A Dangerous Cocktail

Cross-posted with The Huffington Post

What does a small hospital in Ashkelon, a town 20 km north of the Gaza Strip, have to do with Middle East peace and the Iranian nuclear program? Probably a lot more than you think.

Last Sunday, the Israeli cabinet approved by one vote a plan to relocate the Barzilai Medical Center’s planned underground secure emergency room because ancient tombs were found on the site.

The reason for this was the ultra-orthodox in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, who claimed the graves were Jewish – even though experts assured them the bones were pagan. The decision will cost the Israeli taxpayer an additional 43 million dollars – not to mention the fact that the delay of the build could endanger lives.

When the Israeli public got a whiff of this, basically preferring the dead over the living, the outrage was quick to follow. A few days later Netanyahu zigzagged again – succumbing, as usual, to public pressure – and put a moratorium on the move until a new task force decides on the fate of the ER.

What this story does is exemplify the day-to-day management of a mediocre Israeli government. It’s not really clear what Netanyahu was thinking when he approved this. Did he honestly believe he was going to get away with one of the most ridiculous decisions a government has ever made in Israel?

What’s even worse, is that his aides in the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t see it coming, either. Political analyst Yossi Verter of Haaretz not long ago labeled the Netanyahu administration as the “least managed government in the Western world”. Rumors attesting to the unprofessional management of the Prime Minister’s Office are a dime a dozen.

One can not help but feel that, especially after the Barzilai fiasco, things are definitely spiraling out of control in the Israeli administration. Netanyahu seems to be oblivious to what goes on around him. Even his own ministers in the Likud, who have sided with him on every vote, have turned their backs on him. An unprecedented total of six Likud ministers voted against the Barzilai relocation – a smack in the face that Netanyahu did not see coming.

And then came the visit to America. Netanyahu, who always boasts about his understanding of U.S. politics better than any other Israeli leader, was shown how little he really knew.

But he apparently didn’t know that President Barack Obama’s health care plan was going to pass, thus strengthening the embattled administration, and insisted on giving a speech at the AIPAC conference as if it was some kind of Likud rally.

He even fell for the “good-cop-bad-cop” routine Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden gave him. He must have been thinking they were supposed to be the bad cops, as usual, and if they were OK with him then the meeting with Obama would be a breeze. But lo and behold, it was Obama who turned out to be “bad cop” after all.

Netanyahu was caught off guard, once again. Haaretz reported last Friday that one Israeli minister who received a call from him while the crisis with Obama was unfolding said that he was frightened by the Prime Minister’s mood, saying he seemed to be under immense pressure. Today he even used veteran journalist Ari Shavit to sound off the panic alarms concerning America’s new stance towards Israel:

The fact that the White House and State Department have been in contact with Israel’s European allies, first and foremost Germany, is seen as part of an effort to isolate Israel and put enormous political pressure on it.

So, what we have on our hands here is something that could turn out to be a lethal cocktail: a prime minister who seems to have no connection to reality; his ministers no longer support his every move; he has long lost control over his Foreign Ministry to a right-wing fanatic, Avigdor Lieberman; the Prime Minister’s Office is not run like a tight ship, to say the least; and he’s just been severely reprimanded by his closest ally, whom he thought until today he understood better than anyone.

I am not one who supports this prime minister in any way – but one must be clear: this is not a situation anyone should want Netanyahu to be in for too long. A wounded prime minister like Netanyahu could prove to be deadly for many. With casualties already on the rise in the past few days as a result of clashes in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu may feel that if things are already so dire with the Americans, he’s free to pound the Palestinians with another Cast Lead-like operation.

And one needn’t use their imagination too much when taking into consideration Netanyahu’s conviction to finish off the Iranian nuclear program. After Netanyahu claimed he would do anything to save Israel from a second Holocaust, diplomatic analyst Aluf Benn of Haaretz wrote in May last year:

“Netanyahu sees himself as a prophet at the gate, who saw the dangers of terror and extremist Islam before others did, and has now received a second chance to prove the justice of his claims and remove the threats to Israel and the Jewish people. A person with such historical awareness does not just spew out empty words about existential dangers, Holocaust and destruction. These words obligate him to take action.”

A bit far-fetched? Apocalyptic? Maybe. One might want to read this article in the NYTimes about an Israeli air strike on Iran, without America’s consent, before deciding.

It is a well known fact that Netanyahu has never been one to deal well with pressure. The pressure he’s under these days might result in some good. For example, it may make him drop right-wing partners from the coalition and ask the centrist Kadima party to join instead. But it could also go entirely the other way.

I’ve been pushing for the current U.S. administration to show “tough love” towards Israel for a while now. I’m pleased that Obama has finally gone down this route.

But now more than ever, unless there is a change of government in Israel, the American administration must tread carefully with a prime minister who has so far only shown that he is easily maneuvered and has a frightening ability to crack under pressure.

Happy Passover.

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