When Israeli Politicians Forget They Hold Public Office

Both Justice Minister Shaked and Culture and Sports Minister Regev were embarrassed themselves this week on Facebook, when they reacted to the High Court ruling on the anti-Infiltration Law.

Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.Credit: Illustration
Yossi Verter

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has wrapped up three calm, uneventful months in office with a major embarrassment. Her behavior this week – as reflected on her Facebook page – in advance of the High Court of Justice’s ruling on the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, lost her much of the credit she had amassed among the mainstream.

What happened to Shaked on Tuesday is a rerun of what Naftali Bennett, leader of her Habayit Hayehudi party, and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid endured at the start of their tenures in the previous government, also as a consequence of Facebook posts.

Shaked forgot that she is a senior minister who holds a sensitive and important portfolio. Consciously, or perhaps not, she reverted to her days as a rank-and-file MK, the chairwoman of the parliamentary committee against infiltration into Israel, and fired off a defiant, provocative post attacking the Supreme Court. What is it about the innocent-looking but diabolical Facebook that makes otherwise intelligent and judicious people behave like drunken louts?

“If the law is struck down a third time, that would be a declaration that south Tel Aviv is the official facility for accommodating infiltrators,” Shaked wrote, referring to the large number of African asylum seekers living in that part of the city. “Now, and every two hours until the court’s decision is published,” she added, “I will post videos showing the intolerable life of the residents of south Tel Aviv. Please share.”

Even given the fact that by the time Shaked launched her diatribe, the ruling was already prepared, the fact that the post came from her – and not from her fellow party member, the rambunctious MK Moti Yogev – was peculiar, to say the least. Since when does a justice minister prepare a kind of subversive “trailer” for a judgment by the highest court in the land? Where’s the still, small voice that whispers, “It’s not done”?

The video clip Shaked posted, showing a violent attack on a woman by a black man (which, as it turned out, had been shot in Turkey and not in the wild south of Tel Aviv), was the piquant part of the episode, a rotten cherry in a tasteless cake that should never have been baked. Her aides claimed that the mistake was made by her spokeswoman, who displayed over-zealousness in an attempt to please the boss, who was over-the-top busy. But actually, it was Shaked who gave the authorization.

Despite the aggressive and unapologetic approach (except with regard to the debacle with the Turkish clip) of her interviews the next day, Shaked seemed to understand that she tripped up. Badly. People who spoke to her in private heard a clear tone of regret. She understands that her behavior was inappropriate.

Shaked had pursued a hard, activist line on the issue of asylum seekers for years – but without having to take responsibility for it. Now she bears all the responsibility. She announced this week that she would promote a move that would allow the Knesset to bypass High Court rulings. But the promise of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his party to veto any legislation seen as harmful to the courts still stands and shows no signs of being cancelled.

This week’s events involving Shaked and the High Court have broader significance: They reflect the dissonance, the permanent state of disharmony, that frequently causes the music being played by Bennett and Shaked to sound grating and jarring. On the one hand, they want to position their party as a broad-based political home not only for settlers and the national-religious public, but also for secular voters, moderate rightists, residents of the center of the country, cool young people. They see a statesman-like approach as an essential tool to achieve this goal, and are making efforts to differentiate themselves, in word and deed, from their far-right fellow MKs Yogev and Bezalel Smotrich.

For his part, Bennett is taking pains to show that he is the education minister of the entire nation, describing his concern for the welfare of “Arab and Jewish pupils.” Following the recent murder of teenager Shira Banki in the Jerusalem Pride Parade, he announced that he would increase the budget of a gay youth organization. His request to speak at the solidarity event in Tel Aviv was rejected because of the organizers’ narrow-mindedness.

On the other hand, Bennett and Shaked are constantly riding the tiger, in the form of the settlers and the activists of the extreme right. In the recent case of illegally built structures in the Beit El settlement, which the government sought to demolish at the High Court’s order, Bennett suddenly appeared on a roof there, assailing the Supreme Court in front of hundreds of inflamed young people. The education minister had no business being there, but the settlers turned him on. That’s what happens when you try to leap between the roofs of Beit El and the roofs in Tel Aviv. If you’re not a parkour expert, you’ll trip and break your skull.

Collisions are the inevitable result of Bennet and Shaked’s effort to project centrism and an all-Israeli approach, joined with a not-always-controllable impulse to please “their” public. And it usually happens in connection with major events. They lose their way, are swept up, stumble and then regret it.

Shaked has the right to think that the High Court is mistaken in its decision. She has the right to be critical of the ruling – preferably, after it’s been announced. She has every right to promote legislation that’s consistent with her worldview. She has never hidden the fact that she is a right-winger. The compassion toward the individual that the state should show, mentioned this week by Supreme Court President Justice Miriam Naor – who is not exactly someone we’re likely to meet at Machsom Watch events after she retires – is not what the right wing, or Shaked in particular, is about.

With self-directed irony, Shaked admitted on Wednesday that at least she succeeded in putting the painful subject of migrants, which is close to her heart, on the public agenda. Near the end of last week, she toured south Tel Aviv together with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, then wrote a post on Facebook that drew no attention. On Tuesday, she got plenty of it.

The oops factor

In her three months as culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, the former chief military censor, has shown her strong arm to the leftists “who only got 20 seats,” and made clear to them just who holds the purse strings of the culture budget. This week she returned to her comfort zone: the “cancer,” as she called the refugees from Africa in a notorious demonstration in Tel Aviv three years ago.

Regev’s tragicomic show began with a festive announcement that she released to the media hastily, just 30 minutes after the High Court’s decision was made public on Tuesday evening. “I congratulate the citizens of Israel and the residents of south Tel Aviv, who received a fair judgment that will enable a suitable solution for the problem of the infiltrators and will protect the country’s citizens against a tsunami of new ones,” Regev wrote on her Facebook page.

Obviously, she hadn’t seen the ruling, probably not even the abstract. She was probably deeply impressed by the snippets that appeared on her smartphone screen, some of which stated, incorrectly, that the petitions of the human rights groups against the amended law had been rejected. As a politician who helped build her career out of persecuting unfortunate foreign migrants, Regev was ultra-eager to take credit for what she thought was an achievement.

Regev’s embrace of the judgment made waves among her constituency. One Internet site titled her announcement, “Satisfaction on the right.” But it wasn’t long before the irksome truth came out: The main component of the law, which allowed refugees to be incarcerated in the Holot desert facility for 18 months, was struck down by the court, which cut the maximum to 12 months. Now the Internet headlines declared that within two weeks, more than 1,000 refugees could be returning to south Tel Aviv. In the meantime, Erdan and former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar each lambasted the court’s ruling.

As they say in these parts: Oops! When Regev realized that she got it wrong, she had little choice but to regroup feverishly in order to erase the shame. She published a corrective status, then another one, each of them consisting of a carefully phrased, partial retraction, until not a shred remained of the original congratulations. She rounded off her mea culpa the next day in a series of aggressive, militant interviews, declaring, “We will replace the judges!” After which she issued a threat in the street language typical of her, thanks to which she rose to the top ranks of Likud: “We will deal with the court by electing judges and an attorney general who do not espouse judicial activism.”

Within less than 12 hours, she both congratulated the High Court justices and replaced them. Interested jurists from the Likud Central Committee (not Arabs, because MK Robert Ilatov, a committee member from Yisrael Beiteinu, won’t allow it) are requested to submit their candidacy soon. Register with Miri on Facebook.

Strategic threat

Assuming that a Channel 2 report this week is correct – to the effect that former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has been cleared of all suspicions in the “Harpaz document” affair – we can start counting the days until he formally enters politics. If the case is closed, he and his army sidekick, Brig. Gen. (res.) Avi Benayahu, the former IDF spokesman, can be as political as they like. Their goal: for Ashkenazi to be elected prime minister.

The word is that he’s dying to have the top job; that would be his ultimate revenge on all his adversaries. First of all, Ehud Barak and his people, but not only them. The impression gleaned by people who have talked to Ashkenazi is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is high on the list of people Ashkenazi abominates.

In Netanyahu’s eyes, Ashkenazi is a strategic threat. He endangers him in the security arena, where he’s enjoyed exclusivity for years. Ashkenazi can’t be branded a leftist anti-Zionist who’s bringing ISIS closer to Jerusalem or collaborating with Hamas. He’s the fighter who eats sand and scorpions from the satirical TV show “A Wonderful Country.”

This column has recently reported (twice) that Yesh Atid leader Lapid is courting Ashkenazi ardently. Lapid is promising him the moon and the stars if he agrees to become his No. 2, his candidate for defense minister and vice prime minister. He believes Ashkenazi represents the critical mass, the D-9 bulldozer that will pave his (Lapid’s) way to the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

Ashkenazi is telling Lapid that he will not make a decision until he has a formal letter of exoneration from the attorney general. He’s hesitating between the easy path into politics via Yesh Atid and the trickier route: running for leadership of the Labor Party.

There are other political possibilities that Ashkenazi might consider. He’s on good terms with Gideon Sa’ar; the two recently spent quality time together in London, at a conference organized by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. They’re both among the less popular figures in the prime minister’s offices and residence. As fate would have it, the same week we learned about the impending closure of the Ashkenazi file, Sa’ar also popped up in the media, for the first time since he left politics, in the form of two long interviews (Army Radio and Channel 2), following the High Court ruling on the Infiltration Law.

In Netanyahu’s head, undoubtedly, nothing happens by chance, everything is planned, and it’s all directed against him.

High diplomacy

Science, Technology and Space Minister Danny Danon (Likud) has suffered through some tense times recently. It was not the Perseids meteor shower seen Wednesday night in southern Israel, which is something completely within his area of ministerial responsibility, that troubled him. Rather, it was the long delayed decision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over who would be Israel’s next ambassador to the United Nations.

Friday morning, Danon was released from his suffering. Netanyahu informed the nation on his Facebook page that Danon, as the Shlomo Artzi song goes, will soon be a jet plane to the United States, headed for his official residence on Fifth Avenue and the glass building for the next two or three years.

For weeks, Danon has been the presumed leading candidate among Likud leaders, including minister without portfolio Ofir Akunis, who was also vying for the desirable position. What bothered Danon was the timing. The summer is just about over, the deadline for registering the children for school has almost passed – and the decision has yet to be made.  

Danon thought the delay could very well signal that Netanyahu was still looking for someone, perhaps a surprising choice from out of the wings like the former member of the Italian parliament Fiamma Nirenstein, who was named this week as Israel’s new ambassador to Italy. But this worry too was removed, and the appointment – after the requisite bureaucratic procedures – seems to be final.

The choice of Danon is unprecedented in our political history. The prime minster is appointing someone who he fired in anger just a year ago to one of the most senior and important diplomatic posts in the foreign service. Netanyahu canned him as deputy defense minister at the beginning of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza because he too often criticized the prime minister’s actions concerning Hamas, which Danon considered too soft.

Since then, the relations between the two have improved. But Danon is still not one of Netanyahu’s favorites or confidantes – quite the opposite, in fact. He certainly is not what Akunis is for the prime minister. Danon ran against him a number of times for the Likud leadership. He is not on his side, or in his pocket. He is a loose canon. That in itself is a good enough reason to send him far away from here to the ivory tower of world diplomacy, and to replace him with another minister, a closer and trusted associate – be it Tzahi Hanegbi or Benny Begin.

Begin was a minister in the present government for a few enchanted days, and today is a simple Knesset member. With the establishment of the government three months ago, Hanegbi hoped to be appointed as a minister, but was forced to make do with the positions of chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, chairman of the Likud Knesset faction and coalition whip – with a promise to rotate with Akunis.

Hanegbi announced on Friday morning he would run for the leadership of the Likud Central Committee, a post he held over a decade ago. In general, Hanegbi is constantly moving backwards, to positions from his past. This is how he was forced to return to the post of chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and he will end this round of nostalgia with the Likud Central Committee – if elected. Until this election, the acting chairman of the central committee will be the chairman of the Likud movement – none other than Prime Minister Netanyahu.

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