Bibi Netanyahu has performed a major “climb-down” and withdrawn all Israeli video surveillance equipment and crowd control railings (English article) from the al Aqsa enclave in Jerusalem. Video cameras which had been installed on overhead rods after two Israeli police were killed two weeks ago, have been removed (see video of the removal). Israeli media report that the operation was performed under cover of darkness with large plastic overhead tarps blocking the view of journalists, who might broadcast Bibi’s ignominious “retreat.”
Israeli authorities have not said whether they intend to pursue the installation of “smart technology” which would be less intrusive, but more comprehensive in monitoring the private communications of would-be worshippers. Though it does seem unlikely that in returning to the status quo now, that Israel would be willing to risk a repetition of this week’s violence by installing the new technology within six months as it had originally planned.
Another troubling development that hasn’t been widely covered by foreign media is that Israel has arrested 30 Palestinian journalists assigned to cover the al Aqsa protests. It has also physically ejected Israeli Jewish reporters from the Haram al Sharif despite their holding official press credentials; and despite the fact that Israel has never placed such restrictions on journalists before. Some of the journalists were pushed and shoved by police in a manner that is unprecedented in Israel. The government has unilaterally and profoundly restricted press freedom and done so without consultation with journalists or legal authorities.
In a related matter, Netanyahu yesterday said he was closing Al Jazeera’s office in Israel. He appears not to know whether he’s legally empowered to do so (which is odd) and announced that if he wasn’t, he planned to introduce legislation to do so. Which is odd because there are a number of Arab media outlets licensed in Israel. Even PressTV has a correspondent there. So why single out Al Jazeera? How has it incited more hatred of Israel than other media outlets?
The answer, of course, is to be found in sheer hypocrisy. Like all social climbers who yearn for acceptance in the toniest clubs, Bibi has been admitted to the “club” of Sunni nations. As a Jew, he can’t be a full member. But he can be an honorary member. As a result, he’s toadying up to the Saudis in their bitter feud with Qatar. As Al Jazeera is one of the major bones of contention in the dispute (the Saudis hate its free-wheeling media coverage), what better way to make hay with your new BFFs than by showing them that you can do in your own country what they’ve not yet been able to do: shut down Al Jazeera? It’s vile. It’s transparent. It’s shameful. And SO Bibi.
As with so many tragic episodes in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the al Aqsa protest was an incident that needn’t have happened. When the police were killed, Israeli leaders certainly (on their terms) had to respond. But they could’ve chosen the path suggested by the Shin Bet of pursuing weapons used by Palestinians in such attacks in the villages where they are produced and sold. Instead, Netanyahu wanted a visible, strong response and grasped the thin reed of harsh intrusive surveillance methods as a way of showing the Israeli populace that the government wouldn’t permit this to happen again. Of course, the easiest way to prevent such bloodshed would’ve been to withdraw Israeli police entirely, who serve no purpose other than to provoke and incite Muslim worshippers (and assault the sacred sanctums of the mosques with tear gas and rubber bullets periodically). But that’s a non-starter in the Israeli political climate.
Once Bibi chose to change the status quo at the sacred site, the stage was set for a massive confrontation. As always, hot-heads on each side take the law into their own hands, making matters much worse. That’s what led to the murder of three settlers a few days later. And once the Shin Bet agent killed two Jordanian citizens in Amman, Bibi maneuvered himself into an impossible situation. Had he not given in, Friday would have been a mad house with hundred of thousands of Palestinians congregating around the Haram al Sharif and massed police daring them to riot. Instead of only 10 Palestinian dead, as there was over the past week, there was the prospect of 100 or more dead this Friday and in the days following. Even “The Settler’s Friend,” Trump envoy Jason Greenblatt, was urging Netanyahu to make concessions.
For those who recall, this is exactly how the Syrian civil war began in 2011: with weekly calls from the mosques for resistance. And hundreds of thousands of Syrians congregating in the streets and demanding freedom. Bibi must’ve stared that possibility in the face and finally blinked.
While Bibi’s climb-down appears to respond fully to the demands of Muslim worshippers, who refused to return to the mosque until the former worship conditions were restored; it has stirred a huge hornet’s nest of resistance from the Israeli far-right. Even Israel HaYom, known as Bibiton, furiously attacked Netanyahu with a blaring front page headline:
Removing Metal Detectors Demonstrates Netanyahu’s Impotence
Israel’s response to the Temple Mount attack was feeble and timid and the step the prime minister took was aimed directly against his political base of support.
To understand this dramatic fall from grace, it’s worth returning to the corruption scandals besetting Bibi on all sides. One of them, known as Case 2000, compelled Sheldon Adelson to testify before Israeli police. As you can imagine, Adelson is fond of testifying to anyone. His one bit of public testimony in a Las Vegas court case revealed him to be churlish, argumentative, and non-responsive, even to the judge. He followed this by directing his own newspaper to find dirt on the judge and publish it (sounds like another politician we know well…). As a result, Adelson appears to have calculated that Bibi’s days are numbered. As a result he’s withdrawn his blank check on Bibi’s behalf and has laid down heavy bets on Naftali Bennett as the future prime minister.
The difference between the two seems largely immaterial. Both are awful. If Bibi has brought the Middle East to within 15 minutes of midnight, to use the famous atomic clock theme of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Bennett would move it forward to five minutes to midnight.
With tonight’s total removal of all security and surveillance, the Israeli far-right will be dancing on Bibi’s political grave. They will see this as total capitulation to Muslim power. In Israel politics is a macho game. Who’s tougher on Arabs? Who shows less mercy and more strength towards them?
So in this sense, Netanyahu has given a huge opening to his rivals to exploit his perceived weakness. Lest anyone in the world media covering this story say Israeli breathed a sigh of relief and that the brinksmanship is over: I’m afraid not. While the immediate crisis between Israeli security forces and Palestinian Muslims may be receding; a domestic political crisis is rearing its ugly head. Who will inherit the tough guy image and become the next prime minister? Who can kill more Arabs and show not an ounce of empathy doing it? That guy’s gonna be the next PM.