Gas Isn't Flowing, but Coalition Is Rife With Bad Blood

The saga of the non-vote on the natural gas plan being pushed by the PM exposed his – and his coalition's – weakness, which may be exploited by a quartet of politicos seeking an election sooner rather than later.

Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter

Benjamin Netanyahu found out the hard way this week that there are no friends in politics. That is, he, Bibi, has no friends. Previous prime ministers, such as Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, knew that in a political crisis, people would come to their aid. Netanyahu, who built his relationships with political partners on foundations of extortion, brute force and suspicion, has no one to call on in times of distress.

And call he did. He implored fellow Likudnik Haim Katz, whom he appointed minister of social affairs – Katz’s dream job – and he urged Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), who got everything he wanted and more from Netanyahu as finance minister, to vote in favor of the government’s request to transfer powers to it from the economy minister, in order to push through the deal Netanyahu supports with the monopoly that is slated to develop Israel’s natural gas fields.

And how he cajoled Aryeh Deri, the economy minister, to sign off on a clause that bypasses the antitrust commissioner. “How could you do this to me? How?” the premier lamented to him.

But they turned a deaf ear. When Netanyahu raised the possibility, or threat, of making the vote one of confidence in the government, Katz told him he was ready to resign and would not vote for the government as a regular MK, either. Kahlon made it clear to Netanyahu that he shouldn’t embark on that course, as he would find himself heading a transition government the next day.

“Sorry, I have a conflict of interest,” the ministers of finance and social affairs, along with Construction Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu), each insisted, in recusing themselves from voting on the deal in the cabinet. A ruling by the Knesset’s legal adviser stating that they could take part in the vote made no difference. Kahlon’s scars from his previous zigzag – in which he retracted his election-campaign assertion that his friendship with natural-gas tycoon Kobi Maimon would not prevent him from intervening on the matter – have not yet healed. Image is all, and fear of an unforgiving media lurks for the decision makers, sometimes even more powerfully than immediate considerations of political survival.

A drama developed with Dery, who refused to sign off on the plan. At the height of the tense night in the Knesset, with Netanyahu pacing back and forth like a caged lion, the website of the financial newspaper Globes ran a story claiming that Netanyahu was accusing Dery of having hooked up with Kahlon and Katz in order to help Maimon. The report said that Dery owes Maimon a favor in return for his having purchased the Shas newspaper Yom Leyom.

Dery’s spokesman sent him a text message with the headline. Dery couldn’t believe his eyes. He doesn’t know Maimon, and the paper’s purchase took place during the tenure of his predecessor, Eli Yishai.

Dery’s smartphone is kosher: no Internet. He asked Education Minister Naftali Bennett to go into the Globes website, and then took the phone and held it up in Netanyahu’s face. Netanyahu glanced at the headline, snorted in contempt, shrugged and walked away.

Dery could not calm down. Spotting Kahlon, he shouted, “Moshe, look at the conspiracy we’re being accused of.” Kahlon smiled his famous smile and made a “nonsense” gesture with his hands.

Dery was not satisfied. Then he remembered he had an event to attend with Rabbi Reuven Elbaz. Thus, at the height of the tension, with the Prime Minister’s Bureau clutching at straws to muster a random majority, Dery simply left the Knesset. Only then did Netanyahu grasp that the story was over and informed the Knesset Speaker that he could close up shop, to the cheers of the opposition. Netanyahu later called Dery, but he was asleep.

Dery blames an adviser in Netanyahu’s circle “with a feverish and malicious mind” for the report that made him lose his cool. But in private conversations, he admits that he behaved improperly, disappointed Netanyahu and snafued him with his surprise announcement at the end of the security cabinet meeting last Thursday that he would not sign.

“Bibi didn’t do anything wrong to me,” Dery says, “but I couldn’t sign. It’s too big. A decision of that scale requires the responsibility of the full government. It’s a decision of precedent and historic importance. It’s no simple thing to bypass the antitrust commissioner, and I didn’t want that on my shoulders.”

I reminded him of the security cabinet meeting during the Gulf War of 1991 when, as a young minister, he assumed the burden, almost exclusively, of tipping the scales, when he voted against an Israeli military response to Iraq’s missile attacks.

“I’ve matured since then,” he replied, after a characteristic sigh, “I see things differently.”

Liebermania ascendant

“It’s not the gas, it’s the 61-member coalition,” Moshe Kahlon maintains, “and this was just the trailer.” “It’s not the coalition, it’s something deeper,” a senior Likud figure maintains, and elaborates: “Bigger forces, not necessarily political, are behind this whole story and are playing games.”

If the latter account, which is backed up by some in the Prime Minister’s Bureau – holding that Kobi Maimon doesn’t support the government’s plan for the natural-gas fields and that the politicians are just his marionettes – is correct, then the notion of “big capital-and-government” as we knew it pales in the face of what happened this week in the political arena.

The saga of the non-vote exposed not only the feeble coalition and the weakness of the prime minister: It showed that to a certain degree, the ministers are behaving as though the next election is a lot closer than it’s scheduled to be. If Finance Minister Kahlon is ready to vote no-confidence in the government – and he was serious about doing just that – over a procedural issue, then clearly he’s eyeing his constituency. Dery, too. If either of them believed that the election is actually four years and four months away, they might loosen up a little.

This week’s events also have serious implications for the future. With the state budget about to be submitted to the Knesset, every coalition MK who doesn’t want to vote for some clause will be able to tell the finance minister: “I have a conflict of interest here.” What will Kahlon respond? That only he has the right to say that?

Netanyahu’s principal lesson? He has to take advantage of the 10-week summer recess, which begins in August, to expand the coalition. Yair Lapid’s party is not an option. Isaac Herzog and his Zionist Union are ostensibly the most available, but Netanyahu would have to pay a formidable price for their joining, in terms of ministerial portfolios, peace initiatives and saying goodbye to Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party or at least reducing its clout.

The third option – Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party – never looked more distant from the coalition than it did this week, when Lieberman’s abusive treatment of his former ally hit a new high. As he supports the gas plan at least as much as Netanyahu, Lieberman should have been expected to allow the transfer of powers to the government when it came to a Knesset vote.

Lieberman is a like a physician who is intimately acquainted with the most sensitive areas of a patient’s body. But he uses his knowledge not to heal and ease pain, but to hurt and torment the patient. The way he informed the nation, the Knesset and Netanyahu about his party’s vote will be taught in the department of advanced political torture, which, when it is inaugurated, will bear his name.

He announced that he would inform the media about his decision after his Knesset faction met on Monday at 3:30 P.M. It’s no secret that the Likud faction holds its weekly meeting at the same time. Exactly at 3:30, Lieberman launched into a fire-and-brimstone speech in favor of the government’s gas plan and against its detractors (“Bolsheviks Shelly Yacimovich, TheMarker and Zehava Galon”). The reporters immediately tweeted editors, “Lieberman: I’ll vote for gas plan.”

Cut to the Likud faction. The cellphones of Netanyahu’s advisers buzz. The report appears on the screen. Someone hands Netanyahu a phone, he looks at the headline and his eyes light up. We have a majority! Life looks rosy.

Back to Lieberman, who finishes praising the plan – and declares that his faction will vote against the transfer of powers. Why? Because if the government is incapable of ruling, and ministers are looking for escape hatches, it’s not his job, as a member of the opposition, to extricate the prime minister from his distress. The reporters tweet, “Lieberman: I’ll vote against the plan.”

Back to Likud. The phones are vibrating, Netanyahu looks at the screen and his face droops. Lieberman has outfoxed him again.

Lieberman’s decision not to join Netanyahu’s coalition could be the most meaningful political event of the past year, other than the calling of an early election itself. Its implications could prove dramatic. He is playing games with the coalition; he said this week that when the gas plan comes up for a vote in the Knesset, he and his party will support it. But if it’s linked to the transfer of powers, they will vote against. Salvation for the foundering ship has to come from a different source.

Gang of four

Last week, this column noted the growing fear in the Prime Minister’s Bureau that three key players – Lieberman, Lapid and Kahlon – are plotting to form a single slate in the next election to defeat Likud and get one of them crowned prime minister. This week, Lieberman was heard to say, “That could be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” adding that he’s not ruling out anything for now. The cooperation among the three, whose potential for wreaking damage showed itself this week, is the realization of all Netanyahu’s fears.

This week it became clear that the scenario that’s perturbing Netanyahu includes a fourth player: former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar. According to the scenario being discussed in the bureau, Sa’ar, who never left Likud but is taking a break from politics, can also be expected to join the ticket of the trio, and together they will bring Netanyahu down.

Nor was Netanyahu’s peace of mind enhanced by a meeting between Sa’ar and Education Minister Bennett in the latter’s bureau this week. Afterward, Sa’ar posted a cheerful photo with Bennett on Twitter. Bennett shared the image and tweeted: “I learned something!” What, Netanyahu must be wondering (other than how one manages the education system, of course), did Bennett learn?

The Ashkenazi affair

On Wednesday, former army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi had lunch in Tel Aviv with Hillel Kobrinsky, a high-tech entrepreneur and MK Lapid’s top confidant and talent scout.

A loyal and sharp-eyed reader, who drew the column’s attention to the meeting, had the impression that it was a conversation in which both sides were putting out feelers. Ashkenazi is waiting for the attorney general to decide whether to indict him in connection with the “Harpaz affair,” concerning machinations in the defense establishment. Given Yehuda Weinstein’s slow pace of work, the decision will probably come toward the end of the year – also the end of his term as attorney general.

If the case is closed, Ashkenazi’s confidants say, he will be ready to make the leap into the political quagmire. The prevailing view is that he will contest the leadership of the Labor Party, but there’s another option: to join Yesh Atid as Lapid’s No. 2 and his candidate for defense minister, and to set aside his burning passion to be prime minister for another few years.

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