More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
"Get to the Damn Table!"
et to the damn table! US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta half pleaded, half ordered, thoroughly in despair as negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority remain frozen. Panetta was speaking during the recent Saban Forum, yet none of those who were really meant to hear had even come to this annual event for debating Middle East policy – neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Israel’s foreign or defense ministers. It appears they don’t give a damn about Panetta, and are not willing to accept his suggestions or reprimands. Panetta is a loser. He’s losing Iraq and getting bogged down in Afghanistan. He cooperated with Turkey to get rid of his ally Hosni Mubarak, and then got a slap in the face when Egyptian democracy granted two-thirds of the parliamentary seats to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. He doesn’t understand a thing!
While President Barack Obama rushes around the US trying to drum up the support of the 99% he lost because of America’s economic situation, Bibi (Netanyahu) brings forward the Likud primaries, soaring on the wings of popularity without any serious contender. Obama trembles while Bibi builds up the foundations for another term of office, based on the invincible coalition of current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the Shas party, the National Union party and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Independence party. All Bibi needs to do is to do nothing and wait.
But doing nothing is also a problem. One needs to give the impression of activity in order to make the headlines, to create a feeling that things are moving, and ensure the media get all flustered with empty visions. The non-stop chatter about the Iranian issue, for example, is intended to create the feeling there is an existential problem so serious it may mean annihilation. Bibi appears as a leader capable of making tough decisions despite his coalition partners, Panetta or former Mossad chief Meir Dagan (who spoke out against an attack on Iran). Bibi abounds in virtual security, and virtual security is the key to electoral success.
In addition to his heroic battle against the Iranians, Bibi also knows how to handle home-grown traitors. For this he has Israel Beitenu, whose mentor is none other than that well-known democrat, Vladimir Putin. Lieberman rushes off to Moscow to congratulate Putin on his election victory and dismisses claims of election fraud with a wave of his hand. If supporters of democracy dare to mumble, he points to Egypt, to show them where democracy may lead. In Lieberman’s world, a stable regime needs internal homogeneity, and NGOs or people who inform on the regime or wash dirty laundry in public need to disappear. The way to do this is to throttle them economically, and in this the government is highly skilled. Note for example how it educates the Palestinian Authority each time it dares to ask the world for a little assistance in the face of the occupation.
And if we’re talking of economic asphyxiation, it’s not just the Palestinians who feel the government’s fingers round their throat. Those fingers are good at strangling Israeli citizens too, such as doctors, social workers, teachers or thousands of other workers who feel the economic pinch. Each time they demand their rights, they are shoved aside by the Finance Ministry. If they don’t want us to go the way of Greece, Spain or even the US, the workers must be content with minimum wage, while those employed via labor contractors must accept their status without complaining and toe the Finance Ministry’s line. True, the OECD has again warned that socioeconomic disparities are growing and poverty is increasing, but we are to believe that this is merely the result of correct economic policies. If these disparities were to be reduced, it would be a sign that something was rotten in the Finance Ministry, that socialism is creeping into Israel via the back door and threatening to drag Israel backwards.
That’s why Bibi is singing all the way to the next elections. He’s not only jeering at Panetta, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – he’s jeering at us all. Note how he maneuvered this summer’s social protest till nothing was left of it but a vague memory. The recommendations of the Trajtenberg committee are fading away slowly but surely. The protest movement’s leaders may have demanded an increased budget and cuts to military spending, but the Finance Ministry decided to reduce the budget and left the military untouched. The same story holds for pre-school education, an issue postponed to some unknown future date. Who even remembers the demonstrations of those cute mothers?
Where does Netanyahu’s excessive self-confidence come from? Those who saw Bashar Assad’s unreal interview with Barbara Walters know that leaders can be completely disconnected from reality. Yet Bibi doesn’t seem disconnected, and he’s very attentive to opinion polls. He was also attentive to the social protest movement, and the movement handled him with kid gloves: its leaders approached him as subjects approaching the Czar, begging him for clemency, and carefully avoiding all calls for his removal. The movement’s strategists sought a consensus; since Bibi is the center of the consensus, his derision – directed at us and at the world at large – just keeps growing. Even the social protest’s one achievement, Shelly Yachimovich’s victory in the Labor Party leadership race, was also Bibi’s achievement: Shelly’s strength weakens Kadima’s Tzipi Livni. Moreover, Shelly also supports Histadrut chief Ofer Eini, who is a friend of Bibi’s. In short, it all works out so nicely that Bibi can rush off to the elections right now.
But Bibi wasn’t just smart – he was also lucky. Who has the energy to worry about Netanyahu when the world is in turmoil? The Euro bloc is crumbling, the status of the US is in retreat, the foundations of the Arab world are shaking and the Islamic movement is on the rise. Meanwhile the Palestinian Authority is at its wits’ end. It has come up against a wall at the UN and is proving unable to patch up relations with Hamas. The world is stormy and lawless, and Bibi can laugh at everyone, because they all erred and only he was right. Imagine a globe without bothersome Europe, without American pressure, without the Arab world.
Unfortunately, Bibi’s luck is not good news for Israeli society. In troubled times like these, Israel needs responsible and sober leadership, but none is to be had. Europe, the US and the Arab world are closely linked, and the current political-economic system is collapsing. The world is undergoing sea changes, and despite the uncertainties, it seems predatory capitalism is reaching the end of its road. This collapse is what opened the way for the democratic movements in the Arab world and the fall of the dictators. While the world seeks change that will assure the well-being of society and shatter capitalist structures, particularly the bonds between government and capital, Israel is trying to stick to its old ways, maintaining policies that became bankrupt a long time ago.
So we’ve got news for Bibi. The enlightened world, which Israel likes to identify with, no longer understands his language. While democracy is taking its first steps in the region, Bibi and his friends are moving in the opposite direction. As the occupation becomes increasingly anachronistic, the government is trying to play it smart, approving construction in Jerusalem and blaming the Palestinians for the lack of peace. The crisis of capitalism will not leave Israel untouched, and when it hits, Israel will need the assistance of Germany, the US and even Turkey. The way things are going, it’s not certain that it will find its old allies willing to assist.
Israel is far more fragile that it seems. Inequalities undermine its social fabric; the political polarization is growing between the settlers and “price tag” perpetrators on the one hand and the secular liberal public on the other; and the hedonism, corruption and obtuseness of the political parties create extreme lack of faith in the political system, as reflected in the protests of last summer. After all, the Palestinian question will not go away, and discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens is only getting worse. So it’s not clear why Bibi, Barak and Lieberman are so complacent. Therefore, Panetta protests, Hillary Clinton warns, Israel’s leftwing loses its cool, and everyone shouts in unison: Bibi, get to the damn table or the hell with you!
- Translated by Yonatan Preminger