Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. A government formed by a person indicted on corruption charges. A mafia-like display of support for
him in the courtroom by his ministers. West Bank annexation plans that smell like apartheid. Centrist coalition
partners elected to prevent all this and who now barely protest. Money wasted on mickey-mouse ministries during a
massive corona recession.
And you are looking for morality in Israeli politics?
A. I’m looking for morality in Israeli society. It is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. The polls show that support for PM Netanyahu has risen. He would now win an election handily. And a majority of the public supports annexation. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Netanyahu believes he can get away with all this immoral behavior.
Q. Let’s start with the High Court of Justice decision, in early May, to allow Netanyahu to form this government. The Court voted 11-to-nil to reject all the appeals against the legality of the new coalition and of Netanyahu’s premiership...
A. A few days ago, when the Court published the grounds for its decision, one of the justices, Menachem (Meni)
Mazuz, wrote that “The reality in which a criminal suspect forms a government and leads it reflects a social crisis
and moral failure of society and of Israel’s political system.” But, noted Justice Anat Baron, “the solution lies
at the ballot box, not the courtroom.”
If Netanyahu’s renewed premiership, under the shadow of indictment, reflects a “moral failure of society” that can only be fixed at the ballot box but is not being fixed, then Israel is indeed in a crisis of morality.
Q. And Netanyahu’s trial? It began May 24. He was unsuccessful in his efforts to avoid trial. Surely there is hope here for Israel’s future...
A. In the minutes before his trial opened, Netanyahu demonstrated to the Israeli public his total disdain for the
justice system that has pursued his corrupt behavior. The courts, the police and the prosecution, he alleged that
day, are in the hands of officials who are dedicated to removing him and the political right from power by a coup
d’etat. Note that nearly all the officials--chiefs of police, prosecutors and judges--accused by the prime minister
of fomenting a coup against him were appointed on his watch and by his governments.
Netanyahu made this speech at the entrance to the courtroom. He stood behind a podium bearing the symbol of the PM’s office, brought to the courtroom for this occasion. Balance of powers? The executive branch just invaded the judicial branch. Then Netanyahu and his slavishly obedient ministers entered the courtroom for a photo op, with some standing insolently on the court benches behind their boss. Then he refused to sit down, so that when the judges entered he would not be seen rising out of respect.This is mafia behavior. It might as well have been Al Capone on trial. Except that Netanyahu and his followers all wore anti-virus masks, so it was okay.
Q. On Sunday of this week the new Netanyahu government voted unanimously to take roughly a million dollars from each of three key ministries—health, welfare and labor—in order to finance the mickey mouse ministries that Netanyahu invented to satisfy his Likud Knesset supporters. Meanwhile the corona virus is staging a modest comeback in recently-opened schools, while roughly one million Israelis are unemployed. Moral behavior?
A. The apologists from Blue-White, led by Defense Minister Gantz, will explain patiently that taking money from
health services and unemployment compensation and awarding it to the “Ministry for Community Advancement” and to
Gantz’s own “Office of the Alternative Prime Minister” is one of the prices we all have to pay for avoiding a
fourth round of elections and establishing a stable government.
In other words, this may be immoral behavior, but the alternative is worse. Except that yet more egregiously immoral behavior is imminent.
Q. Indeed, annexation. Explained by Netanyahu as a moral act?
A. Of course! If Mssrs. Trump and Pompeo don’t object and say this is Israel’s decision, it must be moral.
Q. . Why is Blue-White, now senior partners in Netanyahu’s coalition, not speaking out to condemn his immoral behavior? Generals Gantz and Ashkenazi are honest, lead modest lives, and campaigned against precisely these displays of immorality on Netanyahu’s part.
A. It was Edmund Burke who first allegedly stated that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that
good men do nothing.” Are Gantz and Ashkenazi, ministers of defense and foreign affairs and seemingly “good men”,
going to offer more than modest and indirect criticism of their prime minister’s behavior? In one month, on July 1
when Netanyahu plans to set in motion the wheels of annexation, will they act to galvanize the security community,
the legal community, Israel’s Arab neighbors and European friends to persuade Israelis and their leader of the
folly of this measure?
All these actors--Israel’s gatekeepers and neighbors--are loudly advising against gobbling up West Bank lands while Gantz and Ashkenazi grumble in private. Some of Israel’s Arab neighbors are threatening dire consequences. All are being ignored by Netanyahu, who radiates confidence that Israel can get away with annexing some 30 percent of the West Bank and can somehow remain a democracy while its neighbors and critics quickly acquiesce. Alone in this government, Labor’s minister of welfare, Itzik Shmuli, promises unconvincingly to “thwart this inside the government”. At least he is outspokenly moral, if impotent to really change things. The rest of the political public is too obsessed with the corona virus and too complacent about Netanyahu to care.Indeed, Gantz and Ashkenazi had nothing at all to say about Netanyahu’s recent interviews with two right-wing newspapers, Israel Today, the freebie daily owned by Sheldon Adelson, and Makor Rishon, a pro-settler weekly. Here Netanyahu was actually trying to persuade his right-wing settler messianic base that the annexation map he drew with Jared Kushner is sufficiently considerate of settler values and not too considerate of the Palestinians. He alleged (to the most popular newspaper in Israel!) that the country is dominated by the leftist media and legal system with their “Soviet-style methods”. He brushed off the impression that Trump, Pompeo and Kushner might have some objections: “I hope they’ll agree but it doesn’t depend on that”. That is news: Netanyahu is no longer waiting for Trump’s explicit blessing before proceeding with annexation. He let Trump off the hook. There are nauseating moral vibes at work here between these two elected leaders.
Q. The settlers’ ideological leadership fears that after annexation of 30 percent, the remaining 70 percent of the West Bank will become a Palestinian state and the annexation map will leave isolated settlements surrounded by hostile Palestinians...
A. Indeed, the settlers have values, too. Those values are Jewish-extremist and not democratic. The more
ideologically “pure” among them oppose any Palestinian state and want to be lords of all the land west of the
Jordan River. Apparently, neither Trump nor Netanyahu can satisfy their messianic morality. The most extreme
settlers will try to whip up opposition among Trump’s Evangelical base--precisely the American voters the
annexation plan was designed to please—and among the Yamina party that was left out of the new coalition because it
was too insistent on its own pro-settler “values”.
But judging by his remarks to the pro-settler media, Netanyahu is more worried about the reaction to annexation on the part of the International Criminal Court at The Hague than about settler grumbling. The Hague Court could respond to annexation by issuing international arrest warrants against all Israelis involved in the act, beginning with the prime minister himself. No more travel to the European countries that tend to honor these warrants? No more Paris, Madrid and Berlin? Now that would be immoral. Gantz and Ashkenazi are behaving so blindly that they should be included too.
Q. Bottom line?
A. With leaders like Gantz and Ashkenazi, the moral crisis of Israeli society fueled by Netanyahu and his followers
will not go away. The systematic dismantling of the rule of law and the dissolution of good governance will proceed
apace. One can of course still hope that the two Blue-White leaders are planning at some point to take a strong
moral stand and back it up with action. But nothing they have done or said thus far points in this direction.
As for the biggest and most imminent moral challenge of all, annexation, columnist Nachum Barnea summed it up best in Yediot Aharonot’s June 1 edition. “This is the time to put the annexation question on the agenda. It is too important to be buried under [our preoccupation with] corona. Ironically, the only Israelis who are bothered are the settler leaders. Thirty percent [of the West Bank] doesn’t satisfy them. They want more.”The nuances and details of the annexation question are relevant. See next week’s Q & A.
For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.