Netanyahu Gets a Public Lesson on the Limits of Power

The insane emotional campaign the prime minister waged over the identity of the next president not only blew up in his face – it created a real rift with his Likud ministers.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Japan, May 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe in Japan, May 2014.Credit: AFP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

During the long flight home after his visit to Japan, Benjamin Netanyahu had plenty of time to contemplate the week’s events. His initiative to eliminate the institution of the presidency, AKA “anyone but Ruby” (Likud MK Reuven Rivlin), blew up in his face. The insane emotional campaign the prime minister waged, and continues to wage, against former Knesset Speaker Rivlin has done the latter an extraordinary service. It’s too soon to bet on who will become Israel’s next president in the Knesset vote a month from now, but it’s obvious that Rivlin’s situation among the MKs is better now than it was a week ago.

Netanyahu’s entourage was in the grip of hysteria during the trip abroad. From the moment he landed in Tokyo, at midday on Sunday, until he took off from the Japanese capital on Wednesday, Netanyahu wore down the leaders of parties in his coalition in numberless phone calls, in an attempt to get them to come “on board,” as he put it, and back his plan. It’s amazing that he had the time and the mental capacity to meet with the emperor.

The long-distance calls reached their peak on Monday, ahead of the weekly meetings of the Knesset factions. Netanyahu had only one request from his coalition colleagues: Support me or keep quiet until I get back to Israel and we can meet. Yisrael Beiteinu leader and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly was the recipient of multiple calls within a few hours. (The minister’s bureau declined to comment on that.)

The end is known: The first to jump ship was Yesh Atid leader and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. He announced Monday night that he would oppose the premier's hasty move to do away with the presidency. After that, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also mumbled something vaguely similar, following her more than peculiar lengthy silence on the subject. That spelled finis to the whole shameful episode.

So it was that cabinet secretary Avichai Mendelblit, whom Netanyahu left at home with the mission of promoting his plan, was forced to shelve the motion for the agenda on postponing the presidential election, which was going to be submitted to the cabinet this coming Sunday. He can hang it on his office wall.

Having grasped that a new president is going to be elected whether he likes it or not, Bibi is moving to Plan B. That involves changing the regime so that the head of the party that gets the most votes in a general election will automatically be charged with forming the government – without presidential intercession. (This is something that is particularly bothering the prime minister, ahead of the next election.)

That scheme will be combined with a desperate, last-minute attempt to come up with an attractive candidate who can give Rivlin and the other declared presidential candidates a good fight. The names that have suddenly been pulled out of the hat include former Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, and Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein. One might think that the fact these men have the support of Bibi and Sara, Sara and Bibi, makes their way to the President's Residence smoother – though it might mean just the opposite.

When he undertakes a postmortem concerning the plan to do away with the presidency, Netanyahu cannot ignore the part played by his confidant, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, in the demise of the initiative. Sa’ar objected to the idea on his Facebook page last Friday, and thereby created a snowball effect. Until then, the idea had been discussed for weeks in quiet talks between the prime minister, the leaders of the coalition parties and senior figures in Likud.

However, after Sa’ar revealed the whole scheme, he was joined in opposing it by Likud MKs Haim Katz and Miri Regev, by MK Ofer Shelah from Yesh Atid, by MK Ayelet Shaked and Housing Minister Uri Ariel from Habayit Hayehudi, and by presidential candidate MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah). As always in such circumstances, the response of the Prime Minister’s Bureau was to attribute hidden motives to Sa’ar, which recall (excuse the cliché) the plots being played out in the American TV series “House of Cards,” or, alternatively, those featured in the classic British satirical series “Yes, Prime Minister.”

For example, individuals close to Netanyahu claimed that Sa’ar was scheming to bring about the election of his friend Rivlin, so that the latter, as president, would name him to form the next government. Netanyahu believes that Sa’ar may well contest their party leadership against him, defeat him and lead Likud in the next election; or perhaps, in a no-less-dramatic and sweeping scenario, President Rivlin will take advantage of his prerogative under the law and name Sa’ar to form the government even if he is not head of Likud.

Whether this subjective concern is justified or not, it can be said of Netanyahu, to paraphrase a well-known Talmudic phrase, that the plotter has himself been out-plotted. More seriously, the rift that was created this week between the prime minister and one of his senior ministers, who had also been, it can now be said, one of the closest and most loyal to him, is undoubtedly a benchmark in Likud internal politics.

Oracular options

“In those days,” a veteran MK says about Netanyahu in a take of his own on Judges 21:25, “there was a king in Israel, and he thought he could do whatever was right in his own eyes.”

The date for the presidential election, probably mid-June, will finally be decided next week by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who until now chose to bow his head, forgo the Knesset’s honor and collaborate with the king. The list of contestants is known: Benjamin Ben-Eliezer from Labor, former cabinet minister Dalia Itzik from Labor and Kadima, retired Justice Dalia Dorner from the Supreme Court, Prof. Dan Shechtman from the Nobel, and Rivlin, who was the subject of a ridiculous video clip this week, claiming he had bought MKs by means of trips abroad. The sexual harassment case against Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom was closed last week, and he hasn’t yet officially announced that he will not run.

On the assumption that this will remain the list, it remains to be seen how Netanyahu will behave. Maybe he will do what he did in the election for mayor of Jerusalem: sit on the fence and not back the Likud candidate, while working secretly on behalf of another candidate, as much as that can help.

It’s interesting, in this connection, to keep an eye on Haim Bibas, the successful mayor of Modi’in and the recently elected head of the Union of Local Authorities. A Likud man, Bibas is one of the politicians closest to Netanyahu, having served as his campaign chief in the last Likud primary for party leader. Bibas is also a relative of David Levy, the former foreign minister, whose name was also mentioned in connection with the presidency at the start of the race.

In fact, Bibas hasn’t yet completely dropped the Levy option. He is waiting for Shalom’s decision before resolving to make one last effort on behalf of the oracle from Beit She’an. If that doesn’t work out, Bibas will use his political skills to back Dalia Itzik. Anyone who thinks that a connection can be drawn between the preference of the mayor and the preference of the prime minister does so on his own responsibility.

Unconditional surrender

The six-month-long negotiations that Yair Lapid engaged in – personally and through his confidant, the mystery man, Israeli politics’ phantom of the opera, Hillel Kobrinsky – to get his friend, Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, appointed chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was a failure from beginning to end. It sprang from justified frustration at Yesh Atid’s humiliating under-representation in the realm of ministerial portfolios after the post-election coalition negotiations.

The effort to get Shelah appointed was based on the working assumption that, “Bibi will finally give in, as always,” and it ended with Lapid embarrassingly shooting himself in the foot when the latter gave up on his request for Shelah’s appointment and demanded in return, and received, a deputy minister’s slot – which in the end will not be filled.

For those who missed all the goings-on: It was agreed on Monday that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, as well as the House Committee, without which nothing gets done in the Knesset or in the coalition, will be chaired, in rotation, by two Likud MKs: the deputy foreign minister, Zeev Elkin, who will resign from that post, and the outgoing chairman of the coalition, Yariv Levin. Shelah was unceremoniously booted out of the picture. Netanyahu’s pal, Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, who had been the original candidate to head the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, will make do with a consolation prize: deputy foreign minister.

Lapid’s mistake was critical, and can be attributed to his famous superciliousness. He believed he would succeed in stuffing Shelah down Netanyahu’s throat. If he’d asked people who understand these things, they would have told him that the committee chairman works closely with the prime minister, that the MK who holds that job knows all the state’s secrets, and that relations of trust between the two are essential.

Lapid, though, thought differently. The turning point in the tussle with Netanyahu came a few weeks ago, when Elkin and Levin, both from Likud’s young and right-wing generation, forged a strategic alliance that was no less than brilliant (satanic and extortionist, sources in Likud say).

This came about when Levin announced that he was going to resign as coalition chair at the start of the Knesset’s summer session. The two knew that Netanyahu had no available replacement for him, and that now, at the start of the government’s second year in office, with the coalition starting to wobble, he would need an experienced and effective manager.

They went to Netanyahu together and placed a pistol on his desk. Appoint us as heads of the committee, Elkin and Levin told him, and we will arrange things between us. In return, they promised him that they would manage, in rotation, the coalition (something that Elkin had already done, very successfully, for four years, in the last Knesset) and the House Committee.

With the carrot came an implicit stick: If Netanyahu said no to the two, he would be opening a bitter front against two popular Likud MKs. Each of them has a large and obedient constituency of thousands of settlers and Russian speakers. Elkin is also the chairman of the Likud Bureau and can convene it at any time to pass resolutions which, though they lack practical clout, possess the potential to generate embarrassment.

Lapid’s obstinate refusal to back down eventually played into their hands. The closer the Knesset's summer session came, the more essential the two MKs became to Netanyahu. The prime minister surrendered to them unconditionally. What choice did he have? To insist on fulfilling his promise to his ally Hanegbi? That’s small potatoes. Hanegbi is neither inclined to nor capable of causing Netanyahu a tenth of the damage that the dynamic duo can. Elkin and Levin have now become the strongest and most influential MKs in the Nineteenth Knesset.

Thus was sealed the takeover by the rightist-settler establishment of all the political and security positions of power in the executive and the legislature: Elkin and Levin chairing the committee, Lieberman in the Foreign Ministry, Moshe Ya’alon in the Defense Ministry, and not to be impolite, we should also mention MK Danny Danon (Likud), Ya’alon’s deputy. There you have it: a recipe for moderation and pragmatism for the greater glory of the State of Israel.

Voice of truth

The mask of the unholy alliance between Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett has long since been torn off. The relations between the two senior members of the coalition are more than sour. The constituency of each party is wary and hostile, to put it mildly, about the lifestyle and behavior of the other party.

Yesh Atid’s voters – mostly secular, liberal and moderate – are deeply frustrated at the hybrid connection with a right-wing, religious, nationalist, extremist party. The members of Habayit Hayehudi, among them a hard core of veteran rabbis, have not forgiven Bennett for preferring to get into the coalition bed with Lapid & Co., who support legislation that aims to fight religious coercion, and for leaving the ultra-Orthodox parties out in the cold.

Of late, as the ties have unraveled, the bitterness has surged and the non-cooperation mounted. The growing discontent is seen blatantly in two arenas: the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, where each party is torpedoing the initiatives of the other, especially in regard to civil and human rights; and the Knesset Finance Committee, where Yesh Atid representatives find themselves taking the role of “the messiah’s donkey,” being the conduit for the transfer of vast sums of money to the settlements every week. (Incidentally, early this week, Lapid met with Hatnuah leader and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in a café in Ramat Aviv, and the two agreed to intensify their cooperation in civil legislation meant to foil the lost 'bro, Bennett.)

An authentic reaction to this turmoil was provided this week by Yesh Atid MK Adi Kol. On Tuesday evening she took part in a panel discussion marking Gay Pride Week at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, together with Labor MK Stav Shaffir and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg. Shaffir and Zandberg quarreled with Kol about the fate of the civil union bill, sponsored by Shaffir, which Yesh Atid torpedoed six months ago, in order to submit a similar bill sponsored by Kol, which has in the meantime been frozen.

Kol didn’t like what she heard. “Stav,” she said to Shaffir, “you are a member of the Finance Committee. You see how much money we have to transfer to the settlements so that Habayit Hayehudi will pass laws for us.”

“So what will be the price tag for the civil union law?” Shaffir demanded. Kol did not mention a figure, but noted that Habayit Hayehudi is a “money-squeezing machine.”

A student asked her a question. “I am gay,” he said, “and I want to marry my partner. Does that make me a person who is against peace?” Kol had no reply. (She claims that her remarks, as quoted here, courtesy of two people who were present, have been taken out of context.)

Two comments: 1. People in Habayit Hayehudi say that the chance they will allow Kol's bill to pass is a little less than zero. But the money for the isolated and non-isolated settlements will continue to flow with the force of a flash flood. 2. According to public opinion surveys, nothing freaks out Yesh Atid voters more than continued construction in the settlements under the auspices of their party. Those voters would do well to contemplate well the state of affairs described above.

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