Tzipi Livni
Tzipi Livni

Does Israel now have two Prime Ministers – one de jure but the other de facto?

Gone are the days when Time magazine crowned Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu ‘King of Israel! Today Bibi has to share his top job with Education Minister Naftali Bennett who has just taught Netanyahu a painful lesson. It focused on a key Knesset vote to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling that ordered an Israeli evacuation of some forty Israeli homes that were built illegally on private Arab-owned land at the Jewish settlement of Amona on the West Bank. The pro-settlement camp went on the warpath, with Bennett leading the charge.

He concocted a Knesset bill for an end-run around the Supreme Court justices. But Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the advice of the Attorney General, called on his Likud party and the rest of his coalition members to vote against Bennett’s bill that would have violated the Supreme Court decision. However, Bibi’s own Likud Party, which solidly backs Israeli settlement building, gave the PM a stinging slap in the face by deciding to vote for Bennett’s proposal! In order to save face, Bibi had no choice but to back down and also vote for it. His own Likud members turned their backs on Netanyahu in order to play to the settlement gallery.

They also poured more salt on Bibi’s wounds. The Prime Minister had just called on his coalition members not to rile outgoing US President Barack Obama or his successor Donald Trump with new decisions on settlement building. They threw their leader’s instruction out the window – they like Bennett and the settlers are possessed with the drive to build settlements by hook or by crook. Indeed if you wake up Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, in the middle of the night the first thing he is likely to exclaim is: ‘Build, build more settlements and be damned!’

‘It’s not done’ but the Likud Knesset Members did it. But they did it by letting down their own PM in his public clash with a political rival. If this is the case, Israel has entered a new era with two prime ministers navigating the ship of state. Netanyahu may be ‘de jure’ but Bennett has just proved he is ‘de facto’ PM when it comes to settlement issues. The new ‘Hasdara – fix it’ bill calls for Israel to compensate Palestinian landowners of the Amona settlement – both financially and by granting them land elsewhere. This is a huge test case as some other Israeli settlements may also be built on some private Palestinian land in Judea & Samaria. But Israel’s Supreme Court is sticking to its guns and ordered the Israeli homes on Arab land at Amona to be evacuated no later than December 25th – no ifs, ands or buts!

The hassle has been going on for years. The settler movement and the Right wing coalition parties contend that if such a legal question arose inside Israel it would be resolved by fair compensation to the landowner but the buildings would not be demolished. However this does not hold water because the West Bank is not legally part of Israel. International law deems it to be occupied territory where Israeli law cannot be imposed on the Palestinians in such a property issue. If Israel does not comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling this could leave the door open to Israel being hauled before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Although the bill was passed in the Knesset it must be approved by two additional readings in order to become law and the feeling is the story is not over. Finance Minister Moshe Kahelon, leader of the Kulanu party, has declared that his party voted for Bennett’s bill in order to save the coalition, but will oppose it if it comes up as is for the second and third readings. Kahelon vows to reject any attempt to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court or to defy its rulings. Meanwhile an embarrassed Bibi has to grin and bear it.

 Defense Minister Lieberman drops a political bombshell…

Another big surprise has been the position of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, known for his bellicose bluster, and who actually makes his home on the West Bank. But in this case, Lieberman has stated that the rulings of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General must be upheld and there is no choice but to evacuate the Israelis from Amona and resettle them elsewhere on public land in Judea & Samaria. Moreover, he poured salt on the wounds of the settlers and their die-hard supporters in the Likud and Bennett’s party by opposing building outside of the existing Israeli settlement blocs.

Lieberman’s position falls back on the official letter late PM Ariel Sharon received from former US President George W. Bush on April 14, 2004. It stipulated the settlement blocs should remain part of Israel in any peace agreement. With the election of a new President in the U.S., Lieberman proposes that Jerusalem should concentrate on securing Donald Trump’s backing for the former Bush commitment rather than messing about with Amona. (Incidentally, IsraCast has long contended a similar approach that would support the eventual two-state solution. It would also put the Palestinians on the spot to induce them to return to the table).

Former Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who is now in the Zionist Camp (Labor), as well as other Centrist figures have also backed this approach, but so far Bibi has not. In any case, Netanyahu has responded by saying he heard Lieberman’s position and that of Bennett who, on the contrary, demands wide-scale settlement building after the election of Trump. As if Bennett knows where the new President will stand. In Washington, an Obama official blasted any new plan to extend Israeli law over Palestinians in the West Bank, as would be the case in the compensation plan for Palestinian landowners at Amona. Obama would also coordinate Middle East policy with Trump until the President Elect is sworn in on January 20th.

The Amona ruckus has again propelled the Palestinian solution into the spotlight in Israel. Livni, a former Likudnik and supporter of Sharon, has more negotiating hours with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas than any other Israeli official. She defected to the Zionist Camp (Labor), where she has been pushing hard for a union of Centre-Left parties to launch a new Israeli peace initiative. In an interview with Israel Radio, Livni lashed out at the government’s solution to the Amona dispute that actually proposes extending Israeli law over Palestinians. Livni, a former Justice Minister, believes this would be tantamount to annexing the West Bank and risk Israel’s being prosecuted in The Hague. Just what the Palestinians would love. This at a time that Israel should be building a swift escalator for the Trump Tower in New York.

As for Avigdor Lieberman’s surprise statement that the government should abide by the ruling of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General, Livni cracked that the Defense Minister apparently realizes what Sharon and she saw during the former Republican administration of George Bush. This also applied to Lieberman’s position on not building outside of the settlement blocs where 85% of the settlers are located. So Lieberman actually supported the two state solution. In fact, he has even proposed that the Arab triangle of communities in central Israel become part of a Palestinian state in a land swap that would give Israel the settlement blocs. But what about Netanyahu himself? Livni said Bibi may actually believe the two state solution is in Israel’s long term interest but there was a hitch:

‘I for one am not that kind-hearted that I would grant two and a half million Palestinians on the West Bank voting rights in Israel something that would put paid to our Jewish state. It would eventually turn into another Arab state. They must have their own state – that’s it. Maybe even Bibi understands this but he does nothing to advance the two-state solution. Look at the last war with Gaza in the summer of 2014, he realized it was possible to move forward and even build an alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia but then he looks over his shoulder and sees Bennett threatening to take over the Right wing and leave him out in the cold.’

Livni hoped the Bush letter to Sharon would be honored by President Elect Trump and the US Congress. She also disclosed that she negotiated the clause that stipulated that Palestinian refugees would not be returned to Israel as part of a peace treaty.

Reactions: The Right wing parties have lambasted Lieberman for saying that Israel should not build outside of the settlement blocs, which are assumed, will remain inside Israel as part of a final peace agreement. Right-wingers charge that Lieberman has shown his true colors and is ready to withdraw from most of Judea & Samaria, which they are not. There are at least two types of hardline Right wingers: the fanatic Land of Israel settlement supporters who are also possessed with the messianic drive to impose, at all costs, Jewish sovereignty over the Biblical Land of Israel. Other Right wingers, such as former Defense Ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Moshe Arens, believe it is militarily impossible to defend New Jersey size Israel without control over all the West Bank. However if Trump is serious about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as he has said he is, a good place to start would be by approving that Bush letter to Sharon.

 ‘In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, (pre-1967 war lines), and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion’.

In other words, Israel must not build outside of the settlement blocs. As for a solution to the Palestinian refugee question:

 ‘It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel’.

So a ton of work has already been invested by the former Republican administration – all it will take is for the Trump team to wipe off the cobwebs and garner some tips from former mediator Dennis Ross. He’s been there and done that. Then supply these ingredients to the international Road Map peace plan. Otherwise they will go nowhere fast on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

 Leonard Cohen & the Yom Kippur War…

Like the multitudes of music lovers around the globe, Israelis also paused to sadly remember Leonard Cohen. Radio and TV stations played his haunting and mesmerizing music all day long … but there was a new, not so well known, twist. An episode of Cohen’s life was revealed by several Israeli singers who got to know him during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Like many other Jews around the world, Cohen got on the first plane and rushed to Israel as a volunteer. He thought he would help out on a kibbutz or something like that, knowing that all the men would be mobilized and fighting along the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. However, he was spotted by an Israeli singer Oshik Levi, who was headed for the Sinai front, where he planned to appear before the battered troops. The Israeli collared Cohen and invited him to go with him – Cohen readily agreed.

Leonard Cohen singing to wounded Israeli soldiers directly following the Yom Kippur War of 1973
Leonard Cohen singing to wounded Israeli soldiers directly following the Yom Kippur War of 1973

It was fantastic – several dozen battle weary and disheartened IDF soldiers showed up for the first performance. Leonard started signing. The fatigued soldiers suddenly came to life – they knew many of Cohen’s songs by heart and he had them singing along with him. Within minutes the word spread and then hundreds of troops started pouring in for the performance. Along the Egyptian front, whenever it was announced that Leonard Cohen was coming to sing, sometimes thousands of off-duty soldiers would show up.

But it wasn’t all singing. Cohen also volunteered to evacuate wounded and dead IDF soldiers, which made a deep impression upon him. Later it was to be expressed in his moving song based on the Yom Kippur prayer ‘Who by fire” Zichrono Le’Bracha (Of Blessed Memory) from another former Montrealer.

Back to Top