The orderly opening of the school year on September 1 was not a foregone conclusion. It was decided upon only on Monday of this past week. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the final arbiter, mulled it over at length. True, he had frequently promised that school takes precedence over everything, that children come before performances and weddings. But the huge danger of infection, just before the large family gatherings for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah was clear to him.
The struggle in the coronavirus cabinet over the opening date transcended party lines. The various ministers expressed sensible opinions, for one option or another. The main opponents of starting on September 1 were Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked of Bennett’s Yamina, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev of Labor (the first to have proposed, about a month ago, that the start of the school year be postponed until after the fall holidays), Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Kahol Lavan, Housing Minister Zeev Elkin of New Hope and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, who isn’t a member of the cabinet but pops in from time to time and voices her opinion.
LISTEN: How PM Bennett humiliated Abbas upon returning from Biden meeting
The other line vis-à-vis the prime minister, himself a former minister of education, was led by Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton of New Hope, for whom the subject is close to her heart, and her party chairman, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar. He, too, served as education minister in the past.
Bennett radiated ambivalence, and Shaked sank her teeth into him over the issue. At a cabinet meeting about two weeks ago, a huge argument broke out. Prior to his trip to Washington, Bennett signaled that he was considering postponing the opening. Let’s not decide now, said Sa’ar and Shasha-Biton, and not in a telephone survey. A critical decision like this one needs another meeting.
On Sunday afternoon Bennett landed, bursting his buttons with satisfaction, straight into quarantine at his home in Ra’anana. The cabinet convened on Zoom, like in those bad old days. In the meantime, luck was favoring the proponents of September 1: The increase in the number of seriously ill had stabilized and was beginning to drop, and so was the rate of infection. A retreat from the decision in principle looked a lot less justified.
We mustn’t allow crowds at performances, weddings and soccer fields with only studies getting delayed, argued Sa’ar and Shasha-Biton. Other ministers supported this position. Additional issues arose: It’s true that there are only 11 school days in September, which played in favor of a postponement. But in the Arab schools, there aren’t any days off for the Jewish holidays. And schools in the ultra-Orthodox communities have already been in session for three weeks. “Let them keep going to school,” said Shaked. “What?!” they asked her. “This differentiation was a major problem in the previous government, and we promised not to discriminate and not to segregate.”
We know what happened next. Israel’s school children marched excitedly to their classrooms on the appointed date, after having taken an antigen test at home. The project ticked along well. The government, which squabbled over the summer, went back to work.
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Now let us focus on the education minister who had used the word “crime” (!) to describe administering coronavirus vaccines in the schools. This aroused anger against her. She looked naive and almost like a coronavirus denier. This caused her significant direct damage, and considerable indirect damage to the entire government. With justification, she disappeared down into a media bunker, until she emerged last week and expressed regret for what she had said in a television interview on Saturday evening.
Shasha-Biton realized that her image as a skeptical, fighting soloist, which had won her many points among the public back when she chaired the contrarian Knesset coronavirus committee, had become a political impediment. After losing many points, she accepted the ruling of the prime minister and the Health Ministry on the vaccinations and achieved what she had really wanted – the start of a full school year in the education system, quiet on the volatile front of the teachers’ unions (especially with regard to the unvaccinated teachers) and an impressive logistical operation that supports the schoolchildren’s return to routine.
The nocturnal meeting between the defense minister and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his – Abu Mazen’s – villa in Ramallah was thoroughly organized in advance by Gantz and his team. He (Gantz) coordinated the matter of the monetary loan with Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman (who kept mum not by chance when the meeting was reported); the security material was prepared for him by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Shin Bet security service. Bennett knew about it, of course, and approved it, even if not with great delight. The Americans were warned in advanced – and encouraged it. And in retrospect, they also blessed it.
The “peace process,” the demonic phrase that maddens and elicits hysterical gesturing from the nay-saying twins of the Israeli right and Fatah hawks like Mohammed Dahlan, who is in exile, and the Palestinian resistance organizations was not put on the table alongside the confections and the coffee cups. Which did not, however, prevent Gantz from noting, in a statement issued by his office, that “security-diplomatic issues” were discussed. Anything can be parsed as “diplomatic,” even the very fact of the visit.
The meeting didn’t save lives, but it definitely did contribute to Israel’s security, say Gantz’s people. Harm? It probably didn’t do any harm. The upright members of the nationalist right saw this as Gantz taking himself into Abu Mazen’s private territory, limply going to Canossa – a national humiliation. Between 2015 and 2020, the finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, popped over to Ramallah several times to meet his counterpart and the Palestinian prime minister, transferred funds to him, and in all probability, also delivered messages from side to side. For some reason, no censure or shrieking was heard from the right. The howling of the hyenas from Likud and Religious Zionism (from the latter party: “This will end in busses exploding,” prophesied lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich) didn’t rend the skies back then. When Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, approves, all is hunky-dory.
Fundamentally, Gantz came out pleased not only by the fact of the meeting but also by its content. We had a very good conversation, he told cabinet ministers who took an interest. I met a sharp and clear-minded man, not a sick man. Not confused, nothing like what they have been telling us about him for years. We talked very openly and frankly. His interest and ours are identical: to weaken Hamas.
Gantz had wanted to hold this meeting on Sunday two weeks ago. He mentioned it to Bennett shortly before the latter’s visit to Washington. “Wait with it until I get back,” the prime minister requested. He was concerned lest it be leaked and interpreted as his down payment to the White House. When he returned to Israel, he spoke with Gantz and gave him the green light, though, as noted, with butterflies in his stomach.
Bennett isn’t bothered by Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz or Tamar Zandberg from Meretz meeting in Ramallah with their counterparts in the areas of health and the environment as long as they don’t cross the road to the Muqata, the Palestinian president’s official compound. In the meeting with Abu Mazen there is a diplomatic declaration. The moment the dam is breached, a pilgrimage to the Palestinians' president will begin. More ministers will want to meet, an appearance of diplomatic activity will emerge – heaven help us. This is exactly the land mine he had wanted to avoid with the establishment of this government.
The prime minister’s reservations clash with the defense minister’s desire to mark out territory. As he sees it, he is the one who holds the Palestinian Authority portfolio. Without the title of alternate prime minister, which was taken from him prematurely and handed to another, he is looking to create a political-public space for himself that stretches beyond the confines of his office at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
Upon the establishment of the government (which Gantz entered with all the enthusiasm of an ultra-Orthodox bride being led to the wedding canopy to marry a man who physically disgusts her), he decided to fight the label of “professional defense minister” that had stuck to him. The nostrum he found was to bite into the diplomatic cake, a privilege Netanyahu had brutally denied him in the past government. Thus, he figured, he would cut some coupons: He will strengthen the characteristics of his suitability to be prime minister; he will improve his chances of becoming the candidate of the center-right camp for the position, and he will tread in the territory of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, his nemesis.
As expected, the report of the meeting kicked up a storm. Gantz could have dealt with it easily had Bennett not felt pressured to send a statement to the press to the effect that “the meeting was on issues on the agenda between the defense establishment and the Palestinian Authority. There is no diplomatic process, nor will there be.”
Fruit of the poison tree
A day before Bennett declared he was aiming for a government of change, Israel’s security organizations announced that the threats to his life had risen to Level 5, one below the highest. Among the fervid Bibi-ists and the far right, the strategy against Bennett is like that of the character Krembo in the 1999 Israeli comedy “Operation Grandma”: “You start at your fastest, then you pick up speed.” He’s in their sights, in more ways than one.
Thus, without completing three months in office, and of course without carrying out any diplomatic move that would harm the apple of the right’s eye, the rightists in Bennett’s government, and especially its head, find themselves in a sewer that’s taking in waves and waves of hatred and threats.
The peak (for now, of course) came after the death of Border Police officer Harel Hadaria Shmueli, of blessed memory. The internet was drenched in wild denunciations of Bennett, especially by Netanyahu fans, backed by false information about the event, and disgusting defamation of the prime minister. The field operatives of the imperial family, including “stars” who already specialize in harassing bereaved families, appeared at the funeral and tried to incite the masses against Bennett – including calls for his death.
There is no difference between Bennett and former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Yitzhak Rabin when it comes to the opposition leader facing them. The methods have only become more sophisticated. Inhibitions have vanished. The few brakes have been released. The mask has been removed and behind it an ugly, monstrous face has been revealed.
It’s like the erudite speeches in the Knesset after the Second Lebanon War while hidden hands and dubious dollars stoked demonstrations in the streets. It’s like the mock coffin at a rally against Rabin in 1995, and the rally on Jerusalem’s Zion Square where one slogan was “In blood and fire we will expel Rabin.” Netanyahu never knew, never saw, never intended.
This is also the case these days. They ask plaintively: What do you want from Bibi? He just came back from abroad. He was 14,000 kilometers – 8,700 miles – away, wrapped in the pleasures of the top 1 percent and feeling like a white lotus all over. And somehow, social media continued to be manipulated by a secret and poisonous army that incited against Bennett with all its might and tried to get those wretches out onto the streets.
Netanyahu is the poison tree. The trunk is (relatively) elegant but its branches are constantly writhing and in the flesh of its fruit lies the danger of death. Never in Israel’s 73 years has such a dangerous, malicious and unbridled politician walked among us.
Incidentally, aside from the desire to clear his mind in style and create more quality family time (of course), one wonders about Netanyahu’s decision to prolong his vacation. Remember that the defendant is preparing for the resumption of his corruption trial. His legal team and spokespeople are working overtime. Was the trip to the exclusive and discreet resort (owned by a witness for the prosecution) also aimed at creating a convenient infrastructure, including fundraising, for what comes next?
In the meantime, the Bibi-ists in his toxic garden continue to pay dubious respect to the firm. There’s Likud’s Miri Regev, who within a few hours besmirched (in a lying and hateful tweet) the memory of a 6-year-old who had been left by his father to die in a broiling hot car, and that of a 21-year-old soldier (in an outburst of shrieks of hatred against the government and the media outside the home of the mourners).
That was extraordinary output even for a vile scrapper like her. To paraphrase the poet Haim Nachman Bialik, even the devil didn’t think of dancing on the blood of a small child. But Regev’s danse macabre knows no limit.
Her competitor for attention, Likud’s Galit Distal Atbaryan, received some dubious respect from Twitter when, in an attempt to strike at Bennett, she also took a stab at Joe Biden. “Manipulated content,” Twitter flagged it, distilling Distal Atbaryan’s character in a concise and wonderful way. What’s this novelist – she really is one – doing in the Knesset aside from cursing, lying, manipulating or promoting conspiracy theories?
These characters and their ilk, as well as the scion, who was in Hawaii too and presumably helped orchestrate the dangerous seething on social media, didn’t exactly help Netanyahu on Election Day. But the campaign to blacken Bennett and rile up the extremist base until someone raises a hand or throws a stone are still his favorite tools. He’s nourished by the hatred, violence and chaos, and his appetite is only growing.
A statesman's 'caring activists'
Tzachi Hanegbi, the longest-serving Knesset member, is one of Likud’s more moderate figures. His language is clean, his conduct is considered, his positions are cogent. In this atmosphere of incitement, he could definitely be considered proper, statesmanlike and dignified.
He’s certainty not one of the shouters and cursers. During the riots his colleagues ignite in the Knesset, he, like most of the former cabinet members (who aren’t David Amsalem or Miri Regev), sits there and keeps quiet.
So it was strange to discover (in an article by Haaretz’s Moran Sharir) that Hanegbi took part in a Likud demonstration at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Junction after Barel Shmueli’s death. Some of the things shouted or written on signs: “There is no mandate for the government of ruin,” “Barel was murdered by the Israeli government,” “Leftist traitors,” “Bennett, you son of a bitch,” “Bitches, get out of our sight, die, whores.”
Hanegbi didn’t only watch from the sidelines. He picked up a megaphone and made a speech.
I wondered what he was looking for amid all this trash being spewed. “I try to go to as many demonstrations as possible,” he said. “It’s one of the few tools for the government's opponents to express their frustration.”
Still, I noted, shocking things were said there. “When Likud members ask me to come, I show up. I met caring activists there, idealists. I came to strengthen them and be strengthened by them, people who volunteer and devote their time and money to the lofty aim of changing the country.”
Of all the Knesset members, only you were there, I said to him.
“I think that after I left, May Golan came,” he said, referring to a fellow Likudnik.
And are you comfortable with a political protest because of a Border Police officer who was killed? When you were in power, soldiers were killed in operational mishaps, and the left never demonstrated against you.
Hangebi replied calmly: “What I saw yesterday was a spontaneous demonstration – amid the hard feelings people on the right have about abandoning a combat soldier. His death was like a punch in the stomach for the right. And this wasn’t just an operational mishap. It’s part of an intentional containment policy aimed at protecting a government in distress.
“Barel, of blessed memory, was abandoned by command decisions in the field. There’s no way you can see masses coming to the fence and not create some separation. And I suspect that this is a result of the policy that’s directing the commanders to go for containment. This was an assassination. True, there are operational mishaps under every government, but we’re furious about the political issue.”
(Worth clarifying: The open-fire orders haven’t changed between the Netanyahu and Bennett governments, and they’re determined by the military, not by government policy.)
And the curses? And the filthy talk and the incitement against Bennett?
“This undermines the effectiveness of every demonstration,” Hanegbi said. “When I speak at a demonstration, I talk about the policy, about the matter at hand. I plan to propose legislation to set up an external investigative committee, parliamentary or otherwise, that will look into what happened.”
Hanegbi expects a long period in the opposition – “months or years.” But, he says, in a few months there will be “huge demonstrations” by the settlers. “Only the religious can bring out the masses. When they feel that the settlement effort is being impeded, they’ll come out.”
“But,” he added, “demonstrations don’t topple governments.”