The first time I saw Bibi Netanyahu, I didn’t recognise him. It was November 2003 and I was smoking the last cigarette ever smoked in the lobby of the Regency hotel in New York, typing a letter to World Bank President James Wolfensohn, that my boss and friend Uri Savir was dictating.
There was a group of Jewish gentlemen sitting in the opposite side of the lobby. Uri asked me very jocularly if I recognised anyone. “Ah, that guy looks familiar”, I said very nonchalantly, pointing at Bibi, “a TV host or something”. Uri found that very funny and burst out laughing while pointing out that he was Bibi Netanyahu. The two men came face to face several times during that stay at the Regency and the tension was palpable. Not once did they greet each other. I heard several versions of the story as to the reason, though Uri himself never confirmed or denied any.
These days I miss Uri more than ever. While we disagreed a lot on politics, we both agreed on the fundamentals of peace in the middle east. I miss another leader of Israel, David Kimche, who was kind and patient to argue points of policy with me, despite being my boss’s boss and decades older and also that lion among men, Shimon Peres, who after reading something I had written, sent me a message that he thought I was an optimist. I naturally took it as a compliment.
What would they have said or done today? I have no answers, but Israel and the world felt much safer with them around. There was always a plan, a strategy, a will to make peace but above all they taught me that all life was sacred and for Israel every Jewish life was non negotiable. It was a common theme.
On the 7th of October Bibi failed all the men and women, brilliant individuals who committed their life and its work to the State of Israel, its security and the security of its citizens since its establishment, all in a few moments. In 2015, Bibi, calling himself “Bibi-sitter” won the elections, promising to protect Israeli lives and especially protect and look after Israel’s children.
“Bibi-sitter” is a colossal disaster . Prior to Hamas’s brutal terrorist attack, Bibi managed to divide the country and destroy its unity, in an effort to protect himself. He also managed to destroy its infallibility leaving it vulnerable to bazaar thrash from Gaza.Terrorists who plundered Israel’s homes, destroying, killing, maiming, looting and kidnapping its citizens on a Shabbat.
Today, Israel is crying for revenge, but the fear is that Bibi does not have a real plan. There are more that 200 lives at stake, over 200 hundred hostages and not one more life can be lost. An asymmetrical land invasion of Gaza, home to a highly trained Hamas, may become Israel’s Ukraine. More young lives of soldiers lost to an unending conflict. I’m surprised at the lack of chutzpah, no special mission to capture a Khalid Mashal or a Ismail Haniyeh from Doha or something crazy to create more leverage to recover hostages.
Bibi is out of options, he has lost the public’s trust. He has lost face internationally. An invasion of Gaza will mean more loss of life, of hostages and soldiers as well as Palestinian civilians. This is not the time for revenge, blood will have blood. If a Gaza invasion is long drawn out, the deaths, Palestinian and Israeli, will cost Israel friends. It is apparent that just the bombings have turned global public opinion against Israel and it has lost the moral high ground it had due to Hamas’s barbarities. But if Bibi were to choose the path of peace, leaving revenge to another day, he may be able to gain allies in the Arab world willing to help. For this he will have to get rid of Smotrich and Ben Gvir from the government and risk losing the Prime Ministership himself.
Prince Turki bin Faisal unequivocally condemned Hamas. In his remarks at the baker institute, he condemned Hamas’s use of violence and its attack on women, children and elders. Prince Turki is a Saudi elder, who has managed the Saudi secret service for decades and is known to be a man not to use his words lightly. Qatar is also nervous about its support to Hamas and its leaders’ victory lap from Doha. While the Arab street has risen in the favor of Palestine, there is a lot of distaste for Hamas’s brutality and discomfort at the use of Islam as an excuse for terrorism and the slaughter of innocents.
If he does succeed in destroying Hamas and recovering the hostages with minimal loss of life of Israeli soldiers, hostages and Palestinian civilians without starting a regional or world war, he is left with creating a plan for the governance of Gaza after Israel’s withdrawal. A plan obviously which doesn’t exist. Israel cannot have a festering non-state next to it as a breeding ground for more extremists and terrorists hell bent on avenging this round of killings and violence. Building higher walls and stronger fences will not stop the next wave of attacks, it will only delay them.
So what should Bibi do?
Bibi is in zugzwang. No matter what he does, he has to make the next move and that move will worsen his position. He is finished with the Israeli electorate, so he might as well first try diplomacy, discussion and engagement. With this very public and humiliating terrorist attack the deterrent of Israel’s infallibility has been breached. No form of reprisal or revenge will return that former glory. More lives will be lost and this land invasion will sow more hatred in Gaza, in the Palestinian and the Arab world for the years to come. Bibi has sabotaged every possible peace deal since the Oslo accords and no move he can make can bring back his political righteousness.
Once on Yom Kippur I happened to be with a wise old rabbi in a hotel in Ankara. He told me, while explaining the significance of Yom Kippur that whether it is the question of the soul or the question of the holy land, the first action should be to take three steps back. I believe Bibi should actually take three steps back. Create a strong united government without extremists, get together counselors who will speak truth to him and get rid of sycophants and engage the Palestinian leaders and ask for their help. Israel needs to consolidate, and figure out how to recover the hostages with the engagement of the Arab countries. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Jordan, despite their support of the Palestinian cause, do not want a Hamas which will eventually end up empowering terrorist groups challenging their own governments.
For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counselors there is safety. Bibi needs good counsel as soon as possible. This is the only way he can turn this situation around.