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Rose Report: Netanyahu Dishes the Tough Questions

Binyamin Rose

In the Middle East, outwitting your interlocutors is more than the art of politics — it’s a matter of survival

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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irst Person

Reporters on the Netanyahu beat got another glimpse of his negotiating style at what’s billed his annual “toast” to the foreign press.

Standing on stage in the Allenby Room of the new and posh Orient Hotel in Jerusalem, Netanyahu engaged in one-upmanship with mentalist Lior Suchard, who wowed the crowd with his ability to guess audience members’ deepest secrets. But he found his match in Bibi.

Suchard failed to replicate the drawing Netanyahu scrawled of a menorah with the words “Am Yisrael Chai” underneath. The mentalist cried foul afterward, telling a TV reporter that Netanyahu violated a precondition of their joint appearance by drawing his diagram before they got on stage.

Netanyahu’s press people declined to comment, but President Trump, take note: Bibi can be preemptive.

Netanyahu took the opposite tack when asked by a reporter to draw up his own ultimate peace agreement. “Why don’t you let Mr. Trump present his first? And of course, if President Trump puts forward his proposal, his ideas, I’ll study them very carefully.”

In the Middle East, outwitting your interlocutors is more than the art of politics — it’s a matter of survival.

The annual toast provides Israel’s foreign press corps of about 500 the opportunity to talk shop and network while sipping wine, eating salmon carved from a whole fish, and sampling cubes of beef asado in a tangy sauce.

A year ago, Netanyahu appeared in front of the same crowd of reporters, delivering a 45-minute presentation on Israel’s economic and diplomatic achievements under his government.

This year, Bibi spoke for just 15 minutes, using much of his time to give mussar to the media for its biased Middle East coverage.

Netanyahu asked reporters for a show of hands as to how many of them covered the story of the Palestinians’ “pay for slay” program in the wake of the brutal terrorist murder of Rabbi Raziel Shevach in the Shomron earlier that week.

You must hand it to the media for their honesty. Only two or three hands went up.

“Next year, every hand should go up,” Netanyahu said.

Then he asked for a show of hands on who’s covered the Netanyahu government’s NIS 15 billion investment in the Arab sector for health, education, and welfare, or the Education Ministry’s pilot program to teach Jewish Israeli sixth-graders spoken Arabic.

“Did any of you cover that?” Netanyahu asked. “Hello? No? Not one? Not even those who covered the other thing? But you’ve got a gap here. You should close that gap.”

His grand finale was his annual jab at Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu ticked off the US administrations that Abbas has ticked off by running away from peace talks.

“You want to negotiate peace?” Netanyahu asked. “You’ve got to negotiate. We’ve never put any preconditions on negotiations, and I don’t do so now.”

Abbas Goes on a Rant

Netanyahu received his answer from Abbas on Sunday.

The PA chairman, whose preconditions have preconditions, managed to antagonize Trump, David Friedman, Nikki Haley, the Arab League, and the United Kingdom during a rambling two-hour harangue delivered to the Palestinian Central Council.

He labeled the peace plan Trump hasn’t introduced yet “a slap in the face.” Moving quickly from head to toe, he said Haley “threatens to hit people who hurt Israel with the heel of her shoe, and we’ll respond in the same way.” Abbas, whose doctorate is in Holocaust denial, labeled David Friedman a “settler” and an “offensive human being,” and once again demanded the UK issue a belated apology for the Balfour Declaration.

Abbas’s tirade probably sealed an expected decision by the Trump administration to halve its funding to UNRWA, the UN agency that provides the PA with essential social services, but which critics say also perpetuates the Palestinians’ refugee status.

At Netanyahu’s toast, I reintroduced myself to Neri Zilber, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C. At the AIPAC convention two years ago, I interviewed Zilber in one area of his expertise — his study of Palestinian society for signs of the emergence of a younger generation of leadership ready for a constructive relationship with Israel.

After Abbas’s speech, I re-contacted Zilber, asking how US cuts to UNRWA would go down.

“It’s important to note that this is a suspension of aid, not necessarily a permanent cut,” Zilber said, adding that funding cuts run the risk of demonstrations and greater unrest. “Israel, and the IDF, will likely be the first ones arguing to reinstate it.”

Zilber was also pessimistic that it will achieve the desired diplomatic results. “Haley is mistaken if she thinks UNRWA cuts will bring Abbas back to the negotiating table — as he made clear last night.”

Informed of Abbas's comments on his state visit to India, Netanyahu "credited" Abbas.

"He has revealed the truth. He has torn off the mask and shown to the public the simple truth that I have been working to instill for many long years: The root of the conflict between us and the Palestinians is their steadfast refusal to recognize the Jewish state in any borders whatsoever," Netanyahu said.

Trump’s True Religion

There is one segment of the media that Netanyahu has nothing to complain about: the Christian media.

The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), serving 376 million viewers and listeners in 154 countries, is unabashedly pro-Israel, while maintaining high standards of professionalism and fact-based reporting, mainly thanks to Chris Mitchell, CBN’s veteran Middle East bureau chief.

I always enjoy touching base with Mitchell for the context and perspective he brings to politics, and this time, at Bibi’s toast, was no exception.

If I wanted to understand what makes Donald Trump tick, he suggested I research his family’s longstanding affiliation with Manhattan’s Marble Collegiate Church.

Its pastor, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, was author of the 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking, which spent 186 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, and has sold some 7 million copies, despite opposition from some leading Christian theologians who consider Peale’s teachings heretical.

For the Trumps, Peale’s book was the holy grail. An October 2015 article in Politico penned by Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, carried the headline “How Norman Vincent Peale Taught Donald Trump to Worship Himself.” Although Donald was a lad of six when the book came out, and the future president didn’t read it until much later, Peale’s writings became textbook Trump: brand yourself, build confidence in your own powers, and depreciate every so-called obstacle in your path.

Trump is not every evangelical’s cup of tea, though that population voted for him by a margin of 4 to 1 in 2016.

His choice of running mate Mike Pence, who told the GOP convention in 2016 that he is “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” gave evangelicals a measure of confidence in Trump, but the president has earned his own share of respect since that time.

“I believe most evangelicals support or have confidence in Trump because he is reversing what they saw Obama doing for eight years,” Mitchell said. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 694)

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