Dan Perry
"I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble"

Unity and immunity — if Trump plan is real

When so very different, can together they dwell? (Dan Perry photo; art by Racheli Sharfstein)
When so very different, can together they dwell? (Dan Perry photo; art by Racheli Sharfstein)

The government being set up in Israel is shaping up as the most unworthy in the country’s history, a rogue’s gallery compared to which the Trump Administration looks reasonable.

The would-be education minister is a fanatic who doesn’t want his wife in a maternity ward with Arabs; the likely justice minister dreams of weakening the justice system; an embarrassment of aspirants are ex-cons already, are being investigated for graft, or previously escaped by the skin of their teeth after witnesses mysteriously expired; the prime minister awaits three announced counts including on charges of bribery (pending a hearing).

To understand the heights of present shamelessness, consider “lawmaker” David Bitan, a former municipal “official” whom the police two months ago asked be charged with bribery, money laundering, and such. Bitan now demands (and may receive) a minister’s position, arguing without evident hesitation the Arye Deri precedent: the “religious” Deri once served two years for bribery and now faces police recommendations of new fraud charges, yet is the outgoing and probably incoming interior minister, in charge of funding to the newer versions of Bitan.

And then come the “policies.” The plan is to turn Israel into a tyranny of the majority (not counting the West Bank Palestinians, who are effectively governed but cannot vote) with parliamentary supremacy over the judiciary that had kept a lid on the insanity till now. The road to post-Trump isolation from the West is clear — but in such a system Bibi Netanyahu may organize perpetual immunity for himself and his cronies. Turkey, with a Star of David.

My visiting British friend Neil asked whether the freak show might not be a charade. Unburdened by study of the region but boasting street smarts to spare, he asked over drinks: Will Benny Gantz and Bibi Netanyahu not simply join forces in the end? Could Gantz’s Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud, at 35 seats apiece out of 120, not rule by themselves and do more normal things?

I explained that Gantz was pressured into issuing a clear promise not to “sit with” Netanyahu on account of the corruption. The man’s word is his bond; it would be unseemly to renege.

Neil seemed confused: “But he’s a politician. They say things all the time. Surely it means nothing.”

I explained how Netanyahu — in light of damage done, increasingly open racism and latest despicable campaign — is so loathed by opponents that an alliance cannot be.

Neil nodded; he knew better than to argue. But he asked me to hear him out and explain where he was wrong. It’s delightful when people respect a career in journalism and invite my frank critique.

Neil reasoned that Netanyahu has accumulated quite a debt to Donald Trump, what with the U.S. president’s decision to move his embassy (or at least a few rooms of it and a sign) to Jerusalem, to recognize (in a presidential declaration that obligates no one) Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, to receive him at the White House in the midst of the campaign and to issue a video urging (in coherent sentences) votes for his good friend.

“Now Bibi can’t say no to Trump,” Neil said.

It’s true: I have not seen such overt interference in a foreign election by a leader of any consequence. Vladimir Putin at least denied his sabotage of Hilary Clinton; no such faux proprieties with Trump. And it’s more than just the debt: Israelis trust Trump much more than Bibi now, and this must enter the account.

Neil noted that a major peace plan is expected to be tabled by the White House (“What is it they’re calling it? The deal of the decade?”) and reasoned that they wouldn’t go to that much trouble for an automatic Palestinian rejection. Therefore there’s a chance the plan is real.

“After all, Trump’s not an idiot,” said Neil.

This startled me — but London accents make the craziest things seem reasonable.

“Bibi can’t possibly say yes to the Trump deal when his coalition depends on the right wing parties,” Neil said. “I hear there are some real nutters there. So he’ll have to turn to Gantz and say ‘Together we can save the country, but we make the corruption bit go away.’ Where am I wrong?”

At this point the bartender interrupted to offer free chasers; that’s a thing in Tel Aviv. A flurry of discussion ensued about the kind and vintage and the conversation drifting off to less vexatious topics, like Brexit and kidney stones.

I never did get to tell him where he’s wrong, but have reflected. I conclude that all sides are in the faintly ridiculous position of waiting to hear something serious from Trump. It is up to him and his minions.

Honoring one’s word is important, but not at all cost. If as a result of honoring my word everyone would die, I would dishonor it. It would take much less than that.

Is it possible for the Trump plan to be real? It seems absurd, but I have written previously that it shouldn’t be ruled out.

My guess is that the proposal will offer the Palestinians a more contiguous entity that is less than independent but more than what they have, wrapped with regional and U.S. threats, blackmail and bribes. That’s brutal, but it may beat trying the old route only to rediscover that Israel won’t bend enough and the Palestinians are asleep.

If the Palestinians are not asked to sign onto the new arrangement forever — if it has a temporary aspect for the saving of face — there is a chance.

Such a scenario, tough as it may be for the Palestinians, would still require far more of Israel than Netanyahu’s far-right partners could possibly support. So while Bibi can’t say no to Trump, how could he possibly say yes?

I think Bibi would say yes to a lot of things to stay out of jail. And despite a bug in the system he probably does understand the occupation is fatal to Israel itself. He may care about his legacy, and in any case could go whichever way survival lies.

If he does turn to Gantz, that puts real pressure on the Blue and White leadership. Will to power is there, but so is prideful heart.

I would caution against too much cynicism here, and reflection on the facts. For much of the Israeli electorate on the left, fixing the West Bank is not just (if at all) a matter of justice for the Palestinians, but rather what is needed for survival. They think, in my view correctly, that the “Jewish state” cannot absorb more millions of Arabs without self-destroying, and that this is the path the country is currently foolishly on. That is the view of most senior people in the security establishment, whence comes the DNA of Blue and White.

Can they be expected to eat their hats so soon after donning? With so much at stake, perhaps an elegant solution can be found. Netanyahu could promise to step down when the indictments actually come, but it takes forever (one can imagine procedural delays). Maybe he rotates with Gantz and becomes foreign minister; that might keep enough people happy. Perhaps Netanyahu is allowed to stay in place during years-long proceedings, which Israeli law preposterously permits. I could see a presidential pardon of some sort; nothing is too good for the father of Palestine.

I know for a fact that some (maybe most) of the financial backers of Blue and White would support this scenario and urge Gantz to dive in. It would be a unity government that carried out the policies of the left, as the one set up in 1984 (which pulled out of Lebanon and ended hyperinflation) — not a fig leaf for the right, as with all the others. It’s ugly, but it may be a last chance saloon to end the outrage in the West Bank.

Here’s a wacky question: Trump is a tragedy for the United States, a menace to the planet and a cautionary tale about all our demons deep within; but if he moves the needle on Israel-Palestine, would the whole catastrophe have somehow been worth it? Considering the importance so many attach to this conflict, that has the makings of an interesting debate.

What are the chances that any of this occurs?

I had a colleague once who used to handicap everything. On the streets of London he would point to a person ahead of us and ask what odds I give for his keeling over of a heart attack in the next minute or so. One in a million, I would say. I’ll take those odds and put a pound on the table, he’d reply. The odds here are not high, but they’re higher, I wager, than that.

About the Author
Dan Perry, a media and tech innovator, was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP, and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel. Previously he led AP in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Follow him at: twitter.com/perry_dan www.linkedin.com/in/danperry1 www.instagram.com/danperry63 https://www.facebook.com/DanPerryWriter/
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