Yediot Nov20-09 [Nahum Barnea, The Race for a Plan]

The Race for a plan

Excerpt from column, Nahum Barnea, Yediot Friday Political Supplement, November 20 2009 [page 2]

Great tidings are afoot. Not only does Mofaz have a plan of stages of his own, Peres is also taking his and Barak’s plan out of mothballs, and mainly, so is Netanyahu. He plans to come out with a seminal speech of his own, one that will make history.

The race for a plan is not due to a burst of creativity. It is due to constraint. Mofaz—to his credit—was the first to notice the vacuum: the Americans are not presenting a plan. The Israeli government is not presenting a plan. Livni is not presenting a plan. The person who comes up with a plan will make headlines. And so he did.

Peres and Barak presented their plan to anyone willing to listen, including President Obama, the heads of European states and the entire Palestinian leadership. The answer was no. The Palestinians refuse to agree to the establishment of a state in temporary borders, because, they say, with Israel, the temporary is permanent. The Palestinian refusal led to an American refusal. That was also the case for Mofaz’s plan, which was quite different from the Barak/Peres plan.

The plan is an alibi. When asked one day, Mr. President, Mr. Minister, what did you do for the sake of the peace you talked about so much, how did your support for the Netanyahu government help, they will reply: what do you mean, we had a plan.

Netanyahu was surprised to discover this week how little he knows about what is taking place in the state he heads. He did not know about the demolition of houses in East Jerusalem. He did not know about the Jerusalem municipality decision to approve the construction of 900 housing units in Gilo. He did not know about the request of special US envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell to delay the approval.

When Shimon Shiffer, Yedioth Ahronoth’s political affairs correspondent, asked the Prime Minister’s Bureau to comment on Tuesday evening, Netanyahu said he had no idea. Attorney Yitzhak Molcho, who was in the middle of a meeting with Mitchell in London, said that he heard of the American request only minutes earlier. He told Mitchell that he had no idea. He was concerned lest he get into trouble: Netanyahu had promised Obama full transparency, and what was emerging was muddy water.

Then it turned out that Mara Rudman, a top member of Mitchell’s team, that same day, had asked the Israeli embassy in Washington about the construction in Gilo. The request was relayed to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, but got stuck on the way. It turned out that Interior Minister Eli Yishai knew. He did not think he had to inform the prime minister.

The immediate reason for this failure is that the people with whom Netanyahu has manned his bureau are fine and good, but none of them is actually connected to the Israeli experience. They have no sources. They have no antenna. They live in a bubble, an aquarium. When Dov Weissglas was Sharon’s bureau chief, he managed by means of an interdisciplinary committee whose goal was to respond quickly and efficiently to any call from the American administration. Yoram Turbowicz, Olmert’s bureau chief, had a similar arrangement.

But the real flaw is unrelated to bureaucracy. In a normal situation, a seasoned diplomat like Mitchell, who knows Israel well, would not have dared to complain about the construction in Gila. He knows that in places like Gilo, there is a consensus in Israel. No prime minister will stop construction there, certainly not openly. When the prime minister makes his patriotic statement, the entire political establishment will rally around him. An Israeli-American clash over Gilo is bad for Netanyahu, bad for Obama and bad for Mitchell.

But Netanyahu left him with no choice. In recent weeks he saw how preoccupied the Americans were over Abu Mazen’s threats to resign. He read  papers from Israel’s security forces that warned of a general explosion in the West Bank. He knew that when Israel doesn’t take any step, doesn’t create any good news but only responds mockingly to every step, then even a meeting of the city planning committee in Jerusalem could cause the US president’s fuse to go off.

Netanyahu could choose from a number of tie-breaking, vacuum breaking steps, and get them easily passed in the cabinet. But he chose to do nothing, to stand like a deer in the headlights, and get knocked down.

Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) told Israel at the cabinet meeting this week: I know exactly how much is being built in Judea and Samaria, no tender gets out without me, and I am telling you, everything is frozen. There are no approvals. Why not publicly declare that you are freezing for six months? In any case, that’s what you’re doing.

Netanyahu moved on to the next item.

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