Two articles appeared in The Star-Ledger the week of Nov. 3 that should cause all of us to reflect on the current state of leadership in Israel.
Jerusalem correspondent Sheera Frenkel reported that two years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu, supported by Ehud Barak, called for a general mobilization.
Such mobilizations are only ordered when a country is going to attack or when it is attacked and must defend itself. One can only surmise that it was planning to attack another country, namely Iran. Something very unusual then occurred. Gabi Ashkenazi, then IDF Chief of Staff, supported by the head of the Mossad at the time, Meir Dagan, simply refused. He reportedly said that the country was not in a position to launch a successful attack against Iran. Somehow, the issue was dropped.
As the rabbis said, “zot omeret darsheyni” — this demands an explanation. Since when can an army chief of staff refuse to obey the order of a prime minister? And, conversely, how could a prime minister, even though supported by his defense minister, issue such an order without consulting his chief of staff to determine the capability of the armed forces? There is something more here than meets the eye.
Every survey has revealed that the majority of Israel’s population opposes the launching of an attack on Iran. The overwhelming majority of the Israeli intelligence community also opposes such a move. Ashkenazi could safely refuse to carry out such an order because, had Netanyahu chosen to sack him, it would have caused an uproar within Israel.
The second dispatch by Frenkel reported on criticism aimed at Netanyahu for his none-too-subtle support of Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential campaign. Those suggesting Israel would suffer as a result included the opposition Kadima party and left-leaning Ha’aretz, but also a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, former ambassador to the United States Sallai Meridor. “Obama was not likely to ignore Netanyahu’s favoritism,” Meridor warned.
Confronted by these predictions, Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, said it was “ridiculous to think that Obama would somehow seek vengeance.” Of course, what else could Shapiro say?
Netanyahu is no stranger to the United States and the way things are done here. Raised in Philadelphia, a graduate of MIT, a colleague of Mitt Romney at Bain Capital, and a former ambassador to the UN, Bibi knows this country as no other prime minister has. He knows the risks of offending, even alienating, Israel’s greatest champion. Yet he was willing to take such risks. Considering the almost total support Israel has received from the Obama administration, one can only ask why he would he lecture Obama on national TV, or insult Joe Biden by announcing a settlement expansion during a visit by the vice president to Israel?
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has issues with another president, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. In an interview on Israel’s Channel 2, Abbas said he supports the formation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel that would include the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem. He further stated that he could only return to Safed, his birthplace, as a tourist. “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as the capital,” he added. “This is Palestine, I am a refugee. I live in Ramallah. The West Bank and Gaza is Palestine. Everything else is Israel.”
His remarks implicitly conceded Palestinian demands for the “right of return.” Though he denied the next day that he was retreating on the issue, his speech was condemned by Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and even elements of his own Fatah. In Israel, his remarks were welcomed by Ehud Barak, scorned by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and dismissed by Netanyahu who said there is no connection between Abbas’ “statements and his actual actions.”
But even such hints of moderation on the part of the Palestinian leader may help explain Bibi’s intense focus on Iran and his threats of military action. He has succeeded in driving the peace talks off the front pages by focusing world attention on Iran. He has killed two birds with one stone. Iran is reeling from global sanctions, and he avoids having to make territorial concessions for peace.
Netanyahu’s policy serves Israel’s immediate interests but defeats its final goal, that of making peace with its neighbors and not living under the threat of imminent hostilities. Putting off the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority not only weakens the PA but strengthens Hamas. The recent hostilities illustrate that Israel should pursue a two pronged policy of weakening Hamas while strengthening the PA. As Netanyahu noted in a previous speech, Israel is prepared to make painful concessions to achieve peace. Now is the time to put meaning into these words.