Planned West Bank demolitions send ripples through Netanyahu's coalition
A week into the latest Knesset session, Prime Minister Netanyahu is already scrambling to save illegal West Bank outposts, on pain of seeing his government crumble.
The 18th Knesset is back to work. In a single week the Knesset members and government ministers from the coalition have brought in the following toxic harvest: a proposed law that would shackle non-profit human rights organizations and leftist organizations; a proposal for legislation to change the makeup of the committee for the selection of judges so the government will have a majority on it; a proposal for legislation to hold a "hearing" for judgeship candidates before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which is headed by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, one of the parliamentarians most hostile to the judiciary; a proposal for a law to prevent Balad MK Hanin Zuabi from running again for Knesset, and a coalition move to shut down Channel 10.
This is not simply a right-wing agenda. This is the agenda of Yisrael Beiteinu and of the lunatic nationalist wing of the Likud, for whom "Menachem Begin" is a Jerusalem highway or the father of the nudnik Likud cabinet minister who is "throwing sand in the eyes of the public" (according to Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this coalition and now he has to sleep with the Constitution, Law and Justice committee in Yisrael Beiteinu's hands. This session of the Knesset comes on the eve of the primaries in the Likud. On Monday of this week the Likud Knesset faction once again devoted its entire meeting to the question of the retroactive approval, legalization or moving of illegal outposts in the West Bank. Netanyahu opened the discussion with a statement to the press in which he announced that only what is legal will be built. "Bravo," said Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin.
When the media exited and the doors closed, all the Knesset members and ministers who spoke lined up in some form or another with the settlers. Only Begin refrained.
Netanyahu was forced to order the State Prosecutor's Office to request a postponement from the High Court of Justice on the demolition of illegal outposts. If he gets what he wants, he will have eliminated the threat of having scenes of dozens of families and their belongings left strewn on the ruins of their homes in the West Bank, a threat that is liable to send the Habayit Hayehudi and the Yisrael Beiteinu factions storming out of his coalition.
Hotovely warned him that if they demolish houses at outposts, a "large group" of about 10 or 12 MKs from the Likud will not, according to her, vote with the government.
I checked with some of the MKs in whose name Hotovely supposedly spoke.
"There is no way we are not going to vote with the government," said one of them. "We aren't going to topple [Netanyahu]. What for? It has to be admitted that there really are some problematic places there, in the outposts. We aren't going to be able to fight over every settlement. But to topple our prime minister? Maximum, we will impose sanctions."
When asked what kind of sanctions, the MK responded, "Let's say that when a proposal comes up in the Knesset that is important to the government, there will be a tour in Migron."
"What a crazy coalition," complained a cabinet minister from the Likud this week. "There is a real possibility it will fall because of a few demolished houses in some godforsaken outpost, but I haven't yet heard any of the coalition members threatening not to stay in the government if Grads continue to fall on Ashdod and Ashkelon."
He walks the walk, but can he vote the vote?
Once upon a time there was a justice minister named Daniel Friedmann. He made it his aim to erode and sabotage the standing of the Supreme Court and the entire judiciary system. He talked the talk, but failed when it came down to getting things done. After him came the rich folks' defense attorney, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman.
Ideologically, Neeman is Friedmann's twin, but he actually walks the walk. On Sunday of this week, in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which he heads, Neeman brought up for a vote a proposal by Yisrael Beiteinu MK Robert Ilatov for a law to change the makeup of the committee for the selection of judges. The Justice Ministry has characterized the proposal as unconstitutional.
Neeman was certain he had a majority. He counted the two Shas ministers in his camp and did not bother to vote himself. It turned out that one of the Shas ministers, Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi, was against the proposal, which led to an 8-8 tie and the sinking of the proposal.
Neeman asked to add his vote, and in so doing tipped the balance. Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who had fought against the move, asked Neeman: "What are you doing? You asked who is in favor and who is opposed, and you didn't vote. The vote is over."
Neeman muttered something and Meridor caught fire: "What has been done here is a trick. A crude and bullying move," he charged Neeman. But Neeman didn't care.
During the course of the discussion, Meridor noticed how the displays on his colleagues' cellular phones were filling up with threatening messages. "Purge the judicial system!" one of the SMS senders ordered the Likud ministers.
Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein voted in favor. Meridor, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, Benny Begin and Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan voted against.
People like him
In a few weeks, convicted rapist Moshe Katsav, the political meteor who was an excellent mayor, a major government minister and the president of Israel for seven years, will find himself in prison in the company of criminals.
There used to be a chain of cafes with the slogan: "Spend time with people like yourself." Katsav will be spending the coming years with people like himself.
In the summer of 2006, Katsav was approaching the end of his term as president. Looking ahead, he saw everything open to him: Maybe he would run for chairman of the Likud and prime minister, or maybe he would go into international business or choose an academic or public path. At the time, the Likud was in a bad place: 12 seats in the Knesset, a defeated leader and a bleak future. People had their eyes on Katsav.
Had he not made the mistake of his life that summer and contacted the attorney general with a complaint about someone who had supposedly tried to blackmail him, there is no knowing what his fate and our fate would have been.
Pulling the plug on Channel 10
Late in the evening, on Wednesday, October 19, a holiday eve, this reporter received a text message from an informed source: "Channel 10 is about to be closed."
The Gilad Shalit festival following the captive soldier's release had taken over the agenda that day. The message was forgotten. A brief inquiry at the start of this week found that as early as mid-October, the plot to shut down the channel was being hatched at the Prime Minister's Bureau.
Like the Shalit deal, it was kept secret and revealed only at the last minute, when all that remained was to sew up a few loose ends.
The majority in the Knesset Finance Committee was assured. The cooperation with Yisrael Beiteinu, from whose point of view it would be fine to close up every media organ but the Russian-language Channel 9, was sealed. MK Robert Ilatov of Yisrael Beiteinu said to a senior Likud figure, "On this we will go with you even to a coalition crisis."
About two weeks ago, on October 26, the top people at Channel 10 News came to the Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem. It was a routine meeting between a national news organization and the prime minister. Netanyahu sat there for an hour and a half, answering questions in the knowledge that the fate of those sitting with him had been sealed. At the end of the meeting, Netanyahu rose and quickly vanished into his office.
The news people and the channel's CEO, Yossi Warshavski, who had arrived toward the end of the meeting, remained in the meeting room. According to sources at Channel 10, an appointment had been set for a private meeting between Warshavski and Netanyahu about the matter of the channel's future. It was supposed to have lasted for about five minutes. But Warshavski turned around and went back to Givatayim without that having happened.
The Prime Minister's Bureau denies a meeting was scheduled. "There was no evasivenss and no evasion on Netanyahu's part," a spokesperson said. "The Bureau has not intervened in the matter of Channel 10."
This response gives cynicism a bad name: On Tuesday of this week factional discipline was imposed on the Likud representatives on the Finance Committee to vote unanimously against postponing payment of the channel's debts to the state. Only the Prime Minister's Bureau is able to impose unanimity on the members of the ruling faction.
Committee member MK Danny Danon, who supports the channel's continued existence, did not attend the committee meeting and had his place taken by another Likudnik, who voted as required. According to Danon, his absence from the Knesset that day had been planned in advance and had he been present he would have voted in favor.
Committee member MK Ofir Akunis, who a day earlier had made it clear he would not object to postponing the payments, voted against the postponement. On that same day it was published in Haaretz that Netanyahu had decided to support a bill proposed by Akunis to restrict how much money left-wing organizations and human rights non-profits can accept from foreign governments or supranational organizations like the UN.
Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon disappeared from view. He understood that the outcome was a sure thing. He is considered an excellent minister and he would not want to be remembered as someone who oversaw a major channel going dark.
Kahlon says Channel 10 must not be shut down. "It's bad for the industry, bad for the state and bad for the viewers. Everything possible has to be done so the channel will continue to broadcast. But if it is shut down, it isn't because the government shut it down but rather because the owners decided not to pay their debt."
If a redeeming formula is not found, Channel 10 will go dark in another two or three months. Its excellent news company will disperse. At Netanyahu's bureau, they will raise a toast, in secret. Also at Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's bureau.
Netanyahu will go into the elections in pretty good shape media-wise: Channel 10, may it rest in peace. His newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, is flooding the market. The Israel Broadcasting Authority is devoted to him. His former spokesman is the editor of the mass-circulation daily Maariv. The Channel 2 News Company does not hassle him too much.
The Prime Minister's Bureau is sticking with its story, which is that "we did not intervene" and that claims to the contrary are "baseless slanders." A source who is involved in the story and who is well acquainted with the people involved volunteered to explain this week.
"On the eve of the elections, when MK Gilad Erdan was chairman of the [Finance] committee, [Netanyahu] intervened on behalf of Channel 10," the source said. "About a year and a half ago, when Akunis was chairman of the committee, [Netanyahu] again mustered all his might to save Channel 10. He ordered Akunis to give the extension they asked for in order to go on to licenses, but the channel people are always sticking it to him, and to Sara [the prime minister's wife]. They don't know how to be nice. Why should he exert himself for them? So they can continue sticking it to him and Sara?"