Jerusalem – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing his first serious coalition crisis after tentatively agreeing to a new 90-day construction freeze in Judea and Samaria in return for several financial, military and political incentives from President Obama.
The list of incentives includes:
A guaranteed American veto of anti-Israel resolutions in the UN.
Joint U.S.-Israel diplomatic and military efforts designed to thwart Iran’s goal of producing a nuclear weapon.
An additional 20 advanced F-35 stealth strike fighters, gratis, upon Congressional approval. (Israel had already ordered 20 F-35s two months ago for delivery in 2012 at a cost of more than $2.75 billion.)
Also, the White House will not ask for another construction freeze after the 90-day moratorium expires, even if renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations do not produce an agreement during the moratorium; the construction freeze will only apply to Judea and Samaria and have no bearing on continued construction throughout Jerusalem; the U.S. will grant Israel nearly $20 billion in special military aid if Israel and the Palestinians reach an interim peace deal with agreed upon borders; and Israel and the U.S. will sign a formal military defense pact sometime in the next few months.
Despite the enticing list of incentives, Netanyahu, fresh off his seven-hour meeting in New York last week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, found himself on the receiving end of severe criticism from senior ranking members of his cabinet, including Deputy Prime Minister (and former IDF chief of staff) Moshe Ya’alon.
“Defense Minister Ehud Barak cooked up this deal, which no one has seen on paper and appears to have as many holes as Swiss cheese,” Ya’alon says he told the prime minister during a private gathering of the “Forum of 7,” a group of senior Likud Party ministers thought to be close to Netanyahu.
The newspaper Yisrael Hayomreported that Ya’alon was so angry with Netanyahu for letting “Barak call the shots” and caving in to Palestinian demands without getting anything in return that he was seriously considering halting any political cooperation with the prime minister.
A number of Likud Knesset members met Monday to discuss setting up a “rebellious voting faction” within the party to pressure Netanyahu not to accede to American and Palestinian demands. MK Yariv Levin told The Jewish Press that if Netanyahu agreed to a new freeze, “he would lose my vote in the Knesset.”
“This is slippery slope without a happy ending,” he added. “What happens when there is no agreement at the end of 90 days? Everyone knows the Palestinians will walk away again.”
The three-member Jewish Home faction has already informed Netanyahu that if the cabinet approves a new freeze in Judea and Samaria, the party will bolt the government, leaving Netanyahu with both a narrower ruling coalition and a fledgling rebel faction within his own Likud Party.
YESHA Council Director Naftali Bennett, who once served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, pointed out to The Jewish Press that “Three weeks ago, Netanyahu committed to the Israeli public and to the entire world that he would make no further concessions or renew the freeze unless the Palestinians first recognized Israel as the Jewish state. Now he’s seemed to drop this critical condition. If Netanyahu caves under American and Palestinian pressure, he’ll be ridiculed by the entire world. The Middle East is a tough neighborhood and its primary currency is strength and integrity. We hope the prime minister won’t throw his away.”
Senior Likud members say the next several days will be critical in determining whether the freeze controversy will force Netanyahu to make changes in his coalition. Many expect the freeze to pass in the cabinet by a narrow margin, because of the expected abstention by two Shas Party members.
Shas Minister Eli Yishai, who has long opposed another freeze, now says that “There’s a freeze going on anyway de facto, both in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria. It’s better to make it official, to limit its duration and to receive in exchange approval to build in Jerusalem, than to freeze unofficially forever.”
Meanwhile, Likud MK Danny Danon discussed the proposed freeze extension in an emergency meeting Sunday with a number of Likud activists and elected officials from towns in Judea and Samaria.
Danon termed the proposal “another bad move by the Obama administration. It is strange that the results of the elections in the United States did not turn on a huge warning light for Obama that the way to justify his Nobel prize is not through pressuring Israel.”
Danon called on Likud ministers and other nationalist ministers not to give in to American demands and not to be blinded by the package of benefits the U.S. has offered Israel. Obama knows, he said, that “freeze or no freeze, Americans will always side with Israel.”
Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba and one of the leading religious-Zionist rabbis, also urged Netanyahu to stand firm in the face of pressure.
In a letter to the prime minister, Rabbi Lior wrote: “You have merited the task of representing our nation in one of the most difficult periods in the process of our nation’s redemption, and therefore you are obliged to stand as a rock in the face of all of our enemies who seek to hurt us.
“In this difficult hour for the State of Israel, which is facing harsh pressure from the nations of the world, and especially from the ‘western power,’ to give up our right to our historic homeland, I am taking the step of wishing you ‘chazak ve’ematz’ [be strong and firm] from the heights of the Judean Mountains, the birthplace of the Kingdom of Israel, the place where our holy Forefathers rest, and the location in which Israel’s greatest leaders lived and acted in the past.”
Rabbi Lior wrote of the spiritual fortitude of Israel’s forefathers, and hoped the prime minister “will merit to [absorb] from the greatness of these people the mental strength and ability to stand firm.”
(Supplemental reporting by INN)
Steve K. Walz