Netanyahu Promised to Swiftly Form a Government. Then Israeli Politics Happened

As coalition talks seem destined to be extended, Netanyahu is still dithering between signing with Bennett and Lieberman, or turning to Herzog in a unity bid. Meanwhile, Shas, UTJ and Kulanu are waiting in the wings.

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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will ask President Reuven Rivlin this coming Tuesday for a 14-day extension of the period allotted him to form his fourth government. What has been achieved in the 23 days since Rivlin gave Netanyahu the nod?

“Progress” has been made with Shas and with United Torah Judaism and with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, according to reports. Maybe coalition agreements will be signed with them by Independence Day (Thursday), maybe not. With Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, we’re seeing foot-dragging and plenty of frayed nerves.

In addition, there is also much speculation about secret contacts and back channels aimed at bringing Labor under Isaac Herzog into the coalition. Yes, Labor without Tzipi Livni and not necessarily with Zionist Union. The scenario described here two weeks ago is now the prevailing discourse in the corridors of power, and a source of suspicion and ill will on the part of the aides of the couple who “put ego aside”: Tzipi & Bougie.

Tellingly, Livni’s voice has been unusually absent from the media for the past two weeks. Her silence is being taken in her political milieu as a sign that she’s against Zionist Union joining the government, but apprehensive about saying so – because what happens if that scenario suddenly becomes feasible?

In a private conversation with a third party whose content was made known to Netanyahu, Herzog told his interlocutor that if an offer to join the coalition is made, he has no intention of dumping Livni. If she drops out of her own accord, however, that’s already a different story.

Herzog’s sweeping, total, vehement denial of a Channel 1 report on Monday that he and Netanyahu had met secretly was, in general, believed by the other players in the arena. The assumption is that Herzog would not entangle himself in a lie that would eventually be exposed – not only in regard to the public but also in regard to his own faction, where the feeling is that he’s longing for a call from Netanyahu.

Herzog complained this week that his main occupation these days is to deny reports about emissaries he’s dispatched to forge a path to the coalition’s door. Even the name of President Rivlin, a declared advocate of a unity government, has been mentioned in this context.

In this respect, at least, there’s apparently a little fire giving off a tiny trail of smoke. During the Passover break Herzog and Rivlin met at a Hebrew song festival on Lake Kinneret, and conducted an intense private conversation. Both sides decline to say what they talked about, but we can assume it wasn’t the repertoire the president most enjoyably performed on stage.

Shas’ oxygen

Shas leader Arye Dery spent the final days of his Passover holiday up north thinking about the transportation portfolio. That is the alternative Netanyahu has offered to the Interior Ministry, which Dery covets and probably dreamed about during those long, sad nights he spent in prison after being convicted on corruption charges when serving as interior minister. Forget interior, Netanyahu told him, people will drink your blood. There’s already a petition with 45,000 signatures protesting the possibility of such an appointment, and there will likely be a petition to the High Court of Justice.

The transportation portfolio is handsome compensation: It’s a fat, heavily budgeted ministry that wields power and influence. Everything Dery likes. More important, it’s involved in dealings with every local government, large or small, that needs a road, a bridge, an intersection or a traffic light. That connection is like political oxygen for Shas. The party has few heads of municipal governments but it has representatives in every city and local council, and the best way to ensure that they get jobs befitting their talents is to take control of a “relevant” ministry.

Moreover, the Interior Ministry in the future era of Kahlon as finance minister will be a disabled entity without the Planning Directorate, which will be removed from it in the wake of an ultimatum from Kahlon. So, put yourself in Dery’s shoes: He’s already taken a media beating and might also get a battering from the High Court for his unworthy return to the scene of the crime, and on top of that he’ll get a ministry that’s been slashed?

For his part, Avigdor Lieberman betook himself to Cyprus to rest from the ordeals of the unsatisfactory (for him) coalition talks. Until this week he seemed to have the Foreign Ministry locked up, but no longer. One thing is clear: Netanyahu wants to strike a deal quickly with Kahlon, Dery and United Torah Judaism (53 MKs, including Likud), leaving Lieberman and Naftali Bennett for last. And least. The question is, why? To make a last-minute appeal to Herzog, during the two-week extension, or to push the two into a corner, where they’ll have no choice but to accept portfolios they don’t want?

Likud’s-eye view

According to sources in Likud (which, naturally, have vested interests), Netanyahu’s current aspiration is to keep the foreign affairs, defense, public security and justice portfolios for Likud. Those four ministries accord their ministers statutory membership in the political-security cabinet (together with the finance minister and the prime minister). The same sources say that Netanyahu, in his fourth and possibly last government, and haunted by post-traumatic symptoms from his most recent one, wants to form a convenient, user-friendly security cabinet, and a government whose Likud ministers he will choose not because of their place on the ticket but for their loyalty and ability to work with him harmoniously.

The general view in Likud is that if the foreign affairs portfolio stays in the party, the leading candidate for the post is Gilad Erdan. His name is also being mentioned in connection with the public security portfolio, to ensure his participation in the security cabinet. It’s not clear what will be left for Yisrael Katz, the outgoing transportation minister.

Yuval Steinitz’s name has been raised as a candidate for the justice portfolio (if the attorney general allows the husband of Jerusalem District Court Judge Gila Canfy Steinitz to hold that ministry). Benny Begin has also been mentioned as a candidate for the justice ministry.

A source who’s well informed about the Supreme Court said this week that its justices are aghast at the possibility that Netanyahu will appoint Likudnik Yariv Levin justice minister: He’s the politician most identified with initiatives and bills aimed at trampling and dwarfing the independence of the judiciary. Netanyahu is well aware of their opinion.

Mounting pressure

In Habayit Hayehudi, the uncertainty and the pressure are at their peak. It’s been more than three weeks since Netanyahu’s last meeting with party leader Bennett. Not a word about ministerial portfolios was exchanged.

A persistent rumor that’s morphed into a hardened opinion in the negotiating rooms is that Sara Netanyahu has cast a double veto: against Tzipi Livni’s co-option to the coalition, and against a ministerial appointment for Ayelet Shaked, No. 3 on Habayit Hayehudi’s slate.

Relations between Shaked and Sara have been far more than strained since the former served as then-opposition leader Netanyahu’s bureau chief, in 2006-7. According to testimonies of survivors of the maelstrom, she did not see fit to bend or bow her head to the Lady. Shaked is not a bender, and Sara is not a forgiver, or a forgetter.

Duly noted

One day during Passover, in Tel Aviv’s busy Dizengoff Center mall, Alon, an intelligent reader, spotted a crumpled A-4-size sheet of paper on the floor. Something about the precise nature of the handwriting on it caught his eye. He picked it up, read it, and sent it on to yours truly.

It was clear immediately that the writer of the “note,” as we’ll call it, is a senior adviser to Yesh Atid or an MK in the party, and close to its leader, Yair Lapid. Also that he was very unimpressed, to put it mildly, with Lapid’s personal, party and ministerial behavior and with his campaigning. The writer’s mostly intelligent critiques took up most of the note. It was clear that he had written the note in preparation for a meeting with Lapid. All that remained was to figure out who the author was.

The Rosetta Stone turned up under the rubric, “Mistakes we both made at the personal level (I take responsibility).” The writer listed a series of mistakes he thought Lapid had made as finance minister, including the doomed plan to introduce zero-VAT for first-home buyers. The writer suggested a refund of the value-added tax rather than its cancellation. This reference (which was further elaborated upon) and the taking of responsibility, trained a possible spotlight on MK Mickey Levy, the former deputy finance minister.

Incidentally, the writer of the note wasn’t happy with Lapid’s slashing of child allowances, either. As for the election campaign, the writer (still anonymous at this stage) thought that giving the party’s MKs a bigger role could have helped to sound out grass-roots feeling. He also suggested that Lapid check who it was in the party did the most work during the campaign.

The writer claimed that Lapid’s slogan – “Bibi will not be prime minister” – cost Yesh Atid at least two seats that went to Likud. Of Lapid’s performance in the candidates’ TV debate: “You were tired, you weren’t good. You didn’t attack Kahlon, you let him attack you You attacked Dery, but that’s not where our voters are.”

The writer regrets that “we were too statesmanlike, we didn’t attack Labor or Kulanu, where our voters are. By nature, I am a fighter with a knife between my teeth and a glint in the eyes.” As for the melancholy future, “We will be a fighting opposition We will vote for what’s good for the society and the state.”

When I called Levy – No. 11 on Yesh Atid’s slate and thus the last to make it into the new Knesset – he confirmed that he was the author. The note must have slipped out of his jacket when he was at Dizengoff Center, he said. “I’d be very happy if you don’t publish it,” he said. “It’s personal.”

I explained to him, with all due regret, that this was a matter of “public interest.” He apparently disagreed sweepingly with the chief policies of his minister. I suggested that he give an interview and say on the record what he wrote in the note. He declined. I told him that under certain conditions, Haaretz would consider publishing the gist of the material without revealing the writer’s identity, while stating that the comments reflect the views of a specific Yesh Atid MK.

Levy weighed this option and decided, courageously, that he didn’t want to cast aspersions on his fellow MKs. He then said he had no problem with the full publication of the note (apart from the deletion of a personal remark about someone, a request that was fulfilled). He also asked that it be made clear that the note slipped out of his jacket when he was on the way to a movie with his wife.

He added the following response through his spokesman: “It’s a personal note and represents my opinion alone. After the election, I came up with some insight about what we went through I made the comments in a private meeting with Lapid, such as we hold from time to time. We agree on many issues, but it’s clear there are also disagreements, which we discuss openly.”

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from the story of the note, it is a dual and contradictory one. First, Levy emerges as a man’s man, displaying integrity and fairness. On the other hand, where was that integrity during the 20 months in which he was Lapid’s deputy and gave public support to policies he obviously didn’t agree with?

All viewers of the Knesset Channel should be aware that what their eyes see and their ears hear sometimes conceal an opposite truth. And also that in Yesh Atid there is someone who dares to take issue with the omnipotent leader, the enlightened dictator Lapid.

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