A Panicked Netanyahu Is Bracing for the Inevitable

Netanyahu sees the indictment on the wall but has a new plan, while Labor leader Avi Gabbay drives a final nail in his party's coffin

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 30, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil December 30, 2018.Credit: \ HANDOUT/ REUTERS
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

“Fine. You were right.” Four words and two periods comprised the message opposition leader and MK Tzipi Livni sent to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon after she recovered from the sacrificial rite to which Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay subjected her publicly this week.

Livni and Kahlon have held quite a few conversations in the past year. She tried to recruit him to the anti-Bibi camp – for the “bloc” she keeps obsessing about but which is unlikely ever to come into being. He rejected the idea out of hand, but between all the importuning and refusals, they exchanged notes about the partner who betrayed them both – first him, then her.

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The plan to humiliate Livni and the diversionary operation that preceded it are looking increasingly complex. Not since Operation Fortitude, which the Allies carried out in World War II to conceal their plans for Normandy landing, have we seen such a sophisticated move of strategic deception, with Gabbay in Churchill’s shoes. As it were.

It wasn’t just the fictitious three-way meeting that Gabbay set up with Livni and Ehud Barak in order to discuss future cooperation. The whole timing of the public event was adjusted to Livni’s schedule.

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Zionist Union’s Knesset faction was set to convene, as usual, midday Monday. Livni announced that she wouldn’t be attending due to a prior commitment. In what was perceived as a gentlemanly act – but turned out to be the opposite – Gabbay moved the meeting to Tuesday. The few journalists who were in the Knesset building didn’t even bother to show up. Nothing beats Zionist Union meetings when it comes to sheer boredom.

IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman

Before entering the room, Gabbay instructed his photographers to move from their normal perches at the back. This time they were to position themselves in the corner opposite Livni and catch her slowly grasping and digesting what was taking place. All of Gabbay’s accumulated frustration with her, all the hatred and loathing he has for her – all exploded in her face and in the faces of the MKs, and minutes later, in front of the entire country.

Livni was blindsided, but the ricochets struck the perpetrator, too, and hard. Since Tuesday, the conversation among members of the public and the media alike has revolved almost entirely around the way he chose to expel, expel, expel her. Livni – who is herself a cold, dispassionate terminator whose political path is strewn with the corpses of former associates – emerged almost as a saint, a victim.

The truth must out: In this relationship, Gabbay is the battered wife. From the moment Livni was appointed leader of the opposition, last August, he was like air to her. There’s no other way to interpret her frenetic efforts to forge “hookups” (a word that will have to be outlawed after the election) than as an insistent thrust to remove him as leader of Labor. He took it and took it until he had enough.

However, the execution ceremony was a colossal blunder. Gabbay consulted no one. He acted autonomously, from the gut. He doesn’t have enough political experience for those kinds of formative actions.

He would have done better to take a leaf from the book of his nemesis, Kahlon. How chivalrously and gallantly Kahlon parted from Housing Minister Yoav Gallant, his No. 2 in Kulanu, who also made him “eat a lot of shit” (an expression that has become legitimate this week in the wake of Gabbay’s remark about what Livni did to him). Kahlon and Gallant went their separate ways, aided by a joint statement. Kahlon didn’t block his former colleague’s appointment as immigrant absorption minister or his continued membership in the security cabinet.

Livni has shown more than once that she’s a phoenix. She doesn’t rule out anything, from running alone to hooking up with other political parties. But she doesn’t plan to commit suicide and lose seats for the center-left. If, on the eve of the election, the polls don’t show her party, Hatnuah, winning enough votes to enter the Knesset, she will retire. That’s a promise she’s made to one or more other persons, and also to herself.

Gabbay counted on the precedent of Ehud Barak bolting from Labor and establishing a separate faction, in January 2011. Barak had five MKs, himself included, and he remained in the Netanyahu government. Instantly Labor soared in the polls. Of the bolter it was said that he was the first politician who saved a party by leaving it.

But that didn’t happen this time. The initial polls show Livni hovering at the Knesset’s election threshold (3.25 percent of all eligible votes cast), with a projected three to five seats; Labor under Gabbay remains where it was, with eight seats in the surveys.

Labor MK Eitan Cabel, a Gabbay supporter who morphed into a foe, volunteered on Thursday to be the first to express the desire of most of his party colleagues: Gabbay has to go. His colleague Ayelet Nahmias Verbin, probably in coordination with him, expressed a similar sentiment. Lickety-split, a petition began circulating to gather enough signatures to convene the party central committee for the purpose of deposing the chairman.

In terms of party rules, it’s nearly impossible. But the very existence of the effort, coming three months before the election, is repellent, symbolizing all that is rotten in the Labor Party.

The attempt to remove Gabbay is the embodiment of stupidity. It’s this that Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Tamar Zandberg could only have prayed for. And say that Gabbay goes, who will replace him? Whence salvation? The “Labor” brand is kaput. The identity of the captain who will man the bridge is less important. Isaac Herzog, from his lofty post as president of the Jewish people, aka chairman of the Jewish Agency, is undoubtedly reciting Birkat Hagomel (the blessing of deliverance) every morning for having escaped from the slaughterhouse.

A decade ago, when Amos Oz said that Labor had “completed its historic mission,” he took a lot of flak for it. But he was right.

Avi who?

There’s a man in Tel Aviv, quite successful, who used to work with prime ministers. He is wise, and has an understanding of politics that is shared by precious few. He also likes to eat in restaurants and has a bizarre pastime: conducting polls among the wait staff. During the past few months he has invited a few waiters over and shown them a photo of Avi Gabbay on his phone. Do you know who this is, he asks them.

On Monday, one day before the whole blowup with Livni, yours truly met this fellow for lunch in a restaurant in central Tel Aviv. Between the main course and dessert, he invited over two waitresses and showed them the photo. Initially they hadn’t the faintest idea who it was. They stuttered a bit and came out with something like: Is he in the Knesset? Our amateur pollster updated his data. Out of 108 respondents, 22 could identify Gabbay – about 20 percent. And we’re talking about a young population sample, well-educated and up-to-date, intelligent, 20-plus and 30-something. Mostly students. Ninety percent of the restaurants surveyed by our guy were in Tel Aviv, 10 percent in Haifa.

Gabbay obviously knows about this situation from the professional polls he’s ordered. About a year ago we wrote here that in an internal survey he had done, only 26 percent of the respondents knew who he was.

Netanyahu and Kahlon in October 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

The public divorce from Livni afforded Gabbay broad media exposure. Now a lot of people know him. The question is what they think of him.

Neutralizing Kahlon

As the second week of the election campaign draws to a close, a million questions are floating about in the political realm. Sweeping agreement exists only in regard to one working assumption: The campaign that will end on April 9, 2019, is a prelude to the big drama – a warm-up for the decisive showdown later in the year on the legal and political fate of the prime minister.

This week, for the first time since the investigations were launched against Netanyahu two-and-a-half years ago, it became clear that this perception has also trickled into the consciousness of the chief protagonist. At a press conference he held during his trip to Brazil, Netanyahu referred to the possibility that he will be indicted, subject to a hearing, as an almost-absolute certainty. His body language projected defeat, his face was gloomy. The arrogant defiance that has characterized his appearances during the past year, both public and at family occasions of Likud activists, seemed to have drowned in the Rio sea.

“I will not resign if I am summoned to a hearing before the election,” he told the tanned Israeli reporters in his entourage, going on to provide a reasonable explanation: It is his right to have his day before the attorney general, in advance of the latter’s final decision. The negative perhaps implied a positive: Yes, I will resign if my arguments are rejected and an indictment is submitted to the court.

In fact – and Bibi gets this – he will have no choice. The public will demand his resignation and some of the coalition parties will do likewise. Likud ministers who see the Promised Land looming will turn their backs on him, and maybe more than that. He will lose his ability to function, his legitimacy, the moral authority to lead a state. The land will heave, and at the end of the road the High Court of Justice will await.

Until the past week, when talk turned to parties in a future coalition that would refuse to serve under a prime minister who, following a hearing, had been indicted – it was about Kahlon’s Kulanu. The finance minister has declared time after time that the place of a prime minister who has been charged is in the courtroom, not in the security cabinet conference room. On the day of reckoning, Kulanu might be the brick that topples the building.

At the Balfour Street residence, a special strategy was devised to deal with the problem. Of late, as you have probably noticed, there’s an incessant buzz in the media, and especially in political groups on the web, about a scenario in which Kahlon is guaranteed a realistic place as a candidate on Likud’s Knesset slate.

For example, on Wednesday, a one-question survey landed in the in-boxes of the 3,700 members of the Likud Party Central Committee: “Would you, for the sake of Likud’s victory in the election, agree to a joint Likud-Kahlon slate, in which four of the first 20 places on the slate would be set aside for Kahlon?”

As a public service to members of the central committee, we’ll explain: Likud’s victory is not what the people behind the survey have in mind. This is a purely personal move by the serial suspect from Balfour, a move in anticipation of an indictment. According to Netanyahu, adding Kahlon to Likud is an insurance policy against being deposed. An independent Kahlon heading his own party will keep his word and leave the coalition – but with Kahlon and a few of his MKs embedded in Likud, they’ll be committed and trapped.

Netanyahu wants to bring the Kahlonists into the tent and then seal the flaps so they can’t uproot the pegs from the outside. That entails weakening Kahlon’s immune system by means of psychological warfare: spreading disinformation about a merger that’s supposedly in the works. If his voters believe that he’s on the way to Likud, they’ll abandon Kahlon; once abandoned, he’ll be weakened. If he finds himself on the brink of the Knesset’s electoral threshold, he’ll panic. If he loses his cool, he’ll beg: Bibi, take me.

That hookup contains zero political or electoral logic for either side. The six-seven seats Kulanu is now getting in the polls come from Bibi- and Likud-haters. They won’t stick with Kahlon. Likud will not be strengthened, nor will the bloc get any larger. For the bride, it would be nothing short of suicide: Even with five seats, half of the power he has today, Kahlon will still have far more powerful levers of influence and pressure than if he’s No. 2 on Likud’s ticket, alongside the other slobs. He’s been there before, and he doesn’t miss it.

“With Bibi,” he likes to say, “it’s best to be a freelancer and not on salary.”

Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

From the campaign to wear down Kahlon wafts the pungent fragrance of panic. It shows that at Balfour, in the broad sense of the term, they know what the future holds.

Free at last

The resignation of Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett from Habayit Hayehudi, and their establishment of Hayamin Hehadash, the New Right, makes the morning-after-the-indictment more complicated for Netanyahu.

The breakaway is meant to free the two ambitious young politicians from the yoke of domineering rabbis, settlers and messianic Hardalim – ultra-Orthodox members of the national-religious community. The latter would have never allowed Bennett and Shaked to resign from the coalition, not even if Netanyahu were to be indicted for bribery, armed robbery and drug dealing. The “Land of Israel” takes precedence over the rule of law, the norms of proper governance and the basic values of morality and honesty.

Freed from that burden and heading an “all-Israeli” party, in their phrasing, the duo’s considerations might be different if they are in the coalition when the big day arrives. Kahlon isn’t the only one who’s liable to bring the building down on Netanyahu’s head – Bennett and Shaked in their new attire might do it too.

“Netanyahu played with the religious-Zionist movement as though it were putty,” Bennett observed correctly this week. “He turned us into punching bags, he wanted to and would have succeeded in bringing us back to the days when we lacked influence and had few Knesset seats.”

The humiliating backtracking by Bennett from his ultimatum to be appointed defense minister, a retreat he was forced into under pressure from the rabbis and the settler leaders, was the last straw in a long series of slaps and jabs he endured.

On Monday last week, before coalition party leaders agreed to dissolve the Knesset and hold the election on April 9, Shaked was interviewed on Channel 10 and asked about the option of an independent party. Her denial was unequivocal: “There are a great many right-wing voters in Israel, and Habayit Hayehudi [lit., the Jewish Home] is their home,” she asserted. That sound bite could become the recurrent, repetitive motif of Habayit Hayehudi in the election.

They made their final decision two days later, though the word “they” is too broad: It was Bennett who decided. The affront of being forced to climb down from the tree of the defense-minister ultimatum consumed him. Shaked hesitated, pondered. He cajoled and pushed – and she gave in. It’s not by chance that in their joint press conference he was the one who lashed out at the electorate he had abandoned. From her we heard nary a word of reproach.

Bennett’s liberation from rabbinical shackles sparked a few liberal monologues on his part. “I was born secular, I grew up in a secular home, I am married to a secular woman,” he said in a private conversation this week. “Shabbat wars are not me, supermarkets shut on Shabbat are not me, the campaign against the LGBT community is not me. People in Habayit Hayehudi complained that I wasn’t fighting for Shabbat. I was a constant disappointment to them. But I am not a foundation stone of religion.”

He added, “I wanted to bring in secular people, to open Habayit Hayehudi to the public at large. I was certain that [former settler leader] Danny Dayan and [Im Tirtzu founder] Ronen Shoval were going to be on the slate [on the eve of the 2015 election]. But I didn’t succeed in getting one secular person onto the slate. Already then I realized there was a problem here.”

According to Bennett, an in-depth poll he commissioned before the split gave Habayit Hayehudi seven to eight seats. “We always start high and finish low,” he said. “The Hardalim, who thought I wasn’t religious enough, would have gone to Eli Yishai [former Shas leader] or to Otzma [the a far-right party Yishai ran with in 2015]. The secular population wouldn’t have voted for us because they’re not wild about our line on gays and Shabbat.”

He and Shaked and a team of advisers are now drafting a platform that aims to express the broadest possible agreement on volatile issues – education, the drafting of Haredim, kashrut, couplehood, marital matters, surrogate parenthood. Some of the religiously observant individuals who were with him on the slate before are excited, others less so.

Bennett sounds energized. “We will be against religious coercion in any form,” he promised. “We are still a right-wing party, but not extreme. We will balance individual freedom against Jewish identity. We will follow the guidelines of the Gavison-Medan Covenant [a document drawn up 15 years ago by legal scholar Ruth Gavison and Rabbi Yaakov Medan that seeks to regularize religious-secular relations].”

Bennett thinks the New Right will start with eight seats in the polls – which is in fact the case – and climb to 13-14. Five seats will come from people disappointed with Likud and Netanyahu. Others will come from parties he calls the “fake right”: former army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz’s new party, Hosen L’Yisrael, MK Orly Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Kulanu and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

Wearing his new hat as half-leader or joint leader of the New Right, Bennett will talk a great deal about unity of the nation and broad consensus. On Wednesday he had his photo taken welcoming journalist Caroline Glick into the new party. “A fighter, a Zionist,” he called her.

Zionist? Glick’s Zionism is among the wackiest out there. She called the fact that Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords a "crime." In a Yom Kippur-eve tweet she juxtaposed photos of former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, assistant attorney general Dina Zilber and human rights organizations and journalists, with Ahad Tamimi, the Palestinian girl from Nebi Saleh who attacked an army officer and was jailed. To her, they are all enemies and disparagers of Israel.

Glick’s conservatism, not to say her reactionary approach reflect the very opposite of the new spirit that the New Right party seeks to project. With her weird notions, she’ll make them long for MKs Bezalel Smotrich and Moti Yogev.