Commentary

In Israel, Anger at Abbas and Support for Netanyahu

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Israeli officials and commentators have roundly condemned last week’s speech at the UN by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him “detached from reality” and “deceptive.” During his speech, Mr. Abbas accused Israel of conducting a war of genocide against the Palestinian people, a comment which many Israeli commentators are latching on to as a reason to dismiss him completely as a viable “peace partner.” Meanwhile, despite being united on their criticism of Mr. Abbas, the Israeli political landscape seems to be as divided as ever. Yet according to recent polls, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu continues to remain unchallenged both within his party as well as from opposition politicians. The durability of Mr. Netanyahu in Israeli politics has some Israeli observers and politicians wondering whether such a thing is a good thing for the health of the Israeli democracy.

Shlomo Pitrokovsky and Tova Dvorin, writing for Arutz Sheva,  note that the first to react to Mr. Abbas’ UN speech was Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu), who was quick to dismiss the Palestinian president’s speech and accusations against Israel as fringe comments which would be ignored by the international community: “Mahmoud Abbas's accusations of Israeli 'war crimes' and 'genocide' in Gaza have finally pushed the Palestinian Arab independence bid off the international community's agenda, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) stated Sunday. ‘Abbas has proven, once again, that he is not a partner for anything; he has managed to exhaust them all,’ Liberman fumed, in a morning interview with IDF Radio....One of the strongest reactions also came from Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who — like Liberman — noted that the speech broke any lingering hopes of working with Abbas as a ‘peace partner.’ Abbas, according to Ya'alon, has ‘never really come to terms with [Israel's] existence’ and bases his campaigns on claims ‘detached from reality.’”

The Jerusalem Post editorial also condemned Mr. Abbas’s remarks, insisting that the real objective of the Israeli incursion into Gaza, was the destruction of the tunnels built by Hamas: “Abbas conveniently omitted the real goals of the operation, which had nothing to do with genocide. The primary objective was to destroy a network of Hamas attack tunnels stretching into Israel. These tunnels were meant to be used for terrorist strikes on kibbutzim and towns near Gaza, to kill innocent men, women and children simply because they were Israelis....Needless to say, Abbas’s speech makes it difficult to imagine moving forward in negotiations with the Palestinians over a two-state settlement. It is precisely the sort of incitement and slander leveled against Israel by Abbas from the UN podium last week that is preventing even a modicum of reconciliation. As long as even the most ‘moderate’ Palestinian leaders continue to portray Israelis as perpetrators of genocide, there is no hope for resolution of the conflict.”

The rejection of Abbas as a “peace partner” also runs through Nahum Barnea’s commentary for Yedioth Ahronoth: “Genocide is a term which must not be uttered recklessly. On the diplomatic and legal level, it's similar to a declaration of war. In some sense, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is right: Abbas is not a partner. He has not been a partner since last February, when he made it clear to the American peace team that he has given up on the chance to reach an agreement through negotiations....The thing called the peace process, or the Oslo process, or peace negotiations, is off the table. The gap between the parties is too big; the internal forces opposing concessions are too strong. What we are left with is a battlefield between an Israeli government which will forever stick to the status quo and a desperate Palestinian Authority which is fighting it, with the world's growing support. It's a recipe for an explosion.”

According to Haaretz, Netanyahu has promised to give a rebuttal in his upcoming speech at the United Nations this week : “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday before leaving Israel for the United Nations in New York that he would refute ‘all of the lies directed at us’ with regard to Israel's recently concluded war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip....Netanyahu said Saturday that his speech at the General Assembly would focus on responding to Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accusing both of them of deception and incitement.

But given the increasing pressure on Israel in the international arena due to what many consider repressive policies against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, as well as the current economic stagnation in Israel, many have been taken back by Mr. Netanyahu’s ability to remain unchallenged at the polls. There are some within Israel though that have begun airing their concerns, as the Globe’s Avi Temkin did in a recent op-ed: “The economy suffers, while Netanyahu and Lapid are playing ego games....No one in the government is really talking about the other issues: negligible growth, deflation, the drop in exports, and the quality and quantity of public services. Like the general public, the ministers have no idea how these matters will be addressed....nobody has a clear idea of what the government's economic policy is, what its priorities are, or who will bear the burden of paying for the war in Gaza.”

Similarly, in an op-ed for the Yedioth Ahronoth, Tami Arad challenges the Israeli prime minister on his pursuit of a policy that only provides temporary relief from the ongoing, chronic security and political concerns: “The prime minister sees no solution to the Palestinian problem apart from easing the pain. But standing in one place while continuing to manage the conflict is a dangerous gamble....The one and only solution which could have, it seems, solved most of our problems is a Palestinian state somewhere in Sinai, out of sight and mainly out of mind....If we would like to build a story out of this idea, we could write that it’s the reason why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is forced to continue the freeze or no-way-out policy. According to the perception of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, there is no solution to the Palestinian problem apart from easing the pain. And ice, as we know, eases pain. Not necessarily a headache.”

Despite such contrarian viewpoints, Mr. Netanyahu continues to be the most popular politician in Israel, a fact which has led the Israeli president to warn that the lack of viable alternatives was not healthy for a democratic state such as Israel: “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could benefit from competition, President Reuven Rivlin stated Saturday night, to bolster his motivation and leadership potential. ‘Undoubtedly a democratic state without an alternative is a danger to democracy itself,’ Rivlin noted, in an interview with Channel 2 News....Rivlin's comments also surface after tensions simmered between Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and the Prime Minister over budgetary disagreemets, which led to an alleged bid by Lapid to head the Opposition — and, thus, open the potential for the coalition's collapse.”

In what can only be summed up as a frustrating appeal for someone who could challenge Mr. Netanyahu’s grip on power, the Jerusalem Post’s Susan Hattis Rolef asks: “Is there no alternative to Netanyahu?... How did it come about that so many Israelis feel that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu — one of the least impressive prime ministers Israel has ever had (unless one is impressed by a bass voice and impeccable American English), whose main political achievement to date is his own political survival — is irreplaceable?... Netanyahu’s way of warding off any threat to his leadership in his own party is by politically castrating any potential competitors, Gideon Sa’ar being the most recent example. What is quite amazing is that he has been getting away with this strategy, despite his loss of support in his own party, which once again resembles a hornet’s nest much more than the cohesive movement that backed up Menachem Begin for close to 20 years in the wilderness. If even MK Danny Danon says that the Likud must do some serious soul searching (Yom Kippur is certainly a good time for that), then the situation must be grave.”


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