Netanyahu, Circus Ringmaster of the Israeli Right

The prime minister’s coalition partners have become a headache, and are threatening to upset what he hoped would be a conciliatory trip to Washington.


Jerusalem — Young men, hundreds of them, are holed up in a house of worship, a squat building carved from Jerusalem’s famous limestone. The worshippers have stockpiled explosives inside, they say, to stop Israeli soldiers from changing the decades-old status quo at the site.

It sounds like another scene on the Temple Mount, that eternal flash point in the heart of Jerusalem. But the source of all this angst is actually a synagogue in Givat Zeev, a settlement on the outskirts of the city. Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered it demolished by Nov. 17 because it was built on private Palestinian land; the founders, the court ruled, forged a purchase contract.

The synagogue’s far-right supporters aren’t backing down. Someone defaced the court after it issued the ruling last week, writing on the wall, “Don’t demolish synagogues, we want a Jewish state.” Miriam Naor, the chief justice, has been assigned an extra bodyguard. Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right Knesset member from the governing coalition, dropped by for an inflammatory photo op last week and called the planned demolition “a very serious thing, a red line that has been crossed.”

At the synagogue, worshippers have built a makeshift barricade, piling metal doors, scraps of plywood, and tires outside the fenced entrance.

“We will fight until we draw blood,” said David Harush, the manager of the synagogue. “There will be deaths here.”

The synagogue is half a world away from the White House, where on Monday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his first meeting in more than a year with President Barack Obama. It will be, by all accounts, a subdued and respectful trip — nothing like the spectacle of Netanyahu’s March address before Congress, where he castigated the Iran nuclear deal as a betrayal of the Jewish state.

“If you don’t expect too much substance, then it will be a working visit, one that both sides might even say is positive,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

In a joint statement on Monday morning, Netanyahu told Obama that he was still “committed” to a two-state solution. The two men no doubt spoke privately about a recent wave of stabbing attacks that has killed a dozen Israelis and wounded more than 80. The violence began amid tensions over the Temple Mount, where Palestinians accuse Netanyahu of altering the decades-old status quo regarding who can access the holy site. Netanyahu insists almost daily the holy site will remain closed to Jewish worshippers.

Netanyahu played the statesman at the White House on Monday, but back at home he seems more like a circus ringmaster. His cabinet is now filled with ministers who reject both his stated support for the two-state solution and his position on the Temple Mount. The extremists holed up in the Givat Zeev synagogue are just the tip of the iceberg: Officials in Netanyahu’s government are pushing for more provocative policies and, in doing so, are threatening the prime minister’s attempts at securing a rapprochement with the United States.

Netanyahu got what he wanted in the March parliamentary election — a “strong right-wing government,” the first since the 1990s without even a fig leaf from the center-left. But the leader of the Israeli right cannot appease his supporters, not with ministers openly agitating for a change on the Temple Mount and bomb-wielding settlers barricading themselves inside synagogues. He is losing his deterrence over his own allies.

Perhaps the most visible face of this dilemma is Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister. Netanyahu left the foreign minister’s post vacant for a future center-left partner, so she is technically Israel’s top diplomat. Yet she has made just three short foreign trips in six months, two of them to Vietnam and Spain, hardly key diplomatic allies.

Hotovely’s wings were further clipped after she told the official Knesset Channel on Oct. 26 that her “dream is to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount.”

The next morning, she abruptly cancelled a meeting with foreign journalists, citing “unforeseen circumstances.” The organizers of the press conference were more direct: “Netanyahu gagged her,” one said.

Unable to entrust his right-wing coalition partners with sensitive diplomatic missions, Netanyahu has turned to the ranks of the opposition. It has fallen to Yair Lapid, a centrist lawmaker, to fly to London to discuss a controversial UNESCO vote and to Berlin to lobby the German parliament against European labeling of settlement products. He has fashioned himself as a shadow foreign minister; Hotovely often seems more like the prime minister’s envoy to the settlements.

Other ministers have busied themselves with bizarre schemes. The messianic agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, proposed the mass deportation of stray cats to replace a successful spay-and-neuter program that he believes is contrary to Jewish law. Hard-line Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is pursuing a bill that would require foreign-funded NGOs — which are almost exclusively liberal — to wear special stickers in the Knesset. Some Israelis scornfully posted Nazi-era yellow stars of David on their Facebook pages, with “leftist” written in place of “Jude.”

Even Netanyahu’s own behavior has been increasingly erratic. Over the past few weeks, he managed to appoint a spokesman who believes Obama is an anti-Semite and accused a Palestinian leader of masterminding the Holocaust.

Netanyahu’s visit to Washington is therefore, among other things, an audition of sorts — for a center-left partner who could end his predicament.

“Netanyahu has a need to expand his coalition,” said his former national security advisor, Uzi Arad, arguing that a unity government would get rid of what he delicately called “hard-line” elements. “He needs a government that would moderate Israel’s image and Israel’s posture.”

To that end, Netanyahu’s public remarks in Washington made barely any mention of the scathing fight over the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, a brawl that left American Jews divided and his relationship with Obama in tatters. On Tuesday, he will speak at the Center for American Progress, a prominent liberal think tank. Netanyahu is also expected to offer Obama a set of vague confidence-building measures, like easing checkpoints and boosting the Palestinian economy — “practical ways … [to] lower the tension, increase stability, and move towards peace,” as he put it.

Such steps amount to an effort to mend fences, the sort that Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Labor Party, has long advocated. Labor Party sources say Herzog is genuinely interested in joining the coalition. But the party is required to hold a primary within the next few months, and he may not survive another turn before Labor’s notoriously fratricidal voters.

“He’s worried about the future, and that’s why he wants in, to become foreign minister or [have] some other position of authority,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

But while Netanyahu may be putting a kinder, gentler face forward, his core beliefs remain unchanged. He is often called “Mr. Status Quo,” with good reason: The confidence-building measures with the Palestinians, for instance, sound identical to ones he proposed in 2008, before his current run as prime minister.

“I don’t think that his views have changed much,” said Arad. “It’s his situation that changed dramatically, and in some ways it confirmed his original outlook. He’s always been a hard-nosed realist.”

The conflict has certainly changed, on both sides. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his aging coterie of advisors view the Oslo process as a failure. A generation of young Palestinians reached the same conclusion years ago: Support for the two-state solution is rapidly fading, as is faith in the leadership.

The more vexing shift, though, is on the Israeli side, where now even Netanyahu’s offer to remove some checkpoints earned him a rebuke from the right. The prime minister’s plane had barely left Israeli airspace when the hawkish education minister, Naftali Bennett, laid into him for the planned gestures. Israeli politics, it seems, doesn’t stop at the water’s edge.

“We are in the middle of a wave of terror,” Bennett said. “Giving gestures is like fuel for the fire of terrorism. We can demand a gesture from them: stop the murder and incitement.”

An Israeli unity government would likely mean little for the Palestinians in the immediate future. Herzog believes that negotiations with Abbas should last at least five years. The two-state solution is so sufficiently defunct that Rob Malley, Obama’s senior Middle East advisor, told reporters last week that the president has given up on pushing for a deal.

However, bringing in a left-wing coalition partner would buy a bit of breathing space for an Israeli prime minister allergic to dramatic moves. As Arad put it, “the Israeli-Palestinian issue needs to be managed.”


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