Netanyahu Acts Like an Absent Parent While the Kids Run Amok

Israel's prime minister has lost sight of the checks and balances of proper government. Meanwhile, a conspiracy to unseat him seems to be brewing.

Amos Biderman

In the early days of the new Knesset, when the media started to become aware of the deeds of MK Oren Hazan, I asked a minister from his Likud party about him. “Hazan?” he guffawed. “Wait until you get to know Yaron Mazuz. People in the Haifa suburbs [Mazuz’s home base] are flabbergasted that he’s going to be appointed deputy interior minister.”

This week we all got to know him. Appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to oversee the local governments, Mazuz strode to the Knesset podium, adjusted his reading glasses on his nose and, in a boorish speech that would not have shamed your average Kahane supporter, launched into a debased racist harangue against the Joint Arab List and Meretz, telling them to return their ID cards, since “we are doing you a favor that you’re living here [sic].”

Like Hazan – who, in a meeting of the House Committee this week, ridiculed Muslims who are fasting during Ramadan – Mazuz is just an example of what’s known in the ruling party as “the calamity of the third group of 10” on Likud’s ticket. Most of those 10, though not all, are 10th-rate functionaries, some with dubious pasts or embarrassing CVs, who succeeded in entering the 20th Knesset almost by chance.

Because no one thought that anyone past the 20th slot in Likud was likely to enter the parliament, serious people in the party’s “periphery” didn’t run in the primary. Okay, Moshe Feiglin is out, but now he’s been replaced by these gentlemen. At least Feiglin had style.

The whole group of them is likely to disappear in the next Knesset, but the bad smell and the damage they cause will linger on. In the meantime, they will compete with one another in displaying extremism and what is ostensibly patriotism, to win the hearts of Likud’s registered members. But why criticize them, when the prime minister himself – seeing Mazuz effectively adopting his tactic of bashing Arabs in order to become popular among your own constituency – took the floor and, far from decrying Mazuz’s remarks, joined in flaying the Arab MKs as though the polling stations were about to close on Election Day and the panic was at its height. For him, the Arabs are a gold mine, his comfort zone. It’s them or us, us or them.

The traditional phenomenon of a pre-election Dr. Bibi and a post-election Mr. Netanyahu has vanished. In this Knesset he seems to enjoy riding the tiger’s back. For the record, he mumbles something vague about freedom of speech, and then he pounces on the prey, claws unsheathed. Or, he simply chooses not to exist, to be a absent parent, when his minister of culture fires crude broadsides at the country’s creative artists. The polarization, the rift, the contentiousness served him well in the election campaign. They are grist for the mill for him and his party, clay in the hands of the maker.

It was actually Education Minister Naftali Bennett, from Habayit Hayehudi, who saved the honor of the parliamentary right and the government this week. Bennett wasn’t in the chamber during Mazuz’s rant. He arrived afterward and collared Meretz leader MK Zehava Galon. “What happened here, what did he say?” he asked her. Galon, overwrought, filled him in. Bennett first replied to a motion for the agenda on behalf of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and then declared: “No one is doing a citizen a favor by letting him be a citizen. Period.”

Some in his party probably held their nose, and that statement will probably not make him any friends in his constituency. But for a rare moment, statesman-like behavior trumped politics. And for another rare moment Bennett, who has a reputation for recklessness, behaved like the responsible adult.

No sense of shame

Netanyahu is devoting a lot time these days to revoking laws and reforms introduced by the previous government. The army draft law has passed on. The cut in child allowances ended and the funds in question will be restored retroactively, along with yeshiva funding. The limitation on the number of cabinet ministers has kicked the bucket. All these measures, Netanyahu says, were forced on him by his former coalition partners.

But the premier also intends to throw decisions made by Likud ministers into the dustbin of history. First and foremost is the reform in the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which aimed to establish an independent public organization, untainted by political influence. The reform, of which he boasted in the election campaign, suddenly became worthy of a quick burial.

“Gilad entangled us with that legislation,” Netanyahu was heard complaining in private, referring to his former communications minister, Gilad Erdan, who would have completed the historic reform process if an early election had not been called. Netanyahu’s reasoning is echoed verbatim in remarks made by Minister without Portfolio Ofir Akunis, who has been granted powers to supervise the Broadcasting Authority Law (that is, to torpedo the reform).

Netanyahu’s intentions are clear. He wants to keep on holding both the stick and the carrot. He rejected out of hand Erdan’s request to empower him to proceed with the reform. Nothing could have been more natural than to accede to Erdan’s request: It’s not a matter of a ministerial portfolio, it’s a procedural matter. But not for Netanyahu. That’s why he appointed himself minister of communications and made his lackey a junior minister to do his bidding. That’s also why he’s been delaying the decision on splitting Channel 2.

Erdan could and should have insisted on being allowed to advance the reform as part of the negotiations he conducted with Netanyahu on being appointed a minister. He’s the 61st MK. And when Netanyahu is threatened, he caves in. Erdan chose to buckle. All he can do now is express his opinion about the reform via Facebook or Twitter.

In this term, Netanyahu is behaving like someone who has lost all shame, no longer cares “what people will say,” and has lost sight of the checks and balances of proper government. According to his interlocutors, he is in a euphoric state of mind most of the time. To go into Election Day with a forecast of 20-21 seats and emerge with 30 – he still hasn’t gotten over that. He feels he’s riding high and can do whatever he pleases.

Reeducate the ministers, for example. He’s sending them letters of reprimand for arriving late at cabinet meetings. Netanyahu against latecomers?! The champion of late arrivals, and of canceling and postponing meetings since time immemorial, is demanding that his ministers show up on time. Just this week, he arrived 35 minutes late for the Likud faction’s meeting without apologizing. Well, he’s allowed. And it’s not being late, it’s being delayed.

Rethinking strategies

Although this government is barely off the ground, the Prime Minister’s Bureau is already thinking about the next election. Word has it that the three fellows who, according to reports, planned to topple Netanyahu last time – Yair Lapid, Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Lieberman – are again conspiring against him.

The logic here is apparently that the last election proved to the trio that only a joint political front can overcome Netanyahu and Likud. Prior to the vote, surveys found that a merger between Yesh Atid and Kulanu would produce a large number of Knesset seats, but nothing came of that. The trauma suffered by politicos who desperately wanted to see Netanyahu go, but instead saw him get 30 seats, is making them rethink their strategy.

That’s one reason for the tremendous pressure Netanyahu is wielding on Finance Minister Kahlon to present to the Knesset next week a three-year budget (for the rest of 2015, and 2016-17). Once a budget is passed, the only way to topple a government is via a no-confidence vote that involves creation of an alternative government. Netanyahu wants an insurance policy. Kahlon is adamant in his resistance. He knows that if he yields on the budget, he’ll become a laughingstock, which isn’t part of his plans.

On top of which, he has troubles of his own. In his campaign he looked hard for a respectable figure with a diplomatic record who would give his socially oriented Kulanu party heft in that realm. He found the perfect candidate, or so it seemed: Dr. Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to Washington. By this means, Kahlon also “disconnected” Oren from Netanyahu, who had been his patron and appointed him to the ambassadorship.

Already during the campaign, Kahlon discovered that he was messing with a somewhat peculiar, uncontrollable type. He limited Oren’s media time, so he wouldn’t cause damage. But the damage, albeit belated, came: The embarrassment to Kahlon caused by an oped piece Oren published in The Wall Street Journal prompted the finance minister to send an unequivocal letter of dissociation to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. (That article was followed by another oped, in Foreign Policy, in which Oren claimed that President Barack Obama had adopted an anti-Israeli policy and was seeking to placate the Arab states because he’d been abandoned by his Muslim father.)

After the letter was sent, Kahlon was summoned to Netanyahu. If he thought the prime minister would say, “Well done, you behaved responsibly,” he was wrong. Netanyahu, who refused to condemn Oren’s psycho-political babble, scolded his finance minister. “You shouldn’t have sent that letter to Shapiro,” he told him.

Back to the mainstream

Knesset personnel came to the prime minister’s aid this week. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) wanted to shorten the summer break, but the staff insisted on the traditional two-and-a-half-month vacation, starting August 2. For Netanyahu, every day the Knesset is not in session is a joy. In fact, he doesn’t have much to worry about. The opposition, despite its size, or possibly because of it, is not endangering his government. On paper, it’s 61-59, but in practice you’d never know it.

For example, on Monday there were three votes of no-confidence in the government. They were defeated by 53-45, 57-39 and 52-38. That’s how it is when the six MKs of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu consistently refuse to vote in favor of such motions if they are sponsored by the Joint Arab List, or when Zionist Union MKs leave the chamber to avoid participating in a Meretz-sponsored vote on revoking the Citizenship Law, or when Joint Arab List MKs undertake vote-offsetting agreements for reasons of their own, or when a Yisrael Beiteinu MK votes with the coalition against a motion by MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) to establish a parliamentary committee of inquiry on the integration of immigrants from Ethiopia.

The public quarrel that broke out this week between Meretz and its big sister, after the latter chose to absent itself from the chamber in the vote on the Citizenship Law, is the result of a quiet process in the Labor Party centering around what might be called a return to the mainstream. One of its proponents is MK Itzik Shmuli. He believes that the party is leaning too far left, that it’s been taken over by people on the political fringes. In a faction meeting this week, he pointed to the large picture of Yitzhak Rabin on the wall and said, “Every time we are silent about issues such as the [new, planned] Gaza flotilla or the boycott, that picture just about falls off the wall.”

Shmuli, one of the leaders of the 2011 social-protest movement, added that the election was fought, as it turned out, “not over housing and the cost of living or the two-state principle, but over identity and belonging – over issues that touch the most sensitive and rawest nerves of this society. And when we are silent about the flotilla, that dovetails with the campaign against us in the election. It sends the wrong message to the public.”

He said that the government deserves to be attacked over many things, “but in the same breath, we have to criticize the flotilla and condemn participation in it by an Israel MK.”

An absolute majority of Zionist Union MKs supported this approach in a discussion that followed. The next day, all of them received an email of talking points, stating, “Zionist Union is against the Gaza flotilla or any act supporting it. We are against the participation of MK Basel Ghattas [Joint Arab List] in the flotilla The flotilla’s goal is not humanitarian but provocative,” and so on.

In a conversation with me, Shmuli said he wanted to make it clear that if anyone thinks he is aiming to join the Netanyahu government, he is dead wrong. “I was against joining the government before, I am against it now and I will continue to be against it. Period. If we get an offer, I say no, with three exclamation marks.”