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After Another Surrender to Netanyahu, Gantz’s Party Realizes It’s Time to Play Some Politics

Well, hopefully more people than Kahol Lavan’s Asaf Zamir, who has resigned after the unity government's disgraceful blocking of protests outside the prime minister’s residence

Yossi Verter
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Illustration.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter

If a refrain were fitting for Kahol Lavan politicians this week, it would be singer Ariel Zilber’s “Here we are, the despairing.”

After losing most of their supporters when they entered the government headed by the defendant whom they had sworn to replace no matter what, this week came another depreciation of their values – their surrender to Benjamin Netanyahu’s blitzkrieg against the protesters – while combining this suppression with another coronavirus lockdown.

Every month Kahol Lavan, under constant pressure, sells out yet another inviolable principle. It does this in the name of government stability, a revived economy and health. The main thing is health. I’ll elaborate on Kahol Lavan politicians, their tribulations and errors. For now, their partner is squeezing and squashing them with one hand and distorting reality for his convenience with the other.

Two leaders looked straight at the cameras this week and launched the same baseless declaration at their constituencies: The vaccine is near, declared both Netanyahu and Donald Trump. Really, it’s just around the corner, they promised, Trump doing his promising not long before he himself tested positive.

The man with the purple coiffure and the man with the orange super coiffure are using false promises to try to reassure angry electorates groaning under the failure of their regimes. At least Trump’s country is home to the leading manufacturers that, it is hoped, will bring vaccines to market next year. As for Netanyahu, as usual, he’s striving “to find a vaccine” and has “given instructions” for the establishment of a vaccine plant.

This hollow statement, which he keeps repeating, brings to mind another one he especially likes: the one about how he “has extracted the gas from the earth.” After all, the entire world, with its scientists and laboratories, its geologists and energy conglomerates, is just waiting for his “instructions.” Without his wondrous guiding hand, nothing moves.

CNN decided this year to stop giving discounts to Trump, whose power to influence his faithful is magical. The network has a fact-checking chyron at the bottom of the screen, taking apart his nonsense and laying out the dry facts. And when the facts reach a critical mass (which they always do), CNN doesn’t hold back; as chief national correspondent John King said, don’t believe a single word he says.

If our blindly “balanced” media had any backbone, it would stop regurgitating Netanyahu’s scrolls of lies and incendiary outbursts – and never mind the horrific amounts of time the TV studios and radio stations give his mouthpieces and useful idiots, who tarnish journalism and the truth. In fact, there isn’t enough space on the screen to enumerate his lies and correct them with facts. Or his failures.

President Reuven Rivlin asked the public this week to stop comparing the debacle of the Yom Kippur War to the debacle of the war on the coronavirus. Let’s stop “picking at the sores,” he said. Still, it seems that in the chronicles of the days we want to forget, the two debacles are the worst in our history.

This week Defense Minister Benny Gantz – even though he’s scattering apologies to the public for Netanyahu’s debacles, in lieu of the prime minister himself – went ahead and compared the two fiascos. He too spoke about “unpreparedness” and the “steep price” that came with it. We hear the leader’s lies and the apologies of his “alternate,” who has donned the mantle of responsibility even though he isn’t the guilty one.

Where exactly were we caught “unprepared”? Did someone not make it in time to Ashraf Marwan so that the Egyptian double agent could tell us about the likelihood of a second wave? Did the “special means” at the hospitals fail, even though they were installed in due time? Did the heads of the internal medicine departments not cry out about the overburdened wards?

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Prime Minister's Office, September 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Prime Minister's Office, September 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

The limits of partnership

It’s almost unimaginable but Netanyahu’s rebuke of Gantz during the meeting of the coronavirus cabinet (“Don’t tell me that we’re driving the public crazy!”) comes from an authentic place.

This is the amazing paradox of the man. He believes his own lies with all his heart and is convinced that his failures are the fault of other people – and that they, only they, are a stumbling block in the way of the tremendous successes he’s capable of producing.

In his mind, he really did function amazingly in the first wave. It’s only the Kahol Lavan people and the “anarchist” demonstrators who are destroying things for him.

Try telling him that back in March when the number of tests performed was a fifth of that now. Try reminding him that in his first ironclad lockdown there was no exit strategy, neither for the economy nor for the health system. Try telling him that the economy was crushed, amid failed plans for its revival, with billions promised for this and very little actually appearing.

This is joined by the culture of beheadings and passing the buck. Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu is the new David Elazar, the military chief who was forced to resign after the Yom Kippur War. In a coordinated attack, the Balfour faithful were sent to target Gamzu this week, headed by Transportation Minister Miri Regev and coalition whip Miki Zohar. They were joined by that famous ultra-Orthodox buck-passer and debacle-maker, Interior Minister Arye Dery, whose political fate is tied to that of the leader.

Netanyahu didn’t content himself with only Regev and Zohar from his own party. He brought to the coronavirus cabinet meeting a Likud observer who’s not a member of the committee, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, as a reinforcement for his hawkish line on tightening the lockdown. Steinitz supplied the goods, exhausted everybody present, and he too hinted to Prof. Gamzu about the location of the exit door.

This is Netanyahu’s habit in such meetings. He lets everybody speak but sometimes changes the roster to adhere to his dictates. He did this, for example, during the 2014 Gaza war, when his base was getting a whiff of the limping operation and was demanding a massive entry into Gaza. Back then there were more dovish voices in the cabinet, as well as horror-show presentations on the price of expanding the offensive, presentations that were miraculously (and illegally) leaked from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Back to Miki Zohar. He’s not in any cabinet, God help us. He’s just the whip of a failed governing coalition, a worthless babbler into the microphone, a crude punk and human PR brochure for the caprices of the prime minister’s residence. In every position he fills a heavy stench trails. This week he laced into Gamzu and again “recommended” to Netanyahu that it’s necessary, absolutely necessary, to disband this government and call an early election.

With the cessation of the budget crisis and Netanyahu’s decision to postpone the inevitable end of this disunity government, we entered a less bloody détente between the sides. But the protests changed this. The flames have reignited because the coals were never fully extinguished. Zohar is just a trope, an extension of the hysterical, unstable entity that inhabits the prime minister’s residence.

The Gantzes are in despair. Their cellphones were bombarded this week with thousands of messages sent by the demonstrators lest Gantz’s people lend a hand to the leader’s transparent, dangerous moves.

Already different tunes are being heard about an early election. A senior figure in Kahol Lavan said to someone this week: “What were we established for? To kick out Bibi. And who says that after an election he’ll remain prime minister? A rotation between Bennett and Lapid – and Netanyahu goes home,” the Kahol Lavan politician said, referring to the ascendant right-wing leader Naftali Bennett and opposition leader Yair Lapid.

He’s not the only one thinking this, and he’s not the only one recognizing the party’s change of position – from regime alternative to the party that tips the balance on the way to ousting Netanyahu.

They’re looking at Netanyahu and want to burst. His obsession with the protests competes only with his impotence against the real centers of infection. Not a word has been heard from Bibi, the patron of “the natural partners,” on the hundreds of crowded buses that carried tens of thousands of Hasidim at the end of Yom Kippur, after the mass prayers. We didn’t hear him fulminating over the busloads and crowds of thousands. He spared them the invective he saves for his protesting opponents: “spreaders of disease” and “anarchists.”

And now there are also the gigantic sukkahs in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, despite the rabbis’ call to obey the instructions. This can be compared to bank robbers who days in advance set up right in front of the bank branch, cocking their guns as the police yawn in the squad car.

This phenomenon, of the ultra-Orthodox thumbing their nose at the law, is exactly like their not teaching English, math and science in their schools and not serving in the army. It’s all connected – we have two states for two peoples.

So he prefers to incite against demonstrators for democracy, as members of his coalition attend huge weddings and ignore the grossest violations of “the regulations for the people’s health.” After obtaining Kahol Lavan’s consent to cancel the protests, he continued to spew filth on the matter: “This is an incubator for anarchy, and it does the greatest harm.”

He knows that one in three ultra-Orthodox Jews who are tested for the coronavirus come out positive, totally unlike the result at demonstrations. But from his perspective, the clear numbers are a conflict of interest.

On Wednesday, late at night, less than two hours before the expiration of the appointment of Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen, Netanyahu and his colleagues deigned to vote on another extension of Cohen’s term. At exactly that hour, thousands of protesters against Netanyahu went out and encountered tough police officers.

And at exactly that time, more nails were hammered into the giant sukkahs before yet another mass infection. If we have a prayer in our hearts this holiday, it’s that these facts aren’t necessarily intertwined.

Kahol Lavan's Asaf Zamir facing photographers in 2019.
Kahol Lavan's Asaf Zamir facing photographers in 2019.Credit: Asaf Zamir

Sobbing and supporting

The sharpest formulation of the situation of Kahol Lavan – which can only be defined as on its deathbed – has been by outgoing Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir, a member of that party who said Friday he was resigning from the government over his lack of trust in Netanyahu.

“We’re explaining to the public that our reason for being in the government is to protect the country from Netanyahu,” he said at a meeting of Kahol Lavan ministers, “but we’re perceived as enabling the continuation of his rule, and actually we’re sticking the country with him.”

This is exactly the core of the collapse of the party that at the height of its power, less than a year ago and with the same leader, had 35 Knesset members. In an election today it might get nine, maybe 10 on a good day.

Gantz joined Netanyahu’s government for all the right reasons and with all the good intentions. He and his colleagues are getting zero credit for their part in thwarting some of Netanyahu’s dangerous initiatives. But they’re taking the full blame for the things they’re lending him a hand in.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, Zamir published a long post on Facebook. The metaphors were harsh, like “we threw ourselves on a grenade.” Even this image wasn’t precise. Soldiers who throw themselves on live grenades and save their buddies win posthumous medals and are forever remembered as heroes. Kahol Lavan won’t get that.

Anyone who carefully read the post discerned the white flag the writer was raising. Until recently, it was still possible to hear a hint of optimism from Zamir.

But the decision to support a limiting of the protests emptied him of his last drop. He can understand the logic for the outline Gamzu suggested for the demonstrations: distancing, masks and a mapping of the area around the prime minister’s residence so that no more than 2,000 people could gather there.

This, he believes, should have been Kahol Lavan’s position on what Netanyahu was pushing: distancing the protesters from the family’s backyard.

Allowing at least this kind of demonstration, a basic right in a democratic country, was the banner Kahol Lavan raised for its dwindling camp of followers. This week, that too was put away in the drawer stuffed with the moldering flags of principles and commitments of the party that for a moment looked like a palpable governing alternative.

For Zamir and other Kahol Lavan people like Izhar Shay, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Miki Haimovich and Ram Shefa (the latter two voted against the demonstration legislation), this was a bridge too far. True, sometimes you have to swallow a frog (or a lake of them); sometimes you have to rise above political considerations for the matter at hand, certainly when that matter is public health.

But there comes a time when you have to take a look at the electorate. “We are a political body,” Zamir told a meeting of legislators from his party. We have to act politically so that we’ll still have voters. Because if we don’t have voters, we won’t have a place in public life. There has to be a limit to being statesmanlike. We’re  not the Mother Teresa of Israeli politics.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews preparing for the Sukkot holiday, Jerusalem, September 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews preparing for the Sukkot holiday, Jerusalem, September 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Zamir is a hardcore Tel Aviv leftist. Convivial. An esteemed former deputy mayor. For many years he was considered a great guy. The media loved to love him. The past four months have transformed him into a demon in the eyes of many in his milieu.

They see him as a collaborator, a whitewasher of sins. He’s on borrowed time, with one foot and a bit more on the outside. His rhetorical ability isn’t letting him justify his membership in the government and the partnership between Likud and Kahol Lavan. The reasons he and others supported joining are remembered: the coronavirus crisis and preserving democracy.

The outcome of the first reason: a total managerial failure, the reddest country on Earth. The second, too, is now history: There are no more demonstrations on Balfour Street. The government run by a man indicted for grave crimes is banning protests against him. Kahol Lavan is supporting this. Sobbing and supporting.

The comic trio

Gantz is on a completely different page than Zamir. He, too, is aware of the abyss into which his party is plummeting. But he’s made of different stuff: He’s still more of a military chief than a party chairman. When responsibility to the state whistles, he salutes the flag.

At that meeting of Kahol Lavan legislators, the two who always fall into line – Gantz and the party’s second former military chief, Gabi Ashkenazi – spoke to their colleagues the way officers speak to their soldiers before a battle: This is war. There’s no room for political considerations. They once again cited the numbers of verified patients and seriously ill.

The breaking point came Wednesday the previous week. The incidence of illness soared; the professors’ forecasts were dire.

So Netanyahu called an urgent meeting. He had to talk about the protests, the protests, the protests. It seems he was getting killed over this at home. The public’s health is doubtless important to him, but the health of one woman in particular, his wife, is far more important.

Dery and Gantz were the two people invited to the meeting. Gantz demanded that two others be invited – Ashkenazi, the foreign minister, and Avi Nissenkorn, the justice minister, whom Netanyahu’s family considers a permanent finger in the eye. Netanyahu agreed.

He and Dery had coordinated. Synagogues can’t be closed on Yom Kippur, the Shas party chairman declared – not because of the ultra-Orthodox, but because 80 percent of the public goes to synagogue that day. We won’t shut them down, but we’ll urge people to pray outside, he added.

Coalition whip Miki Zohar speaking in the Knesset, May 2020.
Coalition whip Miki Zohar speaking in the Knesset, May 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu, as usual, was transparent. More demonstrations mean more deaths, he said. The Kahol Lavan trio – Gantz, Ashkenazi and Nissenkorn – was outraged. No objective data confirms that assertion.

They talked and talked. Netanyahu and Dery exerted their charm, played all their tricks and got what they wanted – an exemption for synagogues and a shutdown of the protests.

“Gantz and our other colleagues could have copied them, saying they opposed restricting the demonstrations, since this is a fundamental right, but they would ‘urge’ the protesters not to congregate,” a senior Kahol Lavan official said. “In this, they fell down on the job, big-time.”

Since that day (which many deem a rash and bitter one), it has been impossible to discern a glimmer of light in the eyes of the three Kahol Lavan leaders. Since then, they have been dependent on each other, three clauses of the same sentence.

This episode ended a long period of tensions between Gantz and Nissenkorn. The chief disliked many of the justice minister’s independent stances against Netanyahu and other Likud ministers, viewing some of them as provocative. Time after time he asked Nissenkorn to moderate his words, tone down his sweeping support for the protests and focus on his ministry’s work.

But Nissenkorn kept going, with a boost from senior Justice Ministry officials and Supreme Court justices. Now they form a single front against a third of their party’s legislators.

On Thursday last week, after the coronavirus cabinet met, Science, Technology and Space Minister Izhar Shay told Gantz he planned to resign. They talked and Shay backtracked, for the reasons that have served generations of people with second thoughts – he has something to contribute; it’s better for him to remain in the heart of darkness, where decisions are made, and provide his opinion.

Following that tense meeting of the party’s legislators, Shay wrote on Facebook that he had fought the decision to support scrapping the protests, but at 2 A.M., he threw up his hands. “I was on the verge of tears,” he told associates. “I didn’t sleep a wink all night. Our mistake was that we even agreed to discuss the demonstrations. It should have been taboo.”

Shay, like Zamir and others, sees this decision as a point of no return – “a law born in sin, for all the wrong reasons.” Judged by the harm it does democracy, he was quoted as saying, a temporary ban on protests is tolerable compared to everything else that Netanyahu and like-minded colleagues have been doing in recent years.

But that’s no comfort, he added: We should never have voted for a law that came into being solely to prevent protesters from coming to Jerusalem.

The law passed in the dead of night by just eight votes in the final ballot. The governing coalition outnumbers the opposition by 25 MKs. The massive number of no-shows came from Kahol Lavan. These Knesset members had reached their limit; they couldn’t drink any more Kool-Aid.

When the incidence of the virus starts falling, Netanyahu will seek approval for continuing to keep protesters away from his official residence. He won’t get it. Kahol Lavan legislators feel they have been pushed to the brink already.

Back in July, Netanyahu also demanded a ban on demonstrations. Kahol Lavan objected, and the right to protest was preserved.

At the Balfour residence, teeth were gnashed and the decibel level rose. What followed was two months of satanic delegitimization of these “spreaders of disease,” recalling dark times and benighted regimes, by the prime minister and his collaborators in politics and the media.

But now, of all times, when the witch hunt is at its height, Kahol Lavan has waved the white flag. Once again, its legislators have lost their drive.

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