Netanyahu: The Master of Chaos, the Lord of the Crisis

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Illustration by Amos Biderman

Back in the 1950s, in a handsome Jerusalem neighborhood, the children played soccer, as children will. Every so often the neighborhood bully showed up, as neighborhood bullies will, snatched the ball and ran away. The children were afraid of him. But one day, one of the children decided that enough was enough. He waited for the tough-guy ball thief, confronted him, punched him on the nose – and ran for his life. Years later, the boy – who in the meantime had grown up and become Israel’s prime minister, who this week celebrated his 65th birthday – related that the soccer-field event was the first time he grasped the importance of the element of surprise.

In his two last terms, Benjamin Netanyahu has proved any number of times that he is Israel’s No. 1 politician. He always tries to draw first. He is quick to spot his rival’s weak point. He plays his allies like pawns, and engineers them according to his needs. With only 19 Knesset seats – soon to be 18, after outgoing Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar departs – he’s able to wrap the government around his little finger. And he gets what he wants, his supreme and only goal: survival, survival, survival, on the way to a possible fourth term as prime minister.

So it’s no wonder that Netanyahu roared with laughter this week. His gain was double: He chalked up points with the ultra-Orthodox by trampling the conversion bill, which for them is strictly non-kosher; and he also held fast to the premiership. As a bonus, he put Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in her place.

Who knows what else Netanyahu promised the leaders of ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, in return for getting their promise to recommend to the president that he form the government after the next election. Maybe to amend the zero-VAT bill for first-time home buyers, which is set to be passed by the Knesset next month? By the way, the Haredi MKs with whom Netanyahu met – opposition members all – knew a day before the prime minister’s loyal partner Livni that her bill was history, as far as the government is concerned.

On Wednesday evening, not long before the terror attack in Jerusalem, the leaders of the coalition parties – Livni, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – met with Netanyahu. The latter was nonchalant, sanguine, playing it cool, according to one of the ministers.

“If you want to go on quarreling – no problem, we’ll hold an election. You don’t want an election? Then we’ll just have to get along,” the prime minister told them.

All four party leaders spoke, each in his/her turn. Surprise, surprise: None wants an election. Certainly not the three Ls – Livni, Lapid and Lieberman. Lapid was the most adamant. He knows what the future holds for him. Anyone who didn’t see the anxiety that seized Yesh Atid’s leadership at the beginning of the week has never seen real anxiety. The threat of an early election – which hung over the political arena in the wake of Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw his support for the conversion-to-Judaism legislation – left these well-intentioned folks alternately pale and blue in the face.

The Yesh Atid politicos know what “the people,” especially their people, are thinking. All they hear as they go around the country are complaints and grumbling about their leader and party, about expectations that weren’t fulfilled, hopes that were dashed. That’s why Lapid was the first of the coalition party leaders to rush to the media – even before Netanyahu – and to declare, in no uncertain terms, that as far as he’s concerned there’s no coalition crisis; no one is resigning, no one is abandoning ship; the government is stable, strong, functioning; and all around is paradise. He was out to calm his own people, above all.

So the next election, which for a moment looked very close, has actually receded into the distance, though no one believes that the government will last more than another year – maybe. Because in the meeting of coalition party leaders, after it was decided not to dissolve the government, the participants started to go into details. Which, as everyone knows, is where the devil is.

Such as: What to do about the not-for-profit associations bill and the High Court of Justice-bypassing legislation filed by MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi)? What will be the fate of the half-suspended construction in the West Bank? A few more problematic bills in the pipeline, relating to state and religion, were also discussed.

It turned out that there was no agreement on anything. Lieberman suggested that a team be appointed to square the circles, or vice versa, and so it was decided. The ministers emerged into the chilly Jerusalem evening knowing that this orchestra won’t be playing music together – if you can call it music and not a cacophony – much longer.

Partners in nonsense

The “Livni-Lapid alliance,” which will work “to promote the diplomatic [i.e., peace] process,” as Livni put it (according to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, on Wednesday), is the third alliance Lapid has fashioned since the general election of January 2013. The first was with his ‘bro, Bennett – the leader of Habayit Hayehudi and an ardent supporter of the diplomatic process, as everyone knows. The second was with Lieberman, about whom you never know. And now comes the third, with Livni.

“One more brit” – as a politico vividly summed up this week (with a play on the Hebrew word for both “alliance” and “circumcision”) – “and there will be nothing left to cut.”

But in all fairness to Lapid, this time he did not forge an alliance, as the chairman of his Knesset faction, MK Ofer Shelah, made clear. He was dragged into this nonsense. The whole story smacks of some sort of version of “The Idiot’s Guide to Politics,” from Livni Publishers. Nor is it surprising that it came up in the week in which Livni hoisted the white flag over her party’s conversion bill, of blessed memory, and announced that she had no intention of resigning from the coalition in the wake of Netanyahu’s decision to bury her flagship legislation. The smokescreen aimed at hiding her capitulation is, in fact, this ridiculous alliance.

If the conversion reform is a nonstarter, it’s urgent for Livni to find a fig leaf to cover the fact that she is staying in the government, even though the prime minister hasn’t the slightest intention of conducting peace negotiations, and had no fear of retracting his decision to support a version of the conversion bill put forward by MK Elazar Stern (from Livni’s Hatnuah party) – a compromise that Netanyahu himself promoted through Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the longtime head of the State Conversion Authority, and which both Livni and Bennett had accepted.

The episode recalls Livni’s behavior as foreign minister in the Ehud Olmert government, after the Winograd Committee’s report on the government’s performance in the Second Lebanon War. Livni demanded that Olmert resign. When he told her where to get off, she announced that she would stay in the government to ensure that the committee’s recommendations would be implemented.

For three months, Livni had brought much of the government’s work to a standstill, all the while threatening to break up the coalition if the prime minister put critical issues to the vote, but not MK Stern’s conversion bill (the version that was overhauled so it could become a government-sponsored bill). Finally, Netanyahu took the bull by the horns and said no, whereupon Livni turned tail and – to change the metaphor – behaved like the Jewish folklore character Hershel of Ostropole: She went to sleep hungry.

The great white hope has faded and thawed into a dew, not adieu. Livni could have toppled Netanyahu tomorrow if she’d wanted. She’s had opportunities. Without her, the coalition would stutter and sputter to a quick death with just 62 MKs, one of whom is Moshe Feiglin (Likud), who does whatever he fancies.

Livni, who five and six years ago was almost prime minister, twice, has become the person who perpetuates Netanyahu’s rule. He spits in her face and she thanks him for the welcome rain, announcing in advance that even if a certain bill does not pass, she will not resign. Stern’s bill might come up for a vote next week in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. A majority is not guaranteed. The Arab MKs in the committee have allied with the ultra-Orthodox MKs to vote against it, in order to augment the embarrassment and general disarray in the shrunken left-of-center wing of the government.

The Katz connection

For the information of self-styled or daydreaming or self-deluded ministerial candidates in Likud – namely, MKs Yariv Levin, Zeev Elkin, Gila Gamliel, Tzachi Hanegbi and Ofir Akunis – there’s another player in the picture: MK Haim Katz, the chairman of the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. Katz met with Netanyahu about a week ago, and the option to appoint him as the additional minister from Likud after Sa’ar’s resignation from the Knesset was discussed seriously. No decision has been made yet.

Underlying Katz’s possible candidacy are internecine Likud battles, ahead of the early primary for the party leadership, and spurred by Netanyahu’s intention to amend the party’s constitution to give him the power to influence the composition of the list of candidates for the next Knesset.

As the powerful secretary of the national organization of Israel Aerospace Industries employees, Katz is a major vote wrangler in the party. He has hundreds of Likud central committee members, and thousands of registered party members, at his beck and call. To overcome tricky obstacles in the central committee – created largely by the obstinacy of its chairman, MK Danny Danon – Netanyahu needs the well-oiled and well-drilled Katz machine to obtain the necessary majority. The word in Likud is that the two have struck a deal: a ministerial post in return for ballot after ballot after ballot, all saying yes to the prime minister’s proposals.

This move has the backing of Katz’s political ally and namesake, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who has joined forces with Netanyahu to help him get his way in the party. Netanyahu is convinced that, with the Katz pair behind him, there’s nothing he can’t do in the party institutions. And he may be right. But Haim Katz’s appointment as a minister could generate an intifada in the Likud Knesset faction by those whose names were mentioned above. Besides which, Katz wants an operative portfolio – he’s liable not to accept a depleted communications portfolio, without the Israel Broadcasting Authority, responsibility for which will move with the current minister, Gilad Erdan, to the Interior Ministry.

Katz’s bureau declined to respond. The Prime Minister’s Bureau said that Katz was not offered a ministerial portfolio, though the subject did come up in the meeting.

Comeback kid

The announcement by former popular Likud minister Moshe Kahlon that he is forming a new party that will run in the next election was comparable to the season’s first serious rain, which fell over much of the country on Sunday evening: Everyone knows it’s just a matter of time before it comes, but when it happens, everyone is totally surprised. Kahlon, at least, didn’t cause traffic lights to short or bring about traffic jams on the Ayalon Highway.

The backdrop to his announcement was so bland and boring that you felt like dozing off: A meeting of an organization of businessmen and self-employed people. And as if that weren’t enough, both the text and his body language were minor, modest, almost apologetic.

This is not the way to generate a campaign, or to eradicate the high cost of living and housing. The millions of long-suffering Israelis who are groaning under the daily burden, who can’t make ends meet and can’t see the home they will never own, no matter how long and hard they work, are frustrated and furious. They want to see the person who is promising to be their voice in the next government don the armor of the warrior who assaults the target with murder in his eyes. Nothing less will do.

A captivating smile and pleasant demeanor will not be enough. Kahlon should have declared this week that his aim is to get rid of the present government. Nothing less. Not necessarily that he will be the next prime minister. If the large public that was bitterly disappointed in Lapid and is now looking for someone new as their salvation reaches the conclusion that Kahlon will be only a fifth wheel in Netanyahu’s fourth government – the man who fomented the cellular-phone revolution might lose his signal along the way.

Missing in action

Everyone talks about peace, no one talks about justice, an Israeli song says. This week everyone talked about Likud and Livni’s Hatnuah and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, but no one mentioned the Labor Party. It’s out of the discourse loop. It’s true that the crisis was in the coalition and that Labor is the chief opposition party. But in the Israeli parliamentary reality, in which the leader of the opposition is supposedly the alternative to the prime minister, Labor’s silence in the early-election buzz reflects an unpleasant truth.

At the beginning of the week, party leader MK Isaac Herzog convened his Knesset faction. They talked about how to do battle against the state budget, which will be inflicted on the Knesset next week and will constitute a serious part of its business until the end of the year. Herzog promised a bitter battle against the budget, without compromises, without agreements, without meeting the treasury and the coalition halfway.

MK Itzik Shmuli told the faction about the 10,000 objections he has submitted to the budget. “We’ll take no prisoners,” Herzog threatened. The faction members swallowed hard. Henceforth they are to target Lapid, to attack and critique him, to show that he’s all bluster. As for Netanyahu, Herzog said, leave him to me.

The great white hope has faded and thawed into a dew, not adieu. Livni could have toppled Netanyahu tomorrow if she’d wanted. She’s had opportunities. Without her, the coalition would sputter to a quick death with just 62 MKs.