Thursday, November 5, 2015

Israel appoints (then suspends) public affairs chief who accused Obama of anti-Semitism

Updated by Max Fisher on November 5, 2015,

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that he'd appointed Ran Baratz, an academic who lives in a West Bank settlement, to run the country's public diplomacy efforts. By Thursday, Netanyahu had suspended the appointment.
Baratz, it turns out, has a history of saying and writing not-so-diplomatic things, on his Facebook page and elsewhere. Here is a sampling of Baratz's statements, as translated by the New York Times's Jodi Rudoren:
  • On Obama's criticism of Netanyahu during the Iran deal fight: "This is how modern anti-Semitism looks like in the modern Western world."
  • On Secretary of State John Kerry: "This is the time to wish the Secretary of State good luck, and to count down the days with the hope that someone over there at the State Department will wake up and begin to see the world through the eyes of a person whose mental age exceeds 12."
  • On constructing a third Jewish Temple on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a cause célèbre among Jewish extremists that would require demolishing the al-Aqsa Mosque: "the desire to build the third temple is worthy, Jewish and Zionist of the highest level...[if Muslims don't accept it] there will anyway be war."
  • On Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin: "such a marginal figure that there is no concern for his safety. I think he could be sent in a para-glider to the Syrian Golan [Heights] controlled by ISIS. They’ll return him the next day."
The appointment, which requires Cabinet confirmation, is hugely controversial inside Israel. President Rivlin, understandably, is quite angry: His office has demanded "an explanation of whether the words written by Baratz were known to the prime minister when he made his decision to appoint Baratz to this job."
The leader of Israel's center-left opposition, Isaac Herzog, has called for Netanyahu to rescind the appointment:
A person like this who lashed out against President Obama, besmirched Secretary Kerry, and, worst of all, degraded the beloved president of his country — our most important symbol — must go home and immediately, before he even arrived.
Even members of Netanyahu's own Likud Party, Rudoren reports, have bashed the appointment as insensitive and tone-deaf.

Israel's echo chamber problem

Why would Netanyahu do something this stupid? It's hard to say what was in his head with any certainty, but this does fit a consistent pattern in his government: a total inability to speak to anyone who doesn't share hard-line right-wing views. Israel's government isn't just right-wing, in other words: It's not capable of communicating effectively with anyone who isn't.
This recalls a moment earlier this year, when Netanyahu was lobbying the US Congress to vote down the Iran deal. The prime minister needed to win over Democratic votes, not Republican — yet he coordinated with Republicans, behind Obama's back, to stage a speech bashing Obama to a joint session of Congress. The move backfired, infuriating Democrats and turning what could have been a popular pro-Israel vote into a partisan one.
Another example: In June, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs released an embarrassing cartoon (which it later retracted) bashing reporters for seeing even the slightest moral complexity in the Gaza conflict:

The video is cringe-worthy in its belittling tone, its fallacies (does anyone really believe the US media has reported that "there are no terrorists" in Gaza?), and its focus on slighting "Palestinian society." The message of the video appears to be that only an idiot would see any moral complexity in the Gaza war, which seems more likely to alienate viewers than to sway them to Israel's cause.
This video doesn't make even the slightest sense unless you're already totally on board with the Israeli government's narrative of the conflict. Many Israelis, especially on Israel's right, believe the international press is deeply and often willfully unfair to Israel (there's something to this point, but Israelis often overstate it). Pointing this out plays well among right-wing Israelis and pro-Israel supporters. But among everyone else, it does not.
In other words, it's not just the Baratz incident: His hiring reflects a larger trend in which the Netanyahu government, because it is so accustomed to speaking only to its most sympathetic audiences, struggles to communicate with the wider world. Given Israel's less-than-pristine international image, it's not an inconsequential problem.

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