Impatiently, but accustomed to the prime minister being late, a few cabinet ministers waited for Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a meeting of a ministerial committee on Sunday afternoon. They waited and waited, until Finance Minister Yair Lapid got up and said, “Okay, I have to go to the president.” Silence descended on the room. The color drained from the faces of the Likud ministers. Lapid going to the president sounded like Apocalypse Now. “It’s all right,” Lapid said reassuringly. “We’re meeting so I can present the budget to him.”
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It wasn’t by chance that the announcement by the head of Yesh Atid that he was leaving fell on attentive and anxious ears. The best-kept secret in the Prime Minister’s Bureau these days is the threat conveyed to the bureau by political figures connected with Lapid: “If you people don’t agree to the finance minister’s budget blueprint, there are 61 MKs who will agree to establish an alternative government in this Knesset.”
In other words, there’s no need for new elections if agreement can’t be reached on the budget. Netanyahu can be booted elegantly into the opposition without dissolving a Knesset not yet two years old that wants to stay alive. Who are the supposed 61? Yisrael Beiteinu, Hatnuah and Yesh Atid, all of which are in the coalition; and Labor, Meretz and Kadima, from the opposition. The prime minister, word has it, would be Yair Lapid, who now heads the largest party in the Knesset.
It works on paper. And in pipe dreams. But not in real life. For two reasons:
1. Lapid as prime minister? Is he capable? Is he qualified? In what fairy tale are the people promoting this scenario living? How can they even imagine it?
2. Meretz under Zahava Gal-On, with its six Knesset seats, will never be part of a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, not even if Gal-On is offered the foreign affairs portfolio and MK Ilan Gilon the Finance Ministry. Taking that step would annihilate the country’s only left-wing party, and for what? A year, tops, of a government that would be a Tower of Babel of political and social stances, an unnatural creature, an ugly political mutation whose end would be contained in its beginning.
All this isn’t stopping the prime minister himself from dealing with the conspiracy. This week he held several talks with senior figures on the right wing of the coalition. He told his interlocutors that he’s aware of what’s going on under his nose and behind his back. “They’re subverting me, they want to topple me from within, to topple a right-wing government and create a left-wing government that will sell everything,” Netanyahu said, more or less. He also spoke in the same spirit to outgoing Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnuah) during their farewell squabble in Sunday’s cabinet meeting, ahead of Peretz’s resignation from the government. Netanyahu’s remarks were not necessarily directed at Peretz, who was no longer of any interest to him. He was mostly addressing the ministers of Yisrael Beiteinu – Uzi Landau and Yair Shamir, for example.
Toward the end of the week, no solution loomed for the budget crisis. Treasury officials have stopped negotiating with the Knesset. They broke off talks. Lapid, who flew to New York, has dug in and is adamant: The draft budget has to be passed in its entirety, including the health reform of Yael German, the health minister (from Yesh Atid), including the zero-VAT plan for first-time home buyers (initiated by Lapid), and other issues. Apparently someone in Lapid’s milieu is whispering to him that Netanyahu always blinks at the last minute. The threat of the 61 deal is intended to speed up the blink.
At the same time, Lapid is determined, as far as it’s up to him, not to go to an early election. He needs another year of on-the-job experience. Tzipi Livni is also in no hurry, for her own reasons. That’s what MK Zeev Elkin (Likud), who is holding the talks on behalf of the prime minister and the Knesset, is counting on. Elkin is no blinker. If Lapid thinks he’s playing poker with Netanyahu, he’s mistaken; he’s playing chess with Elkin.
Coalition of the frustrated
Some will call it heartrending, others will say it was a delight, but it was certainly gripping to watch Netanyahu as the results of the Knesset vote on the “Israel Hayom bill” arrived on Wednesday afternoon. (The legislation would make it illegal to widely distribute a full-size newspaper, such as the freebie Israel Hayom, free of charge.) Netanyahu’s face fell and turned ashen, as though the Knesset had just voted to oust him. No less. He looked rightward and upward, at the electronic board, where the numbers glowed brilliantly: 43 in favor, 23 against. Boom!
His eyes wandered leftward, to the other, identical board – maybe salvation would come from there. Maybe that board would take pity on him and show a different result, less embarrassing and less frustrating. In vain. “Disgraceful,” he muttered. He looked hurt and stunned. At that moment he understood. The Arabs and the leftists and the rightists and members of the coalition, et al., hadn’t just voted against the propagandist pamphlet that speaks shamelessly from the prime minister’s throat and hounds his rivals with messianic fervor. Israel Hayom was only the tool. Netanyahu was the target.
All the resentment and disgust at Netanyahu felt by large swaths of the Knesset, and above all in the coalition he leads, were powerfully channeled into this vote. It was a revealing X-ray of the whole Knesset. Ministers Tzipi Livni from Hatnuah and Avigdor Lieberman from Yisrael Beiteinu, and MK Ofer Shelah, chairman of the Yesh Atid Knesset faction, were the operations officers, taking personal command of mustering the votes needed for the bill, which was sponsored by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor), who delivered his Gettysburg Address in the Knesset plenum. The joy was unbounded when the results became known. Yesh Atid gave its MKs “freedom of vote,” but Shelah wielded all his power – and he has power – to ensure that his party’s MKs showed up and voted in favor of the bill. More accurately, against Netanyahu. The only Yesh Atid MK who voted against was Pnina Tamano-Shata. Freedom of vote or not.
Lieberman was the chief of staff of the operation to humiliate Netanyahu. From the start of the Knesset’s winter session, Cabel didn’t make a move without getting Lieberman’s go-ahead. Two members of Habayit Hayehudi – the party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, and MK Ayelet Shaked – support the legislation but absented themselves from the vote: Their constituency demands in no uncertain terms that they not ally themselves with the left against a newspaper that’s considered right-wing.
There was another reason, too: relations between Bennett and Netanyahu have been much improved of late. Bennett was respectful of the prime minister. To take part in hazing Netanyahu and also to get on the wrong side of his electorate, and all this when it’s obvious that the bill will never become law anyway? Not necessary. The ultra-Orthodox didn’t show up, either. Neither the Ashkenazi nor the Sephardi ones. More evidence of the warming up of their relations with Netanyahu. They were signaling him: We are the loyalists, we are your natural partners in the next government.
Netanyahu perhaps didn’t anticipate such a lopsided result, but his experienced coalition chairman, Elkin, was able to say in the morning what the results of the vote would be: “Twenty and a bit versus forty and a bit,” was his estimate. It was the first time the coalition of the frustrated that has arisen against Netanyahu in his government was given parliamentary expression. They just enjoyed screwing him, pardon the language.
The vote signified the crossing of a barrier. It exposed Netanyahu as he is today – isolated and without political allies. No bros and no sis’s, poor guy. This is also the coalition that’s giving him sleepless nights when he thinks about whom it will recommend to the president to form the government after the next elections.
Netanyahu’s people in the Knesset, spearheaded by the two political foxes Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin – who manage the House Committee, and in fact the House itself – will be able to bury the bill. The Knesset regulations allow them to stick it into a drawer for at least half a year. And after that, there are more parliamentary tricks available to defer the next steps of the legislation. But have no fear: This Knesset will go home for good before the legislative deadline.
The great betrayal, the bitter disappointment, came not only from the other coalition parties. Netanyahu’s colleagues in Likud did not rush to the Knesset to save their leader’s honor and try to topple the bill. MK Danny Danon, who is going to run against Netanyahu for the Likud leadership, didn’t show up. MKs Miri Regev and Haim Katz found reasons to stay away. MK Tzachi Hanegbi, Netanyahu’s loyalist, arrived five minutes after the vote. It happens. After all, the next day he has to go back and function as Lieberman’s deputy in the Foreign Ministry, and no one in his right mind wants to mess with a boss like Lieberman. The new interior minister, Gilad Erdan, was abroad; he returned to Israel a few hours after the vote. How convenient.
And another threat lurks in the background: the revenge of the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the bitter foe of Israel Hayom. Likud MKs will soon be campaigning ahead of the party’s primaries. Ignoring the country’s biggest paper – which every Likud member reads – is liable to be disastrous for them. We needn’t envy them what they endured this week. On the one hand, loyalty to the leader, and to the party’s registered members, who are overwhelmingly against the law to restrict Israel Hayom; on the other hand, fear of being buried, not praised, by Yedioth Ahronoth.
Late Monday afternoon, MK Amir Peretz strode into the buzzing Knesset chamber. He made his way to the Labor benches, sat down next to MK Shelly Yacimovich and launched into a cordial conversation with her as though she weren’t his bitter rival. She, who toppled him as party leader after he paved the way for her to enter (similar to what he himself had done to Shimon Peres nine years earlier), and she whose party he bolted on the eve of the last election, to hook up with Livni’s Hatnuah, on the grounds that Yacimovich was liable to enter a Netanyahu government – which he himself then proceeded to do, with Livni.
“I wanted to thank her for her public support of my resignation from the government,” Peretz said this week. “After I saw her statement, I text-messaged her my thanks and she replied. In the Knesset, I felt the time had come to put an end to the personal animus, so I went to thank her personally.”
Peretz chose to make this gesture – which of course had nothing to do with politics, a field he knows nothing about – on camera. For everyone to see. That’s Peretz for you every time. A mischief-maker. Likes to rock the cradle. Make waves. Surprise us. Not 48 hours into his resignation and he’s already comfy-cozy in a chair of the main opposition party alongside its former leader, who still wields plenty of power in said party. Let the party head, MK Isaac Herzog, see; let Livni see; let Labor MKs see. They watched the show, stunned.
“Contrary to what you and others are writing, I have no political plans,” Peretz said this week. “I haven’t conducted negotiations with anyone. It’s possible that this move will lead to my not being in the next Knesset.” Maybe, but he’s doing all he can to make sure that won’t happen. People in the Labor Party say the timing of his resignation is connected to the deadline for registering with Labor – the end of December. He wants to devote himself to recruiting new members who will be loyal to him, they say.
Peretz dismisses the interpretations that his resignation had personal motivations and was calculated and well-timed, with the aim of softening his way back into Labor. “I am the least calculating politician there is,” he asserts emotionally. “When I left Labor after coming in third on its list of candidates, and joined Livni – was that calculated?” Peretz is tired of analysts attributing political motives to his actions. “When will you all understand that I have often sacrificed personal interests for national interests?” he laments.
Livni suggested that he absent himself from Sunday’s cabinet meeting after he lambasted Netanyahu the evening before on Channel 2 News and effectively doomed himself to dismissal. “I told her, ‘Of course I will come, and I will tell him what I think of him.’ I told the prime minister that a deep chasm separates us. That it had been very hard for me to join his government, but that I put myself to the test to prove to myself that I wasn’t rejecting him on a personal basis. There was a peace process in the first year, and I voted in favor of the budget then. Now there is no such process and he is becoming more extreme, so why should I stay in the government?”
I asked him if he’d been able to spend any “quality time” with Netanyahu during the past 18 months. “Of course,” he replied. “I sat with him quite a bit during the peace process. There was talk that he would carry out a political ‘big bang,’ leave Likud and make progress with Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]. I told him that was the most important thing he could do, that otherwise, the only thing the public would remember about him is that he was prime minister for many years.”
Did Peretz believe him at the time? “Yes,” he admits, “I believed he was serious. I also received reports from Tzipi Livni, who conducted the negotiations.”
Peretz and Netanyahu clashed in this week’s cabinet meeting, ostensibly over the peace process, but in reality it was personal and rancorous.
“I said to him,” explained Peretz, “‘What kind of kids’ games are you playing? Will I resign or will you fire me first? Are you a child? Am I your age?’ I found it embarrassing that a prime minister was planning with his advisers how to fire me before I resigned.”
He wasn’t exactly sorry to see you go, this writer suggested. He told you, “It’s good you decided that your place is not in this government.”
“That too was childish of him,” Peretz said angrily. “What would it have cost him to stand up and say, ‘Thank you for all you did’?”