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Binyamin Rose

Even Obama can’t douse Bibi’s Chanukah cheer

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

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EVEN IF “I’ve said this to Abu Mazen many times,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently told the foreign press. “Suppose we leave and we go back to the 1967 lines and there’s not a single Jew walking in any one of these communities. Would you then recognize the Jewish state?” (Photos: AFP/Imagebank, Flash 90)

A s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took to the podium for what was billed as his annual Chanukah toast to the foreign press, he told the crowd of 300 editors and reporters he was in a good mood. In Israel, they call it matzav ruach tov, slang for “I’m ready for whatever you toss at me.”

Two wine glasses placed near his microphone remained empty for the duration of the toast, a short salutation that turned into a 45-minute news conference. After feeding the media the best beef the Inbal Hotel could offer at a pre-toast reception, Netanyahu fed them his worldview for the champagne course, a tippler in which Israel’s glass is not empty, or even half-full. It’s full to the brim. Netanyahu hardly disguised his elation at the upcoming changing of the guard in Washington. “How’s Netanyahu going to deal with this when he’s not going to have massive pressure on him? Just fine. I mean, that’s great. That’s an opportunity to actually pursue some new ideas, which I intend to raise with Donald Trump when he’s in the White House, to see how we can solve this conflict. One of the things we certainly have going for us is a new environment in the Middle East with the Arab world, and we may be able to harness that reality for a sustainable solution.”

Since this was a gathering of foreign correspondents in Israel — not a conservative bunch — Netanyahu had to stay on his toes. His best riposte came in answer to a two-minute monologue masquerading as a question from Dan Perry, AP’s Jerusalem text editor. Perry didn’t disguise his bias, noting Israel’s 50-year “presence” in the West Bank and its “suicidal” policies that have created “irreversible” conditions there. Netanyahu leaned over, one hand on the podium’s edge, with a look of bemusement. He’s heard this all before and dished it back.

“I’ve said this to Abu Mazen many times,” Netanyahu began. “Suppose we leave and we go back to the 1967 lines and there’s not a single Jew walking in any one of these communities. Would you then recognize the Jewish state? Would you give up your demands for the right of return to Jaffa, Akko, Haifa, and Nazareth? They sort of squirm in their seats. The settlements are an important issue, but they’re not the core of the conflict, and they’re not even the most important [issue]. Many arrangements are possible, but I don’t think removing people from their homes is one of them. I think that’s a bad idea, whether it applies to Jews, or it applies to Arabs.”

None of the tough questions and answers doused the Chanukah cheer. Whether the Government Press Office’s choice of the Zion Ballroom at the Inbal Hotel as the venue for the gathering was meant to send a subliminal message or not, it didn’t scare anyone away, including a handful of members from the diplomatic community who traditionally attend.

Netanyahu singled out Kemal Okem, the newly dispatched ambassador from Turkey, for a warm welcome. Okem attracted a swarm of reporters seeking interviews. He said it’s too early for him to go on the record, but he did tender to Mishpacha an invitation for an off-the-record get-acquainted session at Turkey’s embassy in Tel Aviv, and the chance to experience the power of Turkish coffee, which he claims is superior to Israel’s java.

Hungary’s ambassador to Israel, Andor Nagy, was also spotted. During a discussion of my trips to Budapest, he shared a brief impression of his visit to Meah Shearim, where he was gladdened to see home furnishings that reminded him of Hungarian d?cor of a bygone era.

And there was Walter Bingham, Israel’s oldest active journalist, whom Mishpacha profiled (“Inside Walter’s World,” Issue 583). As might be expected, the intrepid Bingham immediately informed me of his plans to celebrate his upcoming 93rd birthday with a parachute jump off the coast at Akko. “They won’t let me do it at the beach in Tel Aviv,” Bingham said. “They told me I’m too old.” In all, the turnout of 300 media members constituted more than 60% of the 480 foreign correspondents stationed here from 30 countries.

Every politician loves an audience, and the international flavor played into one of Netanyahu’s main themes: Israel’s relations with the world are at an all-time high, contrary to the leftists’ doomsday talk of international isolation.

He showed a slide with a map, color-coding all of the world powers with whom Israel enjoys healthy relations. First and foremost, the United States, and then India, China, Japan, and Russia. “We’re even going to have good relations with Western Europe — one day,” Netanyahu quipped.

He noted two highlights from this month alone: the trilateral summit in Jerusalem with Greece and Cyprus to develop a regional gas pipeline for Israel’s exports; and his visits to two Muslim countries, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which Bibi classified as “absolutely friendly.” His minister of defense, Avigdor Lieberman, who forged those relations during his stint as foreign minister, is fond of reminding reporters that Israel conducts more trade with Azerbaijan than with France. To boot, Azerbaijan shares a border with Iran, which potentially offers Israel a strategic lookout.

Not that Bibi was beating any war drums. He didn’t mention Iran once. Besides the numerous slides detailing the scope of Israel’s global relations, others demonstrated how Israel’s stock market outperformed that of the US and how Israel’s favorable ratings are rising among Americans during his tenure, despite endless efforts to paint him as the bad guy. Not one slide of Iran’s ticking nuclear program.

The UN is giving Jerusalem a rough ride over settlements, yet 71% percent of Americans hold a very or mostly favorable view of Israel, versus 19% viewing the Palestinian Authority favorably (Gallup Poll 2016)

So if Israel really is that strong, asked Ruth Eglash of the Washington Post, isn’t this an opportune time to resume relations with the Palestinians?

“The answer is any time is good,” Netanyahu said. “We’ve offered it in the past. The Palestinians didn’t come forward, because they basically adopted a strategy of saying, okay, we won’t foster terror, but we won’t move forward with peace.”

Netanyahu added he has called on PA chairman Abu Mazen “several hundred times” both publicly and privately. “He never came because he was betting the shop on the idea of an international diktat. I hope that’s out of his field of calculations now, and if it is, let him come and talk,” Netanyahu said. “My view is we will get peace if our neighbors understand there is no way to dislodge us.” Three days later, the UN Security Council issued its own international diktat, condemning Israel for settlement construction. President Obama’s parting shot at Netanyahu was a US abstention, instead of the customary veto.

On the first night of Chanukah, at an event saluting wounded soldiers and victims of terrorism, Bibi lashed out, calling the resolution “delusional,” adding that “the Obama administration carried out a shameful anti-Israel ploy at the UN.”

Netanyahu retaliated against New Zealand and Senegal, two of the four Security Council members who presented the resolution for vote after its original sponsor, Egypt, backed down under pressure from Israel and Donald Trump. Israel recalled its ambassadors to New Zealand and Senegal, and halted all agricultural assistance to Senegal. Israel has no diplomatic relations with the other two countries, Malyasia and Venezuela.

Calling the UN vote “part of the swan song of the old world that is biased against Israel,” Bibi promised we are entering a new era. “And just as President-elect Trump said yesterday, it will happen much sooner than you think.”

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