Who's the Boss of Benjamin Netanyahu?

People say that PM Netanyahu accepts the advice of the person who last spoke with him. Lately that seems to be Justice Minister Neeman, whose plan to stack the judicial appointments committee has died a natural death.

On Wednesday at 7:30 P.M., Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman's attempt to ravage Israel's democracy drew its last breath. Benjamin Netanyahu is an expert in missing all possible opportunities except for one: making the 8 P.M. news broadcasts on the two big commercial television networks.

It took more than 48 hours of feverish consultations for Netanyahu to grasp what six of his cabinet ministers figured out at Sunday's meeting and at the Likud party gathering the next day, and also what officials at the Knesset and the Justice Ministry - in particular the attorney general - clarified and reiterated: A normal government in a normal state cannot legislate a bill that retroactively annuls the results of elections properly staged by an appropriate statutory authority (in this case, the Israel Bar Association ) simply because a particular person does not like the winners. Even if that person happens to be the justice minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Eran Wolkowski

What's going on with Netanyahu? This is the question that was asked during the week by despondent leading members of his party. Why does he keep shooting himself by lending a helping hand, often deliberately and vocally, sometimes tacitly, to crazed, brazen efforts to trample the law - efforts whose unhappy outcome can be foretold?

There is just one answer: Yankele. The man who does not owe anything to anybody, apart from his client. Yankele Neeman argues, Netanyahu is persuaded, and the rest is history - and also usually hysteria.

At the end of last week, Neeman returned to Israel from his winter vacation, took off his ski parka, and resumed lighting the fires that consume the Prime Minister's mantle. Neeman returned, and the headaches resumed.

The proposed "bar association bill" that Neeman promoted was designed to expand the right-wing majority on the committee that oversees the appointment of judges. At first glance, such a bill should be irrelevant, because nominees for the Supreme Court are supposed to be elected by a resounding majority: by seven out of nine committee members. And the court's new president is already destined to be Asher Grunis, thanks to the so-called Grunis Law, which was enacted by the Knesset this week. So it would appear that the change for which Neeman lobbied, via his proxies Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin, was superfluous.

Unless the real intention harbored by the law's sponsors was not related to Supreme Court appointments. Rather, the sponsors wanted to send a signal to the hundreds of potential candidates for magistrate's and district court appointments, which are sealed by a simple five-out-of-nine majority. The message was to be that the appointments committee that decides their fate has a clear right-wing slant. Such a message would be internalized by judges who handle cases of settler violence and law-breaking, and the judges would know exactly what sort of group would monitor their decisions, and then decide later on whether or not to confer upon those same judges prized appointments to higher positions.

A person who is closely acquainted with the prime minister's method of operation provided the following analysis this week: "Pay attention to the fact that all his woes occur on Sunday and Monday. He gets bogged down on those days, and then spends the next three days trying to extricate himself. What happens is that all sorts of people speak with him on the phone over the weekend, and talk him into doing all sorts of rubbish, and drive him crazy with various ideas for legislative action, and whet his appetite with an array of stories about conspiracies hatched against him. On Sunday morning he arrives at work with a bunch of reminders in hand - this and that rumor and allegation has to be looked into. It's all totally crazy stuff that sometimes ends with ridiculous proposals for legislation."

This political insider explains, "Netanyahu is surrounded by a gang of yes-men whose only goal is to please the boss. Instead of intercepting missiles, they hoist them into the air. Instead of calming things, they aggravate suspicions. This all derives from Netanyahu's own emotional world, which is comprised of many forms of paranoia. He will speak only with persons who lack a public profile and who, in his frightened view of the world, pose no political threat to him. He will listen to a person such as Yaakov Neeman, who causes tremendous damage. Or to a character such as Natan Eshel [Netanyahu's bureau chief], who deals entirely with scare-mongering and pours one fear after another into Netanyahu's ears.

"When MK Ofir Akunis served as Bibi's spokesman, all Netanyahu could do was look for someone to replace him, but now he has become a confidential adviser. And then there's MK Zeev Elkin, a political fox and skilled analyst who is also extremist and very goal-focused, and who happened to have launched his career in the Knesset as a Kadima member; he has turned into a top confidant.

"In the end, Netanyahu makes decisions that accord with the last person to speak with him. The problem today is that everyone who speaks with him, at the start, middle or end of the conversation, is cut from the same cloth. He doesn't have prudent persons around him who might provide a counterweight, and tell him to slow down."

Here's another example: A few weeks ago, the premier decided to move up the primary for the Likud leadership, and to merge it with elections of officials for other Likud institutions. One of his primary justifications for this change was that it would save money. Meantime, much to his chagrin, he discovered that internal agreements had already been arrived at in local Likud branches, so that local members really had no need to show up to vote in primaries - meaning that tens of thousands of potential voters had little motivation to cast ballots. When voter turnout in Likud is low in the cities, that plays into the hands of the party's extremist wing, led by Moshe Feiglin's followers and by settlers. This dynamic could foil Netanyahu's objective of winning a 75-percent majority in the leadership primary.

Advisers in Netanyahu's office cooked up the following idea, in the hope that it would encourage people to come out and cast votes on January 31: Persons who want to serve as delegates to the Likud's convention (and there are thousands of such persons ) would receive a refund of their participation fees should voter turnout in their party branches rise on primary day.

Participation fees are Likud's primary source of revenue. Reimbursement of these fees would empty the party's treasury. The "savings" originally referred to by Netanyahu about combining primary dates does not actually exist.

That's classic Netanyahu: The moment he identifies a threat, or the shadow of a threat, he drops anything that was critical during the last month, and acts as though it never existed.

Budget considerations

Ever since Netanyahu decided to move up the date of Likud primary to the 31st of this month, the scenario of early national elections has remained a topic of lively discussion in Israel's incessantly anxious political arena.

Political insiders believe that national elections will be held in 2012, apparently in October, a year before the official end of the government's term, after the High Holidays and on the eve of the U.S. presidential election. For this to happen, the Knesset would have to disperse in around June.

The Finance Ministry customarily starts work on the coming year's budget in May-June. This means that the 2013 budget needs to start taking shape in the spring. It will be brought to the government for approval over the summer, and to the Knesset for first reading approval in the fall, and will ostensibly be approved at the end of the year.

Ministers and government officials warn that next year's budget is liable to be austere. Analysts expect that 2012 will be a tough year for the world economy. The local economy will be strained by the implementation of Trajtenberg Committee recommendations, the reduction in tax revenue, and the inability to slash defense budget allocations. Plus the budget planning will begin with a NIS 7-billion deficit.

This is not the sort of budget politicians like to bring to the polls in an election year, one senior government official pointed out this week. Such a budget, this source estimated, can only be passed after election balloting, by a new government that has a long life expectancy.

When the character of the new budget becomes clear, this official added, Netanyahu will be lambasted not only by the opposition; his natural allies, Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, will take umbrage as well. Should Netanyahu disperse the Knesset this June, however, that would spare him the agony of dealing with the 2013 budget. The Knesset could disband over the summer; the finance minister would take a long vacation; and the social protest movement would wait for the next government and the next prime minister.

'Mapai knew'

On Sunday, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz brought to the cabinet meeting an agreement forged between the state and Israel Chemicals, by which the latter will finance 90 percent of the cost of Dead Sea salt-harvesting. The agreement is aimed at prevent the flooding of the hotels situated along the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea.

Netanyahu asked his aides whether they knew what Israel Chemicals' profit margin was. They didn't. "Give me an estimated guess," Netanyahu asked. The aides could not. During the meeting, a participant reported that the law that provides a concession right to Israel Chemicals was passed in 1960. "Oh, Mapai, Mapai," groaned Netanyahu, referring to the ruling party of the time, the predecessor of Labor. "Mapai knew how to get laws passed."

Almost every prime minister who has served in past decades has been struck by nostalgic pangs for the days of Mapai rule, in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a period of one-party rule: The opposition was small, the coalition was authoritative and media outlets were docile.

Netanyahu fantasizes about being David Ben-Gurion - of his party having 50 MKs, and of facing a high-strung, Polish-born opposition leader like Menachem Begin. There is no television and newspaper editors make pilgrimages to this office.

For Netanyahu, this is not just a fantasy; he wants to turn it into a reality. He controls the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and is trying to pull the plug on Channel 10 and Educational Television, and to legislate anti-democratic bills that will propel Israel backward. He believes that under current circumstances, Israel doesn't deserve a leader of his caliber.

How did Sara Netanyahu put it, when speaking recently to the wife of a senior politician? "My husband is not just one of the finest prime ministers to serve here. He is the very best prime minister ever to serve in Israel."