Early this week, Benjamin Netanyahu discovered that he doesn’t have a party. The Likud’s institutions were captured − democratically − by representatives of the ideological right. Later on in the week, he also discovered that he no longer has a bureau: Its chief, Gil Sheffer, announced that he will leave after the holidays in the fall. He will ride off into the sunset with National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror just as Netanyahu’s policy adviser, Ron Dermer, abandons the bureau, perhaps on his way to Washington, and after cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser has also walked the walk.
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Dermer and Sheffer have been at Netanyahu’s side since the start of his second term as prime minister, in 2009. To lose them so soon after the start of the current term is a tough blow for him. The Netanyahu family hasn’t yet recovered from the departure under distressing circumstances of the former bureau chief, Natan Eshel. Both he and Sheffer are from the national-religious movement, loyal to the boss (and especially the boss lady) − manipulators and meta-functionaries in every fiber of their being, but not without intelligence and skills. When needed, they were capable of sticking knives into backs (mainly each other’s).
For his part, Sheffer came to the Prime Minister’s Bureau from the Jerusalem Municipality, where he met Sara, who was employed by the city as a child psychologist. His original job was to organize the prime minister’s trips. Unlike his predecessors, he also accompanied Netanyahu on his travels abroad, in his unofficial capacity of being in charge of the First Lady’s affairs. Reliable sources say that his job was to accompany her when she went shopping or went out for recreational purposes, and also to sneak hairdressers up to her suite in the service elevator.
Sheffer took over from Eshel as bureau chief when the latter was forced to leave, in early 2012, amid allegations of sexual harassment on his part. He continued to devote much time to the welfare of Mrs. Netanyahu. In the incident in which a woman spat at the prime minister’s wife at a mall, while she was on her way to pay a condolence visit in the north of the country, Sheffer was documented by security cameras close by her side, and far from his office in the government compound in Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who like every manager buckles under an inhuman overload of work, is a sophisticated, complicated human machine. Sheffer, like Eshel before him, is very adept at running that machine. A quick glance at the boss was enough for him to know whom to hook him up with on the phone, when to isolate him from the surroundings and when to arrange a “good time” for him.
He shared his thoughts of resignation with friends back during the election campaign. He feels worn down. After the new government was installed, Netanyahu asked him to stay on for a few more months. They decided that he would leave after the holidays. Sheffer has not been in the bureau much in the past few months. He went abroad alone on vacation twice recently.
Sheffer, too, is leaving under a cloud of suspicion relating to a sexual offense he was suspected of committing in the distant past. The police closed the case at the time. The attorney general authorized Sheffer’s continued employment when he was first informed of the matter, a year and a half ago, and reaffirmed it a few months ago, when the complainant made contact with the authorities again.
“Somebody is pulling a fast one on me,” Sheffer said yesterday, in a bitter tone. “This affair was investigated a few times. I took three polygraph tests and was found to be speaking the truth in all of them. The attorney general authorized my continued employment even after the Eshel episode. I am leaving after four full years, in which I gave my all. I preserved quiet and a good atmosphere in the bureau. People are trying to say that a problem cropped up between Sara and me. Our relationship is superb. I am like one of the family. We go on vacation and celebrate the holidays together, and I will continue to be at their side in the future.”
A political rival of Netanyahu’s, who is well acquainted with life in the bureau, said yesterday that he feels true compassion for the prime minister. “He has no one,” the man said. “Now he really will have no one to talk to. As though it weren’t enough that Bibi had to bid farewell in this term to Ehud Barak, Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, with whom he liked to share secrets and consult, now he won’t even have the good and loyal Sheffer across the way.”
The saga of the internal elections held in Likud this week is “out” − at least until Netanyahu decides if it’s right for him to remain within the present framework. What is “in” is the story of the inquiry the new-old chairman of the Likud secretariat, Yisrael Katz, is promising to launch, to examine the performance of the party’s campaign headquarters in the January election. This is shaping up as the hot political story of the summer, a tale of revenge and settling-of-accounts involving three Likud ministers: Transportation Minister Katz vs. Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Home Front Defense and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan.
Sa’ar ran the headquarters, Erdan was in charge of publicity, and Katz has targeted them as bearing sole responsibility for Likud’s failure in the election, which cost it 11 Knesset seats. He will demand to know where the seats went, and where the money is. And there was plenty of money − more than NIS 50 million − in the coffers of the two parties that ran jointly in the election.
No one is disputing the huge expenses, the failure, the non-campaign, the emotional handling of Naftali Bennett, or the hookup between Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, which sent tens of thousands of voters fleeing to Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. The question is: Who made the decisions? Or as Sa’ar said this week, “There are some people who always bear the burden and others who always throw a monkey wrench into the works.”
In personal conversations, Katz has declared that the inquiry committee will not be asked to question the prime minister, only those who actually ran the campaign. Maybe that’s why Netanyahu is keeping mum.
Key party activists identified with Sa’ar and Erdan, who in normal times are not friends, view Katz’s move as an attempt to execute the political equivalent of a targeted assassination of his rivals. “On the contrary,” they say. “Let the committee examine who the campaign headquarters’ authorized signatories were, who signed the fat checks to the various job holders, who signed the private contracts, and who decided on the distribution of the budget long before Sa’ar and Erdan were appointed.”
Those activists are referring to reports that appeared while the election campaign was still under way, to the effect that three people ran the Likud-Beiteinu campaign exclusively and from behind a firewall: Netanyahu, Lieberman and the American consultant Arthur (“We’ll get 42 seats at least”) Finkelstein. Everything was managed from the prime minister’s home on Smolenskin Street in Jerusalem. That Bermuda Triangle determined the strategic approach, decided on the personal attacks against Bennett and agreed on what the money would go for. Only Bibi, Yvet (Lieberman) and Arthur saw the surveys, and they alone steered the ship toward the iceberg, the activists insist.
Erdan said this week that he will be happy if the committee of inquiry investigates what happened to Likud’s money, “in light of the fact that the body authorized to supervise those funds is the Likud secretariat, which for the past decade has been headed by the current minister of transportation.”
“I will be very happy,” he added, “if the committee tries to examine why the question of the money arose just two weeks before the election of the secretariat. Did the minister of transportation not know in real time that an election was underway? That Likud was spending money?”
Erdan also noted that during the campaign, a well-known party activist, Arik Ziv − who owns an Internet site called “Likudnik,” which he calls “Likud’s unofficial website” − tried to wangle ads from him at exorbitant prices. “I refused,” Erdan said, “because hardly anyone looks at the site. He promised me that I hadn’t heard the last of him. A day or two later, I get a barrage of phone calls asking how Likud dared to put ads on his site showing Bennett behind a fence and wearing a yellow Star-of-David patch. It was obvious that someone was trying to hurt us. I wasted half a day explaining to the whole world that Likud had nothing to do with the site. I asked Ziv to delete the ads, but he refused. And this is the person,” Erdan continued, getting to the main point, “who hangs out all day long with Yisrael Katz in the Knesset cafeteria. This is the person who tried, by means of reverse psychology, to hurt Likud.”
Ziv responded by saying that he does not want to kick someone when he’s down: “He [Erdan] failed in the election and he was defeated this week in the internal elections,” Ziv said. “Fifty-six million shekels disappeared, and that’s after Labor, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi spent NIS 39 million between them.”
Erdan said he intends to overturn a table in the committee of inquiry − virtually, of course. Sa’ar, too, will likely make his feelings known, and very feelingly indeed.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid appeared on Channel 10’s “London and Kirschenbaum” current events program this week, where he gave a 20-minute interview, and spoke mostly about the economy. The interviewers then moved to other topics, including the fraternal alliance that the Yesh Atid leader forged with Bennett, chairman of Habayit Hayehudi. In this connection, Lapid was asked to comment on the forthcoming election of the chief rabbis of Israel. He replied, “We have Rabbi Shay Piron, No. 2 on our list of Knesset candidates, who was ordained by the Sephardi chief rabbi. I tell everyone who asks me about this to talk to Piron, and I say that whatever is agreed on with him is fine by me.”
And what about the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, Lapid was asked. Are you in favor of that body’s existence? “I do not tell religious people how to be religious,” he replied. Pointedly, London asked, “Do only religious people use the services of the rabbinate?” The former TV presenter Lapid reacted brusquely: “I do not purport to tell religious people how to be religious.”
The conclusion to be drawn from the reply of the chairman of the second-largest party in the Knesset, which purports to represent civil issues and whose leader is making provocative use of his secularity, is embarrassing. The all-out war now being fought between Shas and United Torah Judaism against Habayit Hayehudi − over whether the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi will be ultra-Orthodox or religious-Zionist, rigid or liberal, dogmatic or enlightened − illustrates how relevant the Chief Rabbinate and those who head it are for every Israeli man and woman. And for everyone who wants to convert to Judaism and has to go through the seven circles of hell along the way.
The Lapid of the secularists did not even bother to say what his yarmulke-wearing bro Bennett said when asked his opinion of the rabbinate: that the time has come to transform that archaic, alienated body into a sympathetic, cordial, modern and more tolerant institution for those who enter its gates.
In a blog he posted on the Haaretz website (in Hebrew), Johnny Silver listed the endless number of mistakes and the nonsense that Lapid has posted on his Facebook page. His conclusion was that it makes no difference how entangled the treasury minister gets in the social network: Public opinion will not turn its back on him, because people like him.
The latest polls seem to bear out this thesis. If elections were held now, Yesh Atid would lose only two seats, dipping to 17 − though it depends where your starting point is: Immediately after the election and during the coalition negotiations, Lapid’s party soared to the equivalent of 26-27 seats in the polls.
We’ll wait until 2014, when every citizen will feel the new economic decrees personally and brutally in his bank account. That is the real threat to the future of Yesh Atid (which means “there is a future”), not its leader’s “mistakes” in his Facebook posts.