Netanyahu Unhinged: Uneasy Coalition Taking Its Toll on PM, Political Observers Say

Colleagues of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can't recall a time when he has been more despondent about Israel's situation in the Middle East. One thing is for sure: He can't count on his coalition partners to lighten the mood.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on Monday morning, the prime minister asked for a cup of coffee. He meant espresso. The waitress served him cappuccino. “I am passing this on to the leader of the opposition,” he said, and pushed the cup to his right, to MK Shelly Yacimovich ‏(Labor‏). “And I am passing it on to the dean of the MKs,” Yacimovich said, and pushed the cup toward her fellow party member, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.

Cappuccino is not Ben-Eliezer’s cup of coffee. He moved it along to MK Shaul Mofaz ‏(Kadima‏), declaring, “And I am passing it on to the former defense minister.” Mofaz nudged it to the secretary to his right. She lost no time passing it on to MK Omer Bar-Lev ‏(Labor‏), the son of the Israel Defense Forces’ eighth chief of staff ‏(Haim Bar-Lev‏). “I happen to like cappuccino,” the new MK said.

“I want to note that the cup stopped at the Bar-Lev Line,” someone remarked, referring to one of the symbols of the Yom Kippur War fiasco, 40 years ago. Netanyahu then received his potent java ‏(“I drink coffee the way it’s drunk in the Middle East,” he said, and the discussion resumed.

The committee’s meeting lasted three hours, much of that time devoted to a general survey by the prime minister, in what was his first appearance in this forum since being reelected. The elders of the committee say they had never previously heard Netanyahu deliver a report as lacking in hope and filled with gloom as this one, apart from his statement that Israel’s defensive capability has been greatly upgraded.

However, even that was juxtaposed with his remark that “Israel is the most threatened country on Earth” − by “100,000 missiles and rockets” − and that if the weapons systems recently under discussion make their way to Syria or from there to Hezbollah, Israel will find itself under constant threat to “its land, sea and air traffic.”

Netanyahu was assisted by committee chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman. According to several committee members, number one and number two in the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu faction seemed to compete with each other in attempts to cast an atmosphere of fear in the room. For example, when Netanyahu mentioned the demonstrations in Turkey, Lieberman − who objected to Israel’s apology to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the deaths of nine activists on the Mavi Marmara in May 2010 − thanked him. When the PM mentioned the danger to air traffic, Lieberman illustrated the point by noting that planes taking off from or landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport will be vulnerable to attack by the much talked-about S-300 antiaircraft missiles that Israel is trying to prevent Syria receiving from Russia.

Netanyahu spoke of how Syria is splitting apart, and how the Assad regime is transferring, or about to transfer, weapons to Hezbollah it never before dared to make available to the organization. He also referred to the instability in Egypt, the entrance of terror groups into Sinai, and the economic malaise in the Land of the Nile. Nor did he forget the economic crisis in Jordan, the fact that the country was being inundated with Syrian refugees and the threats to the monarchy. “I am in favor of providing all possible help to Jordan in order to safeguard it,” he said.

In the section of his report dealing with the American attempts to revive the negotiations with the Palestinians, the prime minister paid lip service to the Arab League initiative ‏(“We can talk about it”‏). To his listeners, though, it was obvious that as far as he is concerned, there is no reason to run, and no one to run with.

Ben-Eliezer appealed to the PM’s heart: “Make your decision already! Decide what you want to do already! It doesn’t matter what, but decide! Don’t wait, don’t wait, don’t wait. You know that I know what I am talking about. Only you are responsible for what happens here. Don’t look right, don’t look left, you’re the man. You are responsible.” Yacimovich asked Netanyahu: “Will those rifles and APCs really endanger our security, or are you afraid that people will pepper you with the old slogan again, ‘Don’t give them guns’?”

Tzipi Livni ‏(Hatnuah‏), the justice minister and person in charge of conducting the nonexistent talks, is seen as the only champion of the peace process in the government. I read her a list of recent events: the statement by Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon ‏(Likud‏), that the government will not support the two-state solution; the formation of the Land of Israel Lobby in the Knesset with the support of about 10 ministers ‏(including some from Likud‏); Netanyahu’s disclaimer of a moderate communique about peace talks on the eve of his trip to Poland; and the postponement of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit here. Given these and the general atmosphere in the coalition, I asked if she is close to the stage at which she throws up her hands in despair.

“I am not into despair, I am into struggle,” Livni replied expectably, “and it’s important for me to have Yesh Atid take part in this struggle with me.”

Did you talk to [Yesh Atid head] Yair Lapid about this?

“I did, and we will soon meet for a more in-depth discussion.”

It’s hard to get the impression that he is taking an interest in the subject − and if he is, then not from your perspective, as we saw in his recent New York Times interview [when he took a conservative stance on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations].

“In the election campaign, he said that he would not be part of a government that does not advance the peace process,” Livni said wearily. “I surmise that the new politics is not the type that doesn’t keep its promises.”

I didn’t remind her of her promises in the election campaign. She’s having a rough time as it is.

Meddle, meddle

Shas head MK Aryeh Deri has been telling his Knesset colleagues lately that, in his view, Shelly Yacimovich is on her way into the coalition. The last time he said this was to a group of MKs in the back part of the Knesset chamber, on Monday night. According to Deri, Labor will hook up with Likud at some point after the Knesset passes the budget. It’s possible that Labor will be asked to replace Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, which will resign in the wake of renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Why would this be worthwhile for her? She is facing primaries for the party leadership at the beginning of 2014, Deri explains, and if she runs from the position of a senior cabinet minister, having also appointed four ministers and two deputy ministers, no rival will unseat her.

Other than issue a string of denials, there is not much Yacimovich can do. Sources in her party made it clear again this week that she will consider joining Netanyahu only if Israel is on the verge of a dramatic agreement with the Palestinians, and the government’s stability is threatened. Her repeated statements about Labor’s commitment to stand behind Netanyahu in any peace move, and to provide him with the majority needed to get an agreement passed, is also a public message for international purposes.

The Americans expect her to issue these declarations so that the prime minister will not continue to travel around the world and complain that he is dying to move forward but is captive to coalition constraints.

So, why is Deri making such a fuss? There are three possible reasons:

(1) He would like to see the scenario played out, because if Labor enters the coalition and Habayit Hayehudi leaves it, he, Deri, will become leader of the opposition. Shas actually has one seat less than Habayit Hayehudi ‏(11 vs. 12‏), but all told, the ultra-Orthodox parties have 18 MKs, and in any event neither Meretz nor the Arab parties will support Bennett for the position.

(2‏) When all the religious parties are in the opposition, and Lapid and Yacimovich are in the coalition, the government will look more “leftish” and Ashkenazi, and as such will be easier to target.

(3‏) Deri just likes to meddle.

He’s right about one thing, though: Relations between Netanyahu and Bennett are extremely strained. Every move that the industry, trade and labor minister wants to promote, and which depends on the prime minister, encounters difficulties. There are people in Netanyahu’s close circle who are feeding him with “information” to the effect that Bennett is plotting to unseat him.

Political figures in senior positions who know Netanyahu well say the prime minister lacks the avid enthusiasm that characterized his activity in the previous government. The change actually occurred on the eve of the last election, when he discovered the severity of the situation. He’s not having fun. He is not fond of his coalition partners. “I am not in favor of running the country by the Facebook method,” he grumbled in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting.

Last Wednesday, after a meeting of the security cabinet, he called in Livni, Bennett and Lapid, and reprimanded them for recent hitches in the working of the coalition. However, some sources in the coalition say that he himself is contributing in no small manner to the chaos and disharmony.

“In every government,” says a political figure who holds a key post in a government ministry run by one of the coalition parties, “you have 80 percent of the issues on which there is agreement, and 20 percent which are in dispute. A prime minister who knows how to manage risks focuses on the 80 percent and puts off the remaining 20 percent. Netanyahu is doing the opposite. He is focusing on the 20 percent. Now he is meddling in the election of the chief rabbis, because the Netanyahu family wants to see Rabbi David Lau [the chief rabbi of Modi’in and the son of former Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau] become Ashkenazi chief rabbi. If Shas were in the government today, would [Netanyahu] butt in about the rabbis? Since when does he care about that, and where does he find the time for it, with everything that’s on his desk?”

Cooling down

Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett this week visited a recruitment center for ultra-Orthodox men doing civilian service in Jerusalem. His remarks to the yeshiva graduates sound like another stage in the increasingly cool relations between Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid, the two parties that forged an alliance on their way into the coalition. “It hurts me that in the past few months, due to our behavior, we have created an unsympathetic atmosphere instead of accelerating the blessed process [of the growing integration of Haredim in the labor market and in the IDF],” Bennett said.

“A feeling has been created that we want to aggravate the situation, but that is not the case,” he continued. “The Jewish people will survive only if they have several legs to stand on: the leg of Torah, the security leg and the leg of unity.”

The two parties continue to meet in a very small forum once a week: Bennett and his chief of staff, Shalom Shlomo, with Lapid and his confidant Hillel Kobrinsky. Every day that passes, though, only throws into greater relief the innate difference between the two parties on fundamental issues, such as the rabbinical election, religion and state, the new draft law to share the military burden − which the representative of Habayit Hayehudi on the Perry Committee, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, voted against − or the peace issue.

Lapid has shifted to the right lately, but the great majority of his Knesset faction take a dim view of the satisfaction and arrogance in Bennett’s party in light of the stalled peace process. The fairly banal remarks made this week by MK Ofer Shelah ‏(Yesh Atid‏) about the corruptive character of the occupation, the settlements as an obstacle to peace and the continued deterioration of Israel’s international status, were intended to hearten the left-leaning voters of Yesh Atid a little.

As expected, they caused a “storm in the coalition” and drew a rash of condemnations. Yesterday, on Army Radio, Shelah claimed that Netanyahu’s views are closer to his than to those of Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely. Happy is the believer ...

Referring to a recent request to Israel to allow the Jordanians to send the Palestinian Authority light arms and a few armored personnel carriers for the security forces’ use in the West Bank, Netanyahu said that Israel was not yet giving its approval. “Whatever the Palestinians get, they always want something more,” he complained.

5773 wasn't a walk in the park for Netanyahu. Nor was it for other people.Credit: Amos Biderman
Rumors of MK Yacimovich's Labor Party joining the coalition persist.Credit: Tali Mayer
Minister Naftali BennettCredit: Emil Salman

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