No Succor in the Sukkah for Netanyahu

After the holidays and after the deluge, a party like no other lies in store for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Likud.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Former Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Oren Nachshon
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

With no drama, battles or crises, and after less than eight hours of debate (including breaks), the state budget for 2015 was approved on Tuesday night. What had seemed at the end of summer – post-Operation Protective Edge – like an existential threat to the country, an impassable hurdle, became a semi-ordinary news item on the eve of the holiday, with the arrival of autumn.

Financial commentators said this budget contained no new tidings, no growth engines, no daring – as if it were hoping to avoid trouble, pushing it off instead to 2016, when we all will pay the price, with compound interest. If we ask the government ministers, that’s the reason for the relative ease with which the budget was approved. If we ask the people close to Finance Minister Yair Lapid, they will say that over this year their Yair grew up, grew wise and professional, and learned what politics was. He and his department heads put the agreements and understandings together in advance, over the past few weeks, in a densely packed schedule of meetings with ministers and party leaders.

Nothing was left to do in Tuesday night’s meeting but apply the finishing touches and reach final compromises. For example, at 10 P.M. Yisrael Beiteinu head and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was smiling as he left the room where he had been closeted with Finance Ministry officials, said that all was well, left a slip of paper with his vote in favor the budget, and went home. Other ministers also got what they wanted, left similar voting slips behind, and hurried out.

Besides Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, only five ministers were left at the vote itself, after 1 A.M. Other ministers who were present said Lapid looked relaxed and calm. Here’s some pop psychology for you: He knows this is the last budget he will be passing. He will not be going back to this job. After him, the deluge.

True, there was the small argument put up by the sole opponent, Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnuah), who, according to accounts, gave a long and heartfelt speech during which he quarrelled with Netanyahu several times. “Where is the collective responsibility?” the prime minister asked him reproachfully. “I will act exactly as your security cabinet ministers did during the war,” Peretz answered.

“Do you know what the key to economic growth is? Competition,” Netanyahu said, drawing out the last word in a scolding manner. “Do you know what the key to economic growth is? A peace agreement,” Peretz answered, similarly drawing out the phrase.

“I’m not keeping anyone here against his will,” Netanyahu said, adding, “The highest economic growth took place during the years when I was prime minister” (meaning: peace process – shmeace process).

Netanyahu minimized the importance of budget cutbacks in the ministries. “What is that compared to the budget cut we did in 2003 [when he was appointed finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s second government], when we cut 27 billion shekels [$7.3 billion] out of the budget?”

“And we went down by 20 Knesset seats in the election,” Minister Gilad Erdan responded. “Twenty-eight seats,” outgoing minister Gideon Sa’ar interjected, correcting him. “We could construct an equation of one seat per billion shekels.”

Bank of Israel Governor Dr. Karnit Flug stuck the obligatory pin in the balloon by saying what everyone knew: That the emperor’s new clothes were made of nothing at all, that the emperor was naked. The Finance Ministry’s forecasts were too optimistic, she said, and next year we would not be sitting on the porch counting migrating birds, as the popular song says. Instead, we would be sitting at our local bank branch, counting the money we did not have.

The prime minister agreed with Dr. Flug. In private conversations he’d held recently, he gave two interesting assessments. The first was that the next general election would be moved up to late 2015 or early 2016, in light of the anticipated difficulties in the 2016 state budget. “The Knesset will return from its summer recess early next October and disband itself,” he told his interlocutors.

His second assessment concerned Moshe Kahlon, the former minister from his own Likud party who is preparing to establish a new social-justice party that threatens to shred the political map. “I have no problem with him running for office,” Netanyahu said. “He will hurt mainly the center-left parties. He will take hardly any seats from Likud, and when I form the next government, he will join it.”

Communications Minister Gilad Erdan.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

For Netanyahu, the bottom line is that, against all expectations and prevailing predictions, the Kahlon phenomenon could actually help him form his fourth government. This is an original interpretation that can be neither confirmed nor denied.

For whom the cellphone tolls

When anyone dials the number of Communications Minister Gilad Erdan (the interior minister-in-waiting), he hears an excerpt from the song “I Am Here” – sung by Yehoram Gaon – in place of the sound of the phone ringing. Some attribute political-personal significance to the song, meaning that Erdan has decided to stay outside, receive the influential Interior Ministry portfolio from Gideon Sa’ar and give up his dream to represent Israel in the United Nations – the world’s most prestigious arena for disputes, which is appropriate for such a contentious personage as Erdan.

Erdan denies it. He tells anyone who asks his plans that he is still undecided. It’s hard to find any serious players in the political establishment who believe the Erdans, with their children, will be sitting on their suitcases this coming winter, on their way to glorious Manhattan. But Erdan maintains his stance: he will decide only after Sukkot. Incidentally, one trip that has already been put off is that of his wife, Shlomit, who was supposed to fly to Manhattan to look at schools. We can possibly learn something from this postponement, too.

We can assume that Erdan is enjoying being sought after. That is only human, after all. We can also assume he is in no hurry to decide, or to announce his decision to the world if he has already made it. This is because the minister and Netanyahu are in a kind of negotiation process over the conditions for his staying here (as the song noted above says). Maybe Erdan insists on keeping the important public-broadcasting reform – his “baby” during the current term – in his own hands. We can also assume that, deep down, Erdan – who is no stranger to cynicism – is getting pleasure out of seeing the prime minister waiting on him obsequiously, investing inexhaustible quality time in him, and even exalting him in media interviews to keep him in the country and the cabinet.

Netanyahu’s sudden recognition of Erdan’s special abilities and value did not arise from the fact that Erdan has been a close, loyal and protective associate of his for the past 18 years, ever since he was the chairman of Likud Youth. What made Netanyahu see the light was the deep political trouble he got into after Sa’ar announced his resignation.

Sa’ar’s exit from political life – about a year and a half after Kahlon’s departure from Likud – full as it was of sound and fury, brought Netanyahu back to the sad days just before the 1999 elections, when he was abandoned one after the other by those who had been the stars of his party: Yitzhak Mordechai, Benny Begin and Dan Meridor. Everyone remembers how that ended.

This fear of abandonment has returned, borne out of concern that Erdan will carry out his already hatched plan to take a three-year break in New York, making him the third of the young and promising ministers to jump ship from Likud – thus leaving it, to an extent, impoverished. Netanyahu is trying to stop that from happening at almost any price, and Erdan, like a seasoned politician, is taking his time.

As stated earlier, the prevailing belief about Erdan is he will take the Interior Ministry over the stint in New York. Another comment about the Interior Ministry portfolio: On the eve of the Sukkot holiday, Sa’ar announced that he was saving the final decision on allowing shops in Tel Aviv to open on Shabbat for his successor, so as not to seem like he was pulling a fast one at the last moment.

The issue is a hot potato. If Erdan leaves the original decision in place and goes with closing the shops on Shabbat (even partially, according to the up-to-date plan submitted by the Tel Aviv municipality), he will run into conflict with the vast majority of the Tel Aviv public and become a target for criticism and resentment. But it will not be easy for him to turn the clock back, either, because he is a traditional person at heart, one who often uses the expression “with God’s help.” Erdan might not oppose Sa’ar’s pulling a fast one in this case.

Party poopers

The day after Sa’ar leaves, Netanyahu will have to do what he hates most: Decide which member of his faction to bring into the government as communications minister, or maybe not. As Reuven Rivlin used to say during the summer session, the Likud faction is made up of 19 senior members and one junior one: himself. Now that Rivlin has been elected president, the total number of faction members has gone down to 19, and will be 18 in early November. Seven are ministers, including the prime minister, and one is the Knesset speaker (Yuli Edelstein). This leaves us with 10 Knesset members, most of whom – almost without exception and with no feelings of inferiority – see themselves as worthy candidates for promotion.

Gila (“I have a promise from ‘Bibi’”) Gamliel sees herself as one. So does Yariv Levin, who also has a promise in his pocket. Some say that Tzachi Hanegbi and Ofir Akunis have been promised this promotion, too. And let us not forget Haim Katz, who got a promise on the eve of the election. And, of course, Zeev Elkin, who, like Levin, was an excellent coalition chairman. Tzipi Hotovely has expectations too. Promises are Likud’s most popular commodity, it would seem.

Only Danny Danon – who was let go from the Defense Ministry at the start of Operation Protective Edge – and Moshe Feiglin, the Knesset’s lone rebel, are not holding their breath, waiting for Netanyahu to call.

The real party in Likud will start right after the appointment is made. Netanyahu will be left with a shrunken faction he will have to deal with on a day-to-day basis during the long, pothole-strewn winter session. There will be seven or eight ordinary Knesset members, each harboring feelings of bitterness, anger, frustration and revenge to infinity, together with the reckless Danon and Feiglin, who are already harboring such feelings.

Katz and Regev are inclined to be contrarian, according to the issue. If Netanyahu should appoint Levin or Elkin – his twin and ally – he will find himself in a world war with Gamliel, Likud’s coordinator on the Knesset Finance Committee, and will have a hard time when it comes to critical votes on the budget. However, should he appoint Gamliel, the gates of hell will open for him with Elkin and Levin, who rotate as chairmen of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the coalition; and also with Hotovely and Regev, who were chosen before Gamliel for the spot on the party’s list reserved for women. If he should promote Akunis or Hanegbi, all the others will rise up against him. And so on and so forth. Quite a tangle.

Eighteen Knesset members in the ruling party is no picnic. Whenever Netanyahu attends faction meetings – a forum he detests and that he has hardly bothered to convene since mid-June, when the three yeshiva students were kidnapped in the West Bank and the Gaza conflict began – he looks around and sees Danon and Regev, Feiglin and Gamliel. He asks himself what on earth he is doing there and who all these people are, whom he has no idea to deal with. Despite everything, he will soon find himself missing Sa’ar, Rivlin and Kahlon.

Once Netanyahu had six Knesset members from Yisrael Beiteinu at his beck and call, who attended committee votes like loyal soldiers. Now, after the split, they are free agents who need no favors. Once he had Rivlin, who was faithful to the official codes, on the Knesset Finance Committee; Rivlin could be counted upon as a safe and loyal vote to serve the coalition and Likud. Once Rivlin was elected president, a representative of Yisrael Beiteinu took his place. As ironic as it sounds, Netanyahu would have preferred that Sa’ar remain as long as possible, so as not to find himself in that situation. As long as nobody is appointed, everyone is obedient, everyone is nice, everyone is a good little pupil. Once the appointment is made, Heaven help us.

Future tense

As everybody knows, the working relationship between new president Rivlin and longtime prime minister Netanyahu is a decent one. They meet and speak together regularly. Most of the time, Netanyahu is the initiator: consulting, updating and sharing often. The day is approaching when his political future will depend on the president’s decision over who will receive the mandate to form the 34th government. Even if it’s not certain that it will help, it will not hurt to iron out matters with Rivlin, with whom Netanyahu used to be good friends until their relationship hit a snag.

Last Monday, Netanyahu and Rivlin ate dinner together at the president’s official residence in Jerusalem. Taking the opportunity, Rivlin proposed once again that Netanyahu appoint MK Ofer Shelah (the chairman of Yesh Atid) as a minister in the Defense Ministry. Rivlin believes that the position of deputy minister, which was offered to Shelah in the past, is too small for him. During their 18 months of working together in the Knesset, he got to know Shelah closely and was impressed by his dedication, understanding and expertise in matters of national security. He believes that bringing Shelah into the decision-making apparatus within the ministry and government will benefit the country and, indirectly, the government’s stability.

Why? Because Shelah is the person closest to Yair Lapid. That’s a fact. He doesn’t hide his opinion that, contrary to its name, Yesh Atid has no future, and there is no present in a government that doesn’t move forward with the peace process (Yesh Atid means “There is a future” in Hebrew). That’s another fact. And here’s yet another: Since Netanyahu vetoed his appointment as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee – perhaps due to his being overly left-wing, or because of his previous job as copresenter on Channel Ten’s investigative news program “Hamakor,” or both – their relationship is far from smooth. When these facts are taken one by one, one could certainly get the impression that Shelah, in his current political state, is like an IED at the side of the road upon which Netanyahu’s government is lurching toward in its final year.

Rivlin has been trying to promote this idea since he was elected president. It is probably an expression of gratitude toward Shelah for the vital assistance he gave him during the presidential campaign. Some will certainly say the president must stay out of the political mire. What has he to do with preserving the coalition’s stability? The ones who say so will be the very same ones who loved and cherished the tireless interference of the ninth president, Shimon Peres, in the political swamp. One can take the presidents out of politics, but one can never take politics out of them.

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