Netanyahu Has Had Enough. So Have His Ministers.

The tailwind Netanyahu enjoyed from the majority in the political establishment during the past few weeks had turned into a hurricane of catcalls.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It was precisely on the day that was supposed to provide Israel with a kind of “victory photograph” – displaying the body of Mohammed Deif, the arch-terrorist who is responsible for the murder of hundreds of Israelis, being taken to its final resting place – that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to hold a press conference that exposed the cracks at the top of the country’s leadership.

The rather unusual media event, which took place on Wednesday while hostilities raged, and in which the prime minister settled accounts with the ministers in the security cabinet who are riding roughshod over him, had the effect of playing up the weakness and flaws of the accuser himself. Mr. Terror Fighter has been conducting negotiations with Hamas under fire. There has been no deterrence, no definitive resolution and no arrangement. The tailwind Netanyahu enjoyed from the majority in the political establishment during the past few weeks had turned into a hurricane of catcalls.

What’s transpiring in our security cabinet is a splendid farce. Imagine if members of the political leadership of Hamas were to appear in a different television studio every evening, alongside commentators and local reporters, and elaborate on their plans and ideas and insights for waging war against Israel – whether to go for some sort of accord, victory or quiet in return for quiet. We would probably think they were a bunch of senseless, irresponsible clowns, lacking even minimal discipline, and that someone at the top had lost control over his subordinates.

Here’s an abridged version of the events of the past week. Security cabinet member Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, stated that carrying on negotiations with Hamas in Cairo was a mistake: “We need to go on deterring the Palestinians,” she averred. Another member of the cabinet, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, used his Facebook page to lash out at the policy being dictated by the prime minister: “If we are talking seriously about the security of Israel’s inhabitants, we need to understand that there is no other possibility than a determined Israeli move with one aim – to vanquish Hamas.”

In the midst of the Cairo talks, yet another cabinet member, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, called for an “immediate halt” to negotiations in the Egyptian capital, in favor of adoption of the approach he is promoting, which he calls “unilateral enforcement.” Under this scheme, Israel will be very generous on the humanitarian side, and at the same time will batter Hamas relentlessly, using the “lawnmower” method, as he put it.

In reaction, Lieberman mockingly said Bennett is “a minister who suffers from amnesia.” And Bennett, after being scolded by Netanyahu in the security cabinet meeting on Wednesday of last week, and afterward in a press conference, issued a terse statement to the media: “One does not conduct negotiations with a terrorist organization. Period. My opinion on this will not change.”

No wonder, then, that Netanyahu has had enough. And the others, by the way, have had enough of him, too. During Operation Protective Edge, he convened the security cabinet 27 times, he said at the press conference this week. (The figure is courtesy of the PM; we didn’t check it.) If he thought that would satisfy the ministers, he was wrong. They are looking toward an election, or elsewhere. Respect for the prime minister, a cornerstone of every governmental culture, has vanished.

The premier’s relations with his coalition partners (particularly Bennett and Lieberman – things with Livni are by and large good) have thus hit a new low, just when unity, cohesion and uniformity of message are needed among the leadership. As soon as the military confrontation ends, the main field of battle will shift to the political arena. There, too, a definitive decision will have to be made: either to dismantle the existing “package” and enter an election campaign, or to arrive at an arrangement that involves passing the 2015 budget and being prepared to spend another year together, however unfortunate that might be.

At the moment, it’s hard to see the second option being realized. And not only because of the soured relations at the top. Also because of the issues that are now on the agenda: Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s zero-VAT plan for first-time home purchasers loses a little more support every time it moves forward, or stands still, or ascends, or descends during the legislation process.

Above all, though, the budget now looks like a huge hurdle beneath which a tunnel has been dug and filled with explosives. Quite a few Likud ears pricked up at Netanyahu’s remark in the press conference Wednesday that he is looking toward “a new diplomatic horizon” after the Israeli Defense Forces operation ends. Is he planning to do an Ariel Sharon, they wondered, and leave his political home? Perhaps bolt the right-wing camp altogether?

By the way, Netanyahu has obtained surprising and totally unexpected support from his greatest political rival, the man whom the prime minister tried to prevent, by all means fair and foul, from moving into the President’s Residence.

A week ago, Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin held a two-hour talk. Two days ago, in private conversations, Rivlin expressed an “understanding” for the impossible situation in which Netanyahu finds himself vis-a-vis the security cabinet. Rivlin, who meets regularly with senior political and military figures, is hearing from them that they do not have an easy time, to put it mildly, when presenting the security cabinet with alternatives or sharing their thoughts and considerations, because what they say ends up in the media. In the private conversations, Rivlin said it’s hard to blame Netanyahu for developing a fondness for small-scale dialogues, meaning with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Benny Ganz. The president said he remembered times when security cabinet members did not share their notes from the closed room with the press, and termed the public discourse that’s underway here “confused and breached.”

Which proves once more that politics is the art of the possible. Rivlin doesn’t owe Netanyahu a thing. If anything, he should be making the prime minister’s life miserable. He could have said nothing. But as this column noted more than once during the presidential election campaign, Rivlin is the epitome of mamlakhtiyut (statesman-like behavior). He was raised that way in his father’s house.

Hide and seek

Even the most cynical and jaded ministers who were at the security cabinet meeting a week ago Thursday came out shaken. “It was simply revolting,” one minister told his aide. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” a second minister told his adviser. A third minister used the Arab word jifa, referring to the corpse of an animal, to describe the dynamics in the conference room.

For four days – an eternity! – the secret about that meeting was kept, until Tuesday when Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz, revealed the scandal behind the embarrassment (or vice versa): Netanyahu did not see fit to report to the ministers about a document the Egyptians had conveyed to the Israeli and Palestinian delegations in Cairo. They would have remained ignorant, to their detriment, if Lieberman hadn’t surprised everyone by declaring that he was in possession of a copy of the document. He pounded a stack of papers on the table in front of him and wondered aloud why the members of the forum weren’t allowed to see what the gentlemen from Hamas and Islamic Jihad had already seen two days earlier.

Lieberman may not be any great shakes as a diplomat, but he does have his sources. “I’m not sure he actually had the document,” a member of the forum said this week, “but he definitely knew something.”

Aghast, the ministers demanded to see the document, immediately. Netanyahu was deeply embarrassed. Lapid, who sits next to Lieberman, suggested that the latter put the prime minister out of his misery and show the copy to his colleagues. But Lieberman, for reasons of his own, declined. Netanyahu defended himself by saying that it was only a draft like many others and that Israel, meaning he himself, had not agreed to it.

“As a former columnist and author,” Lapid went on, needling the prime minister, “I can tell you what’s done with a draft: You draw a little asterisk on the top of the page and write ‘Draft.’” Other ministers chimed in, until Netanyahu fled, claiming that mayors from the south of the country were waiting for him for a short meeting. He never came back. The ministers dispersed, without getting satisfaction. “I just pitied him,” said one minister, who is not necessarily known as a sentimentalist.

More digging turned up more details. The day before the fateful cabinet meeting, Ya’alon, Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and senior army personnel met in Netanyahu’s office to discuss the document. An informed source described it as “appalling.” The paper barely took Israel’s demands into consideration, he said. For example, the word “demilitarization” was not mentioned once, although Israel was called upon to agree to the building of a port in Gaza. According to the source, Netanyahu was concerned that if the security cabinet ministers saw the paper, they would vent their wrath to the media in no uncertain terms, thereby possibly triggering a crisis with Egypt and offending its president. A quarrel with Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi is the last thing Netanyahu needs now.

In his mind’s eye, Netanyahu probably saw the document that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had previously drawn up in Qatar and Turkey. The prime minister had shown it to the ministers, who more or less threw up on it, but in order to avoid a serious diplomatic rift with Washington, it was decided not to make a decision about it. Netanyahu asked the ministers not to speak out against Kerry, but even as some of them made their way home in their cars, the leaks and the quotes and the badmouthing of the secretary of state and the U.S. president filled the airwaves and flooded the social networks. The rest is another layer in the grievous and bitter history of the relations between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

One security cabinet minister claimed this week that the source of all these ills lies in the composition of the delegation to Cairo: Shin Bet security service chief Yoram Cohen; head of the Defense Ministry’s political-security department, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad; chief of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, Maj. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer; and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. They are sometimes joined by Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s lawyer and a veteran negotiator with the Palestinians. There isn’t one diplomat in the group.

“Since when are army officers allowed to conduct negotiations that are partly diplomatic and not exclusively military?” this minister said angrily, and rightly so. “The defense establishment treats this confrontation as a tactical clash: They killed 64 of our boys, we killed 1,000 of theirs. They hit a few dozen of our buildings, we destroyed 2,000 of theirs, demolished tunnels, knocked out rocket launchers, flattened a neighborhood or two, took prisoners, pushed parts of Gaza decades back. In other words, militarily we won. Hamas really was hit badly. But that’s a narrow view of the diplomatic and regional picture.”

Diplomatic approach

Last week, I wrote that Labor Party head MK Isaac Herzog and Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On accorded Netanyahu unusual backing throughout most of the fighting. That comment was something of a generalization that did an injustice to Gal-On. She has since explained the views she had expressed since the start of the operation. It’s true she often praised Netanyahu, but only for the restraint he showed by not yielding to those on the right who urged him to conquer Gaza and take control in order to eradicate, topple and destroy it. In Facebook posts and in many media interviews, Gal-On consistently supported an immediate cease-fire, even on a unilateral basis. Since the outset, she has been of the opinion that Hamas cannot be dealt with by military force, but only diplomatically.

Space odyssey

On Wednesday evening, the annual ceremony was held for Golani Brigade soldiers who have fallen in combat. The infantry brigade took quite a few casualties in the current operation. Naturally, the guest of honor at the event, which took place at Golani Junction in northern Israel, was supposed to be Defense Minister Ya’alon. But Ya’alon was occupied with security matters at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, together with the prime minister. He asked another cabinet minister to fill in for him.

Whom did he ask? Not Foreign Minister Lieberman or Finance Minister Lapid, who share the same level of ministerial seniority he does. Nor any of the Likud ministers, either from the security cabinet or the regular, full cabinet. Ya’alon chose to grant the honor – and it’s definitely considered an honor – to Justice Minister Livni, the leader of Hatnuah. Immediately after the security cabinet meeting, Livni boarded the defense minister’s helicopter and, together with the deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, flew north. She also spoke at the event, as a representative of the government.

Sometimes the simplest gestures tell the whole story. Before Operation Protective Edge, Livni and Ya’alon were full-fledged political rivals, over the issue of the talks with the Palestinians. He’s ideological right; she’s left. They found it hard to see any common ground. But during these 46 days they have developed an excellent rapport, where the agreements far outweigh the disagreements. So much so that there are some who envisage a new political party headed by Netanyahu with the participation of Livni and Ya’alon – an idea that would have been considered heretical, something out of science fiction, at the beginning of this summer.

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