The Real Reason Netanyahu Is Stressed

The prime minister’s clout on the national level is in inverse proportion to his poor grip on his party, which holds its convention next week.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Netanyahu in the Knesset. February 18, 2014.
Netanyahu in the Knesset. February 18, 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In the past two weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu put on a nose plug, took an anti-nausea pill and dived deep into the murky waters of Likud party politics, which he abhors. A titanic battle has been underway for months between the prime minister and the chairman of the Likud convention, MK Danny Danon, over the agenda of the convention next Monday.

Seemingly, the brawl is purely procedural: over what the delegates will discuss and who bears the authority to convene party institutions. But in Likud, procedure is everything. And if there is anything Netanyahu, in his many years as party leader, has learned and internalized, it’s that whoever controls the procedure, decides the outcome.

Two motions for the agenda were submitted. One by the chairman of Likud, which is addresses just a few subjects and whose message to the delegates is: Get off my case and don’t interfere with my running of the country. The other, submitted by the chairman of the convention, is the exact opposite: crammed with more issues than you can shake a stick at – plus it sticks it to Netanyahu.

Danon, for example, is calling for a vote on the peace plan being put forward by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and also on the Likud merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. He is also asking the delegates to amend the Likud’s constitution such that the convening of the convention or the Likud Central Committee will henceforth be done “in consultation” with the party chair – but not be subject to his agreement.

In short, Danon, who is already the strongman in Likud institutions, is out to inject content into the titles he holds. By doing so he may turn Netanyahu into his peon, his doormat.

No wonder Bibi is stressed. He is skittering frenetically between hundreds of phone calls, nighttime meetings in the Prime Minister’s Residence and below-the-radar meetings with party activists. (This week he took part in two of those encounters, in Be’er Sheva and Rehovot, in a effort to make up for three years of neglect.)

The repertoire is pretty much the same each time. The prime minister opens the gatherings with security issues: Iran, Middle East, Palestinians and the “Jewish state.” Then he apologizes for having been out of touch with the grass roots and promises that he is now “coming home” and will be in contact with the activists on a regular basis and not only when he needs them.

What follows is the veiled threat: “There is someone who wants to undercut my powers, to push Likud over the edge of the cliff …” He then adds: “But there aren’t two drivers. You know what happens when there are two pilots in the cockpit … I have to lead. You chose me in order to lead you. Let me lead, so you won’t be led into the abyss.”

The result if the other guy – that Danon – gets what he wants will be “chaos” and “suicide,” Netanyahu tells the activists none too subtly. But the Likud chair is not going the extra mile and threatening to resign if Danon prevails. Still, political figures in his milieu are not above reminding people what happened the last time a leader of the party was slapped around at a convention: Two months later, that person left Likud and established Kadima, and his ghost almost killed his former party in the subsequent election.

Netanyahu, however, is not eager to bolt and establish a party of his own. In contrast to Ariel Sharon, who was borne on the wings of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip but still hesitated and agonized before deciding to act – Bibi suffers from reverse abandonment anxiety. His electoral base is not broad and solid, the way Sharon’s was. Netanyahu without Likud and without a breakthrough political process that will bring him the centrist votes would be without a political lifeline.

Shalom's cruel dilemma

Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom undoubtedly hoped that by this weekend, it would all be behind him. But the decision by the attorney general to pursue an investigation against him, due to allegations of sexual offenses, because it “has not run its course,” will give him more long, tormented, sleepless nights. Why go on looking into a matter that falls under the statute of limitations and will most likely end without an indictment? Only the heads of the state prosecution and the top brass at the police know the answer to that question.

Shalom has been a player in the big leagues of Israeli politics since 1992, holding a long list of portfolios, some of them very important. And he has played well, it should be said. With skill and talent. Never has he been accused of anything improper. He hasn’t even been the subject of “rumors” (though rumors are not necessarily a guarantee of truth; indeed, sometimes they are the opposite of the truth).

On the assumption that no additional complaints will be added to the one filed by M., who worked in Shalom’s bureau when he was science minister in 1998, and that the case will be closed – nothing need prevent Shalom from continuing to serve in this and future governments.

But the question of running for president of Israel is something else entirely. Here he faces a dilemma, even a cruel trap: If he pulls out of the race (or, more accurately, doesn’t enter it officially), he will have to explain why he is taking that step. After all, Shalom's confidants and family members – notably Nimrod Nir, his son from his marriage to Judy Nir Shalom Mozes – explicitly blamed political rivals for trying to frame him in a Facebook post. Of carrying out a “targeted assassination” against him on his way to the President’s Residence.

Logic, then, says that after the case is closed, Shalom will have to run as he had planned, and to project self-confidence and belief in his innocence. He will want to demonstrate that the malicious conspiracy didn’t work, so that the wicked shall not rejoice, so that the would-be assassins will be hoisted by their own petard, and so forth. His running in that case will even have a sort of educational value.

This coin, though, has another side. Let’s say Shalom is elected president by the Knesset. The dark cloud will always be hovering there, above the new leader and above the institution, both of which must be of irreproachable character, certainly after the Moshe Katsav trauma. A presidential term lasts seven years. Whoever has an eye on this lofty post would do well to examine his closet thoroughly for ghosts, skeletons and cans of worms, in order to obviate unnecessary shame and scandal in the future.

Strongest, weakest

The anxiety and sense of emergency that have gripped Netanyahu ahead of the party test that awaits him illustrate well what everyone already knows: His clout and stability, and the fact that he has no competition – almost on a Ben-Gurion-like scale – are in inverse proportion to his weakness and his loose, effectively nonexistent grip on his party. So far he has been a leader without an external alternative and without internal authority. The second part of that equation will be put to the test next week.

This is a critical period in regard to the negotiations with the Palestinians. The fourth round of prisoner releases was scheduled to take place by the end of this week, or on Sunday at the latest. Even if agreement is reached on extending the negotiations – without which the prime minister will not fulfill his commitment to free the remaining prisoners – there is no way they will be released before the voting in the Likud convention ends. Photos of exultant freed terrorists, interspersed with those of Likud delegates waiting in line to vote, are just what Danon – who is threatening to resign as deputy defense minister if the prisoners are released – needs to ensure and seal his victory.

I asked Danon whether he didn’t think he was overdoing it. After all, Netanyahu is Likud’s prime asset, having brought the party into power three times.

“I am trying to keep the struggle on a substantive rather than a personal basis,” Danon said. “But you mustn’t forget that Likud is in regression. In the last election, we shrank from 27 to 20 Knesset seats. We didn’t do our homework. The movement is demoralized. What’s happened in the past two weeks is actually a good thing: The prime minister has returned to the grass roots.”

You’re flexing a muscle and in the end you will force him out. What then? Will your situation improve?

“No one is trying to force Bibi out. I want him to come to meetings more, to listen to the party members. He’s doing that now, but I am telling them, ‘Be careful, you are only his prop.’ The problem is that he looks to his right and sees Yvet [Lieberman], and to his left and sees [Yair] Lapid, and he envies their one-man rule in their parties.”

Necessary narrative

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is in charge of the negotiations with the Palestinians, has gone underground and vanished from public view. The moment of truth for the talks, which seem to be taking their last breath and in need of urgent resuscitation, is also her own private moment of truth. She is in despair, says someone who converses with her often about these issues. Simply in despair over everything that is happening.

Livni ran in the election and entered the government on a one-point agenda: negotiations with the Palestinians. There is a partner to talk to, she maintained. There’s a chance to achieve a final agreement, she declared. Just let me be in the room with them, she insisted. Bibi isn’t the same Bibi, she explained, this time he’s different. He means business.

If the negotiations fail, her conception will collapse with them, along with her political raison d’etre. He presence in the government will become superfluous. She will have to justify, first to herself and then to her constituency, her decision to continue to serve alongside Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel. What will she say – that there is no partner? The skies will fall on her.

Based on what Livni said last week, at the Negev Conference, to the effect that the key for the implementation of the fourth round of prisoner releases is in the hands of the Palestinian president – she appears to be adopting a narrative that will leave her in the government: casting the blame for the failure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Americans will undoubtedly throw her a lifebelt. They will not declare the death of peace, but rather, play what is going on as a temporary setback. The effort to achieve an agreement will continue as long as Barack Obama occupies the White House and John Kerry is secretary of state, they will say.

If Livni wants to go on believing that prattle, that’s her business. But she will be the only one.

Q and some A

The following story consists of facts and queries. Not all the queries have answers, unfortunately.

First, the facts: 1. The pro-settler newspaper Makor Rishon, owned by Shlomo Ben-Zvi, will be sold to casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who also owns the freebie Israel Hayom, for 14 million shekels (about $4 million).

2. Adelson is saliently right-wing in his politics. Above and beyond that, he is Netanyahu’s man and Netanyahu is his man – as anyone who reads the “Bibipaper” can see.

3. Adelson never before took an interest in buying Makor Rishon, even when it was up for sale in the past. This time he made an offer that was originally three times as high as the second-best offer, but only after it was learned that the publisher of the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, Noni Mozes, was also considering submitting a bid to the court-appointed trustee. Mozes did indeed contemplate this, but then thought better of it.

4. In the last election, Makor Rishon avidly supported Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, who is loathed by Bibi and his wife Sara, who are beloved by Sheldon. Bennett was and remains a bitter rival of Netanyahu and a target for political annihilation by the prime minister.

5. Bennett is one of Yedioth’s favorite politicians, and generally gets favorable coverage in that paper – which automatically makes him a preferred candidate for annihilation by Israel Hayom.

Those are the facts. Now for the queries. An informed source in the right-wing media claims that in the wake of Ben-Zvi’s collapse, it was Bennett who asked Mozes to buy Makor Rishon. When Adelson heard about that, he moved fast and placed a fistful of chips – err, sorry, shekels – on the table.

Question 1. Is Bennett the person who with his own hands inflicted Adelson and Netanyahu on Makor Rishon – “his” newspaper, his ideological stronghold? Bennett’s aides deny this. His confidants say that they heard only after the fact about the interest shown by Mozes and hurried to dissuade him, precisely for this reason: so as not to wake sleeping tycoons. However, they failed.

Question 2. Is it correct that, according to the same source, the person who urged Adelson to make a high offer was none other than Netanyahu? When the prime minister heard that Mozes – his great enemy, whom he believes, and with no little justification, is persecuting him with his highly popular paper and website – might become the owner of the right-wing paper, he almost had a fit and rushed to seek succor from the munificent old guy from Vegas.

Aides to Netanyahu did not reply directly to the question of whether the prime minister was behind the move. One of them recalled Netanyahu’s remark in his affable appearance on the “State of the Nation” TV show: “I am against the closure of newspapers.”

Question 3. This one has to do with timing. Adelson’s generous offer was made the day after the report (by Amit Segal, on Channel 2) about the party- and political camp-crossing bill that aims to prevent Israel Hayom from being given away for free. One of the bill’s signatories is MK Ayelet Shaked, the chairwoman of Habayit Hayehudi, who is close to Bennett. Is there a connection or not?

Adelson has meanwhile promised the court to retain, for a year at least, 90 percent of the Makor Rishon staff, regulars and freelancers alike. What about the content? Will the paper's talented and opinionated journalists be able to write whatever they want about the prime minister, or are we now witnessing the emergence of Bibipaper II – this time with skullcap, checkered shirt and sandals?

Danny Danon.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Interior Minister Silvan Shalom. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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