According to unnamed senior politicians referenced by Israel’s Channel 10 news on Friday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to stabilize his coalition by bringing in Yisrael Beytenu, with Avigdor Liberman taking over the Defense Ministry, is likely to have the opposite effect. The government may well collapse, and we could be heading to “new elections in the next six months,” these anonymous top polls predicted.
This is Israeli politics, where every new hour can make a mockery of what you thought you knew the hour before, so it would be wise not to get carried away by such anonymous predictions. But, it’s easy to understand the assessment. The brutal ousting of capable, temperate and loyal Moshe Ya’alon, in favor of the inexpert, intemperate and disloyal Liberman, has caused dismay across the spectrum, and not only in opposition circles.
The Jewish Home coalition party has manufactured a crisis over it, demanding an overhaul of the process by which the key security cabinet is provided with information in times of war and conflict, vowing otherwise to block Liberman’s appointment.
Kulanu’s Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay has followed Ya’alon’s lead in resigning from government in protest at one cynical political maneuver too many; like Ya’alon a week before, Gabbay on Friday slammed the door on his way out with a warning that, under this increasingly extremist coalition, Israel is heading down the path to destruction.
Kulanu, a party crucial to Netanyahu’s Knesset majority, is plainly discomfited by the unfolding events, and is trying to persuade Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog to enter the government — ludicrously, since Herzog was so badly burned by his last effort to negotiate terms for a unity deal with Netanyahu that his party leadership is under unprecedented threat.
In Netanyahu’s own Likud ranks, the wave of criticism rolls on. MK Benny Begin immediately pronounced himself horrified by the Ya’alon-for-Liberman trade. On Saturday, deputy minister Ayoub Kara declared that ex-corporal Liberman, who never served in an IDF combat role, is simply not fit to succeed ex-chief of staff Ya’alon.
Herzog has claimed that he held talks with Netanyahu, at great risk to his own political career, because Israel currently has a rare opportunity to make headway toward regional peace, but that the prime minister, in jilting him for blunt, bleak, settler Liberman, “ran away” from the compromises and domestic political battles seizing such an opportunity would have entailed.
And even the United States has weighed in, with the State Department articulating concerns over Israel’s direction. Asked about incoming defense minister Liberman hours after the new coalition deal was signed on Wednesday, spokesman Mark Toner stressed that the administration would, of course, “work with this government as we have with every Israeli government that preceded it, with the goal of strengthening our cooperation.”
But he allowed himself a little foray into what might be considered internal Israeli politics. Said Toner: “We’ve also seen reports from Israel describing it as the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history. And we also know that many of its ministers have said they opposed a two-state solution. This raises legitimate questions about the direction it may be headed in, and what kind of policies it may adopt, but ultimately we’re going to judge this government based on its actions.”
I have written two columns in recent days criticizing the ouster of Ya’alon and his imminent replacement by Liberman, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Netanyahu gambit does come to be regarded as a turning point when it comes to the electorate’s opinion of the prime minister.
But I’m struck, nonetheless, by the criticism from Washington — issued even though Liberman pledged at the coalition signing ceremony that he was “committed to a balanced policy that will bring stability to the region and to our country”; he even switched to English to pledge his commitment to “peace and to a final status agreement, and to understanding between us and our neighbors.”
What’s perhaps most telling about the response from Washington is that it was so very different to the administration’s response, one day earlier, to dramatic political developments in Iran — where, coincidentally, a hard-liner was being elevated in somewhat different circumstances to a yet more powerful position.
On Tuesday, a day before Netanyahu and Liberman signed their deal, Iran’s Assembly of Experts chose Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati as its new chairman. The Assembly oversees the actions of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and come the day, will select Khamenei’s successor. That makes Jannati one of the most powerful figures in Iran, arguably the most powerful.
Ahmad Jannati, widely described as the most radical of Iran’s senior clerics, is not a nice man. He opposes any notion of Iranian political reform. He backs the execution of political dissidents. He insists that Iran’s women cover up beneath the hijab. Needless to say, he loathes Israel. And he loathes the United States.
Here’s Jannati in 2007: “At the end of the day, we are an anti-American regime. America is our enemy, and we are the enemies of America. The hostility between us is not a personal matter. It is a matter of principle.”
In 2008: “You cried: ‘Death to the Shah,’ and indeed, he died. You cried: ‘Death to Israel,’ and it is now on its deathbed. You cry: ‘Death to America,’ and before long, Allah willing, the prayer for the dead will be recited over it.”
And in 2014: “‘Death to America’ [is] the first option on our table… This is the slogan of our entire people without exception. This is our number one slogan.”
Given that the United States last year led the diplomatic process that culminated in an agreement to rein in (but not dismantle) Iran’s rogue nuclear program; given that President Barack Obama has been urging Iran to “move toward a more constructive relationship with the world community”; given that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and a regional troublemaker; given that Iran continues to develop its ballistic missile program… you might be forgiven for thinking that the selection of the radically hostile Jannati would raise “legitimate questions about the direction” in which Iran may be headed, “and what kind of policies it may adopt.”
And indeed, a day before he was asked about Liberman, the State Department’s Mark Toner was questioned at his daily press briefing about Jannati. Did he express his dismay at the selection of an official viciously hostile to the US and Israel to so prestigious a role? Did he communicate America’s concern about the grim message that the choice of Jannati represented? He did not.
Here’s the full exchange:
Question: “You’ll have seen, I’m sure, the reports that Ahmad Jannati, a 90-year-old anti-Western cleric, has been chosen as the head of Iran’s new Assembly of Experts, which is in charge of selecting the new or whomever will be the next supreme leader. Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? And does this suggest that Iran may be moving toward a more pro-Western, more open-toward-the-West stance?”
Question: “Or do you have faith in Iran’s internal democratic procedures?” (Laughter.)
Mark Toner: “Let me see if I have anything pithy to say about that.”
Question: “And do you regard Iran as an ally in the fight against terrorism?” (Laughter.)
Toner: “You’re talking about – yeah, no. Have at it, guys. (Laughter.) We follow domestic events in Iran closely, as you know, but we don’t have any comment at this point on the outcome of the leadership elections of the Assembly of Experts.”
Raising questions about Israel’s direction, after Liberman, promising a commitment to peacemaking, joins the coalition. But staying silent about Iran’s direction, after Jannati, a man who declaredly seeks the destruction of the United States, is elected to head the Assembly of Experts.
Have at it, guys.