Netanyahu’s Gas Trouble, and Other Ailments

The prime minister’s biggest current problem isn’t an enlarged prostate or a razor-thin Knesset majority – his inability to work with others is finally catching up with him.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on June 28, 2015.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The first major victory for the opposition in the Knesset wasn’t over an issue related to diplomacy or security. If anyone’s still waiting for some kind of showdown over settlement building, the rise in terror attacks or a commitment to the diplomatic process – or perhaps even a day of reckoning with the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has handled the Iranian issue – it’s going to be a very long wait. A consensus on any of these issues is unthinkable, given the opposition comprises the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu; Yesh Atid and Zionist Union, each competing over who can be more centrist; Meretz, which still hasn’t decided what it wants to be after being nearly wiped out in the last election; and a Joint Arab List that, despite its name, is already breaking into its constituent parts.

Netanyahu’s fourth government’s first debacle was over an issue that should have been a cakewalk for him. Most of the Israeli public were clueless about the gas monopoly framework deal until only a few days ago. With the exception of Haaretz-The Marker and a tiny handful of independent-minded broadcasters and commentators, the Israeli media was happy not to delve into the details or ask awkward questions. For months, the talks with the monopolists (Yitzhak Tshuva’s Delek Group and U.S. firm Noble Energy) were being carried out by Netanyahu’s plenipotentiary for finance matters – National Economic Council head Prof. Eugene Kandel – far from probing eyes.

The relevant ministers in the previous government had all been onboard and – even better from Netanyahu’s perspective – in the new one the energy minister is yes man Yuval Steinitz. Also, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon recused himself from handling the issue after declaring a conflict of interest due to a friendship with secretive tycoon Kobi Maimon.

It should have worked smoothly, with at most a bit of shouting in Knesset committees from the small, awkward squad on the left. But Netanyahu failed in cajoling his ministers into line and securing a majority.

Netanyahu should have presented the gas framework deal to the public initially and carried out an orderly and open debate. Failure to do so now looks like defeat for Netanyahu and – in opinion polls published this week – the public is beginning to take notice.

Netanyahu will probably prevail. Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman, who refused to vote in favor of empowering the government to bypass the antitrust commissioner on Monday, supports the gas monopoly in principle. Together with his old ally, Economy Minister Arye Dery, they’ll work out a deal in which they’ll exact a price from Netanyahu in return for their votes. The temporary camp of politicians from all sides of the Knesset, social activists and campaigning journalists is unlikely to hold.

But Netanyahu’s gas trouble is a sign of the vulnerability that will continue to cause him major headaches. And contrary to the prevailing narrative, his coalition, with its razor-thin majority, is not the major weakness.

The Netanyahu way of doing business is based on a deeply held – and not entirely unjustified – disdain of both his own Likud party and partners in the government. He avoids convening the security cabinet as much as possible and instead works through a tiny group of advisers – Kandel for issues of high finance; major security decisions are made in private with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon; Dore Gold and private attorney Isaac Molho get sent on delicate diplomatic missions; while Steinitz has to explain things to the media and public when there’s no choice.

Omnipotent rule

The assumption – which has largely worked until now – is that the media and public are too focused on inanities, the coalition too incompetent and interested primarily in their narrow agendas, and the opposition too ineffective, fractured and disorganized to disrupt the natural order of things.

After more than 30 years in senior positions in public life, Netanyahu doesn’t see anyone around him who can challenge his judgment on diplomatic, security or financial issues. Until two years ago, he was running the country alongside the only politician he had a degree of respect for – Ehud Barak. Now, he is largely doing so alone. Channel Two TV’s scoop on Monday night about the secret medical procedure he underwent for an enlarged prostate, smuggled into hospital once in a pest-control van and a second time in a pita truck, is the perfect illustration of how he sees his leadership: an omnipotent pair of hands on the national rudder. No reality is to be allowed to intrude on this picture.

But inevitably, this is where Netanyahu is vulnerable. The relentless efforts of a small band of reporters, parliamentarians and social-justice campaigners to expose the machinations of the gas deal allowed the true anti-Netanyahu axis of Lieberman, Dery and Kahlon – one which transcends coalition-opposition lines – to take advantage of an opportunity to humiliate him and bring him back to earth.

There are signs of similar developments on other issues – for example, Netanyahu’s attempt to rearrange the media landscape and muzzle the critical press. A quiet campaign to push through the licensing of the rebellious Channel 10 TV seems to have succeeded, despite the concerted efforts of Netanyahu (in his guise as communications minister). And now MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) is challenging, together with a group of journalists and lawyers, the coalition agreement clause that gives Netanyahu carte blanche to push through new media legislation. The long overdue state budget is going to be a bitter uphill struggle, as proven by Netanyahu’s attempt to turn it into a two-year budget and save him another battle for next year.

Israel’s new effective opposition to Netanyahu isn’t in the Knesset: it’s a loose association of campaigners, journalists, and legal and social activists, joining up with savvy politicians to educate and mobilize the public on ad-hoc issues on which Netanyahu, due to his chronic secrecy and inability to work as part of a team, is particularly vulnerable.

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