Netanyahu’s misleading lessons in governance

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Many of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s supporters were stunned last week when IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz announced he was promoting Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon to major general and appointing him to serve as the next commander of the Central Command.


Alon completed a two-year tour of duty as Judea and Samaria Division Commander in October. During his tenure, Alon distinguished himself as the most radical, politically insubordinate officer to have held the position in recent memory.


In an interview with The New York Times in October, Alon openly sought to undermine and discredit declared government policy. He called for the US Congress to continue to fund the Palestinian Authority’s security services despite the PA’s decision to ditch the peace process.


Alon argued in favor of withdrawing completely from Judea and Samaria, insinuating that the government is wrong to believe that the Gaza withdrawal, which led to the rise of Hamas, should serve as a precedent for Judea and Samaria.


Alon opined that the IDF cannot be expected to bring security to the Israeli public if the government isn’t involved in a peace process with the PLO. As he put it, “We can’t do our mission only with military tools,” he said. “Diplomacy and economy are very relevant.”


Throughout his two years on the job, Alon went out of his way to demonize and attack Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria. Without evidence, Alon claimed continuously that acts of vandalism against Arab property in Judea and Samaria and inside of the 1949 armistice lines is the work of Jewish residents of the areas.


He referred to the hooligans responsible for the vandalism as “Jewish terrorists.” He repeatedly equated these acts of vandalism, commonly referred to as “price tag” operations with Palestinian terrorism.


ALON’S MORAL equivalence between vandalism allegedly committed by Israelis and acts of terrorism actually committed by Palestinians reached its public climax with the massacre of the Fogel family in Itamar in March. At the time, Israel Radio quoted a “senior IDF source” claiming that the murder of Ruth and Ehud Fogel and their three small children Yoav, Elad, and Hadas was an act of revenge by the Palestinians angered by recent vandalism allegedly perpetrated by Israelis. A quick investigation exposed that Alon was the “senior IDF source.”


In 2006, Alon’s wife Mor Alon signed a petition from the pro-Palestinian pressure group Machsom Watch. Machsom Watch’s goal is to destroy Israel’s so-called occupation of Judea and Samaria. The job of the OC Central Command is to carry out the so-called occupation of Judea and Samaria.


In light of Alon’s pubic record of radicalism and insubordination, as well as the obvious impact his political views have on his command decisions and strategic judgment, his appointment could not have gone through without Netanyahu’s approval. Neither Gantz nor Defense Minister Ehud Barak would have risked promoting him to supreme commander of Judea and Samaria without Netanyahu’s backing.


Netanyahu’s willingness to support Alon is consistent with other actions he has taken recently that strengthen his political opponents and strike a blow at his own political supporters and the nationalist camp in general.


TAKE, FOR instance, his outspoken defense of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has been an independent arm of the government since the founding of the State of Israel. No one has ever disputed the importance of an independent judiciary for the proper functioning of the state.


The problem with Israel’s court is not that it is independent. The problem is that since the mid-1990s the court has become a radicalized, activist court that has usurped the lawful powers of the Knesset and government. The radicalization of the court is not a function of its independence but rather of the political homogeneity of its self-appointed leftist justices.


Just how far the justices’ political convictions and national agendas stray from mainstream opinion was made clear on December 13 by recently retired justice Ayala Procaccia. Procaccia spoke at the New Israel Fund’s Human Rights Awards Ceremony which honored Attorney Hassan Jabareen, the head of the anti-Israel Arab pressure group Adalah, and Attorney Dan Yatir from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Adalah rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and openly advocates for the allocation of autonomy and extraordinary, collective legal rights to Israel’s Arab minority.


Procaccia praised Adalah’s mission and actions. She also professed a kinship with Jabareen and Yatir saying, “I feel as if we are old friends, by virtue of our joint efforts–each from his own direction in complex and penetrating legal, national, and human issues, and by way of the invisible thread that links people that passes from the brain to the heart, connecting them by common values and similar hopes.”


In line with their voters’ wishes, Netanyahu’s Likud colleagues MKs Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin recently introduced a bill to curb the radicalization of the Court. Their bill would have required Supreme Court nominees to present their judicial philosophies to the public through Knesset hearings. This minimal step at checking the influence of radicals on the court would have had no impact whatsoever on the Court’s independence.


Rather than debate the virtues of the proposed legislation, the legal fraternity and its media flacks castigated it in just those terms. If the law passed, we were warned, Israel’s democracy would be rent asunder as judicial nominees would be forced to toe the line of nefarious political forces yanking at their newly nailed on strings.


Rather than stand up to these demonstrably ridiculous allegations, or just stand aside and let the legislative process proceed, Netanyahu joined the bandwagon of the radical left and castigated the bill and its sponsors as a threat to judicial independence.


WHAT IS propelling Netanyahu to act this way? Why is he strengthening his political opponents and their institutions while discrediting his political supporters and their institutions? 


The most reasonable explanation is that Netanyahu’s decisions are based on the lessons he learned from the political trauma he experienced with the fall of his first government in 1999 and since.


During his first tenure in office, Netanyahu led a narrow rightist coalition government. He suffered from a poisonously hostile media environment and faced a powerful political opposition supported by the IDF’s politicized General Staff and the Clinton administration.


In an attempt to appease this opposition, Netanyahu signed the 1998 Wye Plantation Memorandum with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. For his efforts, his rightist coalition partners brought down his government.


Netanyahu was replaced as Likud leader by Ariel Sharon. Sharon embraced the Left — first by making the Labor Party the senior partner in his first government in 2001, and then in 2004 by adopting Labor’s governing platform of unilateral territorial surrenders.


For his efforts Sharon enjoyed an adoring media and stable coalitions.


But then again, Sharon endangered the country, empowered Hamas, all but destroyed his own political camp and resuscitated the political Left.


Both Netanyahu’s own experience and that of Sharon apparently led the premier to the conclusion that he must preside over a broad coalition in which no single party has the ability to destabilize his government. He also decided that he has to govern from the center.


On the face of it, these are reasonable goals. The problem is the way Netanyahu is applying them. Netanyahu is implementing these lessons in a manner that would have made sense in 1999, or even 2005. But a lot has changed since then.


For instance, Netanyahu is ignoring the fact that Israeli society at the end of 2011 is far more right-wing than it was in 1999. In 1999, the peace process had yet to collapse. The Palestinian terror war had yet to begin. The notion that Netanyahu was responsible for the absence of peace still sounded credible to many Israelis in 1999.


This is not the case today.


Likewise, when Sharon was incapacitated, the public was still unaware of the dimensions of the strategic folly of his withdrawal from Gaza. This lack of awareness is what enabled Sharon to present Kadima as a centrist party and his Likud opponents as ideological extremists. Today Kadima is overwhelmingly recognized as just another leftist party. Sharon’s opponents in Likud are led by Netanyahu, who is popularly perceived as pragmatic and responsible.


Moreover, the ideological right is not the same as it was in 1999. Likud’s largest coalition partner is Israel Beitenu. Its leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, did not have a problem bringing his party into then prime minister Ehud Olmert’s governing coalition in 2006. For better or for worse, Israel Beitenu’s rise and the corresponding collapse of the national religious parties has brought about a situation where rightist parties’ ideological commitment is now tempered by political opportunism.


All of these changes do not render Netanyahu’s lessons from his failure and Sharon’s success incorrect. But they do indicate strongly that Netanyahu’s assessment of his own options for governing within the framework of those lessons is unnecessarily constrained.


With the political center far to the right of where it was in 1999 and 2006, Netanyahu does not have to embrace the Left’s agenda in order to be perceived as a centrist. To the contrary, doing so harms him. The last twelve years have not been kind to the Left. The judicial excesses of the likes of Procaccia and her colleagues have soured much of the public on the Court. Public approval of the Court has been trending downward steeply for the past decade.


THEN THERE are the so-called settlers. Whereas ahead of the 2005 expulsion of 10,000 Jews from their homes in Gaza and northern Samaria, the public was willing to believe that the residents were extremists and their expulsion would be good for the country, today, such demonization efforts by the media and the likes of Brig.- Gen. Alon gain little traction.


It is true that by supporting the Left’s agenda, Netanyahu buys himself a modicum of support from his political and ideological enemies in the media, the legal fraternity and elsewhere. But this support is not necessary for his reelection bid. He will not face a significant challenge either from within his own party or from any other party no matter how he comes down on issues like Alon’s appointment or the Court’s radicalism.


While supporting the Left does Netanyahu little good, it does his party, his political camp, his agenda and the country real harm. By ignoring the significance of the changes in Israel’s political and social landscape that have taken place since he was booted from office, Netanyahu has failed to take advantage of the opportunities he now holds for strengthening Israel’s democracy and its security. 


Instead, in an attempt to correct his own past mistakes, he is dooming the country to repeat the past mistakes of the Left while preventing his politically responsible, popular political allies from advancing an agenda that will move the country forward.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 
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