Silent Ben and Pragmatic Bibi

Benny Gantz wants to negotiate a two-state solution with the PLO and divide Jerusalem. No, wait, he wants to annex Area C and offer the Palestinians autonomy in less-than-a-state enclaves. Who knows? Nobody, because Gantz won’t say. But more important, nobody seems to care what Silent Ben’s actual positions on anything are. A recent poll shows that in a contest between Gantz and PM Netanyahu, Gantz came in a close second with 38% of respondents favoring him to Netanyahu’s 41%. Apparently, Gantz’s experience as a former IDF Chief of Staff plus his prime ministerial appearance is enough to make him a viable alternative to Netanyahu, who is certainly one of the most successful Israeli prime ministers in history.

But maybe that’s because Netanyahu’s legal problems are deterring voters? Nope, polls show that, like Gantz’s extreme reticence, Bibi’s possible indictment on several counts of corruption simply doesn’t matter. Those who like him believe that the accusations are either stupid – I mean, after all, so what if someone gave him expensive cigars and champagne? – or criminalization of politics as usual, such as the government’s granting benefits to the Bezek communications conglomerate and its owner, Shaul Elovitch, in return for favorable coverage of the Prime Minister on its Walla website. Supposedly, the personal benefit for Elovitch was in the millions of shekels. The cases against Bibi are based on evidence provided by state’s witnesses, or, if you prefer, rats who will say anything to save their own skins.

There seem to be two kinds of people that dislike him. There are those who hate him for being instrumental in keeping the Left from realizing what it believes is its natural right to rule the country, all the more so insofar as he has been far more successful than they were in avoiding war and guiding the economy to its best condition ever. And there are those who simply dislike his personality, seeing him as shady and manipulative. One day I was waiting to cross the street when several people crossed against the traffic light. A man was standing next to me with a small boy:

Man: “We don’t cross on red. We are not Bibi.”
Boy: “Who is Bibi, grandpa?”
Man: “Bibi is one who always crosses on red. Don’t be like him.”

Monday night Bibi  made what he had said was going to be a dramatic announcement. Speculation ranged from “he is going to resign” to “he is going to invade Syria,” but it turned out that he wanted to demand the right to confront his accusers publicly. The speech was treated very negatively in most of the media, and I don’t think it especially helped (or hurt) him, but he has a point. For – literally – years, there have been almost continuous leaks to the media about how any minute now there will be stunning revelations of corruption that will bring down the Prime Minister; but in fact, until recently none of it amounted to a hill of beans. For example, who remembers the “deposit bottle scandal” in which Sara Netanyahu was accused of – can you imagine? – returning empty bottles that had been bought for official functions and keeping the money!

Every time – and there were dozens of times – that Netanyahu or his wife were questioned by the police, illegally leaked stories about what had transpired appeared on the evening news. Nobody in the police seems to have been punished, or as far as I know, even investigated about the leaks.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a general feeling that Bibi “has been Prime Minister long enough.” At age 69, he is possibly a little tired. If he isn’t ready to retire today, he certainly will be in a few years. One of his foibles is that he has never been able to abide anyone in his party that he suspects could challenge him, which means that there are few natural successors. The danger is that when he does step down, the majority of Israelis who have supported a right-wing coalition in recent years will fragment and the result will be that the Left will return to power. This could be facilitated by so-called “centrist” parties who lean to the right during the campaign, but when elected implement left-wing principles. This is the approach taken by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, who promised during his campaign that there would be no direct talks with the PLO, no return to the pre-1967 lines, and no additional state between Israel and Jordan. As everyone knows, a year later he was shaking hands with Arafat on the White House lawn. So when Bibi says of Gantz – another former soldier like Rabin – that someone who won’t say whether he is left or right is probably left, right-wing Israelis are understandably worried.

Bibi himself has sometimes taken actions that can’t be understood from a right-wing perspective. For example, the illegal Bedouin settlement of Khan al-Ahmar, which can fairly be described as a joint provocation by the European Union and the Palestinian authority, and which the Supreme Court has (surprisingly) agreed ought to be demolished, still stands. Why? Perhaps Bibi has been threatened by the UK or other European countries, but it seems to me that a strong stand on this issue would be both good policy and good politics. Bibi doesn’t see it that way.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who have recently separated from Beit Yehudi to form a new party called Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right) have sharply attacked him over his extended delay in removing the settlement. They have contrasted it to the recent violent removal of right-wing squatters from the wreckage of the community of Amona that was dismantled in 2017 by order of the Supreme Court over controversial Palestinian claims of ownership of part of the land.

In addition to the security concern posed by the location of Khan al-Ahmar, next to the strategic Route 1, there is the aspect of honor/humiliation/deterrence that I’ve written about so many times. From Israel’s point of view, it has a perfect right and a legitimate reason to enforce its building regulations in Area C. By allowing the Arabs and their European backers to thumb their noses at our sovereignty, we yield it to them, sending a message that we are too weak to defend our land, and therefore don’t have the right to keep it. Or perhaps Bibi doesn’t think that Judea and Samaria, even Area C with its Jewish majority, should be part of Israel. It’s hard to know what he thinks, which is one of the reasons many Israelis have a problem with him. If you hide your principles under a rock, people think that you are ashamed of them.

This is why I am disappointed with him. He is a pragmatist who tends to ignore the psychological and spiritual dimensions of power, which, especially in the Middle East, can be as important as the power of your air force or the number of tanks you can deploy. I see Bibi accepting too much humiliation, losing too much status, and not fighting the information war at all. He would say that our military and economic power has never been greater, and he would be right. But the degree of respect that we can command, both from our friends and our enemies, has declined in recent years.

I’ve always supported Bibi and Likud. But this April, I might vote for a party with more clearly articulated principles – and one that is likely to stand up for them.

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