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Has 'Bibi, the Magician' lost his magic?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has uncharacteristically made one misstep after the other.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem June 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RTX2FWDQ

On the day after the March 2015 Knesset elections, the popular Italian daily Corriere de la Sera headlined its story on the Likud Party victory “The Comeback of Bibi, the Magician.” It brought to mind the Israeli performer Dori Ben-Zeev crooning Kobi Luria's “There once was a country,” a song about a magician who could speak without saying a thing, lived like a king and had a wife like a queen, until one morning his bluff was called. There are growing indications in recent weeks that Israel's “magician” is losing his touch and that the game is up.

A series of mishaps, apologies and denials by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and by his henchmen suggest that even the person who can speak without saying a thing can get entangled in lies, mistakes and contradictions. It seems that even a political magician as skilled as Netanyahu cannot emerge dry after being showered by a slew of criminal investigations — excuse me, “probes” — and harsh reports by the state comptroller, in addition to dealing with international pressure to stop cowering and join a diplomatic peace initiative and a government coalition hanging by a thread.

Ministers and officials who have recently spent time with Netanyahu report having noticed a mixture of sadness, tension and nervousness on the prime minister’s face and in his behavior. Several of them, who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, expressed concern about the impact of this mood on the functioning of the man who more than anyone else holds the lives and welfare of Israel’s citizens in his hands.

An ambassador from a large and friendly country told Al-Monitor that he is unable to explain the political reality in Israel to his superiors. “They ask me at home how it’s possible that one day I’m reporting that Netanyahu is attempting to bring a center-left party [Zionist Camp] into his government in order to renew the diplomatic process,” the senior diplomat said, “and the next day they learn that the Zionist Camp is staying out of the government and that a right-wing politician [Avigdor Liberman] who called Bibi a liar has been named defense minister.”

One cannot accuse the ambassador of lacking in powers of comprehension. Netanyahu has led astray far more seasoned experts in Israeli politics. He convinced Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog that he was headed toward a regional peace deal based on the principles of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. As reported by Channel 10, when Herzog told a meeting of supporters at a private home on May 15 that he had “identified a rare regional-diplomatic opportunity that will pass and perhaps never return,” he truly believed that Netanyahu was heading for a diplomatic arrangement. This was apparently the impression Netanyahu had also given Tony Blair, the former representative of the Middle East Quartet and former British prime minister.

At the end of Liberman’s swearing-in ceremony as defense minister May 30, the prime minister referred directly to the Arab Peace Initiative and expressed willingness “to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002 but maintains the agreed-upon goal of two states for two peoples.”

Four days later, on June 3, an unusual article penned by Nathan Eshel, a close Netanyahu associate, appeared in Haaretz. This trusted confidant of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu claimed that the prime minister needed the support of the left, meaning the Zionist Camp, to advance the two-state solution and end the conflict with the Arab world. Eshel, like any regular newspaper reader, presumably knows that the only formula for ending the conflict was and remains the Arab Peace Initiative, which proposes normalization of Israel’s ties with the Arab states in exchange for a return of West Bank territories. Then, on June 13, Netanyahu announced at a meeting of Likud ministers that Eshel’s article did not reflect his own views and stressed that he would never agree to accept the Arab Peace Initiative as the basis for negotiations with the Palestinians.

Eshel, Herzog, Blair, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who publicly moved toward Netanyahu in anticipation of the prime minister agreeing to a regional peace initiative, and many others are not the only ones who failed to fully understand Netanyahu. The “misunderstanding” reached all the way to Moscow. The day after a June 7 visit to the Kremlin by Netanyahu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that during Netanyahu's talks with President Vladimir Putin, it was clear that all sides agreed that the Arab Peace Initiative would be the basis for negotiations. Lavrov also noted that he had not heard any demand on Netanyahu’s part to introduce changes to the initiative. The denial was not long in coming. The prime minister’s office announced June 8 that the Arab Peace Initiative had not even been discussed at the meeting. In other words, the Russian foreign minister is lying or Netanyahu is lying.

The Arab Peace Initiative affair and the expansion of the governing coalition by bringing in Liberman and his Yisrael Beitenu could have been put down to political maneuvering for the sake of survival were it not for an accompanying series of back-to-back mishaps and stumbles beginning at end of March, when Netanyahu half-heartedly condemned the shooting to death of a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron by an Israeli soldier on March 24. After sensing that the wind was blowing in the opposite direction, Netanyahu made a highly publicized call to commiserate with the parents of the soldier, Elior Azarya, who had been arrested by military police.

In early May, Netanyahu had shot himself in the foot when he fell out with Joseph Shapira, the retired judge he had appointed state comptroller. Netanyahu’s office told reporters that the comptroller’s report on the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip is a “report lacking in seriousness by a state comptroller lacking in seriousness.”

At almost the same time, Sara Netanyahu’s attorney, Yossi Cohen, a family confidant, was forced to issue a public apology for questioning the integrity of Dita Proginin, the Jerusalem district labor court judge who ruled in favor of a former employee of the prime minister’s residence. The judge determined that the worker should be compensated for Sara Netanyahu’s abusive behavior.

At the end of May, Netanyahu wrote a post on his Facebook page claiming that the left was shying away from condemning the rape of a mentally challenged girl by Palestinians, stating, “You can only imagine what would the [left's] reaction would be in the opposite case.” After it turned out that there was apparently no proof that the alleged crime was motivated by anti-Israeli sentiments or even that a rape was indeed committed, Netanyahu wrote a new post saying, “It was wrong of me to refer to the issue before the investigation has been completed and I regret doing so.”

On June 15 Netanyahu was dealt another severe blow when Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit issued an opinion banning the prime minister from having dealings with firms owned by his friend Shaul Elovitch, who has a controlling interest in the Bezeq phone company, Yes satellite television, the mobile phone provider Pelephone and the Walla news site, among other businesses. The opinion means that Netanyahu, who also serves as communications minister, will not be able to deal with a significant chunk of the communications market. Mandelblit is also the man who will determine the prime minister’s fate in the various criminal suspicions under investigation.

Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, was riddled with slips and slides, all the way to the bottom. In October 1997, The Economist dubbed him “Israel’s Serial Bungler.” Is Netanyahu’s magic about to disappear once again? As Luria wrote,

There’s a lesson to be learned from this song

That between a leader and a magician there’s still a difference.

That a magician can always pull some rabbit out of a hat.

But then, there’s no difference between a state and a circus.


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