Center Field: And the prize goes to…

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-14-10

Eli Yishai seized the ‘Amir Peretz’ prize for his blunder during the Biden visit, for which he should be fired.

Who will pay for the Biden blunder? So far, it seems that only Israel and the Jewish people will. This was a classic lose-lose from left to right. Those who desire territorial compromise lamented the derailing of Vice President Joe Biden’s goodwill tour, thanks to the announcement of 1,600 new housing units being built in east Jerusalem. Those who hope to continue building settlements under the radar screen, as well as those who distinguish east Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, are now going to see more American scrutiny and more diplomatic clumping of Jerusalem with the other territories which Israel won in 1967. This rank incompetence put the issue of a united Jerusalem in the American government’s crosshairs, not just in the occasional media spotlight.

In a sane political system, heads would roll. If he had any class, Interior Minister Eli Yishai would resign even before the prime minister fired him. Last week, Yishai seized the “Amir Peretz” prize from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for the cabinet member least qualified for his essential post but only there because of the country’s dysfunctional political system.

Alas, instead of paying for his mistake, Yishai is keeping his job while his Shas allies remain as unrepentant as ever. “The prime minister remembers who gave [Binyamin] Netanyahu his job,” one source “close to Yishai” told The Jerusalem Post, still demanding payback for Shas’s refusal to join Tzipi Livni’s proposed Kadima government in October 2008. Such arrogance reducesthe prime minister to a head waiter, simply serving his political allies the goodies they demand at the snap of their fingers.

An executive unable to fire is neutered, like a conductor barred from waving a baton, or a rabbi banned from teaching. Some South American countries under US sway were once banana republics; Netanyahu’s government – like too many Israeli governments – risks becoming a doughnut democracy with no power in the center and too many greasy pols circling around. Netanyahu should fire Yishai – even if it means having his government fall.

WHILE IT is always hard to predict the future, let alone the Israeli political scene, if Netanyahu faced down Yishai on this issue, he and the Likud probably would emerge stronger, even if new elections resulted. The public would applaud Netanyahu for showing some spine, especially if he framed the issue as an attempt to end government by blackmail.

And if, while leading boldly, Netanyahu proclaimed that his government would not fracture the Jewish people by stirring up the who-is-a-Jew hornet’s nest, he would improve his standing in the Jewish world and Jewish history too. The fact that some politicians and the Chief Rabbinate have even suggested blocking those converted abroad from being recognized under the Law of Return is outrageous. They forget Naomi’s welcome of Ruth in the Bible. More practically, politicians cannot complain about lacking allies in the world and then target or embarrass Israel’s most loyal friends, meaning the American government and Diaspora Jewry.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s continuing overreaction to the Biden blow-up will box Netanyahu into a corner and prevent him from doing what he needs to do. Apparently Biden’s delaying of a private dinner with Netanyahu, lecturing him about the slight, getting repeated apologies for the unintended offense fromthe prime minister and reprimanding Israel again during his Tel Aviv University speech did not satisfy President Barack Obama. The president also had to have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounce Israel’s misstep as “insulting” and have his government “condemn” its actions.

As Elliott Abrams, a former George W. Bush administration official and senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in The Washington Post, “The verb ‘condemn’ is customarily reserved by US officials for acts of murder and terrorism – not acts of housing.” One wonders whether certain Obama administration officials are enjoying Israel’s stumble just a little too much – and using this to put the screws on the Jewish state.

Even so, there is no excuse for giving Obama this opportunity. The stakes are too high for such low-level sloppiness. Can anyone, anywhere in Israel’s vast, overstaffed, overpaid, underperforming bureaucracy claim ignorance either as to the timing or the sensitivity of Biden’s trip? My children knew about the trip. Anyone who gets a salary from the people and was in the dark about the trip or the impact such an announcement would have made should be fired too – and without the typical cushy government severance package.

LAST WEEK in Jerusalem, my friend and colleague Saul Singer officially launched Start-Up Nation, the book he coauthored with Dan Senor about Israel’s economic miracle. Taking advantage of the excitement the book has generated, Singer generously turned his hometown launch into a fund-raiser for the Jerusalem Circus, which builds trust between young Arabs and Jews who must support one another while standing on each other’s shoulders or catching one another as they jump.

Singer linked the creative, impressive, world class hi-tech entrepreneurship his book describes with the equally path-breaking social entrepreneurship the Jerusalem Circus and many other worthy initiatives represent. I left thinking: How tragic that a country which produces such brilliant computer wizards, such visionary social activists, is stuck with so many political clowns who turn the government into a circus.

Eli Yishai’s Biden-based boobery has presented Netanyahu’s doughnut democracy with its ultimate test. Here is an opportunity for Netanyahu to lead – and emerge more popular, more powerful, and more able to deliver the quality governance the people of Israel need and deserve.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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