THE ISRAEL REPORTMay/June 1999
[*The following article was published in a shortened version in the June 14th edition of the National Review.]IMRA note: Bar-Illan's article reveals, in passing, one of the reasons that Netanyahu lost the support of many in the national camp after Wye: Netanyahu made the incredibly naive assumption that he could rely on unwritten understandings with America to bridge vague agreements.
It is IMRA's understanding that Clinton-Arafat-Netanyahu solemnly agreed at Wye that at each stage the Palestinians were to first honor their obligations and only then would Israel carry out the withdrawal of that stage.
This was not put into writing to avoid embarrassing Arafat.
Rhetorical question: If Arafat would be embarrassed by putting this in writing would he be able to stomach the implementation of this understanding?
That Netanyahu did not realize that Clinton would turn his back on an unwritten understanding leaves us only to think that Netanyahu was made a fool of by Clinton. The hard lesson to be learned by Ehud Barak is clear - if it isn't explicitly in writing it is meaningless.
And if it is in writing from Clinton?...........
An exclusive front-page story in the March 28 edition of Israel's leading Hebrew daily Ha'aretz caused an excited stir in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office. A senior American official "speaking on condition of anonymity," was quoted by diplomatic correspondent David Makovsky as saying, "The Clinton Administration has decided to accept the position of Israel that it need not implement the second pullback from the West Bank under the Wye agreement until the Palestinian Authority has adhered to all its obligations..."
The anonymous official was the State Department's chief Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, with whom Netanyahu's office had pleaded to come out with that rare commodity in diplomatic discourse - the truth. His statement to Makovsky amounted to an admission that Netanyahu was not stalling the peace process, but merely insisting on Israel's right to demand Palestinian compliance before implementing further withdrawal. Since an anonymous statement is virtually useless, I asked Makovsky if he could get the statement on the record. He said he would try.
Instead of being officially confirmed, the statement was contradicted almost immediately by State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin and later by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "On the Palestinian side, we have seen serious efforts to prevent terrorist strikes, to renounce the Palestinian Covenant and to avoid a unilateral declaration of statehood. On the Israeli side, implementation has stalled and, unfortunately, unilateral settlement activity has persisted. This is a source of real concern to us, because of its destructive impact on the ability to pursue peace," Albright said in a message to the American Jewish Committee.
The anti-Israel tilt was complete. The Ross statement remained anonymous and worthless, while the Albright admonition - a bald bit of skillful disinformation - became the Administration's mantra, part of an unremitting, smoothly orchestrated campaign aimed at causing Netanyahu's defeat at the polls. As John Broder put it in the New York Times, on May 17, "[The Administration] has made little effort to conceal its interest in a victory for Ehud Barak."
This was not the first time the Clinton administration invested considerable energies in helping the Labor candidate in an Israeli election. In the 1996 campaign its endorsement of then Prime Minister Shimon Peres was quite shameless. From the President himself, who made a special trip to Jerusalem in support of Peres's candidacy, to then-ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, who harangued every Israeli and American-Jewish leader he could buttonhole with pro-Peres propaganda, the administration was totally committed to defeating Netanyahu. But the transparent, heavy handed tactics backfired. So this time around, instead of an outright endorsement of Barak the administration preferred "active measures" to discredit Netanyahu. In the four months preceding the election, hardly a day passed without a Washington story about Netanyahu's failure to keep his word: on the Wye agreement, settlements, building in Jerusalem, and even on Israel-Russia relations.
A classic example of this disinformation campaign was a report attributed to an American source by television correspondent Emanuel Rosen. Netanyahu, charged Rosen, had asked Congressmen Ben Gilman to call for the suspension of American sanctions against Russian companies dealing with Iran. The request was part of a secret deal Netanyahu cut with then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, said Rosen, which made Washington furious with Netanyahu.
The story was an outright fabrication which not only implied an intention to undermine American policy toward Russia, but impugned Netanyahu's loyalty to his own country.
But the charge was palpably absurd (not that absurdity has ever inhibited Big Lie practitioners). It was the Netanyahu government that had tenaciously worked for more than a year to persuade the administration and Congress to impose these sanctions. After all, no one is more threatened than Israel by the transfer of nuclear and missile technology to Iran.
In this particular case, Netanyahu was able to debunk the charge almost instantly. At his request, I located Gilman through his assistant's cellular phone as he was climbing the stairs of the parliament building in Madrid, and he agreed to deny the canard to a tape recorder. Within an hour, Netanyahu invited Rosen to interview him, had him repeat the allegation, and gleefully surprised him with Gilman's flat denial on tape. It was one of the very rare instances in which a refutation was almost as effective as the baseless allegation which prompted it, and the irresponsibility of a fiction-mongering journalist exposed.
Nor were the American anti-Netanyahu efforts confined to a disinformation campaign. The three American advisers who ran Barak's campaign - distinguished for a systematic invention of "facts" which recalled the heyday of the Soviet encyclopedists - were Clinton's 1992 election crew: James Carville, Robert Shrum and Stanley Greenberg. Carville told the New York Times that he "regularly briefs the President of the progress of the Labor leader's campaign."
One can only wonder if such progress reports included tales of dirty tricks. A puzzling incident at the beginning of the campaign involved two Watergate-type break-ins into Greenberg's office. The story was reinforced by the testimonyof a cab driver who told the police of Hebrew speaking passengers discussing break-in plans on their way to the Greenberg office (presumably shifting to English for the benefit of the Pakistani driver). But this amateurishly manufactured sensation quickly fizzled. The driver confessed he had invented his exotic passengers, and the FBI spokeswoman for the case admitted to a private investigator that "it was an inside job" and that the case was ordered closed. An effort to have this admission repeated to an Israeli reporter failed.
Even more puzzling was the fortune spent on the anti-Netanyahu campaign. The strict Israeli laws on campaign financing were blatantly circumvented. When the election was announced, the Labor party was saddled with a $25 million debt. Yet the cost of the anti-Netanyahu campaign was estimated anywhere between $50 million and $80 million - 10 times what the Likud spent. Much of the pro-Labor advertising was done through intertwining foundations. Most contributors remained anonymous, but prominent Clinton supporters Daniel Abraham and Lawrence Tisch were reported among the heavier givers. The Likud lodged a complaint with the police about this conspicuous violation of campaign laws, but the press virtually ignored the story.
The massive American intervention was undoubtedly effective. One administration official bragged to the New York Times that it had "clearly had an impact in Israel and the polling shows that." But by itself it might not have sufficed to defeat Netanyahu. Some homemade pre-election coincidences, which seemed to occur at precisely the right time for Barak, added to Netanyahu's troubles.
The leader of the Sephardic "Shas" party, Arye Deri, whose corruption trial had lasted for nine years, was convicted a few weeks before the election. A partner both in the late Yitzhak Rabin's coalition and in the current Netanyahu government, Deri is known for having no permanent loyalties. But the press was quick to describe him as Netanyahu's ally.
Netanyahu, whose support among the orthodox is almost total, felt obligated to stand by him despite the conviction. And the embrace tainted him, perhaps irreversibly, among the immigrants from Russia who constitute a sixth of the electorate. For the mostly secular "Russians", the Shas bureaucrats - who control the Interior Ministry and regularly mistreat immigrants of questionable Jewish pedigree - are anathema. Following the verdict, Russian immigrant support for Netanyahu, which in January hovered at 75%, began a massive shift to Barak.
During the same period, police launched criminal investigations against Minister of Foreign Affairs Ariel Sharon, Minister of Justice Tzahi Hanegbi, and former director general of Netanyahu's office Avigdor Lieberman. This rash of investigations of Netanyahu associates recalled a similar eruption at the beginning of his tenure, when two of his ministers and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, a Likud leader, were tried on corruption charges, and Netanyahu himself was interrogated by the police for allegedly trying to rig the Attorney General's appointment. In all these cases the charges were so flimsy as to be ludicrous, and they were all dismissed. The current crop is expected to produce similar results, and Likud leaders can hardly be blamed for suggesting that the investigations - and particularly their timing - were not unrelated to the election campaign.
Yet even against all these odds, Netanyahu might have won had he succeeded in keeping the campaign focussed on issues. If polls are any indication, his policies have consistently enjoyed the support of more than two thirds of the population, a degree of popularity he never reached himself. That he failed to change the course of the debate is a measure of the effectiveness of Barak's campaign, which pounded on Netanyahu's character to the exclusion of almost anything else, and of the rank amateurishness of Netanyahu's efforts.
It is no secret that in a popularity contest Netanyahu is vulnerable. Even his admirers admit that it is easier to identify him with Louis XIV's "L'Etat, c'est moi" than with Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People". Yet leaders far more arrogant have managed to overcome a reputation for insufferable egocentrism, inconsiderateness and the unconscionable exploitation of others - and win elections.
If Netanyahu couldn't, it was mostly because of the unrelieved enmity of the press. Israel's mainstream media are notorious for their obsessive bias against right wing leaders. Such leaders as Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, now routinely adulated, were mercilessly savaged when in power. Yet nothing like the monolithic assault on Netanyahu has ever occurred in Israel's history.
I used to believe that this antagonism would help Netanyahu, by enhancing his anti-establishment image and populist appeal. But the constant calumny has had an insidious cumulative effect. Netanyahu's "villainy" and "duplicity" became axioms of political discourse. Leading columnists called him "Prince of Darkness" and compared him with Ceaucescu, Saddam Hussein and Mussolini. News stories about him were object lessons in advocacy journalism. A statistical study shows that more than 90% of all opinion columns opposed him, and virtually all the rest were neutral, not supportive.
By the election, Netanyahu had become the world's favorite punching bag, the enemy of peace, a man devoid of principles and incapable of telling the truth. World leaders would privately admit to his charm, brilliance, talent and negotiating skills. But in public almost none dared deviate from the politically correct perception of him as an intransigent, unreliable and dangerous leader.
In fact, few leaders have been more consistent than Netanyahu. Unlike his martyred predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin - who was elected by vowing never to recognize the PLO, never to negotiate with Yasser Arafat and never to offer to relinquish the Golan, but reneged on all three - Netanyahu stuck to his election promises with exemplary firmness. He scrupulously adhered to the Oslo accords, but insisted that the Palestinians reciprocate by fulfilling their commitment to combat terrorism. With such reciprocity, he said, the Oslo principle of "territory for peace" might work. Without it, the formula would become the sheer insanity of "territory for terrorism".
The dramatic decline in Palestinian terrorism in the past three years is at least partly due to this insistence on reciprocity. It is a considerable achievement, considered virtually unattainable not long ago.
Netanyahu also created a revolution in the thinking of Israel's "national camp". He was the first right-wing leader who made most of his followers accept the partitioning of the Land of Israel. His agreements with the Palestinians, unlike those signed by the Labor government, enjoyed overwhelming support both in the Knesset and with the public. It is now fashionably forgotten that the peace process collapsed in 1996, under Shimon Peres, following the worst two and a half years of terrorism ever to plague the State of Israel. All talks with the Palestinians were suspended and the withdrawal from Hebron cancelled. It was Netanyahu who rescued and revived the peace process, affirming yet again the historic truism that only political hawks can have the broad support necessary to make peace.
Netanyahu's achievements in the economic sphere were even more impressive. His government started moving the Israeli economy from irresponsible spending and stifling centralization to budgetary prudence and free-market principles. In three years it eliminated double digit inflation, made unprecedented cuts in the national budget, dramatically reduced the trade deficit, privatized more than all previous governments put together, deregulated the currency, attracted more foreign investments than ever, produced 100,000 jobs, and survived the worldwide economic crisis - all without raising taxes.
Why, then, was Netanyahu defeated? Considering his achievements, the powers arrayed against him should not have prevailed. Neither American intervention, nor police investigations, not even a campaign of character assassination should have made the difference.
Seen in a larger context, Netanyahu's defeat may be viewed as another in a series of setbacks for conservatives throughout the Western world: in Canada, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and even in the last Congressional elections.
Conservatives everywhere seem to be victims of their own success. With the disappearance of the Soviet Empire and the Communist threat, and with socialist economics deemed about as pertinent today as Sufism, they are left with few issues of mass appeal. The equivalent in Israel is Netanyahu's success against terrorism. He has proved that when Arafat can control the terrorists and will do so if there is a price to pay for abetting terrorism. But the decline in terrorism reduced the Israeli electorate's concern for security. When Netanyahu ran in 1996, 70% of Israelis considered security their number one concern, which is why Netanyahu won then. Now only 27% do, which is one of the reasons he lost.
For conservatives to return to power they must rethink their agenda in terms of today's world. And they must build an effective intellectual infrastructure - in academe, journalism, think-tanks and literature - which will support and propagate this agenda. Nowhere is this truer than in Israel.