The Stuff Netanyahu's Nightmares Are Made Of

The Likud Central Committee bugs Netanyahu no less than the Iran agreement; passing the natural gas deal worries him no less than being at the mercy of Dery on one hand and Lieberman on the other.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos BidermanCredit: Illustration
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The atmosphere in the cabinet meeting on Sunday was the polar opposite of the dramatic nature of the issue on the agenda: the policy blueprint for the development of Israel’s offshore natural gas reserves. About half the ministers were present for the discussion, and some of them didn’t stay to the end (though they left instructions regarding how they wanted to vote). Most of those who were there seemed drowsy and uninterested.

The prime minister emerged from the meeting, which he described as historic, with only half of what he wanted. As expected, the policy blueprint was approved by a large majority, but the primary obstacle remained: How in blazes to pull the chestnuts out of the fire – and the gas from the ocean floor? Economy Minister Arye Makhlouf Dery, who twice voted in favor of the blueprint – the original and amended versions – is nevertheless refusing to commit himself to applying a clause that would bypass the antitrust commissioner, if the Knesset approves the blueprint; the vote is expected in about another 10 days.

“What does he want, for God’s sake?” the prime minister fumed in private conversations. “The blueprint was improved and corrected. The six points Dery demanded were inserted. The security cabinet approved it, the full cabinet approved it. So even if the Knesset, the sovereign body, the representative of the people, votes in favor, he still won’t sign off on the clause? It’s within his authority! The gas is stuck!”

Dery remains imperturbable. After all, the blueprint is not his baby. In fact, he wanted to be appointed interior minister, and was pushed, for lack of a better alternative, into the Economy Ministry. The opposition and the socially oriented NGOs will get on his case if he signs. He certainly owes nothing to Netanyahu, who in the last election went out of his way so that Eli Yishai, Dery’s mythic foe, who headed an ultra-Orthodox Kahanist-oriented party, would enter the Knesset at the expense of Shas.

“I’m not sure I’ll sign off on the clause,” Dery is telling his colleagues, while seemingly leaving himself a narrow crack: “We’ll see I’ll consider the issue First let it pass the Knesset and then we’ll think about how to proceed.”

Without Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, the coalition doesn’t have the 61 votes needed, as three ministers intend to abstain in the Knesset vote owing to conflicts of interest: Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant from Kulanu, and Haim Katz from Likud.

If Lieberman doesn’t promise publicly that his party will vote in favor, Netanyahu needn’t bother. Lieberman is a tough customer, and Netanyahu is dependent on his decision. That’s the stuff his nightmares are made of.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked recently came up with an excellent idea that could resolve the issue: to amend the law stipulating that only the economy minister’s signature can bypass the antitrust commissioner by adding four words to the bill: “or the prime minister.” In other words, Netanyahu would be able to sign off on the clause. Shaked consulted with experts in the Justice Ministry, who told her this would not be a problem. Even so, 61 votes would be needed, but in that case the concern about a conflict of interest by Messrs. Kahlon, Galant and Katz would not stop them from voting in favor. It’s a technical, formal matter.

Shaked’s idea was conveyed to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, whose reaction is unknown for now. In the meantime, Netanyahu is also angry at Finance Minister Kahlon for refusing to impose coalition discipline on his faction when the blueprint comes up for a vote, if it does. The hysteria and feeling of helplessness that gripped the Prime Minister’s Bureau at the beginning of the week were reflected in briefings by “sources in the bureau.” They threatened that if Kulanu does not vote unanimously for the blueprint, Likud MKs would also discover that they have conflicts of interest when the state budget comes up for its first reading in the Knesset, on September 2. Without a budget, we go to an election, the sources were quoted as saying, like the fellow who threatens to cut off his nose to spite his face.

Hearing this, Kahlon laughed heartily – not metaphorically, but out loud. Netanyahu found the wrong guy to threaten with an early election. If Kahlon wasn’t afraid when he left Likud willingly and embarked on a journey into an unknown country in 2013, will he be frightened now? When he heads a previously nonexistent party that won 10 Knesset seats? “Bibi got mixed up,” confidants of the finance minister are saying. “He forgot whom he’s talking to.”

People in glass houses

Here’s a pretty safe bet: Danny Danon will be a good ambassador to the United Nations. He has the intelligence, the language and the basic skills. He has a desire to prove himself, he has the ambition and he has plans to return to Israel afterward to an influential position in the national arena. If so, he has to grow up and stop being a political hooligan. MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) was also a roughneck when he was young, and today he’s considered a model of judiciousness, an elder statesman.

In the week since Netanyahu announced the appointment, Danon has been accused of being a Likudnik, in the worst sense of the word. His constant desire to please the party’s Central Committee, it is said, will work against him and induce him to resort to shallow political gimmicks in order to please his constituency. Possibly. But could he really be worse than the outgoing ambassador, Ron Prosor, who is a professional diplomat? It was Prosor, not Danon, who read out the lyrics to Arik Einstein’s song “You and I Will Change the World” in the Security Council on the day the iconic singer died. It was Prosor, not Danon, who played a recording of an air-raid siren in the Security Council during Operation Protective Edge. Prosor, not Danon, who a few months ago, on Israel’s Memorial Day, stood up in the Security Council and read out, in a tremulous voice, the text of the national anthem, “Hatikva,” which he dedicated to Israel’s fallen soldiers.

Is there a collection of more inferior and embarrassing shticks – and less diplomatic, too – to be found anywhere?

Danon’s appointment had been on the cards for some time, since before the last election, but now we can consider Netanyahu’s true motives. Clearly it’s a party-political move. Netanyahu is vacating a ministerial portfolio (Danon is currently science, technology and space minister). If the High Court of Justice does not coerce the deputy health minister, Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), to take a seat at the cabinet table after he declares an oath of allegiance in the Knesset (Litzman is dying to be coerced), Netanyahu will be able to coopt another minister from Likud – Hanegbi, or MK Benny Begin, both of whom are close to him and loyal.

But that’s not the story. The story is the Likud Central Committee, of which Danon is chairman. Netanyahu wants to be rid of the head of the body that manages Likud, ahead of two forthcoming decisions, which he, as the party’s chairman, considers crucial for retaining his hold on Likud and hanging on to the premiership. One consists of an amendment to the Likud constitution, which stipulates that anyone seeking to be elected party chairman for a third consecutive time needs an absolute majority; the second relates to the timing of the primaries to elect the party’s leader.

The amendment is expected to come up for a vote within the next few months. It’s bugging Netanyahu no less than the nuclear agreement with Iran. Netanyahu would prefer that on D-Day, when the volatile clause comes up for a vote, he’ll be the one chairing the Central Committee meeting. He will navigate and decide, or will fudge and delay things, as the situation calls for. He doesn’t need the dangerous and unpredictable Danon in the cockpit, or Culture Minister Miri Regev, who is now running for Central Committee chairperson.

Some in Likud believe, however off-the-wall it sounds, that Netanyahu might want the Central Committee leadership for himself fulltime, and not make do with serving as acting chairman until a permanent one is elected. If he decides to run for the post, Regev will likely drop out, along with another candidate, Hanegbi. Netanyahu is more worried by the possibility that Gideon Sa’ar will end his break from politics and seek election to the rather unglamorous post. After all, if the prime minister doesn’t see the Central Committee chairmanship as impugning his honor, why shouldn’t the former cabinet minister think likewise?

Netanyahu wants to be the person who controls the Central Committee when it comes to the primaries, too. He has a hobby that’s proved itself: to move up the primaries for party leader at his convenience. He did it in 2007 and in 2011, and thank God, it worked. You don’t tamper with a winning formula: No one will be surprised if, after the holidays in September-October, he declares that in order to allow him to deal properly with the Iranian threat and the danger of ISIS, primaries for the party leadership need to be held ASAP.

A good word

Also, in this week’s cabinet meeting, when Justice Minister Shaked concluded her remarks on the gas blueprint, she added some good words for Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is up to his neck in all that gas. “Thank you, Yuval,” she said emotionally, “for shouldering this difficult and important issue,” and went on to heap more praises on Steinitz.

Hardly had the latter managed to digest what he heard and respond, when Netanyahu grumbled, “If it’s something bad, it’s always the prime minister, and if there are compliments they always go to the minister.”

Steinitz, as one of the participants observed, looked embarrassed. “I finally get a compliment,” he complained in a whisper, “and even that you want to take from me.”

A real bash

A senior Israeli politician recently vacationed abroad. By chance a European colleague who also holds a key position in his party, a ruling party, was a guest at the same hotel. (The names are being withheld at the request of the Israeli side.)

The two, who know each other from previous incarnations, met for dinner. The European, in good spirits from the food and drink, said to his colleague, “I want you to understand that I know [Avigdor] Lieberman well – Yvet [his nickname] and I are friends. I tell you, in October he’ll join the government. Believe me, I know things.”

The man sounded very convinced. The Israeli was surprised. He made a note to himself to check it out.

The prediction of the European politician contradicts the impression of key figures in the Israeli political arena who are in contact with the former foreign minister. One top figure in the coalition (who also doesn’t want his name revealed) met with Lieberman not long ago. “Alright, you had a good time,” he told Lieberman, “you celebrated, now it’s time for you to enter the government. You’ve bashed Bibi enough.”

“No,” Lieberman replied. “Not enough. I’m just getting started.”