Israel's Government Negotiations Saga Ends With Embarrassing Farce of Ceremony

Who would have dreamed on election night that Netanyahu, with 30 seats in his pocket, heading into his fourth term as prime minister, would so swiftly morph from king into doormat?

Olivier Fitoussi

What began two months ago as a surprising and sweeping victory against all odds and segued into a tiresome saga of prolonged, aggressive and extortionate negotiations, ended on Thursday night as an embarrassing farce. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the big winner of the 2015 election, came to the Knesset two hours late – some would say, two weeks late. And he arrived exhausted and wrung dry, stripped of all joy.

This isn’t how you build a government. This is how you build a neighborhood bonfire on Lag Ba’omer.

If Netanyahu hoped to add Zionist Union to his coalition government, as he has said – and to which end he has ostensibly reserved the Foreign Ministry for its leader, Isaac Herzog – he received a surprisingly blunt response on Thursday night from the intended groom. “I advise you to give the Foreign Ministry to a minister from your own party right now,” Herzog declared from the podium. “No decent leader would join the Netanyahu circus you’ve set up here just to shore up your rule.”

Herzog’s speech at the swearing-in ceremony was one of his best ever. It was aggressive, sharp and unequivocal. He understood that if after that speech any narrow crack still remained, to give the impression that he was paving his way into the government, that would be the beginning of the end for him.

Who would have dreamed on election night that Netanyahu, with 30 seats in his pocket, heading into his fourth term as prime minister – making him second only to David Ben-Gurion for length of tenure – would so swiftly morph from king to doormat?

First it was his coalition partners – Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), Arye Dery (Shas) and Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) – who extorted him for all they were worth, and obtained far more than expected. Then it was Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s turn to pull the carpet out from under Netanyahu’s feet, reducing his government from a planned 67 seats to a fragile, capricious, strangled 61, the narrowest possible coalition.

Gilad Erdan dared say a vehement “Nyet” to the marginal ministry (public security) he was offered. Silvan Shalom also strung Netanyahu along until the last second, then managed to extract the desired title from him: vice premier – that’s a kind of upgraded deputy prime minister, on top of the shrunken Interior Ministry, from which Kahlon had already taken chunks. Even the new junior ministers, for whom this will be their first cabinet post, didn’t rush to accept what was on offer.

Miri Regev bartered with Netanyahu for hours over the Social Affairs Ministry, but finally gave it up to Haim Katz – a worthy choice – and made do with the Culture and Sports Ministry.

Zeev Elkin initially refused to take the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, so as not to find himself cornered in the stereotypical role of the “Russian” occupying that post. Only shortly before the swearing-in ceremony, at the last possible moment, did he acquiesce, in exchange for a coveted and valuable seat (which no one expected him to get) in the security cabinet. That’s Elkin-style (his slogan in the Likud primary) at its best. He knows precisely how to negotiate with Netanyahu: aggressively. And what can’t be achieved by force will be achieved by more force, as the old saying goes.

One of the longest-serving Likud MKs, Katz had chaired the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee for the last five years. He informed Netanyahu that, as far as he was concerned, there was nothing to talk about: it was the Social Affairs Ministry or nothing. And by “nothing,” he implied that he might not manage to make it to the Knesset to raise his hand in favor of establishing the 34th government, as he was recovering at home from an operation.

As former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would have put it, Katz explained the issue to Netanyahu in terms he could understand. He got his ministry.

What does this signify, if not the lack of respect, disdain and contempt they feel for him? They saw how Bennett, Kahlon and Dery exploited his weakness, and decided that they too had an appetite. True, on paper, Netanyahu is at his strongest: 30 seats, fourth term; after you, Ben-Gurion! The rest of the parties in the coalition have weakened in number, and no alternative government could be formed. What more could one ask for?

Yet still he is weak and vulnerable, because he heads the narrowest possible coalition. Therefore, he can be bullied and humiliated, and forced to ask the Knesset speaker to postpone the session by three hours, after he was only granted a two-hour delay. Yes, even the obedient Yuli Edelstein decided that enough is enough. And President Reuven Rivlin, asked by the Prime Minister’s Office, in its audacity, to wait in his residence for the traditional group photo, responded that he was going to bed.

The last to experience a similar situation was Shimon Peres in the spring of 1990, after the “Dirty Trick” – the dismantling of Yitzhak Shamir’s second unity government. On the last possible day on which to form a government, Peres asked to present his cabinet, which was standing on shaky ground to begin with. On that day, and with the whole world watching, he was forced – in disgrace and tears – to notify the Knesset speaker that he had failed.

The sum of all fears

The process of constructing Netanyahu’s fourth government, and the small coalition negotiations he held over the final 48 hours with the members of his own party, wonderfully reflect the sum of all his weaknesses and fears. Let us take, for example, Erdan, the youngest and first among Likud ministers. His is a fresh face, the future generation of the party, unconditionally loyal to Netanyahu for the past 18 years. He never blinked, never rebelled, never deserted. He was always “Bibi’s man,” even when Netanyahu had taken a break from politics; even when Ariel Sharon ruled the party with an iron fist. He always volunteered to lay his life on the line for the prime minister – and his wife, Sara – in all the affairs and recycled bottles, and the rest of the periodic and cyclical embarrassments. He was the regular attack dog, Iron Dome system and bulletproof vest of the Netanyahus.

Eight months ago, Erdan and his wife Shlomit, with their children, were already packed to move to New York, where the post of Israeli ambassador to the UN awaited them. And then, in a surprise move, Gideon Sa’ar left politics. Netanyahu pleaded with Erdan to cancel the move so as not to lose both his two young and popular ministers. Erdan agreed. He stepped into Sa’ar’s shoes in the Interior Ministry and, a few months later, was voted into the top spot in the Likud Knesset primary (the spot Sa’ar had occupied the two previous times).

It’s no wonder Erdan hoped that this time he was finally fit for a senior position, one that would upgrade him, promote him to the big leagues, and match his talents – which are quite serious. After all, “if not now, when?” So he hoped. Bibi thought otherwise.

Erdan desired the Foreign Ministry portfolio. Netanyahu wasn’t convinced. Erdan promised Bibi he would be willing to give up the Foreign Ministry if Zionist Union joined the government. Bibi didn’t believe him, or it wasn’t convenient for him to believe. It is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu was afraid to promote Erdan, so he would not receive national and international status and rank – and, heaven forbid, place him at risk. Maybe he didn’t want to get into a fight with Shalom or Yisrael Katz.

In the 32nd and 33rd governments, Erdan – in almost comical fashion – was forced to make do with relatively unimportant portfolios: environmental protection in Netanyahu’s second government; communications and home front defense in his third. This time, though, Erdan seemingly decided – justifiably, on his part – to put a stop to it. He made it clear to Netanyahu what he really wanted (the interior and public security ministries) and what he would be unwilling to compromise over. He then went to ground at his home in the center of the country.

Netanyahu did not get very excited. He made an offer: public security and the fictitious portfolio of strategic affairs. Erdan said no. Then Netanyahu passed strategic affairs onto Elkin, and came back and offered Erdan only public security by itself. This was the ultimate betrayal. Even the Knesset elders couldn’t believe that Netanyahu would do such a thing to Erdan. He was not even too embarrassed to call to “my friend, Gilad Erdan,” from the Knesset podium to reconsider his refusal to join the cabinet.

This was a false call. According to the coalition deals with the other parties, Netanyahu had already filled Likud’s quota of ministers. There is no way to bring in Erdan without reopening the agreements, or removing a Likud minister in his place. But he “called,” so what does he care?

No less fake was his announcement of thanks and respect to MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), for agreeing to serve as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and as coalition whip – an announcement Hanegbi himself vigorously denied the minute Netanyahu stepped down from the podium.

Erdan and Hanegbi – like Sa’ar before them, and Moshe Kahlon before all of them – discovered to their amazement (!) that loyalty does not pay. Indeed, maybe the opposite is actually true: That Netanyahu promotes with the one hand and takes away with the other, based on the harmful potential.

Erdan recognized an opportunity: Either to be appointed a senior minister – the second most senior after Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – or to show leadership, a backbone and independence, and remain outside the cabinet – and signal to Likud members that he is the next leader.

In summary, everything Netanyahu feared that Gideon Sa’ar would do to him just before the last election, he may very well get from Erdan when the next election rolls around. With that booming baritone and verbal dexterity that he used until now in the service of the Netanyahus, Erdan can now use his big mouth for other purposes.

In sickness and in health

The Pensioners party ran during the 2006 election campaign, headed by the retired, senior Mossad official Rafi Eitan. It did surprisingly well: Seven Knesset seats, which were completely unexpected. One of the party’s MKs, whose position on the Knesset slate was never considered a realistic slot, would regularly skip all the events, rallies and meetings that the rest of his party colleagues attended. When asked why he never attended, he said, “I didn’t feel well.” After all, he was a pensioner.

On that election night, when the television polls announced the huge surprise to the nation, the man – who discovered he was now an MK – rushed to appear at the victory celebration, cool, calm and collected. “You said you were ill,” his colleagues noted. “I recovered!” was the good news he happily imparted to them.

On Thursday morning, the longest day in the lives of Likud’s members, Ayoub Kara – the Druze Likud MK – checked himself in for tests at Hadassah University Hospital, Jerusalem. His aides photographed him lying on a stretcher and posted the picture to Facebook. A few hours later, after being informed that he would be appointed deputy minister with the status of a minister in the Regional Development Ministry, with authority for Druze municipalities, he recovered and arrived at the Knesset energetic, attentive and rosy-cheeked.

Another colossal blunder came during the appointment of MK Ofir Akunis, who is also one of the most elegant and loyal defenders of Netanyahu and his wife, to the post of minister in the Communications Ministry. Above him will hover a super-minister, who is none other than the prime minister.

Once again, at the very last minute, while the Knesset was being shined and polished – and bellowing with healthy laughter at the real-life comedy playing out in front of its eyes – it turned out there was a legal problem with appointing a minister in a ministry in which there is already a serving minister. By the way, this is ministry that it was recommended should be dismantled and replaced with a Communications Authority 15 years ago – calls for which have only grown since. For now, Akunis has been appointed as a minister without portfolio, and he may very well remain that way throughout the government’s entire term.

The fact that Akunis, an active MK with a flattering record as chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee in the 2009-2013 government, agreed to accept the role of servant and executioner, proved that there is no humiliation too big for him. He needed to adopt the approach of Erdan, Katz, Elkin and Co., and say: Thanks, but no thanks.

What’s more worrying about this story is Netanyahu’s refusal to give up the portfolio that encompasses the nation’s media market, where the fate of the two commercial television channels, 2 and 10, are in his hands – just before it is necessary to make fateful regulatory decisions about their future.

Has Netanyahu’s paranoia become so sick that he doesn’t even trust Akunis, his prodigal son, to carry out his policies while serving as a “100%” minister in the ministry? Or maybe he actually does trust him, but enjoys keeping his hand on the switch to both these channels so they’ll always know who really is the boss. Why did he win the election if even this small pleasure is stolen from him?

By the way, Akunis’ appointment was not by chance. A month ago, at the height of the coalition negotiations between Netanyahu and his coalition partners, he ran into Akunis – who had been given the responsibility for the Environmental Protection Ministry before the last election. “There is a lot of work in this ministry,” sighed Akunis to Netanyahu. “In the Communications Ministry you’ll have a lot of work, too,” the prime minister told him. Which proves: There is a vision at work here.

Primary concerns

In the Labor Party, meanwhile, the pure souls are already spreading the good word about the primary campaign to befall us soon. Every cough, expression and silence terrify the well-known demons from their rest. An interview with MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union) on the Al-Monitor website – in which he opined that MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) is the head of the opposition in the public’s eye – immediately received a subversive interpretation, as if the young lawmaker is already casting his eyes on the party leadership.

A week earlier, it was MK Shelly Yacimovich’s turn. Her decision to boycott a Knesset faction meeting in protest over what she called the “two-headed leadership of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni” was widely seen as the opening shot in her run to reassume control of the party.

These noises are also coming from the top floors of the ugly municipality building at the north end of Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where for many years Mayor Ron Huldai has been in hiding. The veteran Huldai, one of the finest sons of the Labor Party, has asked himself more than once over the past years: To run or not to run, that is the question. And more than once, he has decided not to run for the party leadership.

Now they say he is once again mulling it over, considering it. He is 71. By the time Labor members go to the polls for the primary, he will be 72. He knows it’s now or never.

He has an impressive record. One of the most successful mayors in Israel, maybe the world. A true man of action, the king in his city – which is also known as its own state. Soon, he will be in the middle of his fourth term. We can assume he has the itch to do something, before retiring, at the national level: Finance Minister, for example.

How do we know Huldai is amused by the idea? He has been attending events recently, minor and less minor, of the party’s Tel Aviv region, which is the largest and strongest in the country. When he speaks at those events, he sounds like someone thinking about running, say those who have heard him.

What is the smokiest gun concerning Huldai? Well, the hotheaded politician – arrogant, patronizing, lacking patience, self-absorbed – has suddenly become a really nice guy, say those attending party events. He is really trying to be sympathetic: he listens, gives compliments, is pleasant. Such a transformation at an age where you no longer normally change is welcome, but also suspicious.

Double trouble

In light of an alleged attempt to vote in place of MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) during Wednesday’s oral vote on expanding the cabinet, MK Oren Hazan (Likud) – the immediate suspect in double voting and whose father (then-MK Yehiel Hazan) was convicted of voting in place of another Knesset member in 2003 – asked Knesset Speaker Edelstein to immediately open a criminal probe.

“It is interesting to see if they will deal with this matter when it does not involve the name Hazan,” complained the young MK, after an unknown male voice called out “In favor” when Svetlova’s name was called. Which reminds us of the well-known saying, “History repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.”