On April 19, Likud Knesset members clashed with bereaved parents during a session of the Knesset's State Control Committee meeting dedicated to the 2014 Operation Protective Edge report. Watching for the second time the footage of this clash between the Knesset members and parents who lost their sons in the war is just as jarring as seeing it the first time. The problem is more than just the boorish and insensitive comments by David Bitan and Miki Zohar, who lashed out at the parents as if they were their political rivals. Even more disturbing was the silence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, who was present at the meeting.
The fact that the prime minister kept silent when Bitan, the chairman of his coalition, shouted "Liar!" at Ilan Sagi, who lost his son Erez in Gaza, was even more disturbing than the slur itself. True, Netanyahu mumbled something under his breath to Knesset member Zohar, who interrupted Leah Goldin, the mother of fallen soldier Hadar Goldin, to tell her that her claims were "exaggerated." Apart from that, however, Netanyahu allowed the unbelievable spectacle to unfold without stepping in.
Netanyahu was trying to show restraint and maintain the meeting's decorum. He knows what it is like to lose a loved one in battle, but at the same time, he is already used to such heated discussions, having sent soldiers into battle on more than one occasion. Several times during his long political career, Netanyahu was even accused of climbing to the top of the political ladder by exploiting the death of his brother, Lt. Col. Yoni Netanyahu, commander of the Matkal Commando Unit, who died at the Entebbe hostage rescue operation in 1976. Whenever such an accusation is made, it is generally expressed anonymously, given the sanctity of fallen soldiers in Israel. It is, therefore, unfair to say that as a bereaved brother, Netanyahu should have silenced his fellow party members.
Netanyahu's real shortcoming during this meeting was his failure to exhibit leadership. He showed weakness before the cameras when he should have taken action. He should have banged his hand on the table, reprimanded Zohar and Bitan, and demanded that they apologize immediately to the bereaved parents. Maybe that would have spared the Likud at least some of the humiliation it has faced in the media over the past few days. And since he didn't do that, he should have apologized the next day, or two days later at most. What actually happened was that Netanyahu waited four days before he apologized, and even then, his apology was cautious and lackluster. To many, it seemed as if he was only fulfilling his duty one week before Israel's Memorial Day for its fallen soldiers — May 1 this year.
Netanyahu apologized at the end of his speech at the start of the April 23 weekly Cabinet meeting. Even then, he apologized only after he had covered a wide range of other issues. By the time he finally got to his apology, he had already mentioned Holocaust Memorial Day, flattering himself for increasing the budget to benefit survivors. He also spoke about the Palestinian detainees' hunger strike and called on the Palestinian Authority to stop funding terrorism.
"I would like to say a few words to the bereaved families. The entire people of Israel is united around you, who have lost what is dearer than anything on behalf of the security of Israel. As prime minister and the son of a bereaved family, I heard what was said last week in the Knesset in the heat of debate. I regret that these remarks were made; an immediate apology was necessary, and it is good that this was done," Netanyahu said.
A comparison of these remarks to the ones made by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is unavoidable. Liberman expressed his disgust at what happened one day before Netanyahu did. Unlike Netanyahu, Liberman did not lose a brother, nor did he serve in an elite unit. Nevertheless, he expressed what many people — including many Netanyahu voters — felt about this unprecedented spectacle. "What we witnessed in the Knesset this week was shameful, humiliating and outrageous. Even if someone disagrees with a person who has lost a loved one, there is a way to say these things.” It was a powerful statement, equal to the gravitas of the occasion.
But back to the prime minister. As it turns out, he was much quicker to apologize after another recent event. At a meeting about the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, while trying to explain why he wanted to postpone the launch of the new entity after he already agreed to allow it to go on the air, he remarked, "My Mizrahi gene was activated." Netanyahu meant that he might have acted too rapidly at the beginning, not necessarily thinking through his decision. The comment could have caused enormous harm to Netanyahu. Over the past few years, public discourse in Israel has become increasingly sensitive about offensive remarks targeting the Mizrahi (of Middle Eastern origin) community, many of whom support the Likud.
Just one day later, Netanyahu wrote on his Twitter account: "I apologize for my remarks yesterday. I had no intention of harming anyone. I am connected with all my heart to every ethnic group in Israel and admire their tremendous contributions to the heritage of our nation and the building of our land." In contrast, a quick visit to Netanyahu's Facebook page shows that in the four days following the incident with the bereaved parents, he found time to post six times on a variety of other issues. These include a photo of him with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, his impressions after a visit to Dimona and a meeting he had with Holocaust survivors.
The explanation as to why Netanyahu avoided any show of leadership in real time is based on personal political considerations. Actually, it seems quite clear that Netanyahu recognized the scope of the farce immediately. This is evidenced by the way he mumbled something and shifted about in his seat. In fact, this caused Zohar and Bitan to stop their attacks on the bereaved parents. The chair of the committee where the meeting took place is Knesset member Karin Elharar of the Yesh Atid Party. Netanyahu was concerned that the purpose of the meeting was to allow the opposition party to set an ambush for him by using the fiascos of Operation Protective Edge to attack his strong hand, i.e., his reputation as "Mr. Security." Instead, Netanyahu preferred to allow the ugly incident shift the spotlight away from his personal responsibility and conclusions about the military operation. He wanted it to focus on Bitan and Zohar instead, which is, in fact, what happened.
Netanyahu has finely honed political senses. Anyone who thought that the incident would harm him politically has since been proved wrong. According to the results of a Channel 2 poll released April 22, the Likud actually grew stronger, at the expense of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid Party. If elections were held now, the Likud would win 28 seats, while Lapid would win just 24.