Fearing Elections, Netanyahu Returns to His Roots: The Hard Right

In periods of distress, the PM always returns to his 'base.' He's looking for a flag to hoist in the next election, and there can be only one: Me and them – I’m here, they're there.

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

On Wednesday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the rostrum in the Knesset and delivered his first speech of the looming election campaign – waxing nostalgic about his nine years in office and the foreign-currency reform he introduced 18 years ago – Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid sat at the government table and exchanged jocularities. They joked and chortled and guffawed nonstop, like two flirtatious high-school kids.

Throughout Netanyahu’s whole speech, they didn’t give him so much as a glance. When they ran out of jokes, they immersed themselves in their paperwork. They did so defiantly, for everyone to see. For them, the speaker is passé.

Their behavior did not escape the speaker. Every so often he gave them a quick look. Not because he has any problem wishing them a fond farewell. On the contrary: If only they would just get out of his sight. He is looking toward a coalition of “natural partners” next time. But ever since he discovered that the two were supposedly plotting behind his back to form an alternative government in the present Knesset, and since their factions backed the “Israel Hayom bill” (which would outlaw free, mass-circulation dailies) – Netanyahu is simply no longer capable of bearing their presence under his roof.

That he’s under pressure is obvious, as opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) noted in his speech immediately after Netanyahu, in which he savaged the prime minister. Netanyahu, aiming his remarks at the “left-wing benches,” used the phrase “No evacuation – no celebration” (a sarcastic reference to the evacuation of settlements) more than 10 times, evoking the old “Bibi” from the sweaty days of the 1999 election campaign.

The tone, the blustering, the grumbling were so 1998-99. The underlying essence was transparent, aimed at his political base: I’m right, they’re left. In periods of distress, Netanyahu always returns to his “base,” his roots. That’s the reason for the “Jewish nation-state” legislation. Next week there will be a bill to strip the rights of the families of individuals involved in terrorism. And there will be more laws redolent of racism, exclusionism, separatism, for the greater glory of the State of Israel. Netanyahu is looking for a flag to hoist in the next election, and there can be only one: Me and them – I’m here, they’re there.

His attitude toward Israel’s Arab citizens, as reflected in the extreme version of the Jewish nation-state bill – the version sponsored by MK Zeev Elkin (Likud), which Netanyahu insisted on getting approved by the cabinet this week – is nothing short of scandalous. It’s precisely a right-wing prime minister who can, and must, act as a moderating, balancing element in majority-minority relations, especially with the situation so volatile. But that’s not our Bibi. With the image of the polling booths looming, he doesn’t see straight. It won’t be long before we’ll be thinking that Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel (both Habayit Hayehudi) are doves in comparison to Netanyahu.

It’s not certain there is a king in Israel in these times, but there is certainly a president in Jerusalem. A true devotee of Herut (precursor of Likud), for whom the terms democracy, liberalism, human and civil rights, and equality for all – without ifs or buts – are not empty words. President Reuven Rivlin restored Israel’s lost honor when he declared that the nation-state bill casts doubt on the Zionist project and on the Declaration of Independence, and that it will not strengthen the state’s Jewish character but weaken it.

Similar thoughts were expressed this week by Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, who were dumped from Likud’s list of candidates for the present Knesset, and by former Likud minister Moshe Arens in a Haaretz op-ed. They reminded us that there was once a different right wing here, one that will never return.

No one really understands what the story is with the nation-state bill. Other than the minorities, that is: They understand it only too well. The Druze, for example.

This week, MK Danny Danon, who is running for the Likud leadership, paid a condolence visit to the family of the policeman Zidan Nahad Seif, who was killed when he charged at the terrorists in the November 18 Jerusalem synagogue attack. “Why are you turning us into second-class citizens?” the mourners asked, amid their grief. “You always say there is a covenant of blood between us. Is this what you call a covenant of blood?”

The PM who roared

The opening shot of the 1959 film “The Mouse that Roared,” starring Peter Sellers, shows a small mouse in a celluloid frame, like the famous MGM lion. The mouse lets out a tremendous roar, frightening Columbia’s Torch Lady.

Netanyahu’s behavior in the nation-state affair reminded someone – a well-known film buff – of that scene. On Sunday, the prime minister returned to his office after the weekend in a pugnacious mood. Ministers are familiar with the phenomenon of the beginning-of-the-week bellicose prime minister, set to flay his rivals, real or imagined.

But as the week wears on, the bellicosity fades. By midweek, he’s already in a mellow, compromise-ready frame of mind. The ministers attribute this mood swing to the environment in which Netanyahu spends his weekends. Something there, someone there, turns him on, heats him up.

In last Sunday’s cabinet meeting, he did not heed the ministers from his party, including Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, who urged him to reject Elkin’s extreme version of the nation-state bill, and to present instead the far more moderate wording he prepared. A huge furor erupted between Netanyahu and Livni, Lapid and other ministers from Yesh Atid – it almost looked as though the government was falling apart.

Less than 24 hours later, someone was apparently frightened by the roar that issued from his own throat. Netanyahu agreed to postpone the Knesset vote on the bill, which had been set for Wednesday and would have brought about the end of the coalition, since Yesh Atid and Hatnuah would have been compelled to vote against the government’s decision. Later on, he announced that he would indeed submit his version of the law to the Knesset, not Elkin’s. That wording is thought to be acceptable to Livni and Lapid.

Why, then, was Netanyahu spoiling for a fight in the cabinet meeting? Because he’s had it with the people there. Because he wants to show them who’s boss. Because he’s in election mode, even if he’s not wild about the idea, and is certain that the others will emerge from the balloting in far worse shape than he will. So the polls suggest.

The delay in the election also serves another Netanyahu interest: He is waiting for an answer from the ultra-Orthodox parties. He’s not asking them to undertake publicly that they will recommend to the president that he form the government after the next election. That would create electoral havoc. What he really wants from Shas leader Aryeh Deri and United Torah Judaism heads Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni is a promise that they won’t lend a hand to the formation of an alternative, Herzog-led government in the current Knesset, which would thrust him and Likud into the opposition.

A coalition that would unite Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox is highly improbable. But on paper it’s a possibility. Netanyahu doesn’t rely on probabilities. For him, everything is certain, immediate and threatening. Even if there’s only a fraction of a chance that this scenario will materialize – he will do all he can to scuttle it. He’s been prime minister nine years, partly thanks to the paranoia and the horror scenarios that are always being hatched around him and in his home.

In return, he’s promising the ultra-Orthodox the quick dismantling of the government and a spring election, without passing Lapid’s budget and the zero-VAT, first-time home buyers’ bill (which favors those who served in the army). He still hasn’t received a final, collective answer from the parties, each of which has its own rabbis. They are in no rush.

In the meantime, a senior figure in UTJ has put the following demand to the Prime Minister’s Office: If Netanyahu wants our commitment not to back an alternative government, he has to commit to restore the pre-March 2013 situation, the status quo antebellum. In other words, to revoke Lapid’s army draft law, undo the cuts in child allowances, cancel the reductions in the transfer payments to yeshivas and Torah students. In short, to ensure that the next coalition agreement will eradicate all trace of the existence of Yesh Atid from the present coalition.

So next week is shaping up as being decisive in regard to the fate of the coalition. In the past few days, Netanyahu has signaled to Livni and Lapid, via authorized messengers, that he’s ready to stay on for another year, until next fall – but on condition that all the partners accept the rules of the game. He wants a quiet year. He’s received a promise in that spirit from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but only in his name.

A senior Likud figure said yesterday that, for some reason, Livni and Lapid have so far rejected the outstretched hand. “They are convinced that he’s headed for elections anyway, so they don’t want to be perceived as compromising and weak,” the senior source said. “Last Monday, Bibi agreed to delay the Knesset vote in order to arrive at agreements. In return, he got a virulent speech from Lapid, with personal jabs. That’s something he really doesn’t like.

“My impression is that Lapid and Livni are caught up in a mentality of miscalculation,” he continued. “Like on the eve of a war that no one wants, but somehow everyone gets dragged into.”

Educating Shay Piron

In the middle of the tempestuous cabinet meeting on the nation-state bill, Lapid and his party colleague, Education Minister Shay Piron, left and went into the foyer. People who were there say Piron was pale, worried and scared. He was heard asking his leader whether this was the end of the government. “Yes,” Lapid told him, “you can say goodbye to your team.”

Piron almost choked. And that was just the warm-up. At the end of the meeting, after the insults and affronts and jibes had piled up on the table, Lapid got up and said: “It’ll be fun in the opposition.” According to some of those present, he was mischievously trying to stretch the already taut nerves of the education minister even farther.

Lapid is well aware of Piron’s obvious anxiety about the possible dismantlement of the coalition and his early departure from the Education Ministry, to which it’s clear he won’t return other than in his dreams and in retirees’ reunions. In fact, whenever the possibility that the party will leave the coalition arises, the in-joke is: “Don’t worry, Shay will be along in a moment to explain why we mustn’t leave.”

Piron knows that if he leaves after two or so years, all that will be remembered of him is a stack of unimplemented reforms, pathos-laden speeches and declarations, from one for whom politics is beneath his dignity. “I need at least three years in the ministry,” Piron tells interlocutors. “We must not leave before that.”

Some senior figures in the faction, who aren’t upset by the possibility of the demise of the coalition (a few are even pushing for it), are amused by Piron’s concern. Politicians, even new ones, usually have little reason to rejoice, other than in Schadenfreude. When Piron perspires, they feel they’re breathing fresh mountain air.

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