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Uri Avnery: -A Netanyahu day- and nightmare!

Uri Avnery
May 9, 2015

BINYAMIN NETANYAHU seems to be detested now by everyone. Almost as much as his meddling wife, Sarah’le.

Six weeks ago, Netanyahu was the great victor. Contrary to all opinion polls, he achieved a surprise victory at the last moment, winning 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, leaving the Labor Party (re-branded “The Zionist Camp”) well behind him.

The extra seats did not come from the Left. They came from his nearest competitors, the Rightist parties.

However, it was a great personal triumph. Netanyahu was on top of his world. Sarah’le was radiant. Netanyahu left no doubt that he was now the master, and that he was determined to order things according to his wishes.

This week he had his comeuppance. On the very last day of the period allotted to him by law to set up his new government, he was near desperation.

AN OLD Hebrew saying puts it succinctly: “Who is a hero? He who turns an enemy into a friend.”

In this sense, Netanyahu is an anti-hero. He has a peculiar talent for turning friends into enemies. Sarah’le is a great help in this.

Winston Churchill once advised that at the moment of victory, one should be magnanimous. Magnanimity is not one of Netanyahu’s outstanding virtues. He made it clear that he, and he alone, was now the master.

Right after the election Netanyahu decreed that the next government would be a narrow coalition of orthodox and rightist parties, which would be able at long last to do the things he really wants to do: put an end to this two-state nonsense, castrate the Supreme Court, muzzle the media and much more.

Everything went just fine. Netanyahu was invited by the President of the State to form the next government, coalition talks went smoothly, and the contours of the coalition were clear: Likud, the Ashkenazi orthodox Torah party, the Oriental orthodox Shas party, Moshe Kahlon’s new economic reform party, Naftali Bennett’s nationalist-religious party and Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-rightist party. Altogether: a comfortable 67 of the 120 Knesset members.

Party chiefs don’t have lo love each other to set up a coalition. They don’t even have to like each other. But it is not really very comfortable to sit together in a government when they hate and despise each other.

THE FIRST to throw a bomb was Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman is not considered a “real” Israeli. He looks different, speaks with a very thick foreign accent, his mind seems to work in a different way. Although he came to Israel decades ago, he is still considered “a Russian”. Actually he came from Soviet Moldavia.

There is a saying that has been attributed to Stalin: Revenge is best served cold. This Tuesday, 48 hours before the end of the time allotted by law to the formation of the new government, Lieberman dropped his bomb.

In the election, Lieberman lost more than half of his strength to Likud, shrinking to six seats. In spite of this, Netanyahu assured him that he could retain his post as Foreign Minister. It was a cheap concession, since Netanyahu makes all important foreign policy decisions himself.

All of a sudden, without any provocation, Lieberman convened a press conference and made a momentous announcement: he was not joining the new government.

Why? All Lieberman’s personal demands had been satisfied. The pretexts were obviously contrived. For example, he wants “terrorists” to be executed, a demand resolutely resisted by all security services, who believe (quite rightly) that creating martyrs is a very bad idea. Lieberman also wants to send to prison orthodox youngsters who refuse to serve in the army, a ridiculous demand from a government in which the orthodox parties play a central role. And so on.

It was a clear and blatant act of revenge. Obviously Lieberman had taken the decision right from the beginning but kept it secret until the very last moment, when there was no time for Netanyahu to change the composition of the government by inviting, for example, the Labor Party.

It was indeed revenge served cold.

WITHOUT THE six members of Lieberman’s party, Netanyahu still has a majority of 61, just enough to present the government to the Knesset and get a vote of confidence. Just.

A 61-member government is a continuous nightmare. I would not wish it on my own worst enemy.

In such a situation, no member of the coalition parties can go abroad, for fear of a sudden opposition motion of no-confidence. For Israelis, that is a fate worse than death. The only way for a coalition MK to travel to Paris would be to make an agreement with a member of the opposition who wants to go, say, to Las Vegas. Hand Washes Hand, as the saying goes.

But there is a much worse day-and-night-mare for Netanyahu: in a 61-member coalition, “every bastard is a king”’ as a Hebrew saying goes. Each and every member can obstruct any bill produced by the government, allow any opposition motion to win, absent himself from any crucial vote.

Every day would be a field day for blackmail of all kinds. Netanyahu would be compelled to accede to every whim of every member. Even in Greek mythology no such torture was ever invented.

THE FIRST example was given already on the very first day after the Lieberman bomb.

Bennett, who had not yet signed the coalition agreement, found himself in a position in which there would be no Netanyahu government without him. He racked his brains on how to exploit the situation and get something more than was already promised to him (and humiliate Netanyahu in the process). He came up with the demand that Ayelet Shaked become Minister of Justice.

Shaked is the beauty queen of the new Knesset. In spite of her 38 years, she has a girlish appearance. She has also a beautiful name: Ayelet means gazelle, Shaked means almonds.

Her mother was a leftist teacher, but her Iraqi-born father was a rightist Likud central committee member. She follows in his footsteps.

This almond-eyed gazelle excels in political activities based on hatred: an intense hatred of Arabs, leftists, homosexuals and foreign refugees. She has authored a steady stream of extreme rightist bills. Among them the atrocious bill that says that the “Jewish character” of Israel takes precedence over democracy and overrides basic laws. Her incitement against the helpless refugees from Sudan and Eritrea, who have somehow succeeded in reaching Israel, is just a part of her untiring efforts. Though the No. 2 of a rabid religious party, she is not religious at all.

The relationship between her and Bennett started when both were employees of Netanyahu’s political office, when he was leader of the opposition. Somehow, they both incurred the wrath of Sara’le, who never forgets or forgives. By the way, the same happened to Lieberman, also a former director of Netanyahu’s office.

So now is payment day. Netanyahu tortured Bennett during the negotiations, letting him sweat for days. Bennett used the opportunity after Lieberman’s desertion and put up a new condition for joining the coalition: Shaked must be Minister of Justice.

Netanyahu, bereft of any practical alternative, gave in to open blackmail. It was that or no government.

So now the gazelle is in charge of the Supreme Court, which she detests. She will choose the next Attorney General (known in Israel as the “judicial advisor”) and stuff the committee that appoints the judges. She will also be in charge of the ministers’ committee that decides which bills will be presented by the government to the Knesset – and which not.

Not a very promising situation for the Only Democracy in the Middle East.

NETANYAHU IS too experienced not to know that he cannot à la longue govern with such a shaky coalition. He needs at least one more partner in the near future. But where to find one?

The Arab party is obviously out. So is Meretz. So is Yair Lapid’s party, for the simple reason that the orthodox will not sit with him in the government. So only the Labor Party (aka Zionist Camp) is left.

Frankly, I believe that Yitzhak Herzog would jump at the opportunity. He must know by now that he is not the popular tribune needed to lead his party to power. He has neither the stature of an Apollo nor the tongue of a Netanyahu. He has never voiced an original idea nor led a successful protest.

Moreover, the Labor Party has never excelled in opposition. It was the party in power for 45 consecutive years before and after the founding of the state. As an opposition party it is pathetic, and so is “Buji” Herzog.

Joining Netanyahu’s government in a few months would be ideal for Herzog. There is never a lack of pretexts – we experience at least once a month a National Emergency that demands National Unity. A little war, trouble with the UN and such. (Though John Kerry this week gave an interview to Israeli TV that was a masterpiece of abject, belly-crawling self-humiliation.)

Getting Herzog won’t be easy. Labor is not a monolithic body. Many of its functionaries do not admire Herzog, consider Bennett a fascist and Netanyahu a habitual liar and cheat. But the allures of government are strong, ministerial chairs are so comfortable.

My bet: Netanyahu, the great survivor, will survive.

-Are you a Zionist?

Uri Avnery
January 31, 2015

MANY TIMES people ask me: “Are you a Zionist?”

My stock answer is: “Depends on what you mean by Zionism.”

This is quite sincere. The term Zionism can mean many different things. Like the term socialism, for example. Francois Hollande is a socialist. So was Joe Stalin.

Any resemblance?

WHEN I was young, there was a joke making the rounds in Germany: “A Zionist is a Jew who asks a second Jew for money in order to settle a third Jew in Palestine.” My father was such a Zionist. That was before the Nazis came to power, or course. I suspect that this definition applies nowadays to many American Zionists.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, did not really want to go to Zion, a hill in Jerusalem. He did not like Palestine at all. In the first draft of the Zionist Bible, Der Judenstaat, he proposed Patagonia as the preferred site of the Jewish state, because of its mild climate. Also, because it was sparsely populated after a genocidal campaign by Argentina.

When the movement turned towards Zion, Zionism still meant many different things to different people. Some wanted the country to become merely a spiritual center of the Jews. Others wanted it to become a socialist Utopia. Others wanted it to become a nationalist bastion based on military force.

The renewal of the Hebrew language, which has become such an integral part of our lives, was not a part of the Zionist project at all. Herzl, whose initial ambition was to become a great German writer, thought that we would speak German. Others would have preferred Yiddish. The fanatical desire to rejuvenate Hebrew came from below.

Even the desire to found a Jewish State was not unanimous. Some ardent Zionists, like Martin Buber, dreamed of a bi-national state, half Arab, half Jewish. “Practical” Zionists wanted to fulfill the Zionist dream by patient settlement in the country, “Revisionist” Zionists wanted to achieve at once an international “charter”.

Religious Zionists want a state based on and dominated by the Jewish religion. National-religious Zionists believe that God has sent the Jews into “exile” because of their sins, and wanted to compel God by their deeds to send the Messiah now. Atheist Zionists declare the Jews are a nation, not a religion, and want nothing to do with the Jewish faith.

And so on.

SO WHAT does Zionism mean nowadays? The word is bandied about in Israel without much thought. Almost every party wants to be seen as Zionist and brands its adversaries as anti-Zionist – a deadly accusation in Israeli politics. Only small minorities at the edges decline the honor. Communists on one side, ultra-Orthodox on another. (These believe that it is a great sin to go back to the Land of Israel in large numbers without God’s express permission.)

For many Israelis, Zionism means nothing more than Israeli patriotism. If you want Israel to exist as a “Jewish state” (whatever that means) you are a Zionist. Also, you have to believe that Israel is a part of the world-wide “Jewish people” and its leader, a kind of command-center. In up-to-date terminology: “the Nation-State of the Jewish people”.

In a deeper sense, Zionism may mean the profound belief that all the world’s Jews will eventually come to Israel, either by their own free will or driven here by anti-Semitism. The inevitable victory of anti-Semitism in each and every country is taken for granted. Therefore any real or imagined anti-Semitic wave – like the present one in France – is greeted with secret satisfaction (“We told you so”).

WHERE DO I stand?

A few years before the foundation of the State of Israel, a group of young people in this country, mostly artists and writers, declared that they were not Jews, but Hebrews. They were nicknamed “the Canaanites”.

Their gospel was that the Hebrew-speaking young people in this country were not a part of the world-wide Jewish community, but a separate new Hebrew nation. They wanted nothing to do with the Jews. Some of their announcements sounded positively anti-Semitic. They conceived the Hebrew nation as a continuation – after a brief interval of a few thousand years – of the original pre-Biblical Canaanite people. Hence the nickname.

Four years later I founded another group, nicknamed the “Struggle-Group”. We also proclaimed that we were a new Hebrew nation. But contrary to the Canaanites we acknowledged that this new nation was a part of the Jewish people, much as the Australians, for example, are a part of Anglo-Saxon culture.

We also contradicted the Canaanites on one other crucial element of doctrine. The Canaanites denied the existence of an Arab nation or nations. We not only recognized Arab nationalism, but declared that the Arab nation was the natural ally of the Hebrew nation in the creation of a new Semitic Region.

Soon after, Israel was founded. 40 years ago, in a libel case, I was asked by the judge to define my attitude towards Zionism.

In response I invented the term “post-Zionism”. The Zionist movement, I testified, is a historic movement with incredible achievements – a totally new society, an ancient-new language, a new culture, a new economy, new social models like the kibbutz and the moshav. But Zionism also performed grievous wrongs, especially to the Arab Palestinian people.

However, I said, this is history. With the creation of the State of Israel, Zionism has fulfilled its role. Israeli patriotism must replace it. Like scaffolding that is dismantled once the new building is finished, Zionism has outlived its usefulness and should be discarded.

This is my belief today, too.

THE WHOLE question has come up again now because of the decision of the new combined election list of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s group to call itself officially “the Zionist Camp”.

On the pragmatic level, this is a clever move. The Rightist parties almost always accuse the Left of being unpatriotic, even traitorous, a fifth column. In our case, the Left is being accused of being anti-Zionist. So it makes sense for a new combined list to call itself Zionist. Not “a” Zionist party, but “the” Zionist party.

(By the same logic, a very moderate French party once called itself the “Radical Party”, the word “democratic” has appeared in the official names of several communist countries and the German fascists called themselves “National-Socialists”.) Being sure of their hard-core adherents, they hope the misnomer will attract votes on the fringes.

One negative practical aspect of the name of the Labor list is that it automatically excludes the Arab citizens. For Arabs everywhere, Zionism is the synonym of evil. Zionism took away their country, Zionism expelled the Arab Palestinians and carried out the Naqba, Zionism today discriminates against the Arab citizens of Israel in all spheres of life.

However, very few Arab citizens voted in the recent past for the Labor Party anyhow, and these don’t care either way about Zionism as a name. All Arab political forces in the country, including the Communist Hadash party which has a number of Jewish members, united this week in a common Arab list, and are expected to harvest almost all the Arab votes.

(This, by the way, is one of the ironies of Israeli politics. The “Israel Our Home” party of Avigdor Lieberman, which some consider fascist, wanted to evict the Arabs from the Knesset. Noting that none of the three Arab lists achieved 3.25% of the votes, they enacted a law that raised the threshold for entering the Knesset to this level. As a result, all the Arab parties, which detest each other, united in a common list that may reach 10% and more.

Apart from the Orthodox, this will be the only self-styled anti-Zionist party. Everybody else, from the far-right national-religious Jewish Home party to the far-left Meretz, declare themselves staunch Zionists.

So it’s quite a coup that Herzog and Livni ran away with the coveted label.

Labour challenge Netanyahu in the coming Israeli elections

Uri Avnery
December 13, 2014

ON MONDAY, the 19th Knesset voted to dissolve itself, less than two years after its election. For many of its members it was a sad day, a kind of political hara-kiri. They have no chance of re-election. Some of them are so forgettable, that I do not recognize their names or faces.

The day after, a political bomb exploded on the TV news. Channel 10 – slightly more liberal than the two others – published the results of a quick public opinion poll by a respected pollster.

They were amazing.

THE FIRST result was that the Labor Party, after its union with Tzipi Livni’s “the Movement”, will be the largest party in the next Knesset.

Israelis gasped. What? Labor? A party seen by many as clinically dead?

Of course, this is only the first of hundreds of polls to come before election day, March 17 2015. Yet the results had their impact. (Two other polls since then confirmed its findings.)

A second result was that Likud, in second place, would get exactly the same number of seats whether led by Binyamin Netanyahu or by his putative challenger, Gideon Sa’ar, an unglamorous party functionary (and a former employee of mine). As Interior Minister, he excelled mainly in persecuting African asylum-seekers. (At the last moment, Sa’ar gave up his challenge to Netanyahu.)

Is it possible? Netanyahu the Great, the “King Bibi” of Time magazine, no longer a vote magnet?

Ya’ir Lapid, the hero of the last elections, shrunk to half his size. Like the gourd in the Book of Jonah, “which came up in a night and perished in a night”.

But the real sensation of the poll was something else: though Netanyahu still headed the list of preferred candidates for Prime Minister, Yitzhak Herzog, the leader of Labor, came so close as to make no difference.

Only a month ago, such a result would have appeared a hilarious hoax. At that time, Netanyahu had an unassailable lead, towering over all the dwarfs around. Conventional wisdom had it that “there is no one else”.

Now there is. Herzog! Herzog?

HERZOG IS the German word for duke. Yitzhak, commonly called Buji (that’s what his mother called him when he was small), is indeed of aristocratic origin.

His grandfather, Yitzhak Herzog (after whom he was named, according to the Jewish tradition), was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. He had such a good reputation that he was called in the 30s to become the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. He was considered (comparatively) liberal.

His son, Chaim, studied in England, excelled as a boxer and joined the British army in World War II. He was serving as an intelligence officer in Egypt when he met Susan Ambash, the daughter of a rich local Jewish family.

The two Ambash girls were sent on Saturdays to the synagogue to fetch Jewish officers and bring them home for the Shabbat meal. On one Shabbat they caught two – one Chaim Herzog and one Aubrey (Abba) Eban. They married them.

In the 1948 war, Chaim Herzog joined the new Israeli Army as an intelligence officer, eventually becoming a general and chief of army intelligence. On leaving the army he founded what became the largest and richest law firm in the country.

But his real days of glory came on the eve of the Six-day War. For three weeks, Israel fell victim to an attack of acute anxiety. Some spoke of the coming Second Holocaust. During that period, General Herzog had a daily program on the radio and succeeded in soothing the public mind with his sober, sensible analysis, neither belittling nor exaggerating the danger ahead.

The people rewarded him with the presidency of the state. In this post, he was more British than Israeli. An example: at a time when I was boycotted by all the heads of the establishment, I was surprised by an invitation to a private dinner with him at the presidential residence. We had a pleasant talk, without any particular subject. He just wanted to get to know me.

I used the opportunity to plead for his intervention in the security arrangements at Ben Gurion airport, where Arab citizens were (and are) routinely singled out and searched in a humiliating manner. (He promised, but nothing much came of it.)

By the way, I had a similar dinner with his brother, Ya’acov, then the Director General of the Prime Minister’s office. Of the two brothers, Ya’acov was considered the outstanding intellect. Then as now I was preaching the two-state solution, which at the time was totally rejected in Israel and around the world. Over dinner, Ya’acov said he would like to hear my arguments for this solution and cross-examined me – again, a more British than Israeli attitude. Senior Israeli officials do not talk with people of the radical opposition.

YITZHAK HERZOG also served in army intelligence before he was appointed cabinet secretary. Joining the Labor party, like his father, he became a member of the Knesset and minister in several minor ministries.

Slightly built, blue eyed, with a fair complexion, Herzog (54) looks more British than Israeli. He speaks softly, expresses himself in a moderate way and has no enemies. He is the very opposite of the typical Israeli politician.

He surprised everybody when he beat one of these for the chairmanship of the Labor Party. Sheli Yachimovitch is strident, outspoken and belligerent, a resolute socialist who does not hesitate to tread on people’s toes. She antagonized too many colleagues and was voted out. Buji became leader of the party and automatically “Leader of the Opposition”, a title and status accorded by law to the chief of the largest opposition party.

(One of the little jokes of politics: Herzog was about to lose his title and the perks associated with it when Netanyahu dismissed Lapid, whose Knesset faction is larger than Labor. Since the Knesset dissolved itself, Lapid does not inherit the title.)

ASSUMING THE party leadership, Herzog lost no time in declaring himself a candidate for prime minister. This was generally met with a tolerant smile.

Now, for the first time, this seems just possible. Not likely, by any means. But the impossible has become possible. The unthinkable, thinkable.

This in itself is a revolution.

During the last years, Israeli media have been obsessed with the idea that “Israel is moving to the right”. That Netanyahu, bad as he is, is preferable to those who will inevitably succeed him – outright fascists, warmongers, Arab-eaters.

It was almost fashionable to declare that the Left is finished, dead, deceased. Among commentators, it has become de rigeur, especially among leftists, to heap scorn on the Left and the remaining leftists. Poor guys (and gals, of course). Can’t see what’s going on. Harbor illusions. Whistling in the gathering darkness.

And suddenly there is a chance – a remote chance, but a chance nevertheless – for the Left to regain power.

WHY? WHAT has happened?

The easiest explanation is that people just got fed up with “Bibi”. Netanyahu is a person it is easy to get fed up with. In fact, it has happened to him before. His wife, Sarah’le, who is universally disliked, does not help.

But, I believe, it goes much deeper. The poll shows that the Likud will not fare better with another chief candidate. Has the Likud lost its touch?

Two factors have contributed to this:

First, Moshe Kahlon. A former typical Likud stalwart, popular among his peers, he suddenly left his party. No reason given.

As Minister of Communications, a very minor ministry, Kahlon had become immensely popular. He took on the tycoons of the mobile phone industry, broke their monopoly, instituted competition and cut prices by half. Since it is difficult to imagine a young Israeli – male or female – without a mobile phone stuck to their ear, he became a hero.

Now Kahlon, two months younger than Herzog, has announced that he is creating a new party. It is to be called “Kulanu” (“We All”). Though it still has no candidates, it already emerges in the poll with 10 seats – mostly supported by former Likud voters.

This is hugely significant, for several reasons. First, the basic electorate of Likud consists of oriental Jews, though Menachem Begin, Netanyahu and most of their colleagues were and are Ashkenazi. Kahlon is as oriental as you get: His parents came from Tripoli in Libya, they have seven children, Moshe grew up in a poor immigrant township.

Breaking the Likud hold on the oriental community is extremely important. Especially as Kahlon cites Begin as the leader who gave up the entire Sinai peninsula for peace with Egypt. His “moderate Likud” could change the entire balance between Right and Center-Left in the next Knesset. And that, after all, is what counts.

The second reason : Bennett’s extreme right-wing religious-nationalist (some say fascist) “Jewish Home” party is gaining strength – also gaining votes from Likud. Naftali Bennett, smooth, amiable, with the smallest kippah on earth on his head, is appealing to secular voters too.

Traditionally, the Orthodox parties hold the key. Since they care neither for Left or Right and are beholden to no one but themselves, they can choose.

For a long time, they were the allies of Labor. For the last few decades, they were automatic allies of the Right. After the last elections, Netanyahu dropped them for the ultra-secular Lapid. Now they are ready for revenge. Since Herzog is the grandson of a chief Rabbi, he is kosher.

HERZOG WON his first success of the current campaign by forming a common list with Tzipi Livni. It is now up to him to keep up the momentum and make alliances with – possibly – Lapid, Kahlon and Meretz. If successful in the elections, he must stretch out his hands to the Orthodox and the Arabs.

Last week I sketched out this vision. This week it has advanced by a small but significant step towards realization.

Can the duke become king? Well, that’s what the history books tell us.