Netanyahu, Not Herzog, Is the Real Hurdle to a Unity Government

So far, the overtures between the two have got nowhere, like Herzog's demand for rotation as prime minister. Netanyahu won’t hear of it, he’d rather go to an election – which he will win, because there’s no one else around.

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Zionist Union's Isaac Herzog and Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu
Zionist Union's Isaac Herzog and Likud's Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

According to a longtime personal acquaintance of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister is stuck in a problematic mindset, in which he recognizes personal failure – and looks for other people to blame. A life’s work of public and political struggle against the Iranian nuclear project collapsed this week, and Netanyahu finds himself in a vicious trap: The more he attacks the agreement and magnifies the dangers lurking for Israel, the more he magnifies the scale of his defeat. He’s undoubtedly aware of this contradiction, but he can’t help himself: It’s bigger than he is.

Over the past three decades, the prime minister based his successful political career on three noes: no to a Palestinian state, no to the release of terrorists in deals, and no to a nuclear Iran or an Iran at the brink of nuclear capability. He retracted the first principle when he declared his support for a two-state solution in the Bar-Ilan University speech in 2009; he abandoned the second in the 2011 Shalit deal; and he suffered the collapse of the third tenet, perhaps the most important of all to him, this week.

If he had the ability to influence the deal itself, he passed it up consciously. A diplomatic source related this week that after the March election, Netanyahu effectively broke off contact with the White House over Iran. The Americans were ready to listen to him, signaled that they would be attentive to comments and insight, and invited him to exert some influence. But Netanyahu backed off and crawled into a shell – precisely during the negotiations’ last four, critical months.

Maybe he thought it was a done deal, that President Barack Obama had no intention of leaving office after eight years without an agreement, and, because there was no scenario that would meet even some of the Israeli demands, Netanyahu chose not to legitimize the process or the accord. Maybe he found himself, for good or for ill, whether he wanted it or not, up to his neck in political battles in Washington between Republicans and Democrats over the trampling of the remainder of Obama’s presidency and his legacy ahead of the presidential election in another 15 months.

At this sensitive point it’s difficult to know where the boundary line passes between Netanyahu and his friend and benefactor Sheldon Adelson, the elderly Jewish billionaire who, more than any other person of affluence in the United States, is identified with a burning hatred for Obama and generous support for his political rivals.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.

Netanyahu and his ministers have been occupied with the Iranian nuclear project for six consecutive years. But at the moment of truth, nada. The ministers’ role was to declaim the messages sent to them from the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Among those messages, some senior figures in Likud declared that the Vienna agreement is comparable, in its shortsightedness, its calamitous appeasement and its dangers vis-a-vis world peace to the notorious Munich agreement signed on the eve of World War II.

A senior member of the German administration spoke with a senior Israeli figure on Wednesday. “We are your friends, we identify with you, we share your fears,” he said. “We are worried about what the money that will flow to Iran will be used for. But really, have you gone mad?! To say that we are signing Munich II?!”

A politician who met Netanyahu this week asked him whether he intended to go head-to-head against Obama, and generate a confrontation. Netanyahu did not reply. He pretended to be wrestling with the question. Either he doesn’t know, or he knows and he isn’t telling, or it doesn’t depend only on him.

Looming challenges ahead

Netanyahu adopted patronizing language this week when he called on the opposition to forsake “petty politics” and back him in light of looming challenges. Well, everyone’s a dwarf next to him. Only the politics he practices is national, lofty and unbiased.

The next day, speaking in the Knesset in the annual commemorative session for Revisionist movement founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Netanyahu was more polite. He declared that in order to ensure “our future and our existence, we need a united front and a joining of hands between Jabotinsky’s disciples and Ben-Gurion’s disciples. As he spoke, he glanced at MK Tzipi Livni, from Zionist Union, his legendary nemesis. She’s one of the few MKs who was raised in a home that revered Jabotinsky. For most Likud MKs, Jabotinsky is the name of a street.

The political corridors were abuzz this week with talk of the possible formation of a unity government. There were signs aplenty, including some of Netanyahu’s remarks and the enthusiastic adoption by Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog of the premier’s apocalyptic narrative. Herzog was invited urgently to the Prime Minister’s Office Tuesday night for an update but Netanyahu arrived late, as usual. Herzog asked questions, and Netanyahu and his national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, replied. Then Cohen left and Bibi and Bougie were alone. Herzog says they didn’t talk politics, but he sounds like someone who doesn’t believe himself.

On Thursday, Haaretz reported that President Reuven Rivlin, a devotee of a unity government, is mediating between Netanyahu and Herzog in the endless foreplay they’re engaging in to expand the government. Rivlin is involved but he’s not mediating, not in the conventional sense. He’s not passing messages between them – as far as Rubi’s concerned, Bibi can call Bougie whenever he wants, and vice versa.

Since the government’s formation, Rivlin has been saying that Israel is deteriorating into dangerous scenarios of diplomatic isolation in the West, on both the Iranian and Palestinian fronts. Rivlin knows whereof he speaks: He receives a daily intelligence report and he talks to ministers and senior diplomats. The president is appalled by the situation, by a picture that’s blacker than black.

He’s in intensive, almost daily contact with both Netanyahu and Herzog. The two solicit his advice and ask him to help them help themselves. At one stage, one of them suggested a three-way meeting in which everything would be put on the table. Rivlin declined; he’s the president, after all, not some hotshot lawyer. Only when he is certain that a mutual desire exists for compromise will he – gladly – issue a public call that will accord the political move state sponsorship. So far, nothing doing.

The Iranian issue looks like a mere pretext. If you set aside the hysteria and the lamentations, how exactly would a broader government help? An Israeli attack is not in the cards. Netanyahu said Israel will not accept the Iran agreement? Okay. The security cabinet rejected the accord “unanimously”? Great. What significance does all this posturing have, beyond macho chest-puffing?

The suspicion arises that Netanyahu is using the Iran excuse to get Herzog and his party at close-out prices. He believed even before that Herzog, frustrated, bored and fearful of his political future, would enter the government at a bargain price. But he was wrong.

So far, the overtures between them, as reported here (denied by Herzog, not by Netanyahu), have got nowhere. Rotation, for example: Herzog wants to be prime minister, even for a year (of the four and a half remaining). Netanyahu won’t hear of it, he’d rather go to an election – which he will win, because there’s no one else around.

Herzog wants the head of Education Minister Naftali Bennett as a condition for joining the coalition. Netanyahu is unnerved by the thought of his government remaining behind without the essential protection that Bennett’s right-wing party provides him against the more extreme elements in Habayit Hayehudi’s national-religious constituency, and right-wing voters in general. In the coalition, Bennett has been silent about the wave of terrorist attacks here in recent weeks – but Bennett in the opposition would tear Netanyahu to pieces over this, and possibly even split Likud.

Herzog, however, doesn’t see how he could justify entering a coalition with Bennett’s party. Netanyahu, according to a Likud source who was updated about the talks, is suggesting that the two of them reformulate and moderate the government’s basic guidelines. Anyone who can live with the result will be part of the coalition. Bennett will swallow the bitter pill and stay, Netanyahu believes. He likes being a cabinet minister.

There are many other problems along the way, too. Livni, for example, who says she’s against joining the government. She worked with Netanyahu for 20 months as justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians in the previous government. She knows Netanyahu and she’s had her fill of him.

Under the unity agreement signed by Labor and Hatnuah before the election campaign, both Zionist Union leaders have to agree to enter the coalition. So far, Herzog hasn’t tried to win Livni over; on the contrary, whenever there are reports of an imminent unity deal, he immediately calls her to deny the existence of any talks.

Yet another problem, again, is Habayit Hayehudi. Ask Zionist Union which portfolios they will get in a future government, and they say, in addition to the Foreign Ministry, currently held by Netanyahu, the Justice Ministry, now in the hands of Ayelet Shaked. The latter, a former bureau chief of opposition leader Netanyahu, was and remains, now more than ever, the Great Satan in the eyes of the Netanyahus. Especially in the First Lady’s eyes. The denizens of the house on Balfour Street in Jerusalem would welcome the dispossession of Shaked from the Justice Ministry. But Habayit Hayehudi knows that, too, and isn’t ready to give in.

Bennett is telling Netanyahu that he won’t object to Zionist Union entering the government. On the contrary, they’re his ‘bros. But in internal discussions in his party, he makes it clear that he will not agree to the Justice Ministry being taken from Shaked, who, as expected, has fallen in love with her job, as Bennett has with the education portfolio.

“If Netanyahu fires her,” Bennett said to an interlocutor, “we will not take it lying down, we will not be silent, we will not accept the decision. We will leave, and then Netanyahu will find out what opposition really is.”

Deadly defeat

Netanyahu arrived for the Likud ministers’ weekly meeting on Sunday morning angry and irritable, as usual. For some reason, the weekend isn’t good for his nerves. To begin with, he asked what was on the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which was to meet later that day.

The first item, he was told, was a bill sponsored by MK Sharon Gal (Yisrael Beiteinu) aiming to lay the groundwork for sentencing terrorists to death, favored by many in Likud.

“There’s no reason to give [MK Avigdor Lieberman] that present,” Netanyahu grumbled. “He’s always speaking against us in coarse and often malicious language.” The ministers’ impression was that their leader came with this attitude from home. “I’m not saying that the only reason to reject the proposal is political,” the premier added, partially correcting himself. “There are other reasons, too.”

It was decided that the Likud representatives on the committee would vote against the proposal and scuttle it, and that a coalition committee would be formed to consider the legislation. That committee has not yet been created, and it will make no difference even if it is: The existing law will not be amended.

Despite the certain defeat, Yisrael Beiteinu insisted on putting the bill to a vote in the Knesset plenum, in order to embarrass the two right-wing parties in the coalition. On Wednesday, Gal showed up in a black suit, evoking, fittingly, an undertaker. He delivered a speech rife with pathos, slogans and clichés about how the death penalty would save lives. He read out the names of all 38 MKs from Likud and Habayit Hayehudi, and demanded that they vote “for the sake of the people!” It was as though he wanted to brand them each with the mark of Cain.

A moment before his time ran out, he resorted to the basest trick of all and quoted what he claimed he was told by a bereaved mother who had lost her son in a terrorist attack. The quote went on and on, becoming a mini-speech in itself. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein urged him to finish up. “It’s in my blood!” Gal protested. To which Edelstein shot back, “If it were really in your blood, you would have begun with that and not left it to the end.”

The results of the vote were surprising: Only the six members of Gal’s faction voted in favor; 94 voted against, almost 40 of them coalition members. They took the trouble to show up, even though a mere seven votes would have been enough to get this noxious idea stricken from the agenda. Such a resounding defeat hasn’t been seen in the Knesset for a long time. Even the most extreme members of Habayit Hayehudi voted against. Gal’s show went over their head. The bill was put to death and buried, deep in the ground.