This Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day, celebrating the liberation and reunification of the Holy City by Israel in 1967 – finds Israeli sovereignty over its capital in its most precarious state since the Six Day War, owing to two causes: the hostility of Barack Obama and the weaknesses of Binyamin Netanyahu.
Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu boasted Wednesday evening that Jerusalem will never be divided again. “We cannot divide or freeze a city as vibrant and creative as Jerusalem – we will continue to build and be built by it.” He insisted at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav on Tuesday night that Jews are building and will continue to build in Yerushalayim. The statement is truthy, but not completely true, and note its ambiguities: Jews will continue to build in Yerushalayim, but, left unsaid, not in every sector of Yerushalayim despite all protestations to the contrary.
Netanyahu’s assertion that there is no building freeze in Yerushalayim is contradicted by two sources. The spokesman for the US Department of State announced last week that there is a building freeze – this after all the uproar over the 1600 apartments approved two months ago for Ramat Shilo and the subsequent deterioration in US-Israeli relations that led to the Hillary Clinton rage against Netanyahu and his snub at the White House. (It is a shame that Netanyahu is not perceived to be as decent a fellow or as reliable an American ally as is Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who is being feted in Washington this week after announcing last month that he may join forces with the Taliban if Obama doesn’t back down in his criticisms of the Karzai regime. Obama backed down.) Now it seems that Netanyahu backed down, to his shame and that of his right-wing coalition partners.
Or did he ? He denies it, but then again his own Housing Minister confirmed in the Knesset earlier this week that building in Yerushalayim has indeed been halted, and for some time. So what gives ?
It is true that duplicity is diplomacy without the mask of niceties. There is a certain skill in diplomacy, in speaking equivocally in order to avoid escalations or inflammations of delicate political situations. But Israel – whose diplomats have long snatched defeat from the jaws of victory – has always suffered from both the appearance and reality of duplicity – of saying one thing, and doing another. That tactic works with a rogue like Arafat, but as Israel is part of the civilized world, its interlocutors who are treated with such disdain rightly protest. An Abbas can promise – again – to crack down on terror and incitement in exchange for this new freeze, but few believe him, or should. (He is not even the legal authority in the PA anymore; his term expired almost 15 months ago in that joke of a political entity.) But Israel is held to account, as it should be, and should not – for a variety of reasons – acquiescing to another freeze, a tacit admission that the land is not theirs and that they are doing something illegal or ignoble building on it.
For Netanyahu to play this double game is shameful. For Israel’s prime minister to forego attendance at the re-dedication of the Hurva synagogue in the Old City (a most magnificent facility that was destroyed twice by marauding Arabs, and in which I was privileged to pray a few weeks ago) so as not to seem “provocative” by entering the Old City is disgraceful. Is Israel’s Prime Minister effectively barred from the Kotel, because his appearance there might create an international incident ? That type of pusillanimity does not bode well for the future.
Israel’s PM has a checkered past; his first term ended in ignominy and he became a political exile once it became clear that his values were for negotiable, his word meaningless, and his principles fluid. He vowed that he had learned from his mistakes. In one sense, he has – he has become a cleverer politician, neutralizing the left and the media by incorporating both secular right-wing and left-wing elements in his government, dangling before them portfolios and the sinecures of high office. But in another sense, he has not: he still lacks a backbone that enables him to tell critics – whether domestic or foreign – to stuff it. He can proclaim his love of Yerushalayim from the rooftops, but the facts on the ground do not nourish those convictions. Those who know him personally have told me that he – like many politicians – has a desperate need to be liked, and will do anything to avoid criticism and to be perceived as popular. Would that he had the audacity of a Hamid Karzai; if he did, he might not be heading to a second disastrous failure.
How unsuccessful has he been, and how much has the political culture in Israel changed during his term ? Consider: there have been two staples of Israeli diplomacy for decades – one, the indispensability of direct talks between Israel and the Arabs, so as to impress upon them the permanence of Israel; and, two, the refusal to take any concrete steps – such as building freezes – that pre-judge the outcome of the negotiations. This was policy for decades, and upheld recently by even a lightweight such as Ehud Olmert (with whom, it seems, the law has finally caught up). And yet, under the “staunch” right-winger Netanyahu, all that has gone by the boards. Israel conceded, for the sake of inducing the Arabs to join in “proximity” (i.e., indirect, not direct) talks, that it will freeze building in Judea, Samaria and Yerushalayim.
That is unprecedented, sheer madness, as well as gross incompetence: Netanyahu has skillfully navigated Israel into a weaker diplomatic position that it had even under the far-leftist Olmert. Not to mention his endorsement of a Palestinian state (in utter disregard of his party’s platform) and his inability to win international acceptance of Israel’s right of self-defense. It is a puzzle why his failures have not won more attention, except for the obvious facts that his rivals are perceived as even more inept, and the strong Israeli economy lulls people into complacency. Terror is also down, but how long that will remain if Israel pulls its forces from the Arab cities it patrols – and when it opens major Route 443 (Modiin to Jerusalem) to Arab traffic – remains to be seen. The surface is calm, with great turbulence rising up from the underground.
So this Yom Yerushalayim had its customary pomp and pageantry, its heartfelt prayers and wistful recollections. But there is an air of uneasiness. Netanyahu’s glib talk does not at all complement his actions. Trying to appease Obama so he will thwart Iran is foolhardy in the extreme. And duplicity eventually turns on its practitioners. People without core values become absorbed with self-preservation as their only value. Once again – again – a right-wing leader is guiding Israel down a path of concessions and defeat masquerading as strength and triumph. When will we wake up ? Better, will we wake up ?