More than a week has passed since former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon dropped his political bombshell and slammed the cabinet door in Netanyahu’s face. He was replaced by Avigdor Lieberman and the coalition was enlarged by five seats. It seems Netanyahu got the ultimate prize: governmental stability. But it’s not all a bed of roses. Environment Minister Avi Gabbai (of the Kulanu party) resigned in protest over Lieberman’s appointment. Along with the simmering rage of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who covets the Defense Ministry, this helped exacerbate the conflict within the government. For the time being, the question of the Labor Party’s inclusion in the coalition is still on the agenda.
Netanyahu and Lieberman are interested in forcing Bennett out, so they made a U-turn and proclaimed their commitment to a “two-state solution.” Lieberman said, “When there is a conflict between the unity of the people or unity of the land, unity of the people is of greater importance.” In addition to being prime minister, Netanyahu is Minister of Foreign Affairs, Economy, Interior, Communications, and Regional Cooperation, suggesting that he is holding each of these posts for some future addition to his cabinet. Ayman Odeh (head of the Joint List) is not being targeted, nor is Yair Lapid (Chair of Yesh Atid), who refused in the past to join the government. Waiting in the wings is opposition head Yitzhak Herzog (Labor, aka the Zionist Camp) who has signaled his willingness to join the coalition in exchange for Bennett’s dismissal.
This transparent gambit is not surprising. Netanyahu and Lieberman are known for cynically changing their positions to further narrow political interests. During the last election campaign, in order to attract supporters away from Bennett, Netanyahu pledged that a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch. Now he is doing an about-face to bring Labor into his government. He is not interested in peace with the Palestinians, but rather in a partnership with Herzog. This will ensure the completion of his term and, along the way, crush the Labor Party in the next election.
What is not obvious is what prompts Herzog to enter this bizarre government. Two of its “saner” ministers have left because they could no longer tolerate sitting in an extreme right-wing coalition. Herzog, for his part, talks about a “rare historic opportunity” whose realization, he said, depends on structural changes in the government. Not long ago, in order to rationalize Labor’s entry (and receive the post of Foreign Minister), Herzog indicated that he was on the verge of closing a deal with Netanyahu that would advance the peace process.
Even today, after the deal failed, Herzog continues to talk about an historic opportunity. In a lecture to the American Jewish Committee in Washington, he said, “Unlike the previous generations of Arab leaders, today many Sunni-Arab leaders suffer less from what I call the ‘Israel complex’ of their predecessors… These leaders are prepared to address what is important for both sides, to back the national aspirations of the Palestinians and recognize the security concerns and needs of Israel. These moderate Arab states are grouping into something of an informal Sunni Arab version of a regional NATO, which identifies the same threats as Israel identifies.” This is the thread connecting Herzog with Netanyahu: both agree that there is no Palestinian partner and that now is not the time to talk about a political solution; both believe that the Arab spring has created a “rare opportunity” to pass over the heads of the Palestinians and forge an alliance with Sunni leaders against the common enemy – Iran.
Herzog relies on many conversations with the new leaders, General el-Sisi of Egypt, Saudi Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman, the Jordanian king, and the ruler of the United Arab Emirates. All express their distrust of Iran and their disgust with the American-brokered nuclear arms deal; like Netanyahu, they are disappointed with the Obama Administration. They feel he favors Shiites over Sunnis. And therein lies the main problem: the Egyptian and Saudi leaders that so inspire Herzog are being severely criticized in the American press. Sisi is accused of trampling on human rights, while the Saudis are charged with funding Islamist militancy around the world. The White House too has roundly condemned them.
Moreover, the Sunni-NATO force that is supposed to partner with Israel at some future regional conference is being pulled down by regional wars. These wars deplete resources and are threatening regional stability. General el-Sisi is fighting a lost war in Sinai; the Saudis are deeply involved in Yemen where victory seems to be a mirage; the disintegration of Syria, Iraq, and Libya shows that many Arab countries are simply “disappearing” from the map. Thus, any talk about a regional conference with these overly stressed countries, ranging from Libya to Syria, is a pipe dream. Moreover, the US government is also enmeshed up to its neck in regional strife – American soldiers fight side by side with Shiite forces in the Iraqi city of Falluja and provide expertise to the Kurdish attack against the Islamic State in northern Syria. The US is also providing updated intelligence to Saudi troops in Yemen.
Herzog says that many Sunni Arab leaders suffer less from what he calls the ‘Israel complex’ of their predecessors, but he hasn’t noticed that they also suffer less from a “Palestinian complex.” The Arab Spring pushed the “Palestinian problem” off the regional agenda; the Israeli oppression in the West Bank is dwarfed by massacres perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its own citizens; the siege of Gaza is not to be equated with the deliberate starvation in the Syrian cities of Daria or Madaya; the suffering of 10,000 Palestinian prisoners can’t be compared to the plight of 200,000 Syrian prisoners whose fate remains unknown. Moreover, the Palestinian establishment’s indifference towards what is happening in the region and its support for the Assad regime have created frustration in the Arab world. In the past, the Palestinians demanded Arab support and they received it. But today they have disassociated themselves “from the illusion of the Arab Spring” and are indifferent to the suffering of millions of Iraqis and Syrians who are being butchered by Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, and various Shiite militias.
In fact, Palestinians have ceased to be an Arab problem. They are an Israeli problem. Of course this is not to say that Arab leaders will come to Israel’s aid and help it leap over the heads of the Palestinians and establish a regional peace that perpetuates the Occupation. Moreover, these “young Arab leaders,” as Herzog calls them, are forcefully criticized in the Arab world. They show again and again that they are powerless against Iran and Russia, and they cannot save Sunni lives in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Sunnis are being butchered by Shiite militias and the armies of Syria and Iraq. Herzog sees the weakness of the embattled regimes as an extraordinary opportunity to exploit them, and it is doubtful they will ever see Israel as their lifeline.
Therefore, Herzog’s entry into the present government would not lead to a regional conference. The most he can give Netanyahu is industrial quiet until the end of the latter’s term. In any case, this area has an excess of regional conferences: not long ago a regional conference was held in Vienna on Syria which led to another conference in Geneva between Assad and the opposition; Libya earned a regional conference of its own; and most recently, the French organized a conference featuring an impressive array of participants. But, so far, no regional conference has resolved even a single problem. They have only worsened the situation, because there is no consensus or genuine desire by the warring parties to reach a solution. Herzog as Foreign Minister would focus on justifying the Occupation by emphasizing Israel’s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians “without preconditions.” As foreign minister, Herzog would continue (secretly) meeting with the new Arab leaders, exchanging information, and weaving plans for the future, but such measures will not bring about real change.
The Occupation has become an Israeli problem and Israel must be the one to find a solution. The entry of the Labor Party into the government would be a huge concession to the extreme Right. The latter craves partners for its vision of a Greater Israel and its need to launder the apartheid regime that is gradually taking shape before the eyes of the world. Herzog’s desire to join the government does not stem from a belief in a “rare historical opportunity,” but from his doubt about reaching a peaceful solution with the Palestinians. Therefore, should Herzog team up with the present coalition, it would be a historic mistake. The result would be a surge in the power of the right wing and the settlers.
Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman