With protests, terrorism and settler riots plaguing Israel, why are we not seeing a stronger presence from Prime Minister Netanyahu?
SOME LIKUD members wonder where the prime minister has disappeared to.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
On January 23, 2020, more than 50 heads of state and members of royal families traveled to Jerusalem to mark a momentous occasion – the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Vice-president Mike Pence, Prince (at the time) Charles, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, King of Spain Felipe VI, and many more were all there. It was a recognition of the victory over the Nazis and the tremendous accomplishment the Jewish people, in general, and the State of Israel more specifically have seen in the years since.
As Herb Keinon pointed out in Tuesday’s Jerusalem Post, in less than 60 days Israel will mark another 75-year anniversary, this one more joyous – the country’s 75th Independence Day. Nevertheless, there is no joy in the air right now and there does not seem to be any plans to host foreign dignitaries at this year’s state celebrations. As one foreign diplomat told me this week: “We know of nothing going on.”
Even if they were invited now, it does not seem like any foreign head of state would want to travel here. The feeling in Israel this week is one of anarchy and as if there is no one in charge of the country.
There are the weekly protests (and sometimes more) that are bringing hundreds of thousands of Israelis out to the streets screaming against what they perceive as the end of democracy; there are the images from the Knesset of MKs jumping on tables and being pulled by ushers out of committee rooms; there are the terrorist attacks that have claimed the lives of 14 Israelis in just one month; the settler pogrom in Huwara; the weakening of the shekel; the hike in the interest rate; the tech executives who are pulling money out of Israel, and more.
Israelis block a road and clash with police as they protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, March 1, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Each of these events on its own would be a national crisis. When they all happen together there is something seriously wrong.
After the tragic murder of Hillel and Yagel Yaniv in Huwara, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich used the phrase “the landlord has gone crazy,” an expression meaning that it is time to show the Palestinians that there would be an escalated IDF response.
The question, though, that remains is what has happened to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Where is he? Why is his presence not being felt? Why is his voice barely being heard?
A look at the front pages of newspapers is telling. They reflect events in the country and their importance. The Netanyahu-led government has been in office for a bit over two months – all of January and February. The newspapers from that time period though are not filled with stories of Netanyahu, his policies, speeches or meetings with foreign officials. A look at the 51 front pages we published during those months shows Netanyahu only about 12 times on the front page.
This is in comparison to previous periods when he served as prime minister and he seemed to be everywhere. He was speaking at public events, conferences, doing media interviews, traveling the globe and hosting world leaders in Jerusalem. Every statement was setting the national agenda – whether about Iran, the fight against COVID-19 or another economic policy that his government was unveiling.
Netanyahu, in the past, was the face of Israel. What he said opened up radio broadcasts and the evening news. In the last couple months, though, his presence is not felt. Members of his own party wonder out loud where he has disappeared to. He is not setting the agenda; that is being done by others like Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is driving the judicial reform steamroller, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is the one getting the headlines when it comes to West Bank terrorism.
It is true that after the election when asked about his new coalition partners – Ben-Gvir and Smotrich – Netanyahu said that he would be in charge, but in practice that does not seem to be the case. Even his past critics could appreciate knowing that his hand was on the wheel and that he was running the show.
NOWADAYS, IT is unclear where he is. His voice is not heard on the main issue that is dividing the country – judicial reforms – and while he can claim that it is because the attorney-general has banned him from doing so because of his trial, that is just an excuse.
If he wanted, Netanyahu could be speaking daily about the need for unity, the need to slow down the process and the need to compromise. While he occasionally throws out a call for dialogue, it is then followed by declarations of how the protesters are anarchists or that the government needs to “slam them” with the truth.
Just watch his speech on Wednesday night, when he compared the protesters in Tel Aviv to the Jewish terrorists who rampaged through Huwara. Does that advance the country toward a solution?
And even regarding terrorism, his voice is barely being heard and his presence is not being felt. In the past, Netanyahu knew how to create a sense of calm, but after 14 people were killed in a month, it feels like he is not even trying.
Instead, Israelis are walking down the streets of this country looking over their shoulders in fear of another stabbing or shooting attack. This government claimed to be the “real right” and to know how to restore security. So far, it has only made the situation worse.
Why isn’t Netanyahu visiting the scenes of the attacks? Except for the attack in Neveh Ya’acov, he hasn’t gone to any, not even to the one at the Ramot bus stop where the Paley brothers – Ya’acov and Asher – were murdered. Why isn’t he calling one of those special prime ministerial 8 p.m. addresses like he did regularly during COVID, to address the nation and try to ease their concerns?
It is strange and unclear. Some politicians explain that it has to do with the advisers who are around him. He does not yet have full-time spokespeople, diplomatic advisers and more. Others claim that it is just not that important right now and that his focus is on passing the judicial reform, which he wants to advance out of a personal vendetta against the judiciary.
Others say that he is controlled today more than ever by his wife and son, and that he has become closed off to the more moderate players who used to surround him.
And then there are those who claim that Netanyahu’s real plan is to create chaos so that he can then strike a plea deal that will allow him to remain prime minister. The situation will be so bad, this theory goes, that the prosecution will agree to a deal just to stop some of the craziness.
Which is it? Impossible to know, but what is clear is this – Netanyahu is currently absent, and if he still cares about this country he needs to wake up.
***For more than 55 years, Israel has controlled the West Bank and has ruled over another people through military force. Some periods were better than others, but for the most part, terrorism and violence have always been part of the story of the West Bank and the lives of the residents who live there.
The violence that broke out in Huwara on Sunday night – the burning of homes, cars and the attacks on residents by Israeli settlers – was nothing less than a pogrom. Yes, the pogroms of Europe were often state-sanctioned and this attack was not, but unofficially, it had the backing of senior members of the ruling coalition.
When Smotrich calls on the state to go crazy, what are his supporters meant to understand? When he says that Huwara needs to be “wiped out” after his supporters tried to do that, what lesson do they learn? When Ben-Gvir is silent as his supporters rampage through a Palestinian village, what is that if not passive approval? And what about MK Zvika Fogel, who praised the attackers? The IDF should be embarrassed that he was once a brigadier general.
Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and Fogel all ran on a platform ahead of the November election that the state had lost control in the Negev, the North and mixed Arab-Jewish cities. They promised to restore security.
The truth needs to be said: Yes, there is lawlessness in the Negev, but for 55 years – alongside the inexcusable terrorism by Palestinians – there has also been Jewish lawlessness in the West Bank.
Illegal outposts can be built and no one bats an eye. Land is grabbed – oftentimes private Palestinian land – and the residents are allowed to remain there for decades. Settlers and hilltop youth stone Palestinian cars, torch olive groves and attack left-wing activists, and nothing happens to them. Just look at how many people are in jail after the Huwara violence on Sunday. Barely a handful.
This situation is unacceptable. If Palestinians rampaged through a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the IDF would have been shooting at every single infiltrator and somehow that would have been acceptable. When Jews do the same in Huwara, the IDF and the police do nothing. More extreme police force was on display in Tel Aviv on Wednesday against the judicial reform protesters than in all of Huwara.
We have to recognize the fact that we have terrorists among us. They are a minority but they exist and they need to be rooted out.
With that said, we need to remember something. While this minority exists, for almost the entire country, their actions are unacceptable and were immediately condemned. Even Smotrich and Ben-Gvir eventually paid lip service to condemnations of their own.
On the other hand, when a Palestinian kills three people in Jerusalem or two in Huwara, the Palestinian Authority says nothing. Instead, we all know what will happen. Eventually, the terrorists will be caught or killed, and their families will get a PA-sponsored stipend. This is not incitement. This is state-sponsored terrorism.
And here is a simple fact: When a Palestinian stands at a bus stop he or she doesn’t have to worry that an Israeli car will ram them. When a Palestinian drives through the West Bank, its passengers don’t have to worry that the driver coming at them with the Israeli license plate will roll down a window, lean out a machine gun and open fire.
When it is the opposite, though, the feeling is different. That is the reality.