Icks Factor — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Dear Bibi,

 illustration by Avi Katz</em
illustration by Avi Katz
When you shunted me off to the national embarrassment portfolio as the last and least of your myriad cabinet ministers, I was at first angry and insulted. Having expected to get a senior office of great public and historical weight, such as the Nostalgia Office or head of the National Task Force for the Depletion of Natural Resources, I was taken aback by the prospect of taking on a new ministry created out of bits and pieces pilfered from so many other government agencies.

But after a month on the job, I now understand the great wisdom you displayed in bringing all your government’s efforts to disgrace our great nation together under a single roof. While your piecemeal efforts to make Israel the laughing-stock of international diplomacy have been effective to a large degree, you are certainly correct in resolving, in your new government, to make shame a national priority.

My first step as minister of national embarrassment has been to embark on a tour of European and North American capitals and Jewish communities to assess just how disgusted our allies and compatriots are with us, and to formulate a master plan for transforming this antipathy into something more akin to loathing. Kudos to you for jump-starting my ministry’s efforts with your election-day message warning against a high voter turnout among Israel’s Arab citizens and your pre-election insult to President Obama in the form of your speech to Congress. These two strokes of genius were cited again and again in each city I visited. Here is a sample of the comments I received:

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FAQ: Amalek, Goldberg, Netanyahu and Iran

Gershom Gorenberg

When Bibi Netanyahu thinks about Iran with nukes, does he “think Amalek”? And if so what does that mean? You ask, we provide answers.

Does Bibi think Iran is Amalek? Jeffrey Goldberg set up this discussion last week in a New York Times op-ed.  The key sentence is:

I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.”

Please note: That’s not a quote from Bibi, it’s a quote from the adviser taking measure of Bibi. It could be that the prime minister would use the word “Amalek,” the mythical enemy of the Jewish people. But I doubt it. It’s a term from a religious lexicon, more commonly used among religious Jews or those shaped by a religious education. Netanyahu sometimes tries religious metaphors before religious audiences, but without a lot of skill or conviction. It’s more likely that one of Netanyahu’s advisers used his own language for the boss’s state of mind.

Bibi tends to take his metaphors from history. Never mind his ability to warp history, that’s what the historian’s son likes to study and cite. As in this well-known example, as reported in Ha’aretz after Netanyahu spoke in Los Angeles in November 2006:

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Bibi as Feiglin’s Figurehead

I ran into Moshe Feiglin at the end of the 1990s when I was covering the Temple Convention, an annual get together of groups on the far fringe of the Israeli right that want to build the Third Temple now, if not yesterday. In the lobby, Feiglin was passing out bumper stickers for his organization, Jewish Leadership. I asked whether the current leaders of Israel weren’t Jewish. He answered with a smirk that suggested, “You know better than that.”

Soon after that, Feiglin and company decided on a new strategy for their radical group: They would seek to take over the Likud. It was a crafty decision. A well-organized group acting as a block can have an outsized influence in internal party elections. Feiglin encouraged his supporters to become Likud members. (There was no need for them to vote for the party of the mainstream right in general elections.)

Feiglin is patient.

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Bibi’s Con: “Economic Peace”

My new article on Benjamin Netanyahu’s new platform of “economic peace” appears in Ha’aretz today. For those who read from right to left, the original Hebrew is here. The English translation is here. A taste:

When Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about “economic peace,” his new, brilliant diplomatic platform, which will postpone any diplomatic moves far into the unforeseeable future, I see his face shrink, his chin sharpen, a patch cover his eye. Moshe Dayan is speaking, just as he spoke in a cabinet meeting 40 years ago, in early December 1968.

The Eshkol government met then to discuss Dayan’s proposal for a policy on the occupied territories. Dayan’s plan had three pillars: large-scale settlement on the West Bank mountain ridge, permanent Israeli rule of the territories without Israeli citizenship for the Arab residents, and economic integration of the territories with Israel. Arabs would work in Israel, Hebron would get its electricity from the Israeli grid, and Israel would raise the standard of living of the residents of the territories. As a result, Dayan argued, they would become dependent on Israel, maybe even grateful to it.

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Hope Envy

For nearly all of the 31 years that I’ve lived in Jerusalem, I’ve felt that this is where history happens, that my old friends in America are merely in the bleachers. For the past few months, and especially last night, the roles were reversed. Over there, back in the old country, they were making the world new, while we could only watch, applaud, and envy the renewal of hope. Yesterday was a rare moment that I wished I was over there – standing in an unexpected line to vote, celebrating afterward with friends in the streets of Washington, New York or Chicago, getting up this morning wondering what special blessing a religious Jews should say for such an event.

Hope is in short supply here. Next week in Jerusalem, we will have a local election in which the choice of candidates is, as Yossi Sarid put it well – he puts it well so often – a choice between plague and contagion. In February, we’ll have yet another national election. They come altogether too often, offering much too little. The only candidate with the ability to give a speech is the candidate of fear, of being very afraid, Bibi Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni, the only other realistic contender, has defined the election as a decision on whether to continue the peace process. (As leader of Labor, Ehud Barak seems destined to lead the party from irrelevance to extinction.)

Livni is right,

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“No, no, no, I won’t play on Tzipi’s team. She’s a little giirrl.”

Gershom Gorenberg

Occasionally, pop culture offers the appropriate commentary on matters of state. To understand Shaul Mofaz’s feelings about Tzipi Livni winning the Kadima primary, view a snippet of this scene from She’s the Man, a remake of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night set in high school. (Sorry, there’s a block on embedding the clip.) The relevant bit here is at 4:18-4:36, after Viola scores the winning goal in the big soccer game. Watch the goalie in the orange uniform who failed to block the kick by the girl.

Ehud Barak seems to feel the same way about serving in a cabinet with Tzipi Livni as the boss.

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Obama in Israel: Political Implications

Gershom Gorenberg

Obama stopped through for two nights and a day, as if he were writing one of the New York Times travel pieces about how to spend 36 hours in some locale. At first glance, the trip was purely about photo-ops, gathering footage for later campaign ads that will air in south Florida. But there were some hints of real political content, as I explain in my new article at The American Prospect. Here’s one piece:

Hamas Walks It Back: On Wednesday morning, Israel Radio reported responses to Obama’s arrival, including this one: “A Hamas spokesman said, ‘The American senator is trying to reach the White House via Tel Aviv, at the expense of the Palestinians.'”

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Tzipi and the General: Who’s Experienced?

Gershom Gorenberg

Tzipi Livni is running against the embodiment of dumb military macho, and she’s responding wrong.

In a Ha’aretz piece this morning (in Hebrew), political reporter Mazal Mualam tells us that Livni’s main competition in Kadima, Shaul Mofaz is conducting “a negative campaign against Livni, focused on her lack of military experience” while Livni “is refraining from personal attacks.” Instead, she’s trying to set her own defense agenda, most recently by touring the northern border with the Italian foreign minister. It’s a quieter version of an ad about phone calls at 3 a.m. to the commander-in-chief.

Livni, let me stress, is far too hawkish for my tastes. A colleague who covers diplomacy describes her as a person who lacks empathy, a quality needed for good negotiation: You don’t have to agree with the person across the table, but it’s valuable to understand how he or she thinks. That said, she’s more of a diplomat than her rivals within Kadima, or outside of it. Labor’s Ehud Barak not only flubbed his chance, he has rationalized his failure by dismissing the very possibility of peace, reinforcing the right’s politics of despair. His line is, “If I couldn’t do it, it can’t be done.” Fortunately, in a multiparty system, I’m not constrained to vote for Barak, Bibi Netanyahu, or whoever Kadima picks. But how Kadima goes about making the choice still matters.

Mofaz is an ex-chief of staff who exemplifies how mediocre the officer class has become.

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