Illustration by Amos Biderman
Illustration Photo by Amos Biderman
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"We'll be able to overcome the lack of morality, but not the stupidity." With those words a senior Likud official summed up the week's events, referring to the summer of 2012's dirty trick presided over by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

No Likud ministers volunteered to speak in Bibi's defense. They were often recruited by him in the past, after the fact, to come up with excuses for his stumbles. Not this time. He sullied them. Worst of all, he hurt Likud. He hurt the party's chances to form the next government. What they're saying about him in private is unprintable but amusing.

Around three months ago, at the start of the Knesset's summer session, Netanyahu took everyone by surprise by saying he would seek early elections. His stated rationale: to avert budget blackmailing by his coalition partners. With one fell swoop, he sought to neutralize his potential problems: budget discussions, economic hammer blows (which already loomed already), an alternative to the Tal Law on drafting the ultra-Orthodox, and the possibility that U.S. President Barack Obama would be reelected.

Netanyahu caught his main rivals - Kadima's Shaul Mofaz and Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid - unprepared for early elections. The polls looked good. Nothing, it seemed, could stop Netanyahu from winning a second term (third, if one counts his first one in the 1990s ) other than that joker who always wrecks things for him: Benjamin Netanyahu.

A week after deciding to move up the elections, Netanyahu got cold feet and co-opted Kadima into the government. He emerged from a meeting of Likud Knesset members at 2 A.M. with his confidant Natan Eshel by his side. It was Eshel, along with coalition chairman Zeev Elkin, who put together the deal with Mofaz. That same dynamic duo mediated this week's escapade.

Just one month ago, Elkin, in cahoots with the opposition, executed a quasi-putsch against the prime minister over the Beit El settlement's Ulpana neighborhood. Netanyahu was furious. Elkin was forced to make a humiliating apology, whose text was dictated by the Prime Minister's Bureau. But in an instant Netanyahu forgot it all and threw Elkin a political hot potato in the form of an effort to split Kadima. He didn't share the conspiracy with his more level-headed ministers.

The downfall began with the hasty establishment of the unity government before the Tal Law issue had been worked through. The prime minister emerged from that story looking like a hostage of the ultra-Orthodox.

No matter when the elections are held, Netanyahu's choice on the draft issue will be dredged up and hurled at him. The man whose desk is buckling under existential issues set aside precious hours to meet with more than 10 Kadima MKs and promise them not only this world, as deputy ministers, but the world to come as well. They demanded a guaranteed place on Likud's list of candidates in the next elections. As an alternative, he offered them jobs as consul generals and ambassadors.

In the end, he was left with four - three clients fewer than the law requires to set up a new faction - Kadima MKs Avraham Duan, Yulia Shamalov Berkovich, Arie Bibi and Otniel Schneller. Schneller described the attempted defection in his most eye-rolling language: "A saliently ideological move that did not work out at this stage."

Observers of these four MKs defending themselves in the House Committee on Tuesday might have been appalled by the inarticulateness, crude mendacity and lack of self-awareness. But they could be consoled by the fact that the premier had had to spend quality time with these characters.

The last land mine that Netanyahu planted under himself in calling off early elections took the form of the austerity measures - precisely the deep pit he wanted to avoid by dissolving the Knesset. There's an old adage that Likud knows well: Don't go to elections with the economy at the top of the agenda. Netanyahu can talk all he likes about there being no free lunches. But he's the one who has been managing the cafeteria for the past three and a half years.

Next Monday the austerity plan will be submitted to the cabinet at its weekly meeting. The Prime Minister's Bureau believes it will pass without any problems. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who two weeks ago warned about impending new taxes, described the decision to raise VAT and increase tax on beer and cigarettes as "courageous leadership." This will now be the Bibi-Steinitz line: All the others are populists and socialists; we're the responsible adults.

Netanyahu was outraged, say people who met with him after it was all over. He called a Likud minister and told him: "It failed because you and the others won't let me guarantee people a place on our list of candidates." There you go, the culprits were found. Not Bibi. He's never to blame.

If it smells bad and looks bad

This wasn't how Tzachi Hanegbi envisaged his comeback. He had planned to return to Likud alone, the moment Mofaz left the government. But then Netanyahu called him and asked him to help persuade Kadima MKs to defect to Likud. Hanegbi is a good boy: When the prime minister asks, he goes to work.

Actually, Netanyahu had already asked Hanegbi to send messages to Mofaz during the crisis with Kadima over the Tal Law. He wanted Mofaz to be more flexible, to remove MK Yohanan Plesner as chairman of the committee crafting the new law on drafting Haredim. Hanegbi called Mofaz every day from the United States and conveyed Netanyahu's requests. Mofaz responded coldly. Even before this, Mofaz had been irked by Hanegbi's support for Tzipi Livni in the Kadima primary.

Back then, Hanegbi had explained that he was supporting Livni not because he thought she had any chance of winning, but because a Mofaz victory would signal the probable disintegration of Kadima - and he didn't want his name on the party's death certificate. Even now, when he's already back in Likud, Hanegbi says that if Livni had won he would have stayed with her in Kadima. Go figure.

Hanegbi tried to deliver the goods for Netanyahu. The plan was to recruit seven Kadima MKs, five for Likud (Duan, Berkovich, Arie Bibi, Schneller and Jacob Edery ) and two more who would afterward join the Labor Party (Nachman Shai and Nino Abesadze ). Edery chickened out at the last minute. He always chickens out at the last minute. Haim Ramon thwarted the departure of Nino and Nachman.

After Ramon left Netanyahu's appetite only partially whetted - and not for the first time - he tried very hard to obtain seven breakaways of his own. Some of them were earmarked to become members of the new party he is forming for Livni, others could go to Labor, Meretz or Yisrael Beiteinu - or to hell. The names are known: Shlomo Molla, Shai, Abesadze, Yoel Hasson, Robert Tiviaev, Rachel Adatto and Orit Zuaretz.

Ramon's efforts continued until Wednesday evening, minutes before the end of the summer session and fourth sitting of the 18th Knesset - the first time in 24 years that a Knesset has made it through four full sittings. Adatto and Shai said yes, but not now, not with the stench of the previous dirty trick still fouling the air; not without an acceptable reason; not without it being clear who's in the new party; and not when Livni, who is supposed to head that party, is backing away from the story as if from fire.

Livni, as everyone knows, advocates "a different kind of politics." Nor does she want to appear to be behind the attempt to destroy the party she headed until a few months ago. Ehud Barak is undoubtedly looking on and smiling. He's the only one who successfully pulled off a secret split from his party.

After the failure, Hanegbi took responsibility and admitted: "It smells bad, it looks bad, it is bad." He justified his involvement by citing a desire to help the prime minister stabilize the coalition. It was his opening shot in the Likud primary.

The prevailing view about Kadima party ) is that he will have no trouble getting elected to a good place on Likud's list for the next Knesset elections. Even after seven years, he still has a power base in the mother party.

Likud ministers are aware of Netanyahu's warm attitude toward his Tzachi. Their hearts tell them to lash out at Hanegbi, to remind him - and party members - of the abandonment, of his hookup with Sharon after the Gaza disengagement. But their heads say: Don't project fear. On the contrary, give Tzachi a warm welcome.

Likud's rank-and-file MKs, those for whom the battle for a good place on the Knesset list is a matter of life and death, view Hanegbi as their potential executioner. Under Likud's internal-election system, six to seven MKs will find themselves out of the next Knesset, even if not one new representative is added to the list. Hanegbi will push one more MK out. They too are afraid to take up arms against him publicly, lest they stir the wrath of key activists and powerful vote contractors who have longed for the return of the prodigal son.

Don't forget Iran

The temptation to link the failed political machinations with a possible attack on Iran is great. One the one hand, petty, impulsive politics is at work. On the other, we're talking about an existential issue.

The person who fanned these flames is Mofaz, who this week reclaimed his job as opposition leader. He stated clearly that Netanyahu's main motive in wanting to bring Hanegbi into the cabinet, backed by Kadima defectors, was to strengthen the prime minister in the cabinet ahead of an attack on Iran.

All the conditions and obstacles pertaining to such an operation remain intact: military leaders who have reservations or are opposed; intelligence chiefs who have reservations or are opposed; and the United States, which is unequivocally opposed. Is Hanegbi a game changer? Will he make the difference in the decision on whether to attack the nuclear facilities? He didn't know he had it in him.

Let's say Mofaz's reading is correct and Netanyahu really thinks he needs Hanegbi's decisive vote. Does he intend to launch an operation with fateful implications with a one-vote majority?

One deep source provides a simpler and less exciting explanation. According to the source, Netanyahu and his staff calculated that if they could recruit five or six defectors from Kadima to the coalition, they could pass the alternative to the Tal Law crafted by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon. The arithmetic was based on the assumption that some Haredi MKs would vote in favor and others would abstain. So would one or two opposition parties, maybe even the Arab MKs. Somehow a majority would be found.

It makes no difference. There will be no alternative law. On August 1 the law on universal conscription will come into effect, and 60,000 Haredi men will become deserters, in practice. See you in the High Court of Justice.

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