The Knesset’s speaker has just confirmed that he will lead a delegation of Israeli lawmakers to Nelson Mandela’s funeral, following announcements that the Prime Minister and President will skip it.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s office is saying that he has Israeli taxpayers’ interests at heart in his decision to skip the burial — it would simply be too expensive. And Shimon Peres’ office says that he is getting over a bout of flu. And so, the country will be represented by a cross-party delegation of lawmakers.
Let’s cast our minds back a few months, and remember the passing of a Margaret Thatcher. She was less of a uniting figure than Mandela. In fact, in the UK and elsewhere she was a highly divisive figure. But back then there were no hesitations about the cost — Netanyahu attended the funeral. And compared to South Africa the UK is hardly a budget destination.
Why is honoring Thatcher’s legacy worth costing the Israeli taxpayer but not honoring Mandela’s? Does the extra sensitivity to cost have more to do with recent negative press about Netanyahu’s spending in various items including wine, flowers and water than the real cost the economy? Or is there something deeper going on here?
It’s quite conceivable this is a strategic decision on Netanyahu’s part (one is tempted to take the health-related decision of the elderly Peres at face value). Today’s South Africa is hardly a hospitable environment for an Israeli leader — particularly a leader of the right. His office may well have taken a decision to avoid confrontation with protestors and demonstrators; to avoid negative press images of him being denounced by people who claim to be honoring Mandela’s legacy. What is more, staying away keeps a lid on discussion of the history of Israel relations with the apartheid regime.
Netanyahu would seem to realize that, at this time and this atmosphere, respectful tributes from afar are the best and safest way of honoring Mandela’s memory.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu party announced Friday afternoon Israel-time that the coalition negotiations are complete, and the government will be presented to President Shimon Peres on Saturday night. Expect a swearing in on Monday (just don’t ask what Sara Netanyahu will be wearing for this swearing in).
There was a last-minute hitch last-night which saw Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett going of in a huff over Netanyahu’s refusal to make him and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid vice prime ministers. But today, Bennett backed down, and the path is clear for the new government.
The debacle over the vice prime ministers title is indicative of just how much the final phase of the negotiations turned out to be about one thing — honor — and not about policies or ideals. The vice prime ministers is basically honorific, and means very little in day-to-day political life. But it’s become a staple of the Israeli scene.
Netanyahu doesn’t seeme to have had any desire to dispense with the vice PM roles before the election. After all, why would it matter to the invincible Bibi at a time when nobody could even conceive of anyone else as PM? But after his battering at the ballot box, and loss of face in coalition negotiations faced with Yesh Atid and Jewish Home’s stubborn refusal to do as he said and sit with Haredim, he was on the look out for ways to claw back some respect and impression of control. And so, after a chaotic coalition negotiation, he got in one final snub for Bennett, and in true Bibi style ensured that he got the last word.
Netanyahu is almost there. As Israeli politicians took a pause in their discussions for the Shabbat break, all sides expressed optimism that a new coalition could be announced within days.
Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party is close to finalizing a deal with its two major coalition partners: Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi. According to press reports, in meetings that took place on Friday, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid agreed to give up his previous demand to become foreign minister and instead will take the treasury portfolio. This will leave the foreign ministry open, a position Netanyahu wishes to keep for Avigdor Lieberman, if and when he is cleared on the corruption-related trial. As part of the emerging deal, Naftali Bennet, leader of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party will get the commerce portfolio with some added-on areas of responsibility.
This coalition deal will provide Netanyahu with a stable government that, for the first time in over a decade, will not include members of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Such a coalition will allow Lapid to move forward with his plan to increase the military draft for Haredi men, many of whom are currently exempt of military service.
On the Israeli-Palestinian front, however, the emerging coalition does not carry much promise for change. According to some reports, Netanyahu will agree to drop any mention of support for a two-state solution from the new government’s guidelines in order to ease Bennet’s way into his government. He may also re-negotiate the coalition agreement reached with Tzipi Livni to limit her responsibilities relating to the peace process.
Lapid, in his way into Netanyahu’s coalition, is also willing to make some concessions. His demand to limit the number of cabinet ministers to 18 was only partially accepted and the next government will have 24 ministers, instead of 28 who currently serve in cabinet-level positions. Lapid, according to the Israeli media, will also have to forgo his early demand to include in the government’s platform support for gay marriage and for allowing public transportation on Saturday.
Coalition talks are scheduled to resume on Saturday night with a possible agreement signed toward the middle of the Week. Netanyahu has until the end of next week to form a new government.
The Democratic National Committee has a new commercial, called “The Facts,” that seems targeted at pro-Israel voters (I didn’t say “Jewish voters” for a reason). It reminds them that they shouldn’t listen to the mud being slung at Obama for supposedly abandoning the Jewish State.
Republicans are called out for violating the tradition that holds that the “bond between the U.S. and Israel is beyond politics,” by making claims that “ignore reality” (that last quote cited from the AP). The DNC’s strongest argument is made by Bibi himself in a clip from an AIPAC appearance in which he said that the security cooperation between the two countries during Obama’s presidency is “unprecedented.” There are other points as well, like Obama’s strong opposition to the Palestinian’s statehood bid at the UN, the coordinated message on Iran, and the billions offered to bolster Israel’s defense.
But the most telling aspect of the commercial is that it exists at all. These are points that wouldn’t have to be reiterated in this way if the Republicans hadn’t been doing a good job establishing a very different narrative. The worry, on the DNC’s part, is not, I think, Jewish voters. It’s those many millions more, evangelicals and others, who see Israel as an abstract cause, theological for many, and have been affected by the simplistic and patently false claim that Obama is somehow anti-Israel. The DNC clearly thinks that the Republicans will continue making this argument as we slouch towards November.
The current issue of Newsweek has a must-read inside look at what drives President Obama’s Iran policy, including the ups and downs of his relations with Israel on the matter.
The article, by Newsweek writers Daniel Klaidman, Dan Ephron and Eli Lake (Lake is a former Forward correspondent), reports that Iran was the main topic of Mossad director Tamir Pardo’s secret trip to Washington two weeks ago. America is pressing Israel to give sanctions time to work before attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. Israel worries that by that time, Iran’s nuke infrastructure will be too secure for an Israeli raid to destroy, and only America will have the capacity. Among other things, Pardo wanted to know whether America is likely to attack, how advanced its preparations are, how it will react if Israel attacks and so on.
Israel has several times sought a promise from Obama to attack if sanctions fail, but hasn’t gotten one. As a result, Israel keeps its own intentions vague. This is an improvement from the total information blackout that Prime Minister Netanyahu imposed on Washington from June to October last year, in pique over Obama’s “based on the 1967 borders” speech. Today information sharing is quite extensive, though Washington keeps a certain amount of intelligence from Israel when it fears it could enable actions that violate U.S. law, like assassinations.
Obama first discussed Iran with Israeli leaders back in 2008, while he was still a candidate, and he “impressed everyone with his determination to stop Iran from going nuclear,” Newsweek reports. His conversation with then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, however, left Netanyahu troubled that Obama “didn’t talk specifically about Israel’s security”:
I just returned from a few weeks in Israel, and was there during the dramatic denouement of the Gilad Shalit story. The trip reminded me why it’s important for those of us who observe and comment and tear our hair out over Israel to actually experience the country as a place — as opposed to an abstract concept — every once in a while.
The reality is always so much more nuanced and challenging than the neat categories we project onto Israel from over here. The Shalit swap was a perfect example. From what I could tell, nearly the entire country was opposed and supportive of the deal at the same time. You could call this schizophrenia, but the extreme mixed feelings were just a function of Israeli reality. There is the emotional reaction — Gilad is everyone’s son — and the strategic one — releasing so many sworn killers is pure folly. And no one seemed to be bothered that these two reactions jostled together in their heads. They just did. And it made a joke of our attempts here to come to one conclusion about what Israelis actually think.
The other news that shocked me in the wake of the Shalit deal was a poll I saw cited on Israeli television that put 65 percent of Israelis in favor of continuing to negotiate with Hamas over a cease-fire. This number is consistent with a Haaretz poll from three years ago. I imagined going back to the States and explaining this to American Jews on the extreme right, like Rachel Abrams, wife of the neoconservative Elliot Abrams, who recently described Palestinians in a blog post as subhuman, “devils’ spawn” and “unmanned animals” who should be thrown to the sharks. How to break it to her that most Israelis see the logic of negotiating with these enemies?
Never thought I would say this, but Benjamin Netanyahu just saved me from banging my head against the wall in desperate frustration.
This morning brought news that Israel’s Government Press Office had warned media outlets that any foreign correspondent found aboard the flotilla about to set sail for Gaza would be “denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years” as well as “the impoundment of their equipment” and “additional sanctions.” Attempting to write about the harsh measure with a degree of dispassionate objectivity, Ethan Bronner at the New York Times could barely contain his own anger — his article seemed to almost burst at the seams.
A few hours later though Netanyahu overruled his own press team and put out a statement saying that journalists would be exempt from “the usual policy applied to infiltrators and those who enter illegally” — a decision greeted by the Foreign Press Association. He also said that reporters would be invited along on the Israeli navy ships set to intercept the “Freedom Flotilla,” in order, Netanyahu said, to ensure “transparency and accurate coverage.”
There are those who heard in Obama’s speech on the Middle East an attempt – as Mitt Romney elegantly put it – to throw Israel “under the bus” and those who thought it was just the same old steadfast support for Israeli positions that every American president expresses. Both sides, it’s clear, seem to only watch for and listen to the words and deeds most convenient for making their case. So even if you hear the president loud and clear and with shocked ears when he says, “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines,” somehow the volume drops off a second later when he adds, “with mutually agreed swaps.”
One thing that got totally overlooked in all the hysterics was Obama’s opposition to any unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations come September. He said this as plainly as possible.
Today there’s some proof that he meant what he said. And it comes from the Palestinians themselves who seem to be slowly backing away from September.