Michael Eitan, I can understand. Never mind that he comes from a veteran Herut background, and that he took his job as the minister responsible for government services extremely seriously. He was a prominent critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies, entreating his colleagues to limit expansion to those areas Israel reasonably expects to retain under any permanent accord with the Palestinians. And he was the leading public opponent of the curious arrangement under which the Likud and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu will run on a merged list for the elections on January 22.
Clearly he had to go.
Dan Meridor, likewise. Too soft. Too ready to believe an accommodation with the Palestinians might be possible. Too determined that Israel at least work to create a better climate in which negotiations might resume and make progress. Too insistent, damn him, on the rule of law, on respect for the Supreme Court, on moderation.
But Benny Begin?
Benny Begin, son of the legendary leader who brought the Likud to power in 1977? Benny Begin, the most decent, honest, honorable person you could wish to meet in any walk of life? A man of political principle, of consistency. A genuine public servant. A minister who wouldn’t spend government money on so much as a secretary. A minister who came to your office to solve your problems, so that you wouldn’t have to trouble to come to his spartan quarters. Okay, another stickler like Meridor, and like his father, for fealty to the rule of law. But no moderate. Bitterly pessimistic about Palestinian intentions. A hawk, not a threat to the hawks.
They elevated Danny Danon, a man so blind to the critical nature of Israel’s relationship to the United States as to publicly and repeatedly spit in the face of the current US administration. They raised up Miri Regev, she of the iniquitous reference to Sudanese migrants as “a cancer in our midst.” And they dumped Benny Begin.
Nobody who looks closely at Israel’s geostrategic situation can much blame the Israeli public for swinging to the right. But that does not alleviate the dismay at the sight of the Israeli party of government choosing a Knesset slate overloaded with empty populists, and ditching credible, experienced politicians who recognize the sensitivities and discretions required for effective rule. Our region is free-falling into chaos. All the more reason to select leadership that, rather than exacerbating the dangers, can seek deftly to minimize them. And dangers there are, in every direction.
This is a country that elected Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, Ehud Barak in 1999, and Ehud Olmert in 2005 to try to widen our circle of normalized relations, starting with the Palestinians. But the Israel that ousted Netanyahu in 1999 after three almost terror-free years, because it feared he was spurning opportunities for peacemaking with Yasser Arafat, is in an unsurprisingly very different frame of mind now. Support for the settlement enterprise, and especially the expansion of isolated settlements, is anything but overwhelming, but readiness for high-risk territorial compromise is at arguably an all-time low.
The Israel that reached out for a partnership with Bashar Assad three years ago is mightily relieved that it didn’t relinquish the Golan Heights to a dictator now 20 months into the mass slaughter of his own people. It is mindful of how vulnerable we would be now to the overspill of that bloodshed if we had given up the high ground.
This Israel is watching Syria warily, terrified of where the world’s second-largest stock of biological and chemical weapons will wind up.
It looks at Lebanon and sees a broken state from which Hezbollah is poised to rain tens of thousands of rockets down on Israel, given the signal from Iran.
It sees an Egypt that has undergone one uncertain revolution, bringing an Islamist president to power, and again seems to be descending into chaos as President Mohammed Morsi comes over all pharaonic.
It watches demonstrators in Jordan denounce the king.
It sees Iran closing in on the bomb, unstopped, confident.
And while it largely regards an accommodation with the Palestinians as the only way to maintain a Jewish and democratic Israel, it is also somewhat wary of the “moderate” West Bank Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, with whom it is supposed to negotiate that accommodation. This is an Abbas who proclaims a desire for reconciliation with the rocket-firing terrorists of Hamas, and whose former foreign minister Nabil Shaath goes to Gaza and praises the Islamists for their “achievements” in hailing 1,500 projectiles down on Israel’s citizens. This is an Abbas who assures us kindly in English interviews that he has no claims on pre-1967 Israel and personally seeks no “right” of return to his birthplace in Safed, but tells his own people and others in Arabic from the podium of the UN General Assembly that we are a despicable nation responsible for the “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinians from their homeland — a narrative guaranteed to entrench Palestinian intolerance of the very fact of Israel’s existence.
Yet Israel is not going to alleviate those dangers and overcome the challenges by pursuing policies that leave us more isolated, by further straining the alliances we do maintain, by swaggeringly demanding more forceful measures and by berating those who don’t share all our sentiments and ambitions.
One problem with our new national hawkishness, however straightforward it is to explain, is that it has no international resonance. No major nation apart from the US and Canada voted with Israel to oppose Abbas’s abandonment of the bilateral commitments under which the Palestinian Authority came into being, his attempt to impose the modalities of Palestinian statehood rather than negotiate them. Only Abbas’s insistent intransigence — refusing even to promise, however emptily, that he wouldn’t exploit Palestine’s newly upgraded status to harm Israel via various UN forums — prevented many of the 41 countries that abstained in Thursday’s vote, notably including the United Kingdom, from casting their voices for Palestine.
No matter that Rabin was cheated by that unreformed terrorist Arafat, Barak spurned by him, and Olmert left hanging by Abbas when they offered viable terms for the establishment of the very Palestinian state that Abbas plaintively laments Israel’s refusal to countenance. No matter that Abbas formally holds to the demand for a “right of return” for millions, which would turn Israel into a second Palestine. No matter that he stayed away from peace talks for nine months when Netanyahu did freeze settlements three years ago. No matter that Israel demolished the entire settlement enterprise in Gaza in 2005, and has been pursued by escalating rocket fire for its trouble.
The US, Canada, the Czechs, Panama and a quartet of remote Pacific islands apart, the rest of the world simply doesn’t care. They have no patience for Israel any more. Give the Palestinians a state, they chorus. If, as you predict, it brings down ruin upon your heads, you’ll have our support in the next UN vote.
And when, as it surely will in January, our next government comes into office still more hawkish than the last, the chorus of international criticism will grow louder. And our capacity to defend ourselves — a capacity whose limitations were so publicly exposed in the imposed cessation of Operation Pillar of Defense, with those called-up ground forces sent home unused amid reported Egyptian threats to abrogate the peace treaty — will be still more constrained.
That’s the other problem with electing outspoken extremists. It’s the politics of petulance. Stuff-you politics. When push comes to shove, they can’t deliver on the promised hardline policies. For all that Likud hawks used to talk about ousting Hamas from Gaza, when they ostensibly had the chance with Operation Pillar of Defense, they never even tried; they didn’t really want Israel to be saddled with responsibility for more than a million hostile Palestinians again, and they feared the domestic outrage and the international condemnation that would go with it. Netanyahu and Liberman didn’t even dare send in ground forces in the end, so worried were they by the potential international implications.
For all that the hawks demanded Israel annex West Bank territory when the Palestinians pursued their unilateral UN gambit, no such move was even remotely considered when the moment of truth arrived. The government didn’t so much as announce the cancellation of the Oslo accords that Mahmoud Abbas had himself essentially abrogated, much less claim Israeli sovereignty in the major settlement blocs.
The next government will presumably feature a more dominant Liberman, the spectacularly undiplomatic chief diplomat confirmed as Netanyahu’s number two. Liberman is the more polished version of the Danons and the Regevs — the loudmouths who declaim that Israel should act this way and that way, but whose promotion to high spots on the Likud list, one can only hope without much optimism, will prompt a greater circumspection. Big-talking Liberman was suddenly a very different person announcing the curtailment of Operation Pillar of Defense, arguing plaintively that Israel had “done the best we could” in the complex circumstances. Yes indeed, the circumstances can be complex. The populist promises aren’t so easy to honor when you’re actually out there, unloved, in the midst of an international community divided not between opponents and supporters but between the implacably hostile and the frustrated.
Abbas’s capacity to depict Israel as the recalcitrant player, the rejectionist, will doubtless be yet further enhanced after January 22. The announcement on Friday of imminent approval to build 3,000 new homes over the Green Line underlines the point; the very timing makes it look like anything but a reasoned and reasonable decision in support of consistent government policy, however controversial, and exactly like a childish revenge ploy, pure punishment for the Palestinians’ UN success. Again, the announcement was a case of the politics of petulance — a move that actually undermines the claims of those who regard West Bank settlement as an essential repopulation of historic Jewish territory, and suggests rather that settlement is a tool with which to hammer away relentlessly and spitefully at Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
Similar such acts from a more hawkish next government will produce still deeper international misgivings about Israel’s orientation. Wariness about the region is one thing, even those who regard themselves as Israel’s friends will chorus, but why the insistence on acts that seem counterproductive to Israel’s own stated interests in seeking to bring the problematic Palestinians back to the negotiating table? The global temptation to blame Israel even for problems not of our making, to brush away the legitimate concerns that prompt Israeli caution, will be all the greater.
Worryingly, the next government may lack the kind of steadying, centrist component that Ehud Barak represents in the outgoing coalition, serving as at least a partial brake on the Likud’s ideological commitment to settlement expansion, and a partial salve to international concerns. It’s hard to see the newly returning Tzipi Livni agreeing to play that role, when she would not join Netanyahu in the last coalition, with a less extreme Likud slate.
And sadly, too, of course, unless Netanyahu chooses to rescue him from the political oblivion to which the Likud’s membership so foolishly consigned him, the next government will lack Benny Begin.
I’m sure he’ll be fine. He’ll go back to his real profession — geology. It’s the rest of us I worry about.