Israeli elections may be over, but in the Likud campaign discipline lives on
Likud ministers found their leader in a bad mood last week, and were told that from now on all interviews must be authorized; Can Netanyahu and Lapid agree on anything at all?
Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive at the President's Residence today, climb the steps to Shimon Peres' bureau, and be entrusted with the task of forming Israel's 33rd government. In another 28 days, he will return to the residence to present the new government or to request an extension - that is, if there is no escalation in the "situation" in the north, which could induce more flexibility among the various political actors and perhaps hasten formation of the government.
Peres has spoken enough in the past two years, both in private and in public - and during the election campaign itself - about the blindness from which the Israeli leadership is suffering. And yet the president will for a second time confer the task on Netanyahu, who in his eyes represents what has gone wrong in this country, the deviation from the path, the headlong rush toward the cliff.
The Likud ministers, who on Sunday met for the first time since the election, found their leader in an angry mood. Netanyahu had read the weekend papers. "From now on," the prime minister ordered the ministers, "interviews will be given only with authorization, and the messages will be coordinated." The ministers were surprised. They thought the election campaign with its daily message sheet was behind them. But no. The campaign may be dead. The party almost died. But campaign discipline lives on.
"The same goes for those who give briefings," Netanyahu continued, his ire rising. "All this causes damage at the very sensitive stage before the coalition negotiations. It could cost us, and whoever is involved will pay the price."
No interpretations or explanations were necessary. In another month, give or take, the ministers will be summoned to the Prime Minister's Bureau to be told which portfolio he is giving them. The last thing they need is to rile him now. Even before their private Judgment Day, they will have to look on as the most coveted portfolios go one by one to the coalition partners.
The "our ministers" forum meeting took place two days after Bibi and Yair Lapid met at the prime minister's official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. What was said there was not leaked. But large differences loom between Netanyahu and the head of Yesh Atid: over what’s known as “sharing the burden,” undoubtedly the most volatile subject in the negotiations that will begin officially on Sunday; over the composition of the government (Netanyahu wants the ultra-Orthodox, while Lapid is doing all he can to keep them out); and over the number of cabinet ministers (if it were up to Netanyahu there would be about 30; Lapid is talking about 23-24).
On the Palestinian issue, too, Lapid will demand an early renewal of talks.
Netanyahu knows that for serious negotiations to begin, he has to put a serious proposal on the table. He believes, however, that whatever proposal he will put forward will be instantly irrelevant, because the Palestinians will immediately demand more.
The premier is telling his team that the first coalition agreement he intends to sign, including the distribution of ministerial portfolios, is with Yesh Atid. The problem is that Lapid wants to bring along with him Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and maybe also Shaul Mofaz’s two-MK Kadima. With Likud-Beiteinu, that adds up to a total of 64 MKs. A reasonable basis for a coalition.
Netanyahu isn’t wild about Bennett, but it’s hard to imagine a coalition without Habayit Hayehudi − and with Shas. All the more so because, of all the potential partners, Bennett is shaping up as the most accommodating. He wants so much to be in the government and is so lacking in alternatives that the demands he intends to make in the negotiations will be reasonable. A “bro’s” demands.
According to sources in the Prime Minister’s Office, talks were held last week with Uri Shani − a member of Lapid’s coalition negotiations team and the only one in Lapid’s milieu who has helped form and maintain coalitions and governments in the past (for Ariel Sharon), has managed bureaus, and who knows first-hand the darkest byways of Israeli politics − and all other relevant participants. Anyone who has had an opportunity to spend an evening with Shani and listen to his stories about the coalition talks that accompanied the formation of the Sharon governments in 2001 and 2003 knows that Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman’s team of lawyers is in for a hard time.
So far, Lapid is displaying a different, and positive, type of political behavior. He illustrated this on the day after the election when he announced that he would not try to cobble together a group of parties with enough seats to block the formation of a coalition. No such option existed anyway, except in the feverish imagination of several left-wingers. At the same time, Lapid’s style, and his mention of “Hanin Zuabis” (in the plural) was somewhat reminiscent of his late father’s way of expressing himself; it also showed that the Yesh Atid leader hasn’t yet altogether shed the mentality of a newspaper columnist.
Lapid behaved without mannerisms, however, when he recommended to the president on Wednesday that he ask Netanyahu to form a government. The Yesh Atid platform states that the leader of the largest Knesset action shall head the government. Some dogmatic leftists wanted Lapid to refrain from recommending anyone, or even to recommend himself, even though he made it clear, and rightly so, that he is not ripe for the position.
Corridors of glower
“Jews pray three times a day. We were called on to pray like the Muslims, five times a day, facing your home − and on our knees,” Labor MK Eitan Cabel told his party leader, Shelly Yacimovich, when the party’s Knesset faction convened on Monday. Cabel’s caustic comment accurately reflected what was going through the minds of the others around the table. Throughout the election campaign they had been shunted aside and told to be obedient, only to discover after Election Day that the number of party seats were seriously shrinking.
Passions ran high; the tone of voice was subdued. “I don’t believe it,” MK-elect Erel Margalit mumbled. “Before we came in here, people told me completely different things.” Margalit has yet to learn that in conversations in the corridor everyone is a hero. Still, make no mistake: Yacimovich is in trouble. The members of her Knesset faction, her opponents and supporters alike, hold her personally, exclusively and solely responsible for the party’s election debacle. They gave her all the credit she wanted, but she wasted it on a badly run campaign, which instead of adding more seats or at least preserving what the polls showed, bled away at the rate of two seats a month.
This week there were rumors in the party that Yacimovich’s foes in Labor intend to split the faction. Five of the 15 are allowed by law to break away, form a separate faction and join Netanyahu’s coalition in return for ministerial portfolios or other positions. On paper there are five, maybe six − and they would get the backing of Histadrut federation of labor chief Ofer Eini.
In practice, though, such a split is doomed to failure, for several reasons: 1. The group has no agreed leader; 2. There is no scenario under which Netanyahu will behave toward them as he did toward Ehud Barak’s breakaway group and appoint most of them ministers or deputy ministers − especially with Lapid demanding a smaller government; and 3. Three of those who are said, perhaps incorrectly, to be in the group want to run for the party leadership in the next primaries: Isaac Herzog, Cabel and Margalit.
Meanwhile, the decision by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to launch an investigation against former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi over the Harpaz affair removes Ashkenazi’s name from the list of potential candidates for the Labor leadership, as long as he is under investigation. Despite all the skeletons in his closet, Ashkenazi is a serious candidate, in part because of his close friendship with Eini. Accordingly, the shared interest of everyone in the Labor faction, from Yacimovich to Cabel, is to set as early a date as possible for party primaries − one that will coincide with Ashkenazi still being investigated by the Military Police or awaiting a decision by the attorney general about whether to prosecute. On the other hand, knowing Weinstein as we do, it’s likely that even if that vote is held 14 months from now − the latest permissible date under the Labor Party’s constitution − the Ashkenazi case file will still be gathering dust on the A-G’s desk.
In the coming days, we will no doubt hear Netanyahu declaring, mantra-like, that it’s essential to form a broad government, in order to cope with the strategic threats facing the country. The premier will do all in his power to form a government of some 80 MKs, so that even if Lapid’s party bolts, he will not lose his Knesset majority. But success is unlikely.
Following the 2009 election, Netanyahu conducted advanced talks with Tzipi Livni’s Kadima faction, which had one more seat than Likud, about the formation of a unity government on equal terms. He negotiated with the great fear that “they will topple me,” as he told his confidants in reference to Livni and Haim Ramon.
The moment Lieberman lifted his veto of Ehud Barak, who was the Labor Party’s leader at the time, the way was paved for Netanyahu to form a government with his natural partners plus Labor. It was a government immune from being toppled, as its strength lay in the innate weakness of its partners. Now Netanyahu is again saying to his confidants, “They will topple me” − this time referring to Lapid and Uri Shani.
The prime minister-designate this week watched a television documentary about Lapid’s election campaign. When Lapid, who heads the second biggest faction in the incoming Knesset, with 19 seats, was asked by the reporter whether he intended to run for prime minister in the next election, he replied, with eyes half shut, “I assume so.” When asked if he would win, his nonchalant reply was, “I assume so.” It’s scary to think what would have happened if he’d been asked, “So, are you going to get crowned?”
This is the trap in which Netanyahu finds himself: In the weeks ahead he is meant to go out of his way to bring Lapid into the coalition, and vest him with the power and influence and status that Lapid will call upon to defeat Netanyahu the next time around. That emerging political scenario is everything Netanyahu doesn’t want to see happening. His and Sara’s nightmare.
A veteran political observer suggested this week that we should keep an eye on what’s happening between Netanyahu and Livni and Mofaz. “In certain situations, they could be the Ehud Barak of 2009,” the observer noted. “Bibi will conduct negotiations with Lapid and at the last minute leave him out in the cold, forming a government with the Haredim and the right, with Livni as foreign minister or in charge of the peace talks, and Mofaz as defense minister. There will be a government of 69 MKs.”
Unlikely? Yes. But we have seen more than once that that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Two types of racism
The first item on the agenda of the cabinet meeting on Sunday was International Holocaust Day. Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein, whose ministry is in charge of the relevant activities abroad, presented the subject and talked about recurring worldwide anti-Semitism. The prime minister spoke and a few ministers also added some concerned remarks.
Headlines in the newspapers on the conference table blared “Beitar is pure forever” − words that were painted on a banner waved the previous evening by some fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club in protest of the management’s decision to sign two Muslim players from Chechnya.
None of the ministers saw fit to throw out a few words about the connection between the racism of the 1930s and 1940s, and the racism spewed out every time Beitar plays in Teddy Stadium in the capital. As though there are two types of racism: forgivable and unforgivable.
One person, the outgoing cabinet secretary, Zvi Hauser, found it hard to accept that silence. At the end of the meeting he asked for the floor and said, “The growth of global anti-Semitism cannot justify a phenomenon of tolerance in Israel for manifestations of xenophobia. We must not sit idly by in the face of what we have seen in the past few days, not far from here. It’s important for the majority to make its voice heard.” Netanyahu was quick to second him.