Analysis |

Scuffle Over Nation-state Bill Shows Netanyahu's Spoiling for Elections

On Sunday, the depth of the loathing in the coalition was exposed, but the Haredi parties weren't willing to commit to helping the PM extricate himself.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Daily Cartoon. Illustration by Amos Biderman
Daily Cartoon. Illustration by Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

If we can judge by the scuffle in Sunday's cabinet meeting – an altercation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hoping for – then he has already decided to call an early election. You don’t stick your finger in the eye of your coalition partners, in the form of promoting an extremist and anti-democratic bill, which is fanning flames, contention and strife among an already embroiled public – if you are truly interested in continuing a partnership. You don’t push your partners into a corner if you are searching for agreement. Especially when the obvious compromise – a vote on a more moderate wording of the so-called nation-state bill proposed by MK Ze’ev Elkin and his colleagues – was within reach.

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, if he is really sick and tired of his coalition, it is better to dismantle the entire deal over a patriotic-nationalistic issue, whose redeeming value is unknown to everybody but somehow sounds good.

The prime minister doesn’t have any better excuses for putting an end to all this: not this summer's Operation Protective Edge, which ended with a bitter taste in everyone's mouth; not the recent deterioration of the security situation in Jerusalem; not the frozen peace negotiations or despair spreading throughout the region; and certainly not issues related to the economy and society.

Pity the economy, pity Israeli society. To a certain extent Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni played right into Netanyahu’s hands on Sunday. This is exactly the “positioning” he was looking for in his battle, along with Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi, over the votes of the right wing. But if we are to judge by our acquaintance with the prime minister, he is not a gambler or someone who is happy to cut short his term in office.

Sunday evening there were reports of attempts to postpone the critical vote on the controversial legislation that could well determine the fate of the government on Wednesday in the Knesset. The timing is less important. Whether the blowup happens this week, or is put off to another time, it has become clear to everyone that the third Netanyahu government is the political version of what Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz once called something else: “a decaying carcass left in the room.”

Every minute the government remains in place, after Sunday’s performance of swearing and shouting, does no good either to it or to the public, which deserves something better and saner.

One cabinet minister described what happened in the cabinet meeting as an “eruption of pus that flooded the room after someone pushed hard on the sore.”

The mutual loathing between Netanyahu and the ministers from Hatnuah and Yesh Atid who challenged him so powerfully (although they too, like Netanyahu, were yelling but also speaking to their own voters) was incredible. He said about Livni that she is “weak”; she claimed he is “destroying the country.” Lapid was of the opinion that the act of proposing the law was done only for electoral purposes.

On the long mahogany table lay an elephant in all its glory, in the form of the Israel Hayom law (legislation that would make it illegal to distribute a full-size newspaper such as that one free of charge), which passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset two weeks ago thanks to votes from Hatnuah, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu MKs.

Netanyahu did not even bother to hide the Schadenfreude he felt when he had the chance to "return the favor" to Lapid and Livni for the humiliation they subjected him to in that vote. He has already forgiven Lieberman, however. After all, the premier will need him after the next election when he wants to create a government with his natural partners: the right and the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim.

Meanwhile, over the past few days Netanyahu has on various occasions sent senior Likud people to the heads of the Haredi parties, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, with the following message: He will disband the government immediately, so the state budget and the zero-VAT law for inexpensive new housing do not pass; moreover, the hated enemy of the Haredim, Lapid, will be forced to confront the voters and suffer their sting at the ballot box.

The Haredim listened but said they would not make any commitments. Not in advance, and not in public. They will wait for the results, for the moment of truth. They've sweated quite a bit because of Netanyahu, they will let him sweat a bit too.

In the meantime, those who are now sweating are the lovely couple Tzipi and Yair. Together and separately, they are scared to death of elections and will do everything possible to delay the inevitable. Netanyahu will be the only one who decides whether to continue to hang together, or go for a divorce.

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