Netanyahu putting out the extreme right's fires
Illustration by Amos Biderman
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Michal Fattal
Ben-Eliezer, Yacimovich and Herzog, at a Labor faction meeting earlier this year. Fuad is telling his people, 'Vote for whomever you want.' Photo by Michal Fattal

The report about the housing-construction tsunami, which was set in motion by Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, swept over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while he was visiting the army’s Gaza Division on Tuesday. Cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit called to inform him about the plan to build 1,200 residential units in the E-1 area, which connects Jerusalem with Ma’aleh Adumim. A declaration of construction at this time − or any time − is tantamount to Israel perpetrating a terrorist attack on the faltering peace negotiations while thumbing its nose at the international community.

I want this stopped immediately, Netanyahu told the cabinet secretary; an announcement in that spirit was indeed issued by the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Later, Netanyahu’s aides say, while the premier was engaged in state business, he was informed that the E-1 construction project was only a minuscule part of a vast cluster of housing units slated for the West Bank, some 23,000 of them, about which the Housing Ministry issued a “pre-planning” announcement. Netanyahu didn’t understand where it was coming from.

That evening, he attended a festive event of the alternative fuels administration in the Prime Minister’s Office, at the Tel Aviv Hilton, and then arranged a conference call with the relevant ministers: Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, whose ministry bears responsibility for the planning commissions. The two told the prime minister that they had no idea what this Ariel guy wanted from their lives, that there is no such thing as a “pre-planning” procedure and that the whole business was meaningless in statutory terms.

The entire scheme was a private initiative by Ariel, leader of the extremist wing of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party, and while the three Likud ministers were deciding how to respond, the wave of international condemnations surged. Thanks to the generosity of the patriotic minister Ariel, Israel was denounced yet again as the enemy of peace and was forced to apologize.

At 10 P.M., after Netanyahu understood who was aligned against whom, he called Ariel for a chat. An hour and a half later, the Prime Minister’s Bureau issued a lengthy statement reprimanding the housing minister. It has to be said, to Netanyahu’s credit, that he was quick to douse this particular fire. To his discredit, we have to remind ourselves who it was that agreed, in the coalition talks, to give this particular ministry to Habayit Hayehudi.

“Ariel III,” as he is dubbed in the Housing and Construction Ministry ‏(referring to two previous housing ministers: Ariel Sharon and Shas’ Ariel Atias‏), is neither dumb nor naive. He is a sophisticated, crafty politician. Interviewed by Channel 2 News on Wednesday evening, he put on a spectacular show of feigned innocence. No, he didn’t intend; no, he didn’t initiate; no, it’s not him, it’s the ministry, there is no plan, there is no construction, and he wasn’t reprimanded, he was just doing his job.

During the election campaign, Ariel and the other extremists in his party were kept hidden from the public. Bennett sat with journalists, including me, and went out of his way to persuade us that his party was not the settlers’ party, but an “all-Israel” party, and that Ariel, who was already being touted as the next housing minister, would build for the whole nation, not only for the settlers.

For his part, Ariel can look back on this past week with satisfaction: He generated chaos. The attacks from the left wing gave him points with the settlers. And it wasn’t only the opposition that lambasted him. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni ‏(Hatnuah‏), who is conducting the negotiations with the Palestinians, and Science Minister Jacob Perry ‏(Yesh Atid‏) accused him of deliberately sabotaging the talks. Perry, like Livni, is part of the peace camp.

But the person who is truly at fault here is Perry’s boss in the party, Yair Lapid. Lapid forged an alliance with Bennett after the election, decided with him which portfolio would go to which party and, as will be recalled, made his party’s entry into the government conditional on the co-option of Habayit Hayehudi. Even more than Netanyahu, Lapid is to blame.

Back in the saddle

Something unusual happened in Sunday’s cabinet meeting. Finance Minister Lapid, who is always respectful to the prime minister, was insolent. The background: Lapid’s demand to appoint his pal, MK Ofer Shelah, chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset, in place of Avigdor Lieberman, who officially became foreign minister again on Monday.

“Never has the head of an important Knesset committee been appointed without the prime minister’s consent,” said Netanyahu, who had earmarked MK Tzachi Hanegbi ‏(Likud‏) for the post.

“Just because something never happened doesn’t mean it will never happen,” Lapid retorted.

Netanyahu had the last word: “It won’t happen.”

Ministers who wondered to themselves where Lapid’s burst of self-confidence came from got a clue the next day, when it was revealed that Lieberman and Bennett also support Shelah’s candidacy. If we add to Yesh Atid’s backing the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi and a few opposition MKs on the committee − like Benjamin Ben-Eliezer ‏(Labor‏), who declared he would vote for Shelah − a clear picture emerges. If no other deal is struck soon, Shelah will be the committee’s next chair.

The real political story is what Likud MKs are describing as “Yvet’s betrayal” ‏(referring to Lieberman‏). After Lieberman’s acquittal last week, it dawned on Lapid and his buddies that Yisrael Beiteinu, which has only 11 MKs compared to Yesh Atid’s 19, is way ahead in terms of coalition honors. Each of them will now have an equal number of ministers, five; but while Yisrael Beiteinu has two ministers in the security cabinet ‏(Yitzhak Aharonovitch and now also Lieberman‏), Yesh Atid has just one ‏(Lapid‏). In addition, Yisrael Beiteinu heads one of the most important committees in the Knesset − Constitution, Law and Justice − in contrast to Yesh Atid’s Immigration and Absorption ‏(chaired by MK Yoel Razbozov, formerly Lapid’s judo trainer‏).

The allocation of committee chairmanships and the like should have been the exact opposite, given the disparity in the number of Knesset seats held by each party. Lapid was quick to put forward a number of balance-restoring demands: Shelah’s appointment as chairman of the prestigious Foreign Affairs committee; co-option of Jacob Perry, former head of the Shin Bet security service, to the security cabinet; and the firing of one Yisrael Beiteinu minister from the same.

Lieberman was the first to recognize that the finance minister had a case. He met with him and the two agreed that Yisrael Beiteinu would support Shelah’s candidacy for chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in exchange for which Lapid would not foment a crisis over the number of ministers each party has. Lapid reached a similar agreement with Bennett.

Netanyahu − who took pains to be photographed with Lieberman while congratulating him on his acquittal; who heaped praises on the reinstated minister and identified with the perversion of justice he had endured; and who showered the minister with coalition goodies − was shafted by Lieberman, even before the echoes of the acquittal festivities had faded.

Nor was this the final humiliation the prime minister suffered at the hands of the No. 2 person on his Knesset list. On Tuesday, the exiled foreign minister returned to his bureau. “Without the United States, we will not be able to maneuver in the contemporary world,” the new-old minister declared at the reception ceremony, giving everyone a lesson in diplomatic niceties and international tact. “Differences are natural, but there is no need for them to be publicly heard.”

Events this week reminded Netanyahu that it makes no difference how strong his public standing is, in the absence of competition and rivals; in the coalition, his existence is fragile, as he has no true allies there. He decides the government’s agenda. But the Knesset is an arena of hostile land mines, where bizarre and dangerous things can happen every week.

Lieberman is signaling to him that if Likud does not agree to merge with Yisrael Beiteinu, he will not hesitate to join the Lapid-Bennett axis whenever the fancy strikes him. Where Lieberman is concerned, the tripartite cooperation, despite its one-time nature, is giving rise to the most primeval fear of all in the Prime Minister’s Bureau and at the residence on Smolenskin Street: that after the next election, Lieberman will not hesitate to recommend to the president a candidate who is not necessarily Netanyahu to be prime minister.

Which brings us back to the issue of the merger of the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties. Netanyahu wants this to go ahead, with the aim of harnessing Lieberman more tightly to his cart and depriving him of the freedom to bolt. That bond would give him a fourth term in office, in 2017 ‏(or sooner‏), and make him the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. Ahead of David Ben-Gurion.

Lieberman wants a merger in order to succeed Netanyahu after the premier retires. Enter MK Danny Danon, president of the Likud party convention, which will be held, God willing, on December 18. Danon this week authorized the submission to the convention of a motion that rules out any future union between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, and calls for the immediate dissolution of the two parties’ current partnership in the Knesset. Netanyahu’s bureau did not take this well. They do not want to send Lieberman a notice of divorce less than 10 days before the Yisrael Beiteinu central committee meets ‏(November 24‏).

The events of this week show how difficult Israeli politics is to predict. A week ago, our analysis was that after he was acquitted, Lieberman would swerve rightward, but here he is, flanking Netanyahu from the left. A week ago, we wrote that his return to the government would stabilize the coalition, though now that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Laborious race

“What’s happening with your [Labor Party leadership] primary?” I asked MK Ben-Eliezer this week in the Knesset. Sighing deeply, he replied, “For the first time in 30 years, I have no idea. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Aren’t you working secretly for MK Isaac Herzog?

“No way. Speak to Asher Ohayon, my man in Ashdod. He called me today. We talked about what’s happening in the port. At the end, he asked me: ‘Fuad [Ben-Eliezer’s nickname], who do we vote for?’ I told him, ‘Vote for whomever you want. Who are you voting for?’ ‘For Shelly [Yacimovich],’ he said. ‘You should have good health,’ I told him. That was it.”

Still, if you had to bet on the winner, who would you put your money on?

“I tell you, I don’t know,” Ben-Eliezer said despairingly. “The key activists are wild over Buji [Herzog]. But Shelly has reserves that have already proved themselves. If they come out to vote, the way they did last time, when I backed Amir Peretz, she will win.”

So you’re not involved this time?

“No. I am not checking out the scene in the field. I don’t know what’s really happening. And as for my people, I am letting them vote as they please. For real. I also don’t want to talk to them about it. They call Eyal,” he added, referring to Eyal Azoulay, Ben-Eliezer’s longtime bureau chief, for whom the description “legendary” is hardly adequate.

Next Thursday, the most boring primary campaigns ever conducted here will come to an end. The question of whether we will wake up on Friday with Yacimovich heading Labor again, or for the first time ever with Herzog, interests the vast majority of the public less than the question of whether it will be rainy or dry next weekend.

To sum up these unnoticed campaigns, it should be said that the current Labor leader, Yacimovich, did not allow the challenger, Herzog, to drag her into squabbles. She kept above the fray and gave interviews on national issues only, as her position − leader of the opposition − mandates: Iran, Lieberman, negotiations with the Palestinians, taxes paid by the conglomerates. On Wednesday this week, her campaign team said that she has a lead of 22 percent over her rival.

The other side is not spouting numbers, but contends that there is a “close race,” with a pretty good chance of victory. “Her talk of a 20-percent lead recalls her promise to obtain 25 seats in the Knesset. I, we, are going to win,” Herzog says. If he loses, it will be for the second time in two years. If Yacimovich is defeated, she will enter the dubious pantheon of Labor Party leaders who served only one term before being booted out. In that case, Herzog will have the dubious pleasure of welcoming her as his No. 2 from hell.

Another country

Does Economy Minister Bennett intend to revise the Basic Law: President of the State, and have the president elected not by all 120 members of the Knesset but by the general public? And not by just any public but by all of world Jewry?

Earlier this week, Bennett took part in a conference on innovation. He related there that he has met Jews from the Diaspora who told him that they would like to take part in the election for Israel’s next president. “My staff is doing some work on that subject,” Bennett said, taking his listeners by surprise.

According to his spokeswoman, Bennett thinks this is a creative idea that is worth discussing. No more than that. Staff work? She hasn’t heard about it.