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‘The World Is Crazy And Netanyahu’s Under A Lot Of Pressure’: An interview with the Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman

With the influence of news writers almost rivaling that of newsmakers, especially in the Middle East, Gil Hoffman has a pivotal position as chief political correspondent and analyst for the Jerusalem Post. Hoffman is closely connected with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, has interviewed every major figure across the Israeli political spectrum, and is a regular analyst on CNN, Al Jazeera and other news outlets.

A native of Chicago, he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Northwestern University’s School of Journalism and wrote for the Miami Herald and the Arizona Republic before moving to Israel. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and two children.

The Jewish Press: What in your background led you to make aliyah and begin work at the Jerusalem Post?

Hoffman: Both my parents are Israeli and my native language is “Hebrish.” For us, watching the news was a very big part of our [family life]. While interning at the Miami Herald during college I realized I had to be where I cared about the news – and that was only in Israel. I started covering politics for the Jerusalem Post about a year after I got to Israel. In December 2000 there was an election between Sharon and Barak. Most newspapers had someone covering each of them. I started immediately doing both of them and I haven’t gotten much sleep ever since.

Is the Jerusalem Post more right-leaning than other Israeli print media?

No. We are the center, the objective newspaper. In Israel we have Yisrael Hayom, owned by Sheldon Adelson, which is right wing and very close to Netanyahu. We have Yediot Aharonot and Maariv, which are left wing newspapers and then we have Haaretz,which appears to be doing everything possible to overthrow the government of the State of Israel and kill Zionism as we know it.

Has the one-sided international reaction to the flotilla episode united Israelis? Do you think it has energized Netanyahu and the right and subdued the peace camp?

I wish that were the case, but it hasn’t turned out that way. Whenever there’s sorrow or any kind of outside threat, Israelis unite in a beautiful kind of way. It happened during both wars over the last few years, it happened against Obama, and the same thing happened with the flotilla. It just didn’t last very long.

Initially Tzipi Livni made a point of getting interviewed by the foreign press the day of the flotilla episode. She was following a tradition that Netanyahu started when he was a frequent spokesman for Israel during the Second Lebanon War and during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza as the opposition leader, the title Livni holds today. But a week later we returned to our usual state of constant bickering between politicians, and Livni herself raised the no-confidence vote in the government over its handling of the flotilla. Livni sent a message to Israelis that Netanyahu has harmed Israel’s relations with the world. She took a page out of a Barack Obama school of politics, and not for the first time.

Has the flotilla episode affected the proximity talks and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship?

Hamas has been strengthened by this whole episode, and it could have put pressure on [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas not to come back to the negotiating table. But he didn’t fall for that trap. [U.S. Mideast envoy George] Mitchell was here two days after. What could directly affect the peace process is if Israel ends up being forced to take steps that strengthen Hamas at the expense of Fatah and makes it harder for Fatah to win the elections, which haven’t been set yet. The bigger a deal the world makes of this, the more it hurts the Palestinians. A general assumption in Israel is that anything that is good for Hamas is bad for the Palestinians.

In light of Hamas’s PR victory, would it be in Abbas’s best interest to speed up the peace talks and deliver a victory for Fatah?

No, no, no. The interest of Abbas is to stall and not let anything happen, because he thinks he can get the world to impose a worse deal on Israel, especially if Israel looks like the bad guy. It’s never in his interests to make any kind of concession towards Israel. It’s in his interest to wait.

Can you comment on the events that led up to the Ramat Shlomo construction controversy?

Natan Sharansky had a talk a few days before Netanyahu got elected. It became an issue in the campaign about whether Netanyahu would get along with the president of the United States. Netanyahu’s opponents said no, he won’t get along. Sharansky said they will get along. It was a bad prediction. But at the time he made another prediction – that what causes problems between countries is surprises, not disputes over policies. One country cannot surprise the other. That’s proven to be a good prediction.

Obama got upset because he was surprised by Ramat Shlomo. Netanyahu also was surprised by Ramat Shlomo. When he first heard about the building project, Netanyahu’s reaction was, “Where is Ramat Shlomo?” He didn’t know if it was over the green line or not. Most people in Jerusalem didn’t know, and the newspapers didn’t know either. They kept on calling it East Jerusalem, when it’s in north-central Jerusalem between two hareidi neighborhoods.

Still, it was a surprise for Obama, and Obama doesn’t like surprises. Well, Netanyahu also got a surprise when Obama, in their first meeting, insisted on stopping all construction over the green line. Strangely enough it was a good surprise for Netanyahu. By breaking the commitments Israel had gotten from both Clinton and Bush, Obama liberated Netanyahu from having to abide by the offer [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert had made. But what was worse was when Obama started breaking his own promises. They had agreed the freeze would be for only ten months and wouldn’t include Jerusalem. That was how Netanyahu succeeded in selling it to the people of Israel.

Can members of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc in the Likud party prevent him from making future concessions?

Netanyahu is a superman in his party. There’s no one in his party to stop him. Likud is the most right-wing party in the coalition; it is also the most left-wing party in the coalition. All the satellite parties are virtually irrelevant. They are led by lame duck politicians, all of them who have no political future, so Netanyahu is completely unrestrained politically. Nothing is standing in his way in internal Israeli politics. The only real pressure he’s under comes from the White House and the world.

What about the Israel public? Would Israelis allow another withdrawal after living through the consequences of the last one?

Yes. I know we’ve been through a horrible situation, with years of rocket fire, psychological warfare, and two wars. It made whoever was super-optimistic about peace a lot more skeptical and not trusting of the Palestinians anymore. But if you ask whether the people would still allow it to happen, the answer is yes. If there’s enough pressure from the U.S. and the world on Israel – and it’s only growing – and we have a prime minister who has a history of caving in under threats, then, yes, it can happen.

That’s not Bibi’s raison d’?tre as a politician, as it was for many previous prime minsters who wanted to be the one to draw the final borders of the State of Israel. Netanyahu doesn’t think that way. He doesn’t have it in his kishkes the way most leaders in Israel over the past twenty years have. And yet he would do it. What he cares about is preventing a nuclear Iran. And if the byproduct is forcing Israel to make another withdrawal in the West Bank, I see him breaking all his campaign promises and doing it.

How do you explain Netanyahu’s readiness to endorse a Palestinian state and execute a withdrawal, knowing it would impede Israel’s abilities to defend itself?

I think the point of Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech was not coming out in favor of a Palestinian state; that was something that was inevitable. The whole point was to emphasize the preconditions – it would be demilitarized and the Palestinians would have to recognize a Jewish state. To American ears that sounds like mere rhetoric, but to Israeli ears it is a euphemism for a complete end to the conflict. Netanyahu would really insist upon it. And then he would draw the borders differently. He would keep more. If Netanyahu would agree to the creation of a Palestinian state with his preconditions, he would keep the settlements blocs, and he would keep the Jordan Valley as well, but it might not be with Jews in it.

Is this a realistic scenario, given the continued incitement by the Palestinians and their refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?

The world is crazy and Netanyahu is under a lot of pressure. The pressure is just going to grow, and Obama has to justify his Nobel peace prize. Even our closest allies are putting pressure on Israel.

Is there anything that can be done to offset that pressure?

Keep up the outcry. It’s been effective and helpful and it needs to be constant, because the fight has just begun. There’s a battle between the president of United States and the prime minister of Israel; there’s a battle between the president of the United States and the people of Israel. There’s no battle between the people of Israel and the people of the United States. According to polls, the American people show record highs in support of the people of Israel, and it’s despite the president of the United States. That’s something that gives me confidence that American Jews can help Israel withstand pressure from Obama.

The Obama administration’s reaction to the flotilla episode, and most notably its pressure on Israel to accept an international inquiry, proves there will still continue to be friction between Israel and Obama despite recent efforts by his administration to fix the problems he caused earlier on. Israeli politicians, the people close to Netanyahu, cannot say it on the record, but they want American Jews to be protesting in the streets. They’ve seen that it has been effective so far, and they are appreciative of it and they desperately want it to continue.

About the Author: Sara Lehmann, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, was formerly an editor at a major New York publishing house.


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