It was 2,714 years ago that the Assyrian minister Rabshakeh stood on the walls of the capital and delivered a horrifying speech. An apostate Jew according to the sages, Rabshakeh warned that if the government of the Jews continued its mistaken policy, which he described as "supported by a broken reed," Jerusalem would be finished.
The government's representatives quickly urged him: "Don't speak Hebrew to us in the people's hearing." But Rabshakeh wanted to reach the masses directly, bypassing the king and the government. He had come to threaten and frighten them.
This week, U.S. President Barak Obama acted similarly, making a statement through the Jewish journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to the effect that "Israel didn't know what its best interests are." Obama addressed the people directly, bypassing the prime minister.
No, Obama is a friend, not an enemy. He is not trying to subvert Israel's existence. Rather, he sees it as a strategic asset to the United States, a kind of aircraft carrier in the stormy sands of the Middle East. But he does not like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy toward the Palestinians, so as the elections approach, he has decided to "speak Hebrew" to the voters and to warn them in almost the same words the Assyrian minister Rabshakeh used so long ago. The biblical event ended well for Jerusalem; Rabshakeh's forces were defeated.
The situation in the Middle East in 2013 is fluid.
The American president directed his statements toward Israel's voters. This was no surprise to Netanyahu, who said on several occasions that he had not been able to convince the American administration that he hadn't supported Republican candidate Mitt Romney's bid for the presidency, so payback from Obama was almost inevitable. It's also possible that this will not be the last such instance before the polls open on Tuesday.
It's hard to know in advance whether such scare campaigns against other countries, friend and foe alike, are successful. The psychological response of the country that has been warned, whom foreigners "speak Hebrew to," is never uniform.
In Jerusalem of King Hezekiah's time, the people did not fall victim to the Assyrians' psychological warfare. In Jerusalem of 2013, we have to wait for the election results to know whether the masses responded by getting behind Netanyahu or abandoning him in terror. The data from the polls published Thursday showed that Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni gained no strength as a result of Obama's statements, which were intended to help her.
The nation's conditional reflex is reminiscent of the story of a man who cursed the mother of another man, who responded by knocking him out cold. The first man, nursing his bruises, said, "But you yourself said that about your mother." The other man said, "She's my mother. I can say whatever I want to about her. But you can't — you're a stranger." Similarly, the confused Israeli on his way to the polls is willing to hear even harsher statements from Labor head Shelly Yachimovich, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Livni, but not from strangers from abroad.
No real debate
Most Jews in Israel identify with Obama's preferred solution. They support the two-state solution by a majority of five to four.
But by a majority of 12 to seven, they also hold the opinion that peace with the Palestinians is impossible and that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cannot be a partner to it. The American president who criticized the prime minister so harshly completely ignored the Palestinians' responsibility for the stalemate.
Even Israelis like me, who favor the two-state solution, are behaving like ostriches and burying their heads in the sand. It's true that there is clear proof that the Palestinians rejected the compromises offered by Ehud Barak (2000) and Ehud Olmert (2009) and are interfering with any solution. But what is Israel doing about their refusal to make peace?
Obama, President Shimon Peres, former Prime Minister Omert, Livni and former Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin are not winning the hearts of the Israeli voters who favor the two-state solution because the voters know, deep in their hearts, that there is no Palestinian partner. Even as they suspect that Netanyahu is not sincere about it, they know that not even Zahava Gal-On of Meretz could succeed.
The election campaign provides such amusements as the opinions of the mothers of Shelly Yachimovich and Naftali Bennett rather than real debate about any alternative that could result in peace. Even the unilateral process of disengagement from the Gaza Strip failed.
It's not enough to accuse Netanyahu of not being sincere about peace with the Palestinians. An honest political opposition at such a crucial diplomatic crossroads that is warned by an American president must offer confused voters a solution of its own. Is it unilateral withdrawal from the settlement blocs? Is it a deeper withdrawal? Is it to stay in a holding pattern until something changes?
If Livni, Lapid, Shelly and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz had a practical solution, they would become a majority in Israel. In the absence of such a solution, they share the majority's opinion, but do not have its vote.
On the way to American pressure?
The Israeli majority prefers, by a ratio of 10 to 7, a coalition comprised of the joint list of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah over one with the religious and haredim. This kind of mathematical magic can really only work in opinion polls, not in reality, since in a coalition like that, the ruling party would be in the minority. No prime minister would want to depend on ministers from other political parties — rather than from his own — for his government's survival.
That's one of the reasons why there's almost complete agreement in Israel's upper political echelon that the next government will not last out its term. In 2009, Livni made a mistake by refusing to accept the assessment of Gideon Sa'ar and others that the government would last a full four years, so in a rotation agreement she would be its head for 19 months. The feeling in 2013 is different.
Obama's harsh statement is evidence of growing international pressure, the U.S.'s increasing unwillingness to use its veto to defend Israel in the U.N. Security Council and the usual behavior patterns in the White House of leading from behind — Europe is being sent to the political front and America is not getting involved.
Against this backdrop, the Likud's leaders fear that the next government will not last long. But Naftali Bennett is not afraid. He is willing to enter such a government. If he should end up in the opposition, he will wage an ever-escalating battle against the government. But if he finds himself within the government, the Habayit Hayehudi faction will be, in his estimation, the most pragmatic of all. He will not seek to overthrow the government over trifles.
There is only one thing that could make him do so. If Netanyahu should try to establish a Palestinian state, Bennett promises to quit the government to lead a public battle against it.
No peace in the oasis
The purpose of the community of Neve Shalom is to serve as an ideal example of a binational state where Jews and Arabs live together in peace. But Professor Amia Lieblich, a psychologist who specializes in writing books based on the testimonies of special groups such as "the children of Gush Etzion," went as the spearhead of brotherhood among nations and found that "in Neve Shalom, nobody agrees about anything except to disagree." This applies to everything from dogs running free to the signs that accompanied the Gaza flotilla.
Most shocking of all was the testimony of Daniela Kitain, whose son Tom, a soldier in the Nahal unit, was killed in the helicopter disaster of 1997. "We silence disagreement, and the distances are growing. ... Before Tom was killed, we could talk about the fact that [community members] performed army service. It was legitimate. [After Tom was killed], people began to say that going to the army was not legitimate, that it was wrong here in the community. ... For years, I told that to groups who came here to visit. The Arabs must accept that the Jews have an obligation to defend their country. ... It's fortunate that the Jewish custom is to bury the dead immediately and not after a month or two. That's how Tom was able to be buried here. ... I felt like they were telling me, though they didn't say so openly, that no Jewish soldier, no Israeli soldier, would be buried here. ... People said terrible things. ... The Arabs who live with us have become more extreme, and I too have become more Jewish, more Israeli, certainly since Tom was killed. ... Since then, many people have reached the age of enlistment and not enlisted. ... All my friends are Jewish."
That's just one small example. This is the place that is still known as Neve Shalom, the Oasis of Peace.