Netanyahu's Biggest Problem: Obama Believes Him

The prime minister will try to sell his emerging right-wing coalition to the international community as a centrist one, even though few will buy that. Before that, though, he has to contend with the problem that is Naftali Bennett.

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Illustration by Amos Biderman

If happiness reigned in the heart of President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday evening, when he charged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the task of forming a new government, he managed to hide it. Pretense was never Rivlin’s forte. And it’s not only because of his sour relations with Netanyahu, after the latter fought tooth and nail to prevent him from becoming president last year. Rivlin is not vengeful.

He does find it difficult, however, to forgive Netanyahu for the destruction he has wrought on Israel’s relations with the United States – a development that is, literally, causing Rivlin loss of sleep – or for his unbridled behavior against his political rivals in the election campaign.

What rankles him most is Netanyahu’s obnoxious remark about the country’s Arab citizens [when he warned his supporters, on Election Day, of “huge numbers of Arabs” making their way to the polling stations]. Netanyahu said earlier this week that he regretted making the comment. But that didn’t stop Rivlin from stating on Wednesday that those who view voting as a curse and are afraid of the ballot box, “will end up with stones being thrown in the streets.”

Anyone who is familiar with Rivlin’s decades-long, warm relations with Israel’s Arabs and their MKs knows that Netanyahu’s warning about them voting was like a knife in his heart.

If Netanyahu completes his four-year term this time, he will pass David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. And Avigdor Lieberman, if he gets the foreign affairs portfolio again, will have served longer than such legendary foreign ministers as Moshe Sharett (six years) and Abba Eban (eight years). The day will come when a school of diplomacy will be established in his name.

As of week’s end, it looks as though Netanyahu is not going to uproot Lieberman from the Foreign Ministry – mainly because he’s already there, and Jews don’t uproot Jews. And also because Lieberman, if he’s asked to vacate the ministry, is capable of leading his six-seat faction into the opposition without batting an eye, leaving Netanyahu vulnerable to extortion in an impossible coalition of 61 MKs.

Lieberman’s uncompromising demand to be appointed defense minister – in order to “finish the job” in Gaza – is intended to ensure that he retains the Foreign Ministry. That’s the minimum he can live with. After six years in that senior ministry, can he be expected now to go back to transportation, to infrastructure? No way. In that case, he will prefer to do business as a private citizen in Eastern Europe. Ironically, Lieberman is now far more accepted in the United States than Netanyahu. The international community has got used to him; the Israeli public, too.

All of which is making Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett uptight. On Wednesday, he launched a new “gevalt” (a Yiddish expression of shock or fear) campaign to warn against the threat of the co-option into the government of Zionist Union instead of him, and to warn Netanyahu of vague consequences.

Bennett’s problem is that he’s playing with an open hand. Unlike Lieberman, he doesn’t have the option of entering the opposition and torpedoing the establishment of a right-wing government. His constituency, which isn’t excessively loyal to him anyway – as the election showed – would never forgive that. It would be his political demise.

The trap Likud laid for him by offering him, via the media, the education portfolio has pushed him into a corner. His advisers are climbing the walls in frustration and accusing Netanyahu of treachery and gutter politics. Bennett’s close circle believes Netanyahu is deliberately trying to create a rift between Bennett and his voters.

To wave the education portfolio at the religious-Zionist movement is like offering cool water to someone who’s just survived a week in the Sahara in 50-degree heat with a perforated canteen – the budgets, the values, Jewish identity, the curricula, the relevance for every citizen, every parent. But Bennett views it as almost an insult. He doesn’t want water; he wants champagne. He’s aiming high, at the glass ceilings of the foreign affairs and defense ministries, in order to pave his way to the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street. For Bennett, the education portfolio is a loss of honor; for his electorate, it’s a dream come true.

What’s clear is that if Bennett truly believes Netanyahu is playing with him, letting him stew in his own juices in order to use the dispute between them as a pretext to form a unity government with Herzog, he should immediately announce that he gratefully accepts the portfolio being offered. That would entrap the trapper.

The theory of relativity

“You must be scared to death,” I said to Moshe Kahlon, the day after Netanyahu confirmed that the Kulanu chairman would be appointed finance minister.

“Why scared?” Kahlon shot back.

“Well, you know, the treasury – and the expectations of you are sky-high.”

To which Kahlon replied, “There’s a law in deep-sea diving: Be careful, but don’t panic. As soon as you panic, you make mistakes, lose control. I am capable of being careful.”

Kahlon turns out to be an amateur diver, to a depth of 30 meters. We’ll skip the sea of metaphors and clichés that float to mind. Until Kahlon met with Netanyahu on Tuesday evening, some in Likud hoped he would backtrack on his election promise to demand the treasury. He’s afraid, they said: He doesn’t need the headache; he’ll go for housing or the Economy Ministry.

But Kahlon, in his two years out of politics, worked out a detailed plan for the day when he would become finance minister. We’ll hear the word “reforms” from him a lot in the months ahead. And unlike his predecessor in the treasury [Yair Lapid], he has the skills and the ability to execute them. He’ll start with housing, then move to food prices, followed by the banks.

Kahlon is a big-league politician. His Likud colleagues used to call him “the polite pickpocket.” He smiles at you, charms you, is modest, self-effacing – and suddenly he comes in first in the primaries. Next thing you know, he’s finance minister, leaving Gilad Erdan and Yisrael Katz in the dust.

He and Netanyahu set aside their old grudges and resentments and decided to turn over a new leaf. As much as that is possible. Netanyahu told him straight away, “I made a public commitment about the treasury, and it’s yours.” Kahlon will also head the ministerial housing committee. If Netanyahu has the temerity to intervene in the kingdom of the treasury and trip him up, Kahlon will simply leave. As he did the last time he’d had enough.

Yesterday morning, he announced that his team would be boycotting that day’s planned meeting with Likud’s team to kick off the coalition talks. He was furious that Netanyahu told Shas leader Arye Dery he would get the Interior Ministry, including the Planning Directorate, and that the chairmanship of the all-important Knesset Finance Committee would be going to Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism). It’s not a major drama and everything will work out. After all, there’s no precedent for a party with 10 seats, as does Kulanu, getting the Finance Ministry. Kahlon should have no problem cooperating with Gafni or Dery in lowering the price of housing. All in all, they see eye to eye.

The unity government scenario didn’t come up in the Netanyahu-Kahlon meeting. Likud sources say that if the unity option doesn’t work out, Netanyahu will try to sell the emerging coalition to the international community as a centrist one, with Kahlon as its left wing, Yisrael Beiteinu a little farther to the right, along with Likud, and Habayit Hayehudi at the other end. There are likely to be few buyers. Kahlon has perhaps become more moderate, but he’s not left wing. Still, it’s all relative.

President Reuven Rivlin, left, and PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman

The waiting period

Upon returning with his wife, Michal, from a vacation at the fancy Carmel Forest Spa Resort, Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog called the leaders of the parties slated to enter the coalition. “Stay calm,” he told them, “I’m not in the game. He [Netanyahu] used my name to lower your price. Don’t be patsies.” They thanked him warmly, but no one will be surprised if, in the weeks ahead, we learn of a conversation or an overture or an attempt at mediation.

The mediator: attorney Yaakov Neeman, a longtime Netanyahu confidant, his former justice minister, and the partner of Isaac Herzog and the latter’s late father, Chaim, in a huge Tel Aviv law firm.

The lesson Netanyahu learned from his first term (1996-1999), when he headed a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox government, is that a Likud prime minister always has to co-opt a party from the other camp into his government. Otherwise he gets into trouble with the international community. Ariel Sharon, whom Netanyahu views as a political mentor, did so, and Netanyahu followed suit in his two last governments.

He could form a dream government of 77 MKs with Zionist Union, Kulanu and the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox. Add Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, and you have 83 MKs. The maximum price Netanyahu would have to pay, besides cabinet ministries, is to give Herzog one year, the fourth, as prime minister.

The quid pro quo would be vastly greater: International rehabilitation; a ticket to Washington through the front door; and maybe the Palestinians would even drop the international initiatives they’re planning against Israel.

Netanyahu’s big problem is that, all of a sudden, U.S. President Obama is taking him at his word. He’s declaring at every opportunity that he accepts without reservation Netanyahu’s eve-of-election statement that a Palestinian state will not be established during his term of office. Obama added a veiled threat about reassessing Israel-U.S. relations – an expression that is the diplomatic equivalent of the Doomsday weapon. Netanyahu will not be able to offset this with the Jewish nation-state law, promises to build in the territories, and so forth.

The unity scenario is strewn with obstacles. Herzog is not a natural partner. He wants to be prime minister one day. Netanyahu, ever suspicious, will view him and Tzipi Livni as double agents: sent by Obama, on the one hand; and by Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes, on the other.

Would Netanyahu, for example, take back the finance portfolio, already promised to Kahlon, in order to give it to Zionist Union? Shelly Yacimovich would probably be content with the Economy Ministry (formerly known as industry, trade and labor), which is in charge of the country’s labor laws – completely her terrain.

And what about Livni? If Herzog is foreign minister, what happens to her? Would they rotate the Foreign Ministry? Or will she be cast aside and abandoned?

A veteran politician noted this week that Livni played a historic role in Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009 and in his consolidation of power. By failing to form a government in 2008 [after then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation], when she could have, she paved the way for Netanyahu. Afterward, she didn’t take her party, Kadima, into the government because she insisted on a rotation – and thereby paved the way for Ehud Barak, who had no political ambitions, to enter the government, an arrangement that lasted four full years. And in 2013, Livni was the first to sign a coalition agreement with Netanyahu and thereafter was his official voice of sanity vis-a-vis the international community. For Bibi, the source said cruelly, she’s more than an amulet – she’s a strategic asset.

The waiting game

In the meantime, senior Likud figures are in the dumps: not a word from Netanyahu. And they keep hearing of another portfolio that’s being set aside for another coalition partner.

A case in point is Erdan, the outgoing interior minister and number one on Likud’s slate (after Netanyahu), and a true loyalist to the prime minister. He fantasized openly about the Finance Ministry. Then he hoped for the Foreign Ministry. Neither will be his. Education could be a satisfactory compensation, but Bennett will probably take it in the end. As for the Interior Ministry, which Erdan held for only six months, that’s earmarked for Dery.

What remains for Erdan? The Justice Ministry? Problematic. If he abides by the approach of the Supreme Court, he’s in danger of losing his electoral base in Likud. If he tries to erode the court’s power, he’ll become an enemy of the media, and maybe someone in the state prosecution will try to take revenge on him. Anyway, the talk in Likud is that Netanyahu is going to make Benny Begin justice minister.

We’re down to transportation, public security, national infrastructure. And it’s not just Erdan, of course – it’s all the outgoing Likud ministers and plenty of MKs who have been in the Knesset for three to five terms. When he formed his second government, in 2009, Netanyahu decided that no one would come out embittered. Of the 27 Likud MKs, he appointed 15 of them ministers, five to six of them without portfolio. There were 30 ministers and nine deputy ministers in that government. If it were only up to him, he’d gladly do it again. [Lapid pushed through legislation in the outgoing Knesset that limits the number of ministers to 18.]

Stay healthy

In 2009, Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) fought hard to secure the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, which for the ultra-Orthodox is what the Defense Ministry is to retired generals. Finally, he was forced to become deputy health minister, with the status of a full minister.

Many think Litzman did an excellent job in his four years in that capacity. He is a superb manager and adept at working with the treasury, where he’s held in high regard. In the preliminary contacts with Netanyahu, Litzman’s condition for joining the government was to return to that small ministry, which for years was given to frustrated politicians who were at the bottom of the appointments list.

Litzman didn’t ask for an “upgrade,” he didn’t seek the more important Economy Ministry. Only health. An odd fellow. Naftali Bennett could learn something from him.