Back to the “Sealed Room”: Some thoughts on the alternative to the peace process [11]

I had intended to write this column this week about the various scandals and foul-ups which have troubled the Netanyahu government in recent days. Lots of material was available.

To “wage war” on traffic accidents, the government decided to increase bus fares, tried — unsuccessfully — to close down a street in Jerusalem, and created a new bureaucracy to “coordinate the work” of other bureaucracies. The Post Office decided not to employ women in branches in religious parts of the capital city. The Justice Minister resigned, the Prime Minister finally made peace (for now) with the Foreign Minister, and blows were struck against those vile kibbutzim which dared to open their shops on Shabbat. The Housing Ministry decided that yeshiva students would have priority over recently released soldiers, or families headed up by single parents.
I thought that it’s been too long since we’ve had some humor on this page, and there’s plenty to chuckle about in this ridiculous government.
Unfortunately, the pace of events does not allow me to do this.
Because war clouds are gathering all over the Middle East. And the time has come to tell the Netanyahu government: stop — and think about what you are doing.
Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu was a guest on CNN’s “Q & A” program, which is open to viewers’ questions from around the world. I asked what price Israel would be prepared to pay for peace with Syria. My question — sent in by email — was read to the Prime Minister. He answered that Israel had offered to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in exchange for disarming Hizbollah — and that Syria and Lebanon had both rejected this “Lebanon First” proposal. Can you imagine that? Israel offers to withdraw from Arab land — and the Arabs say, “No, stay!” Netanyahu gloated at his public relations triumph: he had embarrassed the Syrians before the whole world.
But at the same time, a high ranking Syrian general was saying that unless the peace process moved forward, Syria would have no choice but to fight another war with Israel. And yesterday, in a page one story in Ha’aretz, the head of Tel Aviv University’s Yaffe Center for Strategic Studies said the same thing.
Not only has the risk of war between Israel and Syria considerably increased thanks to the idiotic posturing of the Netanyahu government with its public relations tricks — and its abandonment of the commitments made by the previous government — but the whole Middle East has been set on a rocky course that could lead to catastrophe.
* The new Islamic fundamentalist government in Turkey is calling for a four-way summit of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey to discuss the activities of the United States and Israel in the Middle East. It’s not likely that such a summit will happen. And there’s even resistance within Turkey, and within the Turkish government, to the proposal. But the Israeli government reaction was typically smug: there’s nothing to worry about, they said. After all, military cooperation between Turkey and Israel continues. Military cooperation — just like Israel had with Iran prior to 1979. And American officials reassure everyone, the Turkish military will not allow the government to do anything crazy. Yeah, right.
* In the midst of the growing instability of the region, the International Monetary Fund, that darling of economic “liberals”, demands that Jordan double bread prices. King Hussein knuckles under — and bread riots break out all over the kingdom. Hussein orders the riots crushed with an “iron fist” — he actually says that: “iron fist” — and calm is temporarily restored.
* Israeli military intelligence reports that hundreds of new katyusha missiles have come into the hands of Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon — and that these may include missiles with a 40 km range instead of the usual 20 km range. Such missiles will be able to reach not only the thinly populated Israeli settlements along the northern border, but the very large towns of Karmiel and Acre as well. Netanyahu responds by threatening the Lebanese with force — hey, that always worked in the past . . .
* Yesterday, the Israeli government discussed the long-delayed redeployment of the IDF in Hebron — and decided to delay it once again. Several ministers expressed their demand that the tiny Jewish settlement in the heart of that huge Arab city be physically linked to the Kiryat Arab Jewish suburb. And public opinion polls continue to show a drop in Palestinian support for Arafat, particularly in Hebron, as a direct result of Israeli delays in the redeployment. There were even reports of dozens of arrests of top Palestinian officials, including members of the elite Force 17 (which is the Fatah unit which serves as Arafat’s personal bodyguard) — officials who, it was alleged, were plotting the overthrow of the ageing PLO chairman.
In an increasingly unstable Middle East, with the danger of a major regional war just over the horizon, the Netanyahu government feeds the Israeli and world public with empty slogans. If that government does not change course soon and renew the peace process with the Palestinians and Syrians, we will preparing future issues of this newsletter from a sealed room, with our gas masks and Atropin needles at our side.
Cyberspace: The next battlefield in Israel’s political wars?
Three things that happened last week have made me think harder about the answer to that question.
First of all, I wanted to find out if I could contact Foreign Minister David Levy by email. (I had already faxed him a copy of my Open Letter.)
Israel’s Foreign Ministry back in the days when Shimon Peres headed it up pioneered the use of the Internet. It was, I think, the first Foreign Ministry in the world to use Gopher — a kind of forerunner of today’s World Wide Web. It had an email-based press service eons ago. So I checked out their site, clicked to send email to the ministry, and asked: “Is there any way to reach Foreign Minister David Levy by email?”
Within hours I had my answer (isn’t the net great?). It read (this is the exact and complete text of the message): “Sorry, no. Information Division, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem.” They don’t call them “Information Division” for nothing!
Then, I heard once again from Joseph Steinberg, the Likud’s Webmaster (his first letter appears in the previous issue of BibiWATCH). I asked him if the Likud’s Web site was being updated. He answered:
The site has had some minor updates done since the election, but not much. On 30 May we took down most of the site. The issues of how the Likud site will be maintained until the year 2000, and what new government WWW sites will be created now, are being discussed.
Well, let’s hope for the best. I also asked if the email address the Likud site was featuring for Prime Minister Netanyahu was actually working.
The address should be correct; I use the phone to speak with the person in Bibi’s office who reads the email – I think he has not had access to his computer for a while. Until the issue of the WWW site maintenance is settled, I am not sure how often the email will be read.
With all its talk about an “American-style” of government, Bibi is not following President Clinton, who had an email address and Web site up and running years ago.
And last week, an alert reader of BibiWATCH wrote to tell me that the Prime Minister would be the guest on CNN International’s new “Q & A” program, which allows viewers to send in their questions by phone, fax or email. We knew that CNN has a commitment to the Internet, but also expected that hundreds or even thousands of letters would come in. Nevertheless, I wrote to about 20 BibiWATCHers and suggested that some of us send in our own questions to Netanyahu. Who knows? We might get lucky.
Uri Dekel and I were the only ones that I know about who send in such questions — and both were read on the air. (They were not only read, but the text was shown, with our names and countries under them.) I asked what price Israel would be prepared to pay for peace with Syria. Uri asked about the Rabin assassination — and Bibi’s role in inciting. Regardless of Bibi’s skillful avoidance of serious answers, the whole world was able to see and read Israelis asking critical questions of their Prime Minister. That is worth something, I think.
Bibi’s Positive Moves
Critics of BibiWATCH sometimes (OK, always) claim that we don’t have a single nice thing to say about Israel’s new Prime Minister. Not true. This week:
#1. Netanyahu allows Foreign Minister David Levy to shake hands with Arafat. (In a radio interview, Health Minister Tzachi Hanegbi urged Levy to keep his hands in his pockets, but Levy showed better manners.) (BibiWATCH 8, 29 July 1996)
#2. After Israel Television exposed the fact that Sarah Netanyahu would be staying in a luxurious $1000-a-night hotel room in Stockholm where she was to head up an Israeli delegation to an international conference, Bibi decides that maybe it would be a better idea for Sarah to stay home with the kids.(BibiWATCH 9, 5 August 1996)
#3. Following threats of a Histadrut organized general strike by mid-August, and an insurgency by the “social lobby” within the governing coalition in the Knesset, Bibi retreats from some of the more obnoxious elements of his cut-and-slash economic program: subsidies to families with children and special benefits given to older citizens will not be cut out. (BibiWATCH 10, 12 August 1996)
#4. In his appearance on CNN’s Q&A program, Netanyahu praises Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat for finally getting down to fighting terror. (Not like during the bad old days of the Rabin-Peres government, when Arafat, apparently was doing nothing to fight terror.) Furthermore, the P.M. refuses to call Arafat a terrorist. (BibiWATCH 11, 19 August 1996)