There must be an explanation. There simply has to be an explanation. But I can’t find it.
I’m not talking about Benjamin Netanyahu selecting as his new media and communications director a man with a public habit of trashing local and world leaders, notably including Presidents Obama and Rivlin.
If you didn’t know Israel’s leadership better, you might indeed consider this to be inexplicable. You might consider it beyond unfathomable that nobody in the Prime Minister’s Office was tasked with reading Ran Baratz’s Facebook feed, where they would have swiftly found him describing Obama as guilty of anti-Semitism, Secretary of State John Kerry as a fool, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as a dullard, and plenty more in similar vein. Mind-blowing, you might say. And you’d be right. This in a country that performs rigorous background checks for candidates for entry-level positions to all manner of military and intelligence hierarchies.
But the sorry truth is that the failure to conduct rudimentary vetting in the case of Baratz is merely more of the routinely radical top-level Israeli government incompetence that also saw, to give just one damaging example from the checkered history of Obama-Netanyahu relations, the Jerusalem planning authorities authorize new building in a contested East Jerusalem neighborhood (Ramat Shlomo) precisely as Vice President Joe Biden flew in on a visit five years ago. Or, in the office of Likud ministerial colleague Gilad Erdan earlier this year, the selection of a would-be police chief (Gal Hirsch) whose company, a cursory check would have shown, is at the center of an international crime investigation. Or, for combustible potential, this summer’s photo op in which Netanyahu, at the height of an incendiary dispute with the Palestinians over his ostensible plans to bolster Jewish access at the Temple Mount, hosted Temple Mount activist and would-be Likud MK Yehudah Glick at the PMO and even posed for a photograph, albeit rather sheepishly, in which Glick holds up a copy of his latest book advocating Jewish prayer at the site.
Left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Pitiful mismanagement. Dangerous amateurishness. Sadly, nothing too surprising here.
What I do find inexplicable, however, is that once Baratz’s conclusive unsuitability for the task of representing Netanyahu and Israel in any remotely sensitive public role had been definitively established, the prime minister did not immediately amputate: On Wednesday, Baratz was tapped for the very prestigious post of media czar. On Wednesday night, he was exposed. By Thursday morning, he should have been history.
Instead, the prime minister has massively compounded his original mistake by allowing the appointment to fester. And as the hours and now the days have passed, incompetence no longer suffices for an explanation.
As a result of Netanyahu’s entirely incomprehensible refusal to withdraw the appointment of a man whose Facebook history constitutes an affront to the president of the United States, the prime minister will on Monday drive up to the White House without having made plain to the president that he considers the charge of anti-Semitism leveled against Obama by Baratz to be beyond the pale. Netanyahu has said merely that he’ll “deal with the matter” when he gets back home to Israel. He even utilized his Twitter feed to pick one more minor unnecessary fight with the administration on Friday — denying that he had told Kerry he would “review” the appointment, hours after the secretary’s spokesman had publicly announced that this was precisely what Netanyahu had promised Kerry he would do.
Why the obduracy?
Several explanations have been raised for Netanyahu’s unconscionable behavior. It has been suggested, for instance, that he is so scared of being branded weak by his right-wing coalition partner-rivals, of being perceived as capitulating in the face of American displeasure, that he dare not swiftly cancel the appointment. The ever-bothersome Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett pounced on the row Thursday, declaring that it was up to Israel to decide who it appoints to such positions.
But this makes little sense. No Israeli politician should want the country represented in a sensitive position by an official with an unpalatable history of giving gratuitous offense, whose track record of utterances is a patently damaging handicap. As some of his more mature and responsible coalition colleagues have done, Bennett should have been encouraging Netanyahu to drop Baratz without delay for the general good of Israel and the particular good of Israeli-American relations. Yet even if Bennett was too self-interested to see that, Netanyahu could comfortably have ignored him. The prime minister had made a poor choice, and it needed to be corrected, quickly.
Once Baratz’s conclusive unsuitability for the task of representing Netanyahu and Israel in any remotely sensitive public role had been definitively established, the prime minister should have acted immediately
Another thesis has it that Netanyahu is deliberately sticking with Baratz, at least for now, to irritate a president who he blames for the lousy deal with Iran, for a non-nuanced obsession with the ills of Israeli settlement building, for failing to push the Palestinian leadership toward compromise, and for a whole litany of other crimes asserted and imagined. Obama is nearing the end of his second term, and the prime minister, in this account, is past caring about causing him further offense.
This explanation, too, however, signally fails to satisfy. The president has more than a year left in office — a veritable eternity in the chaotic reality of today’s Middle East. The last thing Netanyahu should be seeking is to further alienate him — not after testing the limits of the partnership by lobbying against the president in his own Congress; not as he now aims to coordinate with the administration on the consequences of the Iran deal; not as he seeks a new decade-long agreement on US security assistance worth tens of billions of dollars; not as he seeks to forge an understanding on how to manage the conflict with the Palestinians now that the president has abandoned hope of brokering a peace accord.
The only explanation I can find that just might hold water is that Netanyahu, having got the Baratz appointment so devastatingly wrong, simply doesn’t want to admit it. He’s not so much afraid of being branded weak by the likes of Bennett as afraid of feeling like a fool himself. He’d rather push the issue away, deal with it later, perhaps cancel the appointment in a few days’ time when everybody’s focused on the next crisis, or defiantly bring in Baratz anyway once he’s got the Washington trip out of the way.
But I’d like to think that this explanation misses the mark too, because it reflects so badly on the prime minister.
Unfortunately, however, self-created crisis after crisis makes it ever harder to find credible excuses and explanations for some of Netanyahu’s behavior. He sullies our democracy by protesting that Israeli Arabs are voting in droves on election day. He undermines Israeli diplomacy by running the country without a foreign minister and sending an outspoken opponent of a two-state solution to represent Israel at the United Nations. He part-exculpates Hitler for the Holocaust by radically overstating the influence of a Palestinian mufti. He ignores the expert advisers who warn him that going to Congress will make it harder for Democratic legislators to oppose the Iran deal because they won’t want to be seen as siding with Israel’s leader over their own. And now he comes to Washington on a healing mission hobbled by his stubborn refusal to jettison an appointee who has leveled an unjustified, foul, and uniquely emotive accusation at the leader of the Jewish state’s most important and steadfast ally.
Benjamin Netanyahu did not become Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister by accident. He is a highly astute and articulate politician whose pessimistic stance on regional and global attitudes to the Jews and their revived state has resonated widely among Israelis, so many of whom so rightly feel physically threatened on many regional fronts and inadequately supported internationally. A series of election successes shows that when Netanyahu warns against relinquishing territory because extremists will fill the vacuum, this makes more sense to most Israelis than Obama or the opposition leader du jour urging them to take risks for peace. When Netanyahu hits back at Hamas in Gaza but does so without landing the Israel Defense Forces back in the Strip for a generation, he wins the gratitude and support of conscripts’ parents nationwide from far beyond the parameters of his natural electoral base.
But in a country so immensely more sinned against than sinning, striving so hard to thrive and protect itself against amoral enemies amid a blinkered, unsympathetic global climate, the combination of Netanyahu’s harmful utterances, bleak outlook and unnecessary crisis creation is generating increasing harm to Israel’s cause and interests. It is also offsetting too many of the benefits of his better-judged, clearer-headed and more pragmatic positions. And the Baratz affair is a particularly dismal case in point.
Netanyahu should be ashamed to go and see Obama with the Ran Baratz appointment still on track. It suggests that Israel’s prime minister thinks it is not incompatible for a prominent employee to publicly hold the view that the president of the United States of America is an anti-Semite. This is beyond comprehension and explanation.
He still has a few hours at this time of writing to belatedly do the right thing. Far, far better late than never.
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