Has Netanyahu’s political unraveling begun?

Published on Haaretz

Is an opposition to Netanyahu finally taking shape? Is it blood or opportunity that his political rivals smell – or the stench of their own passivity?

In the past week, Israel’s political leaders independently and all at once discovered that Emperor Netanyahu has no clothes. We have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of political expression, defying the Netanyahu line that there is nothing for Israel to do but build settlements and rail against the Palestinian reconciliation.

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First Isaac “Bougi” Herzog, head of the Labor Party, said aloud in a television interview what everyone has known for 5 and a half years; that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s awful relationship with President Obama is doing terrible and unnecessary damage to Israel-American relations, creating bad will that our country can ill-afford. Up until now Herzog had refrained from criticizing Netanyahu, for the sake of stoking the fantasy that his party would replace Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi in the government coalition at the point where Netanyahu would propose a peace deal with the Palestinians that Bennett could not abide by. Herzog, acting like an Opposition Head for the first time, called for Netanyahu to quit stalling and spell out his plan for Israel’s future vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Tzipi Livni, Hatnuah party head and chief government negotiator, used the annual Herzliya Conference to attack the settlement enterprise as “a security, economic and moral burden that is aimed at preventing us from ever coming to an arrangement.” Livni said she was sick of being “politically correct” on settlements – meaning politically correct in her coalition’s corridors, or perhaps pace her Likud roots – and rejected the position of the government in which she serves that it cannot negotiate with the Palestinians because of the Fatah: Hamas reconciliation. Livni strutted her independence when she met with Palestinian President Abbas, despite her enraged PM’s insistence that Israel sever communications with the Palestinian government for daring to reunite. President Shimon Peres followed suit, traipsing off to the Vatican to pray with Abbas at the invitation of the Pope, but he has just been replaced and has nothing to lose.

Both Livni and Herzog seem to have finally understood that Netanyahu will not abandon his role as Obstructionist-In-Chief, devoting himself, as he has for 18 years, to blocking any resolution to our conflict with the Palestinians. Even if one wants to be excessively generous and accept Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech as more than a PR stunt, his minimalist demands are constantly so far from the Palestinians’ maximalist concessions that progress is impossible.

Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, the second largest party in the government, also used Herzliya to finally chime in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now that the American-led negotiations have stalled, no, failed, Lapid offered something between a plan and his own peace process; staged withdrawals starting with the unsettled areas of the Occupied Territories – leading to agreement on permanent and well defended borders in the context of a regional peace deal. And Lapid insisted on seeing Netanyahu’s map of Israel’s final borders.

Netanyahu won’t show his map – if he has one – to Lapid, or to us, because he doesn’t want the Palestinians to see it. Netanyahu immediately lambasted Lapid for being a neophyte negotiator and security ignoramus, ridiculing him for making the same blunder Lapid had charged the left with back when Lapid was creating his centrist persona: of showing his cards and making concessions before negotiations begin. This is the excuse Netanyahu has used for years to prevent meaningful and specific debate within Israel about our country’s permanent borders. BUT Lapid and Herzog are right (if a little late). As citizens in a democracy, we have the right to know where our leader is leading us.

Phrase Perhaps Netanyahu has no map and will continue taking slivers of the West Bank and East Jerusalem until somebody stops us (BUT who?). In the meantime, Netanyahu’s do-nothing approach, as Lapid described it, leads to more settlements, distrust, and the infecting of the rest of Israel with the disease of Occupation.

Naftali Bennett’s annexation talk and the Prime Minister’s failure to repudiate it was too much for the government’s centrist partners. Lapid and Livni threatened to bring down the government if it moves forward, even by the annexation of a single settlement.

Avigdor Lieberman mocked all of the players, calling the exchanges “grotesque.” Lieberman has spent the past year repositioning himself as the government’s responsible adult and resident statesman, praising Kerry’s efforts as the best deal in town while promoting his own cleverly conceived – if extremely questionable – proposal for returning Palestinian citizens of Israel as part of land exchanges.

The US and Europe’s refusal to follow Netanyahu’s call to boycott the new Palestinian reconciliation government meant they acknowledged but did not succumb to his Hamas fear card (Netanyahu has spread so much bad will, he has few chits to call in.) In the twilight of his administration, Obama might sacrifice some of Hillary’s Jewish votes to straighten out America’s Middle East ally.

Back at home, Netanyahu’s bizarre attempt to eliminate the office of president and to pressure Elie Wiesel to trade in his writer-prophet’s mantle to prevent hated rival and President-elect Reuven Rivlin from gaining office, seemed depressing and desperate.

The government coalition will not likely go down, but the nakedness of Netanyahu’s strategy suddenly seems apparent to his colleagues, and we might be witnessing the first cracks in his stonewalling. The next step will be to admit we are acting unilaterally every time we issue another West bank building tender; and to acknowledge that Israel already acts as if it has annexed much of the West Bank. It may be blood or opportunity that Netanyahu’s political rivals smell, or for some, the stench of their own passivity.

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