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Latest Israel News – 14th June

Tillerson: PA has ‘changed policy,’ will stop paying terrorists’ families

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told senators on Tuesday that the Palestinian Authority has changed its policy and intends to stop paying the families of terrorists jailed for attacking or killing Israelis.

“They have changed that policy and their intent is to cease the payments to the families of those who have committed murder or violence against others,” Tillerson said. “We have been very clear with them that this [practice of paying terrorists] is simply not acceptable to us.”

Tillerson’s comments were made during a public hearing on Capitol Hill with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the US State Department’s budget. US President Donald Trump has proposed cutting the State Department funding levels by 28.7 percent.

Asked about US foreign policy going forward, specifically pertaining to the Palestinian Authority’s policy of paying terrorists, Tillerson said that both he and Trump discussed the issue with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during their recent meetings in Washington and Bethlehem.

“The president raised it, and I had a bilateral meeting with [Abbas] later and I told him: You absolutely have to stop this,” Tillerson said.

When Trump met with Abbas in Washington on May 3, the White House said the US president brought up the issue with the Palestinian leader.

“President Trump raised his concerns about payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed terrorist acts, and to their families, and emphasized the need to resolve this issue,” the White House said at the time.

Many GOP leaders on Capitol Hill urged the US president to push Abbas on this practice before that meeting.

Trump met a second time with Abbas, in Bethlehem, on May 23, and told him: “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded or rewarded.”

In February, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) introduced the Taylor Force Act, which would cut US funding to the Palestinian Authority if it continues to provide monetary support to the families of those who commit acts of terror against Israelis and others.

The legislation is named after former US army officer Taylor Force, who was stabbed to death in March 2016 by a Palestinian terrorist while visiting Tel Aviv. Force was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and was traveling with other students on a program studying global entrepreneurship.

Since then, Republicans have voiced strong desire to see that policy changed in Ramallah.

The PA has paid out some NIS 4 billion — or $1.12 billion — over the past four years to terrorists and their families, a former director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and ex-head of the army’s intelligence and research division told a top Knesset panel late last month.  (the Times of Israel)

Arab Israelis charged in Hamas plot to assassinate IDF officer

Three Arab Israelis were charged Thursday with offenses connected to an alleged plot to assassinate an Israeli army officer in revenge for the March killing of senior Hamas operative Mazen Fuqaha, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) said on Thursday.

The Shin Bet, in cooperation with the Israel Police, arrested the three residents of Jaljulya, near Kfar Saba, including two brothers, after security services detained seven residents on suspicion of weapons trafficking.

According to a Shin Bet statement, Mahmoud Muhammad Abd al-Karim Daoud revealed during the weapons-trafficking investigation that brothers Adam Ismail Muhammad Faqi – who had a police record for criminal activity – and Fares Ismail Muhammad Faqi – who was known to have provided non-material support to Islamic State – were planning an attack.

During the investigation, it was discovered that Adam Faqi had been recruited into Hamas by another brother, Muhammad, while in Gaza for a family wedding in 2014. He reportedly underwent small-arms training with senior Hamas figure Hassan Jabari, the brother of Ahmad Jabari, the former head of Hamas’s Izzadin Kassam Brigades who was assassinated by the IDF during Operational Pillar of Defense in 2012.

Adam was directed by Hamas to assassinate an IDF officer in revenge for Fuqaha’s killing in April 2017 by acquiring weapons and by recruiting another individual to carry out the attack. He and his brother then approached another resident of Jaljulya, Yassin Mar’ari, to obtain two pistols and silencers.

Since the latest wave of violence hit Israel and the West Bank starting in October 2015, numerous attacks by Hamas supporters have been thwarted in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Several Hamas cells planning or responsible for extensive terrorist activity in the region have been broken up by Israeli security forces who have carried out raids almost nightly in an effort to reduce the number of attacks.

Hamas blamed Israel for Fuqaha’s killing and publicly executed three men in late May for collaborating with Israel, which has denied any role in his death.

Fuqaha was jailed for life by Israel for his role in orchestrating a 2002 suicide bombing that killed nine people and wounded another 50. He was later released and deported to the Gaza Strip with more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was held by Hamas for five years.

Following Fuqaha’s killing, Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal warned that the group was in “an open war against the criminal enemy.”

“By killing Fuqaha, the enemy told us: ‘I’ve scored a point against you and I can take away one of your heroes even in the heart of Gaza,’” Mashaal said in March, adding, “It’s a new blood debt that adds itself to all those before.”  (Jerusalem Post)

Liberman: Israel-Arab normalization first, then Israel-Palestinian peace

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday dismissed the possibility of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that would end the conflict, just as US President Donald Trump has started to jump-start a peace process frozen for three years.

“The best-case scenario is to reach a long-term interim agreement,” Liberman said, addressing the meeting of the Knesset caucus on “a diplomatic vision for Gaza.”

Last week, Liberman told Channel 2 that Israel was closer than ever to a peace deal. On Monday, he honed his vision to explain that the best scenario would be for Israel to reach an agreement first with moderate Sunni Arab states, and only then to look toward a final deal with the Palestinians.

“We must not accept a situation in which normalization with the Arab countries will be held hostage to [resolution of] the Palestinian issue,” said Liberman.

Israel signed peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan that have held without ending the Palestinian conflict, he said, adding that normalized ties with the moderate Sunni states will create a “breakthrough” with regard to efforts in Judea and Samaria and Gaza.

These Arab states understand that the main threat they need to worry about is Hamas, al-Qaida, Hezbollah and the Islamic State, Liberman said.

“When I look at how the Palestinian Authority is being conducted, I see no sincerity, no real preparation for negotiations and a political settlement with the State of Israel. All I see is an attempt to manipulate us into a corner and hurt us as much as possible in the international arena. There is no intention of reaching any agreement, just putting all the burden on the State of Israel, all the blame, at best reaching a long-term interim agreement.”

Liberman spoke amid speculation that the Gaza electricity crisis could spark another war with Israel this summer.

“I have a clear strategy: development in exchange for demilitarization. The key here is patience, determination and consistency,” he said, noting that rocket fire from Gaza has significantly dropped. This year, there has been less violence from Gaza than in the last 50 years.

“I have no intention of initiating a military operation [in Gaza], nor do I intend to ignore any provocation,” Liberman said, adding that he would respond forcefully to any Palestinian attacks from Gaza.

“Hamas has to decide in what direction it wants to take the Strip: does it want it to make it into Mosul or Raqqa or transform it into Singapore,” he said.

Unlike past expressions – such as saying he’d “give [former Hamas head] Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to give back the [captured soldiers’] bodies or he would die,” Liberman said that Yayah Sinwar, the new Hamas head in Gaza, has the option to choose a different path.

“He got out of prison, got married and had two kids,” he said.

“He now should choose whether he wants his kids to be martyrs living their life in tunnels, or to be doctors and engineers who could travel around the world with no limitations or troubles.”

Liberman recalled that Hamas is holding four Israelis hostage: Hadar Goldin, Oren Shaul, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed.

Goldin and Shaul are IDF soldiers presumed to have been killed in the 2014 war, but their bodies have not been returned to Israel.

Mengistu and al-Sayed wandered into Gaza; both are believed to be suffering from mental illness.

Liberman said the Red Cross has not been allowed to check on the situation.

Israel left Gaza in 2005 and withdrew to the pre-1967 borders in search of peace, destroying 21 Jewish communities and forcibly “transferring” 10,000 Jews out of the Strip, said Liberman.

According to the defense minister, 99% of the conflicts in the Middle East are among the Arabs themselves and are not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His goal, he said, was to provide “maximum security” to the Gaza periphery so it could experience “unprecedented prosperity.”  (Jerusalem Post)

UN places Jerusalem in the ‘State of Palestine’

Aside from several postings for employment opportunities in “Occupied Palestinian territory,” referring to locations in Judea and Samaria, most recently the UN posted an opening for a position in “Jerusalem, Palestine.”

The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) posted a position on its website (see below) seeking a project manager for its Jerusalem office.  The “duty station” designated for the job was “Jerusalem, Palestine (State of).”

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon called on Under-Secretary-General Grete Faremo, the UNOPS executive director, to remove the job posting from the site and institute immediate reforms.

“It is unacceptable for UN resources to be used for anti-Israel activity and to attempt to change the facts on the ground,” Danon stated.  “UNOPS must conduct a complete overhaul of its operating procedures to ensure that such inappropriate behavior not occur again.”

Indeed, less than three weeks ago, Israelis and Jews around the world celebrated 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War.

A few weeks earlier, just ahead of Israel’s 69th Independence Day, the executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted on a new anti-Israel resolution denying Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and referring to the State of Israel as the “occupying power.”

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who just concluded a visit to the Jewish state, has vowed to influence a change at the UN regarding its ongoing bias against Israel.

“If there’s anything I have no patience for it is bullies, and the UN was being such a bully to Israel,” she told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem last week.  (WIN: World Israel News)

Hamas warns of ‘explosion’ as Gaza electricity crisis deepens

Hamas warned of an “explosion” in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s security cabinet decided on Sunday to cut the amount of electricity the country provides to Gaza by 40%.

Last month, the Palestinian Authority told Israel that it would only pay NIS 25 million of the NIS 40m. monthly bill for 125 megawatts.

Late Sunday night, Israel ceded to that request, according to security sources.

“The Israeli occupation’s decision to reduce electricity to the strip at the behest of PA President Mahmoud Abbas is catastrophic and dangerous,” Hamas spokesman Abdel Latif al-Qanou said in an official statement.

“It will hasten the deterioration of the situation and its explosion in the Strip.”

The 2 million people in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip will now have only two to three hours of power a day, down from the four hours of electricity they have lived on since April.

The drop in electricity is part of the PA’s push to pressure Hamas to rescind its control of Gaza. Hamas has ruled the coastal strip since it ousted Fatah in a bloody coup in 2007.

Security sources said that for the last few months, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen Yoav Mordechai unsuccessfully turned to the international community, both organizations and governments, in an effort to raise funds for covering the Gaza energy bill.

A security source said that the civilian impact of the cabinet’s decision would be a drop of about 45 minutes of electricity a day, if Hamas didn’t divert the power for non-civilian use, such as to build tunnels to attack Israel.

Speaking about the cabinet decision in the Knesset on Monday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman blamed Hamas for the crisis, saying it had spent tax money on the tunnels, rather than developing the Strip.

For the first time, Gaza residents realize that the current crisis has no connection to Israel and that their money has been stolen from them, Liberman said.

It’s between Fatah and Hamas, and their leaders, PA’s Abbas and the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said Liberman as he addressed a Gaza caucus meeting.

Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid spoke against the security cabinet’s decision.

“I don’t think anyone is worried that Gaza will turn into the Garden of Eden if it has running water and more than six hours of electricity a day,” Lapid said.

There should be a way to target Hamas without harming the civilians in Gaza, he added.

He warned that bacteria and disease knew no boundaries and that if an epidemic would break out in Gaza as a result of the absence of electricity, it would quickly make its way to Israel.

Prior to the acute electricity crisis, which is now expected to worsen, Gaza residents subsisted on about 12 hours of power a day.

In April, the PA imposed an onerous tax on the diesel fuel needed to operate the Gaza power plant.

The plant, which had provided between 90-120 MW, shut down because it could not afford the tax, which doubled the price of operating the plant.

This left Israel, which provides Gaza with 125 MW, as Gaza’s sole provider of electricity.

Egypt provides 27 MW, but its three electricity lines are rarely operational.

Hamas has said it would purchase fuel only if the PA waives the sizable taxes levied on it. For its part, the PA has said that the taxes are an important source of revenue.

The UN and left-wing NGOs have warned of a humanitarian crisis if the electricity shortage worsens or is prolonged.

The absence of electricity means that water cannot be purified for drinking, untreated sewage spills into the sea and life-saving health services are not available.

On Sunday, the NGO Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, wrote a letter to Liberman urging him not to further reduce power.

“The diminished supply of electricity has serious and far-reaching implications: 100 million liters of untreated sewage are pumped into the Mediterranean Sea daily,” Gisha wrote.

“Water desalination stations cannot operate; sewage cannot be pumped away from residential areas; generators are overextended; entire hospital wings are shut down during blackouts, and people who rely on life-saving equipment are at risk,” Gisha explained.

The UN has made similar remarks but has not offered an alternative. (Jerusalem Post)

Red Crescent: Hamas tried to stop humanitarian aid distribution in Gaza

The secretary-general of the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates accused Hamas on Monday of attempting to prevent the distribution of humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip.

According to Secretary-General Mohamed Ateeq Al-Falahi, the Red Crescent’s staff was stationed at a UAE field hospital in the strip during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge when Hamas fighters began provoking Israeli forces by firing rockets from that hospital.

This led Israel to attack the hospital as the launch point for the rockets, thus sabotaging the distribution of the humanitarian aid.

“This shows (Hamas’s) wicked intentions and how they scarified us,” said Al-Falahi. “They always claim the enemy targets humanitarian envoys, but the betrayal came from them.”

When the Red Crescent team was leaving Gaza, Hamas “accused us of being spies, undercover foreign intelligences who were escaping.”

When they left the strip through Sinai, Al-Falahi said Hamas had apparently informed “extremist militias in Sinai… that there was a group making their way there, so prepare for jihad against them… as we stopped at a grocery store to buy something to eat, they started shooting at us.”

In addition, he said, the Red Crescent team learned those extremist militias had also planted landmines a few kilometers down the road.

“What hurts is that the betrayal came from our own people,” Al-Falahi lamented. “Muslims fighting Muslims, who were giving humanitarian aid to Muslims.” (Ynet News)

Palestinian man donates recovery room to Haifa hospital

A Palestinian man donated tens of thousands of shekels to the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa to improve treatment of childhood cancers and Israeli-Palestinian medical cooperation after he himself underwent cancer treatment at the Israeli hospital.

After being diagnosed with cancer, a senior Palestinian official was directed to Rambam for further medical examinations and treatment. While hospitalized in the Joseph Fishman Oncology Center, he met with several families of patients from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza, and showed a particular interest in the needs of hospitalized children, both Israeli and foreign.

“When I arrived at Rambam (Hospital), I saw a medical team caring for patients, but I also saw the suffering of the sick children,” recalled M. in a statement (Rambam Medical Center spokespeople said they were not at liberty to reveal the man’s identity). “Palestinian, Israeli, Syrian and children from other countries receive treatment in the hospital for a variety of serious illnesses and need all the help they can get. I decided to contribute as much as I could, both a humanitarian act and a symbol of solidarity.”

After completing treatment, M. underwrote the establishment of a children’s recovery room in the Institute of Radiology, inside the oncology center. The room provides a relaxing and supportive environment for children before and after chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments, among others.

The oncology center opened its doors in June 2016, but due to lack of funding, patients still receive radiation therapy in a different building. This accessibly problem requires patients walking outside to get to the current location of Rambam’s radiation therapy equipment when moving them hinders their recovery.

Rambam estimates, that approximately 1,200 Palestinian children and adults from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza visit the hospital every year for cancer treatment.

“Israeli and Palestinian both societies suffer from the damage of violence and I am striving towards a situation where we can all contribute to peace and health,” continues M. “One where we can take care of children, save lives, share knowledge and train Palestinian doctors at Rambam Hospital.”

  1. added his goal is to improve the state of health systems and treatment capacities within the Palestinian Authority and Gaza, and encourage more Palestinians to contribute to health promotion between the two peoples.

“Medicine is a bridge between people and I hope that owing to this donation and those which will come after, we will all live a better tomorrow,” M. concluded. (Ynet News)

 Why Won’t Abbas Accept “Two States for Two Peoples”?

by Alan M. Dershowitz                The Gatestone Institute


Over the years, and to the current day, they continue to want no state for the Jewish people more than they want a state for Palestinian Arabs.

The general idea of a two-state solution – which Abbas has nominally supported – does not specify that one state would be for the Jewish people and the other one for the Arabs.

When the Palestinian leadership and people want their own state more than they want there not to be a state for the Jewish people, the goal of the 1947 U.N. Resolution – two states for two peoples – will be achieved. A good beginning would be for Abbas finally to agree with the U.N. Resolution and say the following words: “I accept the 1947 U.N. Resolution that calls for two states for two peoples.” It’s not too much to ask from a leader seeking to establish a Palestinian Muslim state.

There is a widespread but false belief that Mahmoud Abbas is finally prepared to accept the two-state solution proposed by the U.N. in November 1947 when it divided mandatory Palestine into two areas: one for the Jewish People; the other for the Arab People. The Jews of Palestine accepted the compromise division and declared a nation state for the Jewish people to be called by its historic name: Israel. The Arabs of Palestine, on the other hand, rejected the division and declared that they would never accept a state for the Jewish people and statehood for the Palestinian people. They wanted for there not to be a state for the Jewish people more than for there to be a state for their own people. Accordingly, they joined the surrounding Arab armies in trying to destroy Israel and drive its Jewish residents into the sea. They failed back then, but over the years, and to the current day, they continue to want no state for the Jewish people more than they want a state for Palestinian Arabs. That is why Abbas refuses to say that he would ever accept the U.N. principle of two states for two peoples. I know, because I have personally asked him on several occasions.

In a few months, Israel will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the historic U.N. compromise, but the leaders of the Palestinian Authority still refuse to accept the principle of that resolution: two states for two peoples.

President Trump, for his part, has expressed an eagerness to make “the ultimate deal” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This has propelled discussions about the dormant peace-process back into the spotlight. Shortly before travelling to the Middle East – where he met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel and President Abbas in Bethlehem – Trump invited the Palestinian leader to the White House. Abbas was last at the White House in March 2014 shortly before the Obama administration’s shuttle diplomacy efforts –led by Secretary of State John Kerry – fell apart.

Leading up to his meeting with President Trump in Washington, Abbas said to a German publication: “We’re ready to collaborate with him and meet the Israeli prime minister under his [Trump’s] auspices to build peace.” He then went on to voice his support for a two-state solution, saying, “It’s high time to work on the requirements for it.” This was interpreted as a willingness on Abbas’ part to accept the idea of a state for the Jewish people. Generally speaking, the international community supports the idea of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with two-states for two-peoples: a state for the Jewish people alongside a state for the Palestinians. Yet presenting Mahmoud Abbas as a supporter of the two-states for two people formulation is to deny truth. The general idea of a two-state solution – which Abbas has nominally supported – does not specify that one state would be for the Jewish people and the other one for the Arabs. Over the years President Abbas has expressed a commitment to a two-state solution – stating that he supports an Arab state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital – but has so far refused to accept the legitimacy of a nation state for the Jews existing by its side.

Consider President Abbas’ own words. In a 2003 interview he said: “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I will never recognize the Jewishness of the state, or a ‘Jewish state.'” When asked about Israel being the nation state of the Jewish people (in the context of Ehud Olmert’s generous peace proposal in 2008) the PA leader said: “From a historical perspective, there are two states: Israel and Palestine. In Israel, there are Jews and others living there. This we are willing to recognize, nothing else.” And in a later interview with the Al-Quds newspaper Abbas reiterated this refusal to recognize that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people:

“We’re not talking about a Jewish state and we won’t talk about one. For us, there is the state of Israel and we won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state. I told them that this is their business and that they are free to call themselves whatever they want. But [I told them] you can’t expect us to accept this.”

The list of such pronouncements from the man at the head of the Palestinian Authority goes on and on. Not only has Abbas refused to accept the formulation “Jewish state,” he adamantly refuses to accept the more descriptive formulation “nation state of the Jewish people.”

Abbas is of course committed to Palestine being a Muslim state under Sharia Law, despite the reality that Christian Palestinians constitute a significant (if forcibly shrinking) percentage of Palestinian Arabs. Article 4 of the Palestinian Basic Law states that:

  1. Islam is the official religion in Palestine. Respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained.
  2. The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be the main source of legislation.

Writing for the New York Times on the advent of the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, Israel’s former Ambassador to Israel, Michael Oren said: “The conflict is not about the territory Israel captured in 1967. It is about whether a Jewish state has a right to exist in the Middle East in the first place. As Mr. Abbas has publicly stated, ‘I will never accept a Jewish state.'”

Oren argues that until Abbas and other Palestinian leaders can say the words “two states for two peoples,” no reasonable resolution will be reached.

The Palestinian leader’s conditional support for a peaceful resolution is also undermined by his own actions. For years, the Palestinian Authority– first under the leadership of Yasser Arafat and now under the 82-year-old Abbas – has perpetuated a vile policy of making payments to terrorists and their families.

According to the official PA budget, in 2016 the Palestinian Authority directed $174 million of its total budget in payments to families of so-called “martyrs,” and an additional $128 million for security prisoners — terrorists in Israeli prisons.

Abbas claims to be a man of peace yet in reality he incentivizes, rewards and incites terrorism.

It must also be remembered that Israel has offered to end the occupation and settlements in 2000-2001. These generous peace initiatives would have established a demilitarized Palestinian state. In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made an even more generous proposal by offering the Palestinians 97% of the West Bank but Mahmoud Abbas did not respond. For the past several years, the current Israeli government has offered to sit down and negotiate a two-state solution with no pre-conditions — not even advanced recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Yet no substantive negotiations have taken place.

Some of the blame rests on the shoulders of Barack Obama. By applying pressure only to the Israeli side, not to the Palestinians, Obama consistently disincentivized Abbas from embracing the two-states for two-peoples paradigm. This came to a head in December when Obama allowed the U.S. not to veto the inane U.N. Resolution, under which the Western Wall and other historically Jewish sites are not recognized as part of Israel. (Recall that U.N. Resolution 181 mandated a “special international regime for the city of Jerusalem,” and Jordan captured it illegally. Israel liberated Jerusalem in 1967, and allowed everybody to go to the Western Wall.)

It is a tragedy that the international community – headed by the U.N. – encourages the Palestinian Authority’s rejectionism, rather than pushing it to make the painful compromises that will be needed from both sides in reaching a negotiated two-state outcome. Indeed, just a few days ago the U.N. once again demonstrated that it is a barrier to the peace-process. In his address at the U.N. General Assembly marking the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank, U.N. Secretary General, Antonio Guterres said:

“In 1947, on the basis of United Nations General Assembly resolution 181, the world recognized the two-state solution and called for the emergence of ‘independent Arab and Jewish states.’ On 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was born. Almost seven decades later, the world still awaits the birth of an independent Palestinian state.”

Guterres failed to acknowledge that “the reason the world still awaits the birth of an independent Palestinian state” is because the Arabs rejected the U.N. partition plan, which would have given them their own state, committing instead to seven decades of undermining Israel’s legitimacy.

When the Palestinian leadership and people want their own state more than they want there not to be a state for the Jewish people, the goal of the 1947 U.N. Resolution – two states for two peoples – will be achieved. A good beginning would be for Abbas finally to agree with the U.N. Resolution and say the following words: “I accept the 1947 U.N. Resolution that calls for two states for two peoples.” It’s not too much to ask from a leader seeking to establish a Palestinian Muslim state

Caught between a right-wing base and a new peace initiative, Netanyahu ducks and weaves

The PM retains power by deflecting political pressure and cleaving to his rightist flank; that the opposition doesn’t quite know how to respond doesn’t hurt

By Haviv Rettig Gur                        The Times of Israel


In public, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to project a calm confidence about his political future. “Likud is going to be in power for years to come,” he asserts roughly once a month at Knesset faction meetings or other forums.

But in private, Netanyahu seems less certain. Across a wide range of audiences, the message often seems to be that his government teeters on the cliff’s edge.

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, a Likud man, has been telling American officials that “if you press Netanyahu too much” on US President Donald Trump’s hoped-for peace initiative, “Netanyahu will fall.” That’s according to a Channel 2 report last week that fits with what sources close to both administrations say they have been hearing for some weeks now from the Israeli government.

On the face of it, this is probably incorrect. The idea that if Netanyahu entered a meaningful peace process he would lose the support of the far-right Jewish Home party assumes that Jewish Home has somewhere else to go. If Netanyahu falls, the alternative is not a further-right Jewish Home-led government, but one led by centrist Yesh Atid or center-left Labor. The last time this question was tested was in Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 government, when the Jewish Home happily inhabited the coalition alongside Labor, even during the unprecedented 2010 settlement freeze. In the end, it was Labor, not the far-right, that pulled out in 2011, and only because it was in the throes of an internal leadership battle.

While Likud tells the Americans that Netanyahu is vulnerable from the right, it simultaneously tells the right that the prime minister is vulnerable to American pressure. At a closed-door meeting with Likud lawmakers in the Knesset last week, Netanyahu reportedly said: “I want to tell you, we don’t have a blank check on the political level” from the Trump administration. “This president is determined to get a deal.”

He clarified: “We are a sovereign country, we can make a decision on many things and announce many things, but as far as the consent of the Americans goes, I would not go that far. It is true that there are warm relations and there is a lot of understanding for our basic positions, but it is not true that we have a blank check. That is far from the reality.”

The upshot was clear: Stop pressuring me to expand settlements or annex areas of the West Bank. The Americans won’t tolerate it.

This has been the most consistent and predictable element of Netanyahu’s diplomatic strategy over the years. When faced with pressure from either side, deflect it by blaming the other. It held Netanyahu in good stead throughout the Obama years. The famous quarrels between Netanyahu and Barack Obama over Iran or the Palestinians were authentic and substantive — but also, for Netanyahu, politically useful. He could explain to right-wingers that he could not move right-ward in his policy toward the Palestinians because of Obama’s pressure, and to Obama, that his coalition politics prevented him from acquiescing to Palestinian preconditions for peace talks.

Ironically, Trump’s election threatened to upend this double-deflection strategy. Within hours of last November’s election results, Jewish Home lawmakers announced they would call Netanyahu’s “bluff.”

“There are no more excuses,” Jewish Home leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett has said repeatedly, usually just before urging Netanyahu to publicly abandon the two-state solution, to annex the Ma’ale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem, or the like.

It took Trump’s Israel advisers, chiefly envoys Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, both longtime and rather doctrinaire critics of Obama’s Israel policy, some weeks to realize that a US administration that is too openly supportive of the Israeli right might actually destabilize the Israeli right. The Obama administration’s greatest mistake in this conflict was its accidental demolishing of the Palestinian capacity for negotiating by siding too much with the Palestinian Authority, thereby bringing unbearable pressure on PA leaders to stiffen their demands and hold off on talks while the Americans were doing the dirty work of making the Israelis more compliant. The Trump administration very nearly committed the same mistake in reverse, backing the Israeli right to the point where it could no longer convince its own base of the need for negotiations or compromise.

It is now the accepted wisdom in Knesset hallway chatter that Netanyahu’s staffers explained this danger to their counterparts in the Trump administration and averted this politically disastrous bear-hug — that is, that they asked for American pressure to be brought to bear on the Israeli government.

It isn’t all political maneuvering, of course. Some of the pressure Netanyahu is referring to is real. Trump really does seem to want a peace deal he can chalk up to his struggling presidency. And while Netanyahu is not likely to fall from power just for negotiating with the Palestinians, there is a point in the negotiations where Jewish Home will stop caring about its coalition position and start to worry about alienating its voter base and surrendering its fundamental ideological commitments. Netanyahu can negotiate, but it’s unlikely his government will be able to actually cede territory in the West Bank without — at the very least — a dramatic shakeup to his coalition.

In the end, these considerations are not what keeps the prime minister up at night. Only Palestinian concessions on issues like refugees or the Jordan Valley could push him into having to choose between his coalition and politically destabilizing compromises, and these are unlikely to come in the foreseeable future. For now, the important thing from his perspective is that the comforting pressure from the Americans has been restored.

There’s just one problem. In recent weeks, it has become clear that neither Netanyahu nor his rightist flank seem to be playing along. The pressure on Netanyahu from the right continues unabated — and Netanyahu’s rhetoric continues to lurch rightward in ways that break the double-deflection mold.

On June 3, Yossi Dagan, the same mayor who helped Netanyahu play the deflection game with the Trump administration only the week before, published an unusual Facebook post.

“The prime minister,” he announced, “is trying to institute a [building] freeze [in the West Bank] voluntarily.”

He explained: “[On Friday,] we again learned that the prime minister has decided to reject most of the building requests” in the settlements. “After eight years of the Obama freeze, a right-wing prime minister once again freezes the settlement of Judea and Samaria…. After eight years, today there are no more excuses. If the building freeze is approved, and if even now [i.e., during the Trump administration] construction in Judea and Samaria is frozen once again, then the Likud, as the leader of the national camp, and I write this with great sadness, must consider running a different candidate for prime minister, one who will be committed in deed, not just in word, to the ideology of the national camp in Israel.”

And it’s not just Dagan. The backers of the ideological settlement movement are planning a major public campaign against Netanyahu’s purported “freeze,” a campaign sufficiently worrying to the Prime Minister’s Office that Netanyahu released his own statement on the night of June 3.

“It’s strange that after Prime Minister Netanyahu approved only in the last few months the advance of some 5,500 housing units for construction in Judea and Samaria, in addition to the establishment of a new settlement for the residents of Amona — something that hasn’t been done in decades — he is accused of a ‘freeze,’” the statement reads.

“No one safeguards the settlements more than Prime Minister Netanyahu,” it announces, and demands to know: “How many times can we return to the folly of the right undermining a right-wing government?”

Why are the rightists unconvinced, and why is Netanyahu so worried?

The answer, ironically, boils down to Kulanu, or rather everything the Kulanu party’s centrism represents in the current state of Israeli politics.

Netanyahu’s more or less dependable coalition of Likud, Jewish Home, Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and United Torah Judaism make up just 56 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, five short of a majority.

When the results of the last election were announced in March 2015, Kulanu chief Moshe Kahlon took a long time before he agreed to back Netanyahu for premier, first talking to Zionist Union and at one point calling on Netanyahu to form a national unity government with the center-left.

In the end, Kahlon was forced to side with Netanyahu because of Likud’s significant six-seat lead over Zionist Union (the parties won 30 and 24 seats respectively).

In a Knesset where explicitly right-wing parties make up about one-third of seats (Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu have 43 seats between them) and the left, about one-quarter (Zionist Union and Meretz have 29), and where the 13-seat ultra-Orthodox contingent of Shas and United Torah Judaism may favor the right, but will happily sit in any coalition that will have them — it is the center, in the 21 seats of Kulanu and Yesh Atid, that carries the day.

To ensure their support, Netanyahu understands, he must have a larger showing than any opposing party on the left or center — not a larger “camp,” but his own faction must be large enough to make it untenable for Kulanu to turn elsewhere. And that means Likud must win more votes at any cost, and from any party.

Likud’s internal politics make it very difficult for Netanyahu to look for more voters to his left. It is far easier politically to try to poach them from the right — chiefly from Jewish Home.

And so each time the coalition seems slightly tense, each time the right criticizes Netanyahu for insufficient settlement construction, each time he tries to explain that Trump is just as limiting as Obama, and is met by disbelief on the right, Netanyahu’s response is calibrated to Jewish Home voters; he must become, in Likud’s florid rhetoric, the greatest of all defenders of the settlements.

The irony here is typical of Israel’s bewilderingly tangled politics: the growing power of the center forces Netanyahu to expand his own faction at the right’s expense, by swerving right-ward.

Polling in recent months seems to validate Netanyahu’s strategy. A great many voters appear to be wavering between Likud and Jewish Home.

In each poll taken in recent weeks, Likud’s swings from a low of 22 seats to a high of 30 are almost exactly offset by Jewish Home’s numbers. A Channel 10 poll on March 17 showed Likud at 26 and Jewish Home at 13 — for a total of 39 seats. A Channel 2 poll two months later, on May 26, showed Likud at 30, but with Jewish Home dropping to nine, for the same overall total.

Similarly, Netanyahu has good reason to fear coming in second place in the next election. Likud led Yesh Atid by just one seat in the March poll (26 to 25), then by a much more comfortable eight seats in the May version (30 to 22). But an April 4 poll by Channel 10 found Yesh Atid leading by two seats (29 to 27).

Taken as a whole, and with the significant caveat that polls consistently find over 30% of the electorate undecided, Netanyahu remains the favorite in any upcoming election, but not a shoe-in. His major challenger may be to his left — centrist Yair Lapid — but his most urgent political vulnerability lies to his right, in the capacity of the far-right to siphon votes away, shrink the Likud party and drive centrists like Kulanu into the arms of a less comfortable, but not far-fetched coalition anchored on the center and left.

As always, Netanyahu’s best defense may be his opponents’ bumbling offense. Left-wing and centrist politicians often speak of Netanyahu as besotted with the far-right and endangering Israel by his tolerance of ideological extremism. Netanyahu, whose actual policy prescriptions differ only marginally from those of either Zionist Union or Yesh Atid, must surely be grateful for this helping hand by his opponents, who seem committed to validating his right-wing credentials, even as the far-right finds good reason to doubt them.

It is possible — nothing in politics is certain — that a wiser strategy for Yesh Atid or Labor might be to portray Netanyahu as a centrist, to mock him with his long history of dovish actions and sarcastically invite him to join the centrist political lists. Any political career that has spanned as many decades as Netanyahu’s offers plentiful grist for that mill: Netanyahu was the prime minister who withdrew the IDF from Hebron in 1997 and signed the last agreement actually reached between Israel and the Palestinians, the Wye River Memorandum of 1998. He implemented an unprecedented American-ordered settlement freeze in 2010 and openly negotiated the handover of most of the West Bank to the Palestinians in 2014

There is a strategic overlap here between settlement advocates like Dagan and Netanyahu’s critics from the left: both have an interest in depicting him as farther left than his base. Thus far, Netanyahu has played a shrewder game, keeping his own rightist base in check, while avoiding destabilizing commitments to either the Americans or the settlers. Those who wish to dislodge him from his high perch must first disrupt his fundamental strategy of deflection. There is no sign at the moment that anyone on the center or left really grasps the many layers and threads that keep Netanyahu afloat, and so, despite the prime minister’s own anxieties, there is no sign that his premiership is in any imminent danger.

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