For the Prime Minister of Israel, it is flattery time in the international media. Having concluded that, for the foreseeable future, the Likudnik ogre from Jerusalem cannot be deposed, the usual critics of everything Israel does, are filling the waves and pages with fantastic depictions of Netanyahu’s newfound power, geared towards one suggestion – now, if only “Netanyahoo” (copyright Jimmy Kimmel, the great peacemaker) really wants, he can cause peace to appear by magic all over the Middle East by betraying his ideological commitments, capitulating to Palestinian demands and somehow surviving in power. You want some unicorns with that?
For those Israel observers who do not have the luxury of their own version of reality, the real test of the Prime Minister’s power – and its limits – came this week, when Netanyahu had to deal with a serious crisis. After the attempt to delay the demolition order for several apartments in the Givat Ulpana neighborhood in the veteran Jewish settlement of Beit El north of Ramallah had failed, the supporters of settlers in the Knesset introduced a bill which would make the construction legal and compensate the presumable Arab landowner.
From the Prime Minister’s point of view, the main issue in the Givat Ulpana tussle weren’t the houses themselves or the destiny of the settlement enterprise as a whole. What he wanted to avoid at all costs was a full-speed collision between the parliament and the Judiciary – which could unnecessary complicate his own life and agenda. For those Israelis who deem the current power-sharing within the Israeli democracy untenable – after all, for how long can the Supreme Court continue with its unconstitutional authority grab? – this kind of conflict is a welcome blast that could clean the air and force the lawmakers, finally, to determine what kind of powers they want to leave to judicial oversight. For Netanyahu, who took office swearing “to uphold and protect the rule of law” (meaning “not to touch the subject with a ten-foot pole and preserve the status-quo”), and whose cheerleading Sheldon Adelson-sponsored tabloid has the same oath on its masthead, this was a Rubicon he dare not cross. No Israeli politician who took on the issue of judicial reform in the past has fared well – in some cases, they’ve lost more than just their office. Netanyahu, whose past trips abroad and political donations are still under investigation by the State Comptroller, doesn’t need this kind of a headache.
To get what he wanted – to break support for the law that would invalidate the Givat Ulpana ruling retroactively – Netanyahu was ready to say practically anything and to offer incentives that would seem unthinkable only a few years ago. Using the helpful distortions in the Israeli press, which will never call a leader on his lies, if those are corresponding to its own ideology, Netanyahu filled the air with ominous warnings about a possibility that a new law (which sought to obviate Palestinian land claims if filed four years after construction started) will somehow bring upon Israel the wrath of the international justice and make the cause of settlements indefensible in the West. Given that from Obama down, Western policymakers proclaim their unyielding opposition to any Jewish presence to the east of the “green line”, even in Jerusalem, which the United States still refuses to acknowledge as the Israeli capital, it is hard to see how the Ulpana houses would affect this disposition more negatively. Israeli journalists never asked how the International Criminal Court can be bothered to deal with the consequences of the proposed bill, if as recently as April it denied the Palestinian Authority its request to investigate the events of “Cast Lead” – an Israeli operation in Gaza that left (according to the IDF bodycount) about 1200 Palestinians dead. No matter how things change, the implacable hatred of the Israeli press toward the “settlers” will forever cloud its commitment to question authority.
For the Likud ministers who’ve never been suspected of letting ideology disturb their careers, this affected gullibility of “democracy’s watchdogs” made it easy to rally behind their leader. Nevertheless, Netanyahu wanted to get the Right to climb down, and for this, he had to deny settler leaders any possibility to accuse him of betrayal. While making it known that he would have to fire any minister who voted against him, Netanyahu proposed to answer two main grievances of the Right in one stroke – he replaced the one-man rule of Defense Minister Ehud Barak over settlement construction by a ministerial committee and declared that more than 800 new apartments will be build in six settlements, 300 of them in Beit El alone, disregarding completely the predictable rage of the State Department and of those European governments which still can’t discard the notion that they can determine where Jews can and cannot live. Under such circumstances, even the ideological allies of the settlers had no choice. Speaking after the proposal was defeated, the elated Prime Minister expressed his gratitude to the leaders of the Right and promised that he will not allow the enemies of settlers to use courts to reduce the Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria.
Eager to find any justification for their presence in the government headed by a man they’ve denounced as a biggest threat to Israel, spokesmen for the “Kadima” party claimed credit for Netanyahu’s victory due to their “moderating influence” and even suggested that the Prime Minister is getting close to pulling a Sharon, ditching the “extremist” wing of his own party in favor of the bold alliance with them. This is laughable. In 2006, during an election campaign, the then-leader of “Kadima” Ehud Olmert destroyed the nine houses of the Amona outpost with zero concessions and unspeakable brutality that left hundreds wounded and went on to win the vote. In 2012, this kind of outcome is unthinkable. Despite the well-financed efforts of the Left, the Israeli public refuses to see the settlers as an enemy or an obstacle to peace, preferring instead to see things as they really are. Israel is surrounded by violent masses of Muslim Arabs, who are religiously and nationalistically bent on the destruction of the Jewish state, whatever its borders. After 45 years of deepening ties to the land taken in the Six-Day War, many Israelis do not see “the territories” as a security deposit, but as a natural extension of their national patrimony. The Israelis still wish to be rid of the Palestinians, accepting the territorial cost that this implies. But they do not accept that they have no right to any part of the heartland of Jewish history, and no amount of foreign-sponsored propaganda or stern lectures from Washington or London will change their minds.
To think that in Israel, today, there’s a viable constituency that is willing to support massive destruction of settlements, restoration of the suicidal “borders” of 1949 (with swaps, of course with swaps, always with swaps) and the carving out of the heart of the Jewish people in Jerusalem in exchange for an empty piece of paper, is to repeat the grievous mistake that the Obama administration made in the beginning of its dysfunctional relationship with Netanyahu. It was precisely this belief, nurtured in the closed intellectual circles of the Liberal Left, that propelled Obama on the path of public confrontation with a newly elected Israeli leadership, and we know how well it turned out – for Obama’s standing in Israel and for the cause of peace.
Five houses of the Givat Ulpana outpost are not the biggest problem of the Israeli government, not by a long shot, and the list of the public discontents is long. Netanyahu still has to manage the economy which is coming under the predictable fallout from the piling financial train wreck in Europe and Obamanomics in America. In a couple of months he is scheduled to present his ideas on the explosive subject of military or alternative service for the ultra-Orthodox and Arab youths. He must come up with a speedy and effective strategy to rid Israel of the menace of illegal immigration from Africa which is threatening to swamp the Jewish state under the deluge of human misery. And, finally, he has to make up his mind about whether to allow President Obama to have his upcoming elections undisturbed and not to take any aggressive measures against Iran in October. Netanyahu’s political calendar is full. “Peace with Palestinians”, that fabulous idea, will just have to wait.