesday.
His campaign has announced that he will be meeting in Israel that day with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. As if that’s not enough for a day’s work, he’ll also be meeting with the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, and prime minister, Salam Fayyad.
Politico’s Ben Smith thinks that Bibi Netanyahu is “[p]erhaps the most striking name” on Obama’s itinerary. Smith doesn’t elaborate, but perhaps his “perhaps” is due to a statement Obama made back in February referencing a certain Israeli political party of which Bibi is a member.
“I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel,” Obama told a Jewish audience in Cleveland. (That remark, incidentally, prompted to Ha’aretz’s Shmuel Rosner to opine that Obama had made “a questionable comment that can be seen as meddling in the internal politics of Israel.”)
As to Obama’s powwow with Netanyahu during his current world tour, however, it’s worth noting that the Likud-nik isn’t the only right-wing opposition leader with whom the presidential hopeful is meeting: He’s also sitting down with the leader of Britain’s Tories later in the week.
UPDATE: Obama’s busy Wednesday is getting busier: His aides say he also plans to visit the embattled town of Sderot, as well as Yad Vashem, and maybe even a stop at the Western Wall.
UPDATE II: Ha’aretz has more details of Obama’s itinerary for his visit to Israel and the West Bank. Given Obama’s packed schedule, it’s not surprising that many of his meetings look like they’ll be less than an hour long. It does seem, however, as if the presidential hopeful will be spending quite a bit of time with the woman who may very well be Israel’s next prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who will be accompanying him on a visit to Sderot.
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