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The Art of Distraction Is on Politicians' Minds

March 09, 1997|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman, a journalist for the Daily Ha'aretz specializes in intelligence and terror affairs. He is author of "The Master Terrorist: The True Story Behind Abu Nidal" (Avon)

TEL AVIV — Since the 1967 War, Jerusalem's 170,000 Arabs have been systematically neglected by the Jewish-ruled town hall. Successive Israeli governments have poured money into Jewish education, infrastructure, welfare, health and services while ignoring Arabs. The shortage of housing among Jerusalem Palestinians is particularly pressing.

Two weeks ago, the Israeli government moved to alleviate the shortage. It agreed to build 3,000 apartments and houses for Palestinians. The decision could have been welcomed as a step toward raising the living standards of Jerusalem's Palestinian community, bringing them closer to those of Jewish residents.

But the Palestinian leadership rejected the gesture, dismissing it as a "deception and a trick of distraction." The government, they insist, was simply trying to divert public attention from and muzzle criticism of the Israeli plan to construct nearly 6,500 units for Jewish inhabitants in Har Homa (the Wall Mountain) at the heart of Arab Jerusalem.

To Palestinians, the Har Homa decision is yet another manifestation of "Judaization" and "Jewish expansion" in the Holy City. World leaders, including President Bill Clinton and the United Nations have denounced the Israeli housing plan, calling it an "obstacle to peace."

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is less interested in housing, Jewish or Palestinian, than in diverting the attention of the public and media from a scandal involving political patronage and corruption in his administration. A few weeks ago, Israel's public television disclosed how the Netanyahu Cabinet decided last January to appoint a new attorney general.

A day after he was approved by the Cabinet, the appointee, Roni Bar-On, was forced to resign following an unprecedented public outcry, which included accusations that he was a frequent visitor to European gambling houses. According to TV and other media reports, the Cabinet was deliberately misinformed about Bar-On's resume. Netanyahu himself, according to some reports, was involved in this deception, together with his most loyal assistants: Avigdor Liberman, the prime minister's director-general; Tzachi Hanegbi, the minister of justice, and Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultraorthodox Shas party, a coalition ally of Netanyahu's government. Deri faces charges of illegally funneling government funds to his party and affiliated religious groups.

The scandal has revived embarrassing memories of another problematic Netanyahu advisor. The prime minister appointed a failed scholar and a reject from the Israeli academy, who claims Palestinians are genetically inferior to the Jews, as his science advisor. But critics of the latest scandal are not only in the media and opposition. They also reside inside his Cabinet. Indeed, some of his ministers forced Netanyahu to order a police investigation of the Bar-On affair.

In the course of the probe, Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to give evidence to the police not only as a key witness but also as a potential suspect: He could be charged with conspiracy to violate his pledge to serve the country honestly. But most political analysts believe that the investigation, due to be concluded later this week, will not result in any charges being filed against Netanyahu. They also doubt if there is sufficient evidence to indict Hanegbi, Deri, Liberman and other senior officials implicated in the scandal. Even so, the affair has furthered damaged Netanyahu's already battered image.

The only Cabinet minister who voted against Bar-On's nomination was Beni Begin, former minister of science and son of the Menachem Begin, the former prime minister. Begin charged that Netanyahu's nomination of Bar-On was tantamount to a favor bordering on a political payoff. The following, according to Begin and television reports, was the deal.

Deri, the Shas leader, pushed for Bar-On as the new attorney general in hopes of receiving from Bar-On favorable treatment in his own court proceedings. In return, Deri and his party voted with the government to redeploy Israeli forces in Hebron. Following the redeployment, Begin resigned, accusing Netanyahu of betraying the Likud ideology and of weakening Israel's security.

Begin leads a group of parliamentary right-wingers threatening to vote against the government's decision last week to hand over another 9% of West Bank territories to Arafat's Palestinian Authority. In a 9-8 vote, the Cabinet approved the decision following pressure from Netanyahu and the defense minister. This land transfer, mainly rural, is dictated by the Oslo accords, which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in 1993. If Begin's group makes good on its threat, the Netanyahu government may find itself without a parliamentary majority.

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