After Flotilla Debacle, Will Netanyahu Change Course?


Depending on whom you ask, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is either on the verge of reshuffling his cabinet or is digging in his heels following last week’s Gaza flotilla debacle.

“I don’t see any sign of it,” Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said of a possible government shake-up. “Netanyahu continues to rely on a cabinet of seven for key policy decisions.”

He pointed out that the only time Netanyahu reached across the aisle to solicit the assistance of opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party was when he wanted her signature on a letter to President Barack Obama regarding nuclear issues.

Herb Keinon, a columnist at The Jerusalem Post, argued however that in the wake of the debacle “there is bound to be a public backlash against the politicians who OK’d the plan” to drop Israeli soldiers from helicopters onto a humanitarian ship trying to run Israel’s blockade of Gaza.

The discussion about the future of the Netanyahu government comes as the United Nations presses for the creation of an international commission to investigate the flotilla deaths. Israel is opposed to such a probe and has instead suggested its own investigation by Israeli jurists with one or two jurists from other nations.

“Over the next few weeks there will be intense pressure on Livni to enter the government, both public pressure and from within her own Kadima Party,” Keinon wrote. “With it clear that it is nearly impossible for her to bring down the government … she will likely find a way to get into the government. And Binyamin Netanyahu, under extreme pressure from almost every quarter to take the initiative [regarding Palestinian peace talks], will also likely find a way to bring her in.”

He went on to argue that such a move would improve Israel’s stature internationally, because she is viewed as someone “committed to peace.”

Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Livni’s decision Monday to call for a “no-confidence” vote in the Knesset “sharpened the friction” between her and Netanyahu and that he saw it “unlikely” that Livni would be joining the government.

“Kadima has not made any inroads and is itself very divided,” he observed. “She is seen as more dovish, and diplomats all hate Netanyahu. … But if there is to be a change in the government, [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman must be indicted or [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak must be forced out as leader of the Labor Party because of the botched flotilla episode.”

Lieberman has for more than 10 years been the target of ongoing criminal investigations.

“Barak seems vulnerable, but Netanyahu is not,” Steinberg insisted. “He has not lost any public standing and is seen as statesmanlike, having repaired the relationship with Obama quite well.”

Livni has repeatedly said that if she were to join the government, it would have to be on her terms — which includes a rotating premiership with Netanyahu.

Fred Lazin, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said however that if the situation changes and Livni is needed in the coalition, “she would be willing to compromise.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she backed down on some of her demands,” he said.

Regarding the commission of inquiry into the flotilla deaths, Steinberg said he believes there will be such a probe but that “Israel will determine the rules of the game.”

“There will be some external experts in consultation with Obama that the UN secretary general will agree to, but there will be no international or Turkish input,” he predicted. “We can create an inquiry that will demonstrate there were 40 to 50 hard-core terrorists on the boat and that Israel was acting within its authority [to stop it]. There are pictures that will show the Israelis were attacked. What Obama and the UN and others want is a full and impartial inquiry … and this is the chance for Israel to say it will cooperate with an international inquiry.”

Ed Rettig, acting director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office, said the inquiry commission’s structure “hinges on how the U.S. government evaluates the Israeli proposal [of using Israeli jurists] that is on the table now. If America says this is a satisfactory arrangement, the feeling here is that we will have the investigation and they will get the job done. Any international investigation would be not just superfluous but illegitimate.”

If the White House has different thoughts about the commission, Rettig said, “things could look very differently and Israel’s ability to resist an international commission might be harmed.”

Some of the ideas that have been floated regarding an international commission, he added, “have been widely viewed by the Israeli public as bizarre and inherently imbalanced.”

Rettig pointed out that the UN-proposed commission was similar to the one that probed the recent sinking of a South Korean submarine. The commission concluded that North Korea sunk the submarine with a torpedo.

“So the UN has already put this into the category of international misdeeds, and that is nuts,” Rettig said. “The behavior of much of the international community in this incident did not do them credit because they did not wait for the basic facts to come out. … Had they waited, there would have been a whole different discussion of what went on. They would have seen video of men beating the Israeli soldiers to a pulp and had evidence that the Israeli soldiers did not fire until their soldiers were kidnapped.”

Alpher said he suspects that Netanyahu is “playing for time” regarding the creation of the commission.

“He is hoping it will go away and be overtaken by other events,” he said.

Alpher pointed out that the Council for Peace and Security, composed of former security and diplomatic experts of which he is a member, is calling for modification of the Gaza blockade to permit civilian goods.

“We would invite friendly states to work with us on this,” he said, noting that among the items now barred from entering Gaza are potato chips.

“Any and all commerce should be allowed in, provided it cannot be used for military purposes,” Alpher said. “And we could allow the international community to make sure what goes in. When it is necessary to inspect a ship at sea, the world would better understand what is being done.”

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