As U.S. Crisis Threatens Coalition, Netanyahu Prepares Ground for Elections

The prevailing assessment in diplomatic and political circles is that after the midterm elections in the United States next Tuesday, the gloves will come off.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

What was the prime minister thinking when he spoke on Wednesday in the Knesset plenum, at the annual memorial event for assassinated minister Rehavam Ze’evi? About Israel’s security, strategic and diplomatic interests – or about the upcoming election campaign? Only Benjamin Netanyahu knows.

Are his belligerent declarations about maintaining the construction momentum “in Jerusalem and all of Judea and Samaria,” as he said two days earlier at the opening of the Knesset winter session, the formula for protecting the security of Israel’s citizens, or a sharp turn rightward, if only in words? (Because in the past six years there has been almost no construction in our capital, as often attested to by both the past and present housing and construction ministers, Ariel Attias and Uri Ariel, respectively).

Is Netanyahu’s obsessive wrangling with the White House, his ongoing flirtation with the Republicans on Capitol Hill, and the fact that he has helped to jeopardize the automatic U.S. veto in the UN Security Council just so he can steal a Knesset seat or two from Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi – are these all part of what can be called “a calculated diplomatic gamble”?

The prime minister, say people who have spoken to him, is convinced that he is the victim rather than the persecutor. That the Americans have “erased” him rather than vice versa, as was written in the inflammatory article this week by U.S. journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. That when the U.S. president talks, it is the narrative of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he is channeling. That in Barack Obama’s last two years in the Oval Office, the Americans can be expected to abuse and humiliate him and show him who’s boss. So who here is the great power and who is the underling?

Netanyahu realizes the Americans are fed up with him, but all he’s interested in is his next term in office. He doesn’t see what’s going on, some people are saying. In his previous term he had people with him who knew how to restrain him. Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor. They used to drop in often and tell him things that he knew in any case. Barak in the Defense Ministry and Meridor in the Intelligence Affairs and Atomic Energy Ministry, were replaced by Moshe Ya’alon and Yuval Steinitz. The latter two will not be a source of salvation.

The prime minister chose to play the Jerusalem card because it’s a winning formula, one that never disappoints. Since 1996. There’s a national consensus about construction in the city. Jerusalem and security, security and Jerusalem. He combines them in one breath. There is no other message. Even when he dedicates a new Ashdod port, he will put Jerusalem first.

His frequent talk about the beleaguered capital of Israel was also designed to distract attention from the serious deterioration in the security situation in the city. The attempt to assassinate Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick on Wednesday, the terror attack on the light rail station last week, and everything that has been happening in East Jerusalem since the June murder of the three yeshiva boys in the West Bank and the ensuring murder of a Palestinian boy – all these have pulled out the rug from under Netanyahu’s claim that in his nine years as prime minister the security situation has never been better. Well, not any more.

The prevailing assessment in diplomatic and political circles is that after the midterm elections in the United States next Tuesday, the gloves will indeed come off, and the confrontation mentioned in Goldberg’s article will become more concrete and overt. That is probably also the working assumption in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. By the same assumption, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, with all their understandable fear of facing the voters, won’t be able to continue to swallow the premier’s right-wing, ultranationalist rhetoric, and the actions liable to accompany it. They will be forced to leave the coalition at some point, which will lead to an early election.

Therefore, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, it’s better to prepare the ground, fertilize it, sow it with seeds of Jerusalem and security, security and Jerusalem – and wait until it bears fruit, at the polls.

Wrestling match

According to the prevailing wisdom, the leaders of three of the parties in the coalition, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah, are not looking forward to an election. To put it mildly. Habayit Hayehudi’s leader Naftali Bennett is in better shape than them in the polls, as are Netanyahu and Likud. The threat represented to them all by former Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon is clear and immediate, and there’s no point in hastening the end. But the inter-coalitional dynamic that we witnessed during the first week of the Knesset winter session was so toxic and bitter that sometimes even logic and coolly calculated interests are liable to suffer and bow to emotions, and what isn’t supposed to happen will happen nonetheless.

Following is a short list of the coalition’s antics in the past week, which read more like results of a wrestling match than examples of the rational behavior of a relatively young government that wants to survive. First was the conversion law, proposed by Elazar Stern of Hatnuah, which Netanyahu is trying to bury, but which passed in the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Stern, with Yesh Atid Knesset delegation chair Ofer Shelah, put that package together. Their joy was twofold: They pushed through important legislation, and defeated the prime minister. They won. (For the information of the Prime Minister’s Bureau: There are really two opposition leaders in the 19th Knesset: the official one, Isaac Herzog of Labor, and the unofficial one, Shelah.)

Next was the surrogacy law, proposed by Health Minister Yael German (Yesh Atid), which is intended to enable same-sex couples and single parents to bring children into the world. It passed a first reading in the plenum on Monday. The Likud didn’t like that law either.

Next: Finance Minister Lapid broke up a meeting he was in with the prime minister, Housing and Construction Minister Ariel and Economy Minister Bennett, which had convened to approve the transfer of 300 million shekels ($79.5 million) for building roads in isolated settlements. Lapid, who has lately begun to listen more to Shelah and Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry, the leftists in his gang, came well prepared to spring a trap, determined to embarrass Netanyahu and the heads of Habayit Hayehudi, friends from a long-forgotten alliance.

Lapid delivered a terrific speech about the futility of preferring the welfare and quality of life in godforsaken settlements over that of Kiryat Shmona and Be’er Sheva, and declared that they wouldn’t see a shekel from him. That was Lapid’s suitable Zionist response to the defiant speech delivered by Netanyahu a day earlier in the plenum. Netanyahu realized he had fallen into the trap; Lapid had pulled a fast one on him. There was nothing left for the premier to do but dissolve the meeting, minutes after it was convened.

What a bubbling stew of diplomatic, settlement-related, budgetary, civil and religious issues. Each in itself is explosive, and together they constitute a minefield at the very feet of the coalition. Ostensibly, nobody wants an election, but everyone is taking shots at, and sticking it to, everyone else.

Above all these hovers the icing on this nightmarish cake: the so-called Israel Hayom law, which aims to restrain (though not necessarily to close) the “Bibi-sheet,” the prime minister’s “private” newspaper, established by American gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson. This legislation is slated for discussion on Sunday in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, and a few days later for a vote in the plenum.

The bill, which would prohibit the distribution of newspapers free of charge, will be submitted by Eitan Cabel of Labor, and supported by MKs from Yisrael Beiteinu, Hatnuah, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi. Without them it won’t pass. No matter what is decided in the ministerial committee, representatives of those four factions have informed the Prime Minister’s Bureau that they will ignore its decision, break the rules and allow themselves the freedom to vote as they choose – all in order to deliver a blow to the apple of Netanyahu’s eye, the paper that each day brings his word to millions of readers at no cost.

It’s clear to all political players that this legislation won’t reach the final stretch, the second and third readings. The Likud has the means to shelve it for a long time, in the Knesset House Committee, for example. That’s even before we have heard the attorney general’s opinion on the issue. Usually Yehuda Weinstein gives the prime minister an opinion that Netanyahu can live with.

So even if at the end of the road those who are challenging Israel Hayom don’t win the war, they are expected next week to experience joy and a degree of schadenfreude at Netanyahu’s expense. We recommend that viewers of the Knesset Channel focus mainly on the facial expressions of Lieberman and Livni: They are the ones who are angriest at the freebie that is always biased against them, and their happiness will know no bounds if the legislation is approved in the preliminary reading.

Parting words

On Sunday Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar will submit his resignation to the government. The following day he will participate, for the last time, in a session of the Knesset plenum, an arena in which he excelled at being an obstacle, juggling and scheming since 2003. This is his last autumn with us – for now, it should be said.

Why for now? It’s not that we know something we’re not revealing: The outgoing minister himself spoke in that spirit at a meeting of the Knesset Interior Committee this week: “This is my last appearance in the Interior Committee, at least in the 19th Knesset,” was all he said.

We can assume that someone made the effort to convey those words to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, and they probably caught the attention of its boss. Until last week, Netanyahu was not entirely convinced that Sa’ar would go through with his announced resignation. The prime minister suspected or feared, or both, that at the last moment Sa’ar would find some clever way to change his mind. A brilliant excuse. Perhaps related to his desire to finish enactment of the new infiltration law.

When Netanyahu realized that the resignation was certain and even immediate, he began to have concerns regarding the possible plans of his former associate and confidant, along the lines of: Is this resignation short-term? Will we see Sa’ar on the eve of the next election, popping up in some new party framework? Or will Sa’ar’s time-out continue only until the announcement of the primary for the Likud slate for the 20th Knesset?

One thing is certain: Starting next week, the prime minister will not see Sa’ar at the cabinet table, but the suspicions about the outgoing minister will continue to haunt him all the way to the next election.

Cherchez les femmes

On Monday at the opening of the Knesset winter session, one couldn’t help observing an unusual picture in the dignitaries’ balcony. In the section reserved for the president’s entourage, First Lady Nehama Rivlin was seated, and to her right Michal Herzog, wife of the opposition leader. To the left of the president’s wife sat Sara Netanyahu.

You didn’t need sharp eyes to figure out the body language of the president’s and prime minister’s wives, which reflected their extremely chilly relationship. Rivlin was fortunate; she flew off to Warsaw that evening with her husband. The temperature there was probably warmer.

This picture brought us back to the events of Independence Day 2010, reported on extensively in this column. Rivlin was the Knesset Speaker at the time; he hosted the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl. The organizers of the ceremony decided on the seating, as follows: In the first, bottom row were the Knesset speaker, his wife and three members of their family. Next to them, the prime minister’s wife and her two sons, Avner and Yair, and next to them, then-Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and her husband, Yehezkel.

Speaker Rivlin didn’t like that arrangement. He thought that then-opposition leader Tzipi Livni and her husband, Naftali Spitzer, also had a right to sit close to the stage rather than be crowded into the dignitaries’ section. That was his concept of democracy. A strange, eccentric man. He asked the organizers to allocate two additional seats for Tzipi and Naftali. They refused. Not for publication, the Speaker’s office was told that the decision came from above. From the top. That the “senior command” would not react favorably to having Madame Tzipi in the first row, next to Madame Sara.

Rivlin didn’t argue. Sometimes arguments don’t help. When he arrived at Mount Herzl on the eve of Independence Day, he asked two of his grandsons to do him a favor and change seats with Livni and her husband. For that he didn’t need permission; those five seats were his. Had he so desired, he could even have seated his barber there with his wife.

Sara arrived and discovered, to her horror, that there had been outmaneuvered. She didn’t enjoy the ceremony very much.

Four years went by. Rivlin was elected president. At the first opportunity, he chose once again to seat the opposition leader’s better half in the respectable first row, above the plenum. Mrs. Herzog didn’t sit there on her own initiative.
She was invited. That’s Rivlin for you – a strange man. At least this time there will be nobody to say what was said back in 2010: that he was toadying to Livni so she would support him in the presidential election.

Our Mahatma

It’s not easy for government leaders in Israel and their aides. Year after year, they are doomed to the Sisyphean task of writing speeches for a long series of traditional and cyclical events, mainly memorial days for fallen soldiers or dead leaders.

It’s not easy to be original in these speeches and to reinvent the wheel each time. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. This was proved by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, in his speech this week at the session in memory of Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, who was murdered in October 2001 by three Palestinian assassins.

Edelstein’s innovative thesis was a comparison between the Israel “Gandhi” (Ze’evi’s nickname) and the Indian Gandhi. Yes, between the outspoken and belligerent Israeli politician, one of the leaders of the extreme right, and the man called Mahatma (“the great soul”), the international symbol of nonviolent resistance, and one of the most admired of world leaders, many of whose disciples have won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Knesset Speaker wove connections between the two into his speech. A few examples: 1. Both were political leaders who “didn’t hesitate to conduct a battle.” 2. Both saw “the ties to the country and the land as the source of their nation’s vitality.” 3. Both “tried to implement their beliefs.” 4. Both practiced “a simple life.” 5. Both “were caught too early by the bullets of a murderer-assassin.”

There’s no question that the similarity between the two is obvious. How did we fail to see it? Edelstein for some reason skipped any mention of the fact that the first Gandhi preached brotherhood among various religions and ethnic groups in his country, was a passionate campaigner for women’s liberation, an activist working to end discrimination against minorities, and a social leader who worked for the poor and the farmers in his country.

Maybe it was because he couldn’t figure out how to draw a comparison between that description of Gandhi and the fact that the Israeli was the originator of the idea of “transfer” for the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza, was a believer in Greater Israel, was opposed to any peace agreement, and was one of the main inciters against the government of Yitzhak Rabin. Maybe at next year’s ceremony.

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