Bibi's Next Battle

Forget Hamas. The Israeli prime minister is now facing a war within his own government.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Children across Israel went back to school on Monday, after a summer of war and unrest, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped by several classrooms for the obligatory photo ops.

At a school in the southern town of Mabu'im, he asked a student to name his favorite animal. "Snakes," the boy replied.

A grinning Netanyahu couldn't resist: "Snakes? Come on, I'll give you a few," he quipped.

It's a testament to Israel's bitter domestic politics that Netanyahu's remark was widely interpreted as a dig at his unruly cabinet members, rather than at Hamas or other foreign enemies. With the fighting in Gaza seemingly concluded after Netanyahu and Hamas accepted a cease-fire on Aug. 26, the prime minister is now digging in for a long political war.

The truce satisfied almost nobody in his government, particularly its restive right wing, which wanted to see Hamas completely crushed. Polls show that the prime minister's approval rating has plunged as low as 32 percent, after hitting the mid-80s in July. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called it a deal with "contemptible murderers," creating the odd spectacle of the top Israeli diplomat rejecting a major Israeli foreign-policy decision. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett warned that the cease-fire would prevent Israel from bombing a hypothetical Hamas "rocket factory" in Gaza; he has been such an acerbic critic that Netanyahu at one point asked him to shut up.

Both Liberman and Bennett have their eyes on Netanyahu's job, and have spent this summer trying to position themselves as the true candidates of the Israeli right. Each has deep ties to Netanyahu: Liberman helped him take control of Likud in the 1990s, and ran on a joint ticket with Bibi last year; Bennett was once the prime minister's campaign manager. But now, they're his most dangerous rivals.

In an apparent effort to cover Netanyahu's right flank, the government claimed nearly 1,000 acres of the occupied West Bank as "state land" this week -- Israel's largest single land grab in the West Bank in decades. The move, which is a likely first step toward major settlement construction, drew fierce international condemnation. However, it also won Netanyahu domestic praise from the right, including from Bennett himself.

Nonetheless, Bibi increasingly seems like a centrist in Israel's ever more conservative politics. A new poll found that 39 percent of Israelis think Bennett "best represents the views of the right," compared to 28 percent for Netanyahu.

Coming in third in that survey was Liberman, whose political star may be fading. He suffers from a growing reputation as a political opportunist, after opportunistically breaking his party's unity pact with Likud in July, but declining to leave the government. The foreign minister described himself last month as a leader of the "pragmatic right," contrasting himself with Bennett and the "dogmatic right." But while he routinely issues inflammatory statements -- in recent months, he urged supporters to boycott Palestinian-owned businesses in Israel, and threatened to ban Al Jazeera from the country -- he can point to few practical accomplishments. Asked on Channel 1 this week to outline his diplomatic successes during the Gaza war, all he could muster was that "200 Hollywood stars" came out in support of Israel.

His Yisrael Beytenu party, meanwhile, has struggled to make inroads outside of its traditional base -- immigrants from the former Soviet Union. According to the polls, if elections were held today, the party would be reduced to perhaps the fourth- or fifth-largest bloc.

Even Lieberman has acknowledged that early elections are not in his best interests, and that his political position does not allow him to leave the government at this time.

"We have a cabinet, and I'm sorry to recognize that I was a minority in our cabinet," he told CNN. "But we won a very important part of this coalition, and we will support our government, because the alternative, new elections, early elections, I think it's a really bad choice for the state of Israel."

It may be Bennett who poses a greater long-term threat to Netanyahu's position. He is a charismatic newcomer to the Knesset, a former officer in an elite army unit and an entrepreneur who made millions in the software industry. His Jewish Home party won 12 seats in last year's election, the fourth-largest bloc. The party caters to religious Zionists, and promotes an aggressive nationalism, but it won broader support by adding a focus on social and economic issues, like ending army draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

"Liberman and Bennett behaved the same ... but with Liberman it's seen as political maneuvering," said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political analyst. "Bennett, maybe you don't like what he says, but you can't argue that he's inconsistent."

There are some wild cards who could upset this three-way political contest. Netanyahu could face a challenge from within Likud: Primary elections in 2012 pushed the party far to the right, and Danny Danon, the chairman of the party's central committee, is a vocal critic of the prime minister. Netanyahu fired Danon from his job as deputy defense minister in July because of his public attacks.

Another possible challenge comes from Yuval Diskin, a former Shin Bet chief now widely seen as preparing to enter politics. He seems prepared to challenge Netanyahu on security issues, long seen as the prime minister's home turf. "Israel today is led by a flaccid leadership," he wrote in an op-ed for Yedioth Aharonot this weekend, warning that diplomatic paralysis is weakening the country.

But for all the incipient threats and this summer's political drama, Netanyahu's unwieldy coalition for now appears oddly stable. The postwar polls show a major drop in the prime minister's popularity, but they are basically a return to prewar averages. Netanyahu has not collapsed like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose approval rating eventually hit 2 percent after the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Crucially, the public does not see an alternative to Netanyahu. A Haaretz-Dialog poll released last week found that 42 percent of respondents still believe he's the best choice for prime minister. The second-most popular candidate, with 20 percent of the vote, was "I don't know."

"He has lots of political problems, but when you ask the general public, they're sort of satisfied," said Schneider.

A Knesset Channel poll released on Sept. 1 gave Netanyahu 26 seats in the next election, compared to 19 for Bennett and 18 for the Labor Party. Combined with Liberman and Bennett, the center-right bloc would hold 53 mandates by itself, eight shy of a majority.

It's ironic, then, that the main short-term threat to the coalition could come from the center-left. These figures are not particularly influential: Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni were co-opted into the coalition, while nobody has heard from Labor in months. (A post circulating on Facebook recently compared party leader Isaac Herzog to the golem, a silent creature from Jewish mythology.)

But Lapid might be the one to bring down the government, in order to shore up his ever-weaker position. The TV personality turned centrist politician capitalized on widespread socioeconomic grievances in the previous election, running on a platform of strengthening the middle class that garnered his Yesh Atid party 19 seats in the Knesset, the second-largest bloc.

Netanyahu rewarded Lapid with the post of finance minister -- which, as intended, proved to be a poisoned chalice. To avoid raising taxes after the war, Lapid imposed spending cuts and enlarged the budget deficit to more than 3 percent of Israel's GDP. Next year's budget will likely require further cuts to social services.

Meanwhile, Lapid's flagship initiative, a plan to exempt first-time home buyers from taxes, has been tabled. If elections were held today, polls suggest that Yesh Atid would be cut in half, from 19 seats to nine or ten.

Lapid said last week that he does not plan to pull Yesh Atid from the coalition. But analysts say he might try to fail at his central job: passing a budget. If the Knesset does not approve a spending plan by March 31, the country will automatically head for early elections.

"[He's] not really thinking about what has to be done about Israel's economic problems," said Avi Temkin, a columnist for the Israeli financial daily Globes. "He's thinking about what he has to do in order to get to the next elections in a better situation."

But even if the left forces early elections, Netanyahu's fight will be on the right. For the moment, he seems to have the upper hand: Bennett and Liberman have toned down their rhetoric over the past few days, and the Knesset is in recess until next month. Still, with talks over the Gaza blockade due to resume in Cairo later this month and the international community pushing for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, the attacks from the right are bound to resurface.

It seems clear that Netanyahu's right-wing antagonists will have ample fodder with which to attack him. After Israel's recent land annexation in the West Bank, Netanyahu reportedly shelved plans for another 2,500 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The move prompted a prominent settler leader to accuse him of imposing a "covert freeze."

Netanyahu was worried about the international backlash; Bennett, though, has no such constraints. He toured the settlement site on Monday and effusively praised the planned construction. "We are building, and the world never liked our building," he said. "We're still building."

Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images


Trophies From an Incomprehensible War

As fighting rages in the east, one Slovyansk museum is already trying to tell the story of the war in Ukraine, one bullet-riddled helmet at a time.

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — When militants from the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) set up an outpost near the regional museum in Slovyansk in April, they stole two World War II field guns from the courtyard to defend their barricades.

The Ukrainian army drove out the occupying DNR rebels in July, but the liberators took the artillery with them. The soldiers took the field guns all the way to Kiev, putting them on view outside the war museum there as trophies. Neither side bothered to take off the notices that read: "Please don't steal our museum exhibits," which is how museum director Lilya Zander recognized her old exhibits on display in the capital, about 400 miles away.

She still has not gotten them back. Nor was either side fighting in the conflict apparently bothered that they are, in fact, useless replicas.

Other than the pair of fake guns, Zander's museum somehow survived weeks of fighting and looting unharmed, despite the widespread destruction of the surrounding town. This spring, Slovyansk briefly became the center of the armed pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine that has set neighbor against neighbor and has turned much of the area around Donetsk and Luhansk into a war zone, claiming more than 2,000 civilian lives and displacing many hundreds of thousands more. The town was retaken by the Ukrainian army on July 5, after weeks of heavy shelling.

Hospitals, orphanages, and thousands of private homes have been damaged and destroyed in Slovyansk, but inside the museum's modest brick building, rooms re-create the peaceful interiors of a traditional Ukrainian peasant cottage and a 1950s Soviet dining room. Slovyansk's history from a prehistoric settlement through medieval trade, revolution, and world war to contemporary salt and clay industries is charted in collections begun in the 1970s.

Now Zander and her colleagues have started a new collection of artifacts from the town's latest occupation and liberation. They hope to create an exhibition that will make sense of those terrible, absurd months in 2014 when people who had known each other all their lives took up arms against each other; kidnapped, tortured, and murdered; played at soldiers; stole what they could; or hid in their cellars and waited for the nightmare to be over. 

Museum staff have no name for the collection yet or for their planned exhibition. Zander tentatively calls it "Trophies From an Incomprehensible War."

"Our job is to tell the history of our region," Zander said. "Today, our sorry history is our war."

Today Slovyansk may feel calm, but the peace is skin-deep. Instead of DNR recruitment posters, notices urge residents to report their neighbors for separatism (punishable by up to 15 years in prison) and warn them to be on their guard against terrorists and provocateurs. Wounded soldiers and refugees arrive daily from fighting less than 60 miles to the south and east. The town buzzes with rumors of an imminent new onslaught from pro-Russian or Russian forces.

Amid these tensions, Zander and her colleagues have put up notices in the town hall asking locals to donate recent artifacts that can help explain what happened in this city of 130,000 during the spring and summer of 2014, though they do not expect the exhibition to be ready for months, even years.

Still, in its beginning stages, so far the collection consists of cardboard boxes of body armor and gas masks, shell casings, paramilitary badges, and propaganda materials collected after DNR fighters fled Slovyansk. There are DNR recruitment fliers that resemble Hollywood action-movie posters and issues of the short-lived Slovyansk Front newsletter, which combine Soviet-style martial appeals from DNR leaders with domestic news about soup kitchens in a town under siege.

Zander has been unable to get any objects from the Ukrainian army, and anything of military value either DNR or Ukrainians forces took with them. Left behind are the useless remnants of an amateur fighting force: "bulletproof" vests made from homemade metal sheets held together with tape and canvas straps, a helmet with a paper cutout of the Russian two-headed eagle glued lopsidedly to the front.

But curating the exhibit will be at least as difficult as building the collection.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has yet to find a coherent narrative. Ukraine calls it an "anti-terrorist operation"; Russia calls it a "Ukrainian internal conflict"; propaganda on both sides has termed it everything from NATO aggression to genocide. The debate over nomenclature extends to those who are participating in the fighting: Locals who took up arms to support the DNR or its sister republic further east, the Luhansk People's Republic, object violently to being called "separatists," preferring the term "militants" who are fighting to protect their land from invasion by the "fascists" in Kiev.

This semantic battlefield presents a potential minefield for the museum. "I'm for a united Ukraine," Zander hurried to tell me. But, she said, the museum is "not trying to show 'for' and 'against.' We're trying to show the facts." She pointed to a helmet with a DNR sticker and a bullet hole right through it, picked up from a battlefield; whoever was wearing it presumably died. The helmet, she said, could be labeled a "separatist" helmet. "Separatists are those who want to divide Ukraine. It isn't an insult -- it's the right name." But others, she said, would want to label the helmet with words like "hero" or "bandit."

Everything in the coming exhibition has been donated by local people. But for some residents, the conflict still raging within Ukraine's borders remains too raw for its remnants to yet make the transition into history. In Slovyansk's main square, pensioner Tatiana Tyshenko showed me a bundle of leaflets the Ukrainian army dropped from airplanes in May, with instructions for residents on how to behave under occupation by what the pamphlet calls "terrorists."

"I didn't see them fall, but I saw someone running to collect them in the garden, so I ran out too, and we fought over them," she said, showing me the torn corners. Until she read them, she said, "We were like blind cats; we had no idea what was happening. I hid three of them; I heard that anyone who had one would be shot."

"These are important documents," said Tyshenko, stowing the leaflets carefully back in her handbag. For her, these are not museum pieces but vital instructions she might yet need. "They will become history; this will pass and then maybe we will start to forget. But now it is all fresh."

As Tyshenko told me her version of what happened in Slovyansk this summer, a man sitting near us on the bench interrupted. "She's fooling you; she's not telling you what really happened. Tell the truth," he shouted at her.

In neighboring Mykolaivka, massively damaged during the Ukrainian army's rout of the DNR on July 3 and 4, a woman told me about her brother, who was returned home to be buried in early August. He was killed fighting for the DNR near Donetsk.

"He was a hero," Svetlana told me. She still keeps at home the items her brother gave her, despite visits from Ukrainian law enforcement officials: rebel-produced Novorossiya newspapers, DNR flags, and a St. George ribbon, the Soviet symbol of World War II victory that has become a sign of separatism in Ukraine.

"I'll always keep that because it isn't just a symbol," Svetlana said. "It is my memorial."

Fluttering St. George ribbons have now disappeared from Slovyansk's streets, along with the separatist outposts -- like the one outside the Slovyansk museum guarded with Zander's two stolen World War II cannons.

Zander herself is still coming to terms with what happened in the town she grew up in and what is still happening to her country. 

"I can't say we were really fighting each other," she said. "Those people on the DNR outpost who took our guns weren't really our enemies, not exactly. Some of them came to visit the museum -- they even bought tickets. It's just that some took one side and some took another. That's all."

Photo by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/Getty Images