Netanyahu's Government Is Hard-pressed to Weather the Mounting Storm of International Isolation

Meanwhile, Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid can't even agree on who will lead the opposition.

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

The working assumption in both the coalition and the opposition is that Israel’s international standing is deteriorating rapidly. This week showed that when it rains, it pours: the last-minute aversion of suspension from FIFA, the international soccer federation; the academic boycott announced by Britain’s National Union of Students; and the statement by the CEO of the French mobile phone giant Orange SA that he would like to end his business relations with Israel.

Future cellular distress liable to befall the Smartphone Nation is certainly a strategic threat. But President Barack Obama’s icy interview with Ilana Dayan on Channel 2’s “Fact” investigative TV program this week is an equally hard blow.

Shelly Yacomovich, in the Knesset.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

With supreme American politesse, Obama stuck in the diplomatic sword and twisted it, with feeling. His threat not to cast an automatic veto on United Nations Security Council resolutions that are for some reason perceived as “anti-Israeli” – such as the French resolution calling for the end of the occupation – leaves Israel vulnerable in the international arena.

It wasn’t by chance that about an hour after the conclusion of “Fact,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as reported in Haaretz, instructed his ministers and the deputy foreign minister to clam up and not respond to Obama tit for tat. According to the prime minister’s aides, he didn’t want to instigate an “unnecessary confrontation” with the Americans. As though the confrontation hasn’t been around for a long time.

The ring around Israel is truly getting tighter, and it’s happening on Netanyahu’s watch, now in its seventh consecutive year. That’s something no one can take from him.

The narrow right-wing government that continues to play like a morbid, low-budget soap opera, is incapable of dealing with what is shaping up as a diplomatic-economic catastrophe. The tsunami that Ehud Barak warned about in 2011, during the tenure of the second Netanyahu government, may have tarried, but it is now looming.

The political arena is abuzz with speculation. Will the government fall? Will it withdraw into a shell and try to bolster its survivability? When the surveys show Netanyahu that the flames are starting to lick at the edges of his cloak, will he make an offer that Labor leader Isaac Herzog won’t be able to refuse?

Netanyahu sees Kulanu, the party of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, as the weak link in the coalition. The others don’t worry him. There’s no scenario in which Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties will topple a right-wing government. Nor does Kahlon want that, because ultimately he’s a “Likudnik,” as he says of himself. But he’s also the finance minister, and deep down he’s a responsible guy.

In a closed meeting of Kulanu’s MKs on Monday in the Knesset, Kahlon stated, “It will be difficult to impossible to continue functioning in this coalition for the long term with 61 MKs.” That comment, which was not reported in the media, was reported to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, where it lit up one or two – or maybe 10 – red lights.

So, Netanyahu, who is already thinking about the next election, and in private conversations is not ruling out a very early poll, is looking for job security. He’s trying to persuade Kahlon’s party to merge with Likud and thus create a 40-member parliamentary faction in this Knesset, which will run jointly in the next election. So far, Kahlon is listening but not saying anything.

Another attempt by Netanyahu to come up with a parliamentary insurance policy concerns the next state budget, covering 2015-2016. The date for its final passage will be put off until November, giving it a 14-month lifespan that is not exactly a “two-year budget.”

Why not go for a real two-year budget, to cover 2015-2016-2017, senior figures in the Prime Minister’s Bureau recently asked treasury officials. There’s political logic to that: Once the budget is authorized, the government is immune from being toppled, other than in a no-confidence vote, which is improbable at best.

But the treasury has rejected the idea outright, and not only for economic reasons. For Kahlon, it would amount to shooting himself in the foot. If he agrees, he makes himself redundant for the next two years as the strongman in the realms of national politics and the economy. Between budgets, the finance minister mostly puts out fires. Other treasury officials can do that as well as he can. Netanyahu wants peace of mind? Fine, let him expand the government.

Right hand, left hand

With his right hand, the premier is fighting the process of Israel’s delegitimization in the international community. With his left, he’s fighting to delegitimize the Likud Central Committee, which is scheduled to vote next Thursday on changing the party’s internal election system: to eliminate general primaries among the party’s registered members and bring back the process whereby the 2,800-strong central committee chooses the Knesset slate.

For Netanyahu, the two things are intertwined. On the one hand, there’s Israel’s enfeeblement on the global stage and the challenge to its right to exist as a normal country. On the other, the danger that Likud will return to the dark times when the central committee, one of the most brutal and most hated political bodies in the country, ruled the party, and he ends up losing power. In the end, it’s all about him.

It’s unbelievable how much energy and motivation and time Netanyahu is devoting to this internal arena. Almost every evening he meets with dozens of central committee members – at his residence in Jerusalem, in Be’er Sheva, in Ramat Gan. In these meetings, he almost loses control, according to some of those who have been present; he makes presentations and delivers long, pathos-laden speeches of an hour or an hour and a half, in which he connects Israel’s fate and the existence of the Jewish people to the result of the central committee vote.

On Monday, in the Jerusalem residence, he regaled committee members, MKs and ministers with his life story. “I am accused of having been a furniture salesman,” he said. “It’s true, I was a marketing man for the Rim company, and we cornered the market!”

He talked about his service in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, about his political battles, the governments he’s led, the last election. By his side he placed the party’s two most popular politicians, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. He drew on them to prove his argument that reverting to the old system – in which the central committee chooses the Knesset slate – would twist the will of Likud’s voters and alienate them.

What he didn’t say explicitly was that if power is taken from the 120,000 party members and given back to the committee, “representative types” like Erdan and Edelstein will be pushed lower on the slate, and voters will react accordingly.

Usually, Netanyahu takes all the credit for himself, claiming that Likud’s current 30 seats are his doing and that next time he’ll get 40. But when a hostile force, such as the central committee, endangers his future rule, he’s willing to use his popular MKs, and to point to them and threaten that without them Likud’s voters will turn elsewhere.

At the moment, all the Likud MKs support Netanyahu’s position, judging by their comments at the last weekly faction meeting. All but one: MK David Amsalem. He’s the person who’s pushing for the elimination of the primaries. And with good reason, from his point of view: In the next election he’ll have to run in the party’s national primary slate and not in the Jerusalem district, where he enjoys great clout.

A cabinet minister, never mind from which party, recently heard an angry discussion between Netanyahu and a Likud minister who sits to his right at the government’s table. This minister heard the premier say to the other minister, “Tell Amsalem that if he’s intent on being stubborn, it will be Likud’s death certificate.” The Likudnik minister said something, and Netanyahu retorted, “No problem, then we’ll call an election.”

That threat, which is being conveyed via other channels, too, is aimed at most of Likud’s ministers and MKs, who aren’t eager to become pawns of the power-hungry central committee again. Someone raised the subject in a meeting of the party’s ministers two weeks ago. Netanyahu played it cool. “Listen,” he said, “it’s actually your problem. I will run in the primary, as usual. You will have to compete in the central committee. Want to prevent that? Work with me.”

It’s (not) the economy, stupid

The Labor Party has always excelled in settling accounts with its past leaders. The party has a long memory and an equally long, well-honed knife. This week it was the turn of MK Shelly Yacimovich, who was defeated in her attempt to become chairwoman of the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee. Both contestants, Yacimovich and MK Eitan Cabel – who won – are what’s known in these parts as “worthy.” The job suits their talents. Both he and she are experienced and “effective” legislators, as Yacimovich likes to say of herself.

But as in past cases, the committee was just an excuse, a facade. The powers and interests behind the Yacimovich-Cabel battle were bigger than that.

The party’s leader, MK Herzog, tried to avert a battle altogether. By nature, he loathes confrontations. He offered Yacimovich a handsome compensation package if she would withdraw: head of a subcommittee for reforming the natural gas market, membership on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and other bait. He asked Cabel to be flexible, to compromise, to agree to rotation every 18 months. Cabel agreed, but when Herzog asked for another small concession, he snapped back, “Maybe you want us to do a weekly rotation?”

Yacimovich, for her part, demanded to head the State Control Committee, a traditional opposition post. But Herzog, with puzzling generosity, had already promised that to Yesh Atid. Maybe he hoped this would make the party’s leader, Yair Lapid, his subordinate. But no sooner had the committee gone to Lapid than a still, small voice emerged from the latter’s office claiming he was the true leader of the opposition.

The result is that Zionist Union (24 seats) has one statutory committee and Yesh Atid (11 seats) also has one committee. Herzog looked like Netanyahu’s mirror image: Despite the latter’s accomplishment of gaining 30 seats, he had to divvy up the main spoils with his partners. Herzog, with 24 seats, gave away half of the opposition’s meager assets.

Yacimovich pressed Herzog to retract his gentlemanly agreement with Lapid. “Don’t be tempted,” Herzog was warned in a private conversation with someone else. “Shelly doesn’t care about the Economic Affairs Committee. She wants to undermine your status as opposition leader.”

In the meantime, Cabel spoke to MK Ofer Shelah, head of the Yesh Atid faction, and to MK Ahmad Tibi, from the Joint Arab List. That threesome, who coordinate in every move, comprise the glue holding the opposition together. They decided that there was no way back, that breaking the agreement would lead to a total breakdown. Not exactly the scenario of Herzog’s dreams.

Yacimovich was probably not surprised by the result. She pressed for the vote, even though she knew she stood no chance of winning. Her opening position was minus five or six votes: Most or all of the members of MK Tzipi Livni’s party, who are part of the Zionist Union faction, voted for Cabel. Livni – whose co-leadership with Herzog is not recognized by Yacimovich – worked hard against her. The result was 13 for Cabel, 8 for Yacimovich, 2 abstentions and one vote disqualified.

Herzog announced that he would vote for Cabel, his confidant. He realized that this was a battle, the first in what would be a campaign, and in battle one muster’s one’s troops and unifies the camp.

His rival did the same. The picture is now clear: A third of the joint faction is behind Yacimovich. Two-thirds, including Livni’s Hatnuah, are with Herzog. Yacimovich’s group will go with her in the coming primary. She will reward them, mobilize for them and use them to attack the other group. Will she run against Herzog for the party leadership? She says she hasn’t decided yet.

In any event, the Labor Party will not be what it was. The cooperation between leader and predecessor, the model behavior that characterized Yacimovich since she lost the leadership in November 2013, is gone for good. A new-old era has begun, a cold war with street battles and occasional ambushes. Labor is back.

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