Keep Enemies Close? Bibi Practically Hugging Them

To obtain political quiet and government longevity, Netanyahu is piling his future partners' plates with honors, irrespective of the size of their factions. All except Naftali Bennett.

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

In the little spare time he has – by all accounts, in the small hours of the night – Benjamin Netanyahu apparently watches the American cult TV series “Breaking Bad.” It’s about a chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who falls ill with cancer, and in order to pay for expensive treatments and ensure his family’s future, turns to the production and sale of crystal meth.The new highs (or lows) of extreme violence, absolute evil and unfathomable cynicism portrayed in every episode undoubtedly help the premier chill out after hours of coalition bargaining with Naftali Bennett and all the others.

One of the key comments that Walter, “Breaking Bad”’s protagonist, makes to his young partner-in-crime, Jesse, when warning him against falling prey to the charms of a local drug lord, is: “Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.”

Without attributing any malicious intentions to Netanyahu, this saying pretty well sums up the way his coalition is being formed. In order to obtain political quiet and coalition longevity, he is “fattening” his partners (enemies, for this purpose) with what are known in the political lingo as “dumplings”: He’s luring them to the biblical fleshpots so that they will dine and wine and become so bloated that they won’t be capable of getting up and leaving. With a generous hand he’s piling their plates with honors and titles, irrespective of the size of their parliamentary factions or the measure of confidence they received from the electorate.

As usual, Netanyahu seems to get most pleasure out of abusing Bennett, apparently under the inspiration of the premier’s pressured – and pressuring – domestic surroundings. Thus, the head of Habayit Hayehudi, Likud’s most natural partner and hence also the most taken-for-granted, has been last but also least in the coalition talks.

But this time, the spurned partner, already accustomed to the status of being a concubine on the doorstep, will not soon forget the abuse he suffered at Netanyahu’s hands – including the three-week disconnect during the coalition talks, the education portfolio maneuver and the nasty attempt to deprive Ayelet Shaked of a ministerial portfolio.

“Let’s not get confused, okay?” people close to Bennett are saying. “Every Shabbat has its Saturday night, and every day has its morning after.” We’ll just have to wait and see what they mean.

Netanyahu has meanwhile pampered Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party (10 seats) with the finance, housing and environmental protection ministries, chairmanships of two important Knesset committees, and control of the Israel Land Authority and the Planning Administration, the latter of which was wrenched from the Interior Ministry. Kahlon also received veto power over legislation targeting the Supreme Court. Did Netanyahu really intend to push ahead with changes that would limit the court’s power, and which have now been scuttled by Kahlon – or was that solution convenient for him in the face of Yariv Levin and other Likud MKs who are foaming at the mouth and waiting to sink their political fangs into the court?

For its part, United Torah Judaism (six seats) was handsomely compensated this week for the edicts to which ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim were subjected by former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, along with receiving other bonuses and goodies. Netanyahu undertook to fulfill most of their demands last November, when he first began to contemplate the possibility of holding an early election after the trauma he suffered by the Knesset’s approval – in a preliminary reading – of legislation seeking to close down the freebie paper Israel Hayom, funded by the American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, which supports Netanyahu unswervingly.

To dump Lapid and permanently shelve the zero-VAT bill for first-time home buyers, he insisted that the ultra-Orthodox give him their word that they would recommend him to President Reuven Rivlin as the next prime minister. The Haredim promised, and in return Netanyahu said that in the next coalition agreement, all the reforms, accords, laws and regulations that affect them and were passed in the previous Knesset would be erased; these include enforced enlistment in the army, teaching of core subjects in Haredi schools and cuts in children’s allowances. Netanyahu promised and kept his word, or at least signed on the dotted line.

“The Haredim,” Likud negotiator MK Zeev Elkin says, “believe that what’s written in the coalition agreements might be implemented or might not. But what’s not written will never happen.”

Apropos Israel Hayom, when the idea of an election was suggested, this column noted that Netanyahu would demand of all the new coalition partners not to mess with Adelson. This week, Raviv Drucker, from Channel 10 News, reported that according to the new coalition agreements, no individual MK or party faction will be allowed to support legislation that conflicts with the stance of the communications minister, who will probably be Netanyahu. The media are the apple of his eye, after all, and that relevant portfolio is his heart’s desire.

Even if the reports about the far-reaching reforms he’s planning in the battered, weakened and vulnerable media market are premature and exaggerated – the very fact that he will be in charge, either himself or via a proxy, is enough to generate suitable deterrence. The media will get the message.

As for Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu, which also has six seats, he will remain foreign minister in every respect. Netanyahu is promising that Lieberman’s Foreign Ministry will have full control over negotiations with the Palestinians and contacts with Washington. Well, Netanyahu knows that there won’t be any such negotiations this term. He has no intention of exchanging even one word with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, not directly, not via emissaries, carrier pigeons or séances. Abbas, for him, is no more; he has ceased to exist, expired. People who dare to raise peace talks with the premier get long lectures about the futility of it all.

It’s no wonder, then, that Netanyahu has made no true effort, or even the semblance thereof, to coopt Zionist Union into the government. Which is not to say that people didn’t encourage him to do so. Many did, both in Israel and abroad. His response to them all was that unity is important and that he is aware of the challenges Israel faces internationally, etc. But he did nothing.

And why should he? What would he have to discuss with Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich? The burial of the two-state idea? The move to break up the independent media and transform Israel Hayom into the new Bible of Israel and the Jewish people? The bizarre initiatives to reeducate the Supreme Court? To promote his Republican-Adelsonian agenda, or parts of it, Netanyahu needs exactly the partners in the 67-seat coalition he’s cobbling together.

As for his “soldiers,” as he called his colleagues in Likud in the post-election victory party he threw for them in his residence, they’re already in his pocket. If they feel frustrated, let them talk to a shrink. If they curse him under their breath, no matter; the important thing is for them to fulfill the missions he assigns them. And let them thank the good Lord every morning that they have him. Bibi.

Waiting in the wings

Netanyahu’s deep-rooted belief in the need to satisfy the coalition partners completely, because they are the pillars on which the new government stands, led him to promise Kahlon the finance portfolio even before the election, and to keep his promise. The same approach prompted him to leave the coveted foreign affairs portfolio in Lieberman’s hands without raising a fuss. If Shas or Habayit Hayehudi had a former chief of staff on its slate, he might have awarded that party the defense portfolio.

It wasn’t always like that. In 1996, when Netanyahu formed his first government, he was a nave political novice. All three senior portfolios (finance, defense, foreign affairs) went to Likud or to a Likud-associated party. And what happened? Of the three ministers in question (Dan Meridor, Yitzhak Mordechai, David Levy) one quit, one was fired and one stalked out; all three ganged up to boot the premier out of office.

That experience taught Netanyahu a lesson for life: not to cultivate domestic rivals. They’re the most dangerous, the most treacherous. Since forming his second government, in 2009, he has decapitated potential successors in good time. He doesn’t let them grow and acquire power. He’s careful not to appoint them to popularity-enhancing portfolios.

That’s why Gideon Sa’ar is taking a time-out and Moshe Kahlon is in Kulanu. That’s why Gilad Erdan will have to make do with a mediocre portfolio, more or less – maybe public security, maybe justice. Erdan hoisted the banner of rebellion this week when he stated aloud what everyone in Likud thinks: that the prime minister is giving up and surrendering, without batting an eyelash, the social-oriented portfolios, including the Education Ministry, which Erdan wanted as compensation for the treasury and foreign affairs, which went the way of all flesh.

Erdan then returned to the bunker. It’s not clear what he hoped to achieve with his revolt. He has no real ammunition. He probably already knew, when he said what he said, that the education portfolio was effectively in Bennett’s hands. Maybe he was aiming for the next hill, as compensation for the compensation that he will demand: possibly a combination of the (slashed) Interior Ministry and the Public Security Ministry, or the latter plus “strategic affairs” – and, of course, a seat in the security cabinet.

In the meantime, though, there’s no news from the next hill. There was, however, a response from the prime minister, in the guise of an unnamed confidant: “The complaints and the whining to the effect that Netanyahu supposedly did not leave enough cabinet portfolios for Likud are arrant nonsense and groundless.”

When Netanyahu and wife Sara needed Erdan, not once or twice or thrice or even four times, to stand up for them in the media in the face of all the scandals, they were probably more polite.

Handing the foreign affairs and finance portfolios to coalition partners freed Netanyahu of the oppressive need to make decisions involving the big shots in his party – Erdan, Silvan Shalom, Yuval Steinitz, Yisrael Katz – each of whom saw himself as a natural candidate for those ministries. He has no problem with Moshe Ya’alon in the Defense Ministry since he’s well-trained. The two have forged an alliance.

By increasing the number of ministers to 22 (plus the prime minister), after enthusiastically backing legislation less than a year ago to limit the government to 18 plus one – Netanyahu achieves two desirable results from his point of view: enfeeblement of the coalition partners at the cabinet table and in the security cabinet, and a reduction of the number of embittered and frustrated Likud MKs in the near future.

Likud will have 12 ministers in the next government, not counting Netanyahu, and all the others together no more than 10. In the security cabinet, too, Likud will have a guaranteed majority.

The Likud members who will definitely be ministers are: Ya’alon, Erdan, Katz, Shalom, Steinitz, Elkin, Levin, Miri Regev and Benny Begin. The remaining three will come from the pool of Haim Katz, Tzipi Hotovely, Gila Gamliel, Tzachi Hanegbi, Ofir Akunis, Danny Danon, Ayoub Kara and Avi Dichter (who will no doubt be happy to be chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee).

An idea that was recently raised in the Prime Minister’s Office is to offer some MKs rotation through such junior ministries as tourism and science and technology. That way Netanyahu will be able to calm the young and restless, and reduce significantly the cries of groaning and moaning that will emanate from the Knesset’s back benches. He will also be able to come to the party’s functionaries and activists and say to them: Look how many portfolios I’ve secured for you, and the great potential for jobs that I’ve arranged for you.

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