Analysis |

A Commission to Probe Israel’s Submarine Affair Is Nigh, and Netanyahu Has Cause for Concern

Still, in the run-up to the next election, he knows that now is the time to start bashing away at the support for Naftali Bennett on the right

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Interior Minister Arye Dery has a creative idea: Benny Gantz will forget about the agreement to rotate the premiership with Benjamin Netanyahu, and Dery will guarantee that the government survives for four and half years. Gantz will remain defense minister with the full monty – the helicopter, the binoculars and the bunker at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv until November 2024.

Why, Dery sometimes grouses to his interlocutors, do we need an election now? And why does Gantz have to rush to an election?

Dery is apparently working on his idea, because this week the lobbying became palpable. The rumor is that Gantz is pondering an announcement that, due to the pandemic/security-crisis situation, in the pre-vaccine period as winter approaches, he’s setting aside his ego.

About this streak of brilliance (Haaretz’s editor-in-chief, Aluf Benn, outlined a similar scenario Thursday), Gantz himself would say: “Brilliant on a theoretical level, zero on a practical level.” Well, let it be clear: This streak of brilliance has never occurred to him.

Above all, the guarantee Dery is giving is a product more perishable than Arnon MiIchan’s lavish gifts. In the not-too-distant past, burdened by coalition politics and Netanyahu’s harassment, Gantz reminded the legislators of Dery’s Shas party of the last public commitment Gantz received from their boss before the government was formed: If Netanyahu doesn’t keep his word on the rotation, Shas will turn its back on him.

In that conversation with Gantz, the Shasniks merely looked down. In the end, they replied as they adjusted their skullcaps: We’re political people.

For a while now Gantz hasn’t expected the rotation to happen. He has said this to his close associates and subsequently to his party’s lawmakers. Five minutes after the agreement with Likud was signed, it morphed from a binding document and major legislation into a national joke.

In addition to the “tricks and shticks” of the political crook with whom Gantz forged the alliance, reality itself was against him. When no one expects Netanyahu to honor a signed agreement, and when crude lies have become the norm, even the mainstream media has been considering it a bad joke for months now.

Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Jerusalem, November 18, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Jerusalem, November 18, 2020.Credit: Menahem Kahana / AFP

It’s a given that the politicians no longer have any expectations of their colleagues or themselves, and it’s equally sad that the relevant watchdog prefers to lick its privates rather than bark loudly at the iniquity.

Next week, exactly one month before the Knesset dissolves due to the absence of a national budget, Gantz is expected to announce the establishment of a commission to investigate the “submarine affair” – suspected improprieties in Israel’s purchase of submarines and missile ships on Netanyahu’s watch. Gantz’s Kahol Lavan is rushing to a general election with this commitment, which like its supreme commitment (nyet to Netanyahu) and many others got left by the wayside.

The letters of appointment are nearly completed. The official phrasing will be dry: a commission to examine the propriety of the acquisition procedures at the Defense Ministry, and so on. (At the defense minister’s office, the official word is that the final decision will be made next week.)

Gantz’s people figure that not too much time will elapse before the commission reaches conclusions. Maybe it will find that the prime minister behaved by the book. And maybe not exactly. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the possible repercussions could border on the catastrophic – publicly, and down the road, maybe criminally.

Yes, let’s imagine the commanders of the navy, past and present, defense chiefs, generals in the reserves, civilians, some of them suspects in the affair, and even the prime minister summoned to testify. Everything that isn’t blocked by the military censor will be made public. The commission's briefings will jibe well with the testimonies at the Jerusalem District Court, where Netanyahu’s separate corruption trial, which began in May, is taking place.

So far, we’ve only heard a modest amount of the evidence; this stems in part from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s sanctification of security. Some people say that because of these diplomatic and security considerations, Mendelblit hastened to clear the prime minister a priori, despite the horrible stench emanating from his conduct in the affair.

This won’t be the case in the work of a commission. The mandate to clarify things is in the hands of the Defense Ministry and the man who heads it (within the bounds of censorship, mainly self-censorship). This is the mandate to decide what gets exposed to the sunlight for disinfection and what doesn’t. And of course, the naming of names. Naming till it hurts, till there’s guilt.

Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz speaking at the Knesset, November 2020.
Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz speaking at the Knesset, November 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset

As long as Gantz is defense minister, the commission will keep working. How much time does he have? At least five months (assuming a general election at the end of March and a new government not before the end of May). In a not-impossible scenario, Netanyahu will once again fail to form a coalition and the current cabinet will remain as the caretaker government until who knows when.

The members of the commission, headed by Brig. Gen. (res.) Amnon Straschnov, a former district court judge and chief military prosecutor, must prepare for the treatment that has been dealt to investigators and prosecutors of Netanyahu in recent years: a campaign of slander and filth on the internet, snooping and investigations against them by persons unknown, and systematic mafia-style attacks from the unrestrained Likudnik disciples at the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street.

Lying speeches will be heard in the Knesset, parliamentary motions will be made, interviewees will grow red in the face as they spit out mendacious talking points, and nasty, false accusations will be let loose under the wings of parliamentary immunity. The committee members will certainly get to hear from Balfour favorite Orly Lev, an activist who for the leader will sally forth even to wound the souls of bereaved parents. She’ll scream curses and threats with a megaphone and a Likud flag.

A tip to the Saturday night protesters: Show up in your thousands near Netanyahu’s villa in Caesarea and surround the home of one such bereaved family, the Farkashes. This protective belt of solidarity and support will be far more powerful than just another evening at Paris Square near Balfour Street.

Hammer to fall

For two or three weeks now, Netanyahu has been meeting with the Likud backbenchers. He’s giving them the royal treatment, his very best. He’s asking for their political assessments, their advice and sometimes their help.

Now and then they leak bits of remarks; for example, that Gantz isn’t capable of serving as prime minister because he doesn’t have “public legitimacy.” This declaration was already tried back in the summer in interviews with Likudniks, but it was dropped. Now it’s an integral part of the talking points.

Gantz's party has only 10 Knesset seats in the opinion polls. How can he be the prime minister? “It doesn’t make sense,” pontificates Intelligence Affairs Minister Eli Cohen, a political hitchhiker and outstanding parrot in the service of the leader.

So it’s not that Netanyahu deceived Gantz from the very start. It’s not that he signed a coalition agreement he hadn’t the slightest intention of honoring. It’s not that this agreement doesn’t condition the rotation of the premiership on the opinion polls.

It’s not that Netanyahu and his ministers and Knesset members have done all they can to violate the provision, spirit and significance of the agreement. They’re perfectly fine. He’s perfectly fine and happy to invite the movers in and leave the Balfour residence on November 17, 2021.

Shas leader Arye Dery, left, and Benny Gantz at an event in August 2020.
Shas leader Arye Dery, left, and Benny Gantz at an event in August 2020.Credit: Jorge Novominsky / GPO

But, alas, Gantz's “public legitimacy” – what’s going to happen with that? Election mode is evident everywhere. Netanyahu is sending his spin doctors to the television studios, facing hapless interviewers to batter his partners with sackfuls of lies.

Meanwhile, he's granting interviews to opportunistic toadies who’ve gained choice spots in the media. This, of course, comes on top of his vaccines campaign, which an extraterrestrial visiting here wouldn’t believe was being pitched by a politician and not the chairmen of Pfizer and Moderna.

Elsewhere, he’s less eloquent, like when he was asked to comment at a press conference on Joe Biden. He hesitated for a moment before he called him “the president-elect.”

As the angry spirit of this psychotic man clings to the White House’s horns for fear of what will catch up to him, Netanyahu is becoming a bit slow of speech. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen this man, whose tongue is his weapon, get confused like this, as if a Republican seraph had placed a burning coal on his tongue.

The main opposition players – Yamina chief Naftali Bennett, opposition leader Yair Lapid, Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman – are ratcheting up their efforts including secret investigations. Against Bennett, the Likudniks are no longer showing restraint. Likud has dumped the axiom that the higher Yamina climbs, the more the attacks on it from the prime minister of the failed coronavirus government will strengthen it.

After rightist Bennett’s flip-flops between the center and the far right (“I will run with [Bezalel] Smotrich” and “I won’t go with Lapid”), the master who brought him into politics understands that now is the time to hit hard.

Netanyahu is the hammer of the right. The votes of the centrists and even the center-left are sitting on Bennett’s anvil. Now is the time to bang away until the prodigal son returns to his natural dimensions, at most a low-double-digit number of Knesset seats.

Netanyahu is also continuing to stir things up within Yamina, this time maybe without the rabbi-politicos whom Bennett has shaken off once and for all, but definitely via effective messaging, like praise for how far-right Smotrich is, and musings about Bennett’s elitism.

This is the rationale: If on the right Smotrich runs with political dud Rafi Peretz and Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu will be getting partners pleasing to his palate, and the modestly proportioned Bennett will squeeze from him less than he might otherwise. In any case, they’ll march together into his next government, even if not hand in hand.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett speaking at the Knesset, September 2020.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett speaking at the Knesset, September 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset

Civil service omissions

The common error regarding Dina Zilber is that she’s a far-leftist. She has taken part in her share of incidents that have enraged the regime. The most recent happened this week: Zilber spoke at an Israel Democracy Institute conference on the topic of governability. The soon-to-be former deputy attorney general voiced her opinion on the state of governability in Israel 2020.

In her direct style she drew an objective picture that any person with the least bit of integrity could agree with: The systematic attack on the civil service, media, jurists, rights groups and everything else on the other side of the political barricade, while blaming them for all the country’s ills, has become standard procedure.

What people don’t understand about Zilber is that even if the prime minister were in the left-wing Meretz party and his government had people from the left-wing New Israel Fund, and they were behaving like the current government, she’d be making the exact same speech. This is the only way she operates: total truth and a commitment to a clean system.

“Sometimes, so as not to admit the sad truth of that lack of leadership, they turn on the fan that blows the blame in every direction,” she aptly described it. Sure enough, the fans at Balfour Street started blowing. Even the prime minister, in response to a prearranged question, complained: “Unbelievable, it’s the breaking of every norm.” Norms have always been the apple of his eye.

Here's where Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz enters the picture. Hershkowitz was shocked and asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to deal with the issue “as befits its gravity and past events.” He sent a letter to the attorney general, after a carpet bombing and filth campaign on social media by Balfour Street.

Hershkowitz, Israel’s worst civil service commissioner ever, is a political appointment par excellence. In the past, he served as a minister in a Netanyahu government. He was a model minister from Bibi's perspective: obedient, eager to please, a featherweight. He wasn’t felt at all, neither upon entering nor exiting the political scene.

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber speaking at an event in January 2020.
Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber at a conference in January 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

Hershkowitz knows very well what’s expected of him, from whom and by what he must be shocked. When benighted municipal rabbis who earn their living at our expense (and receive extra pay, sometimes, secretly) make statements bordering on the criminal about the Arab community, foreign workers or LGBT people, he doesn’t lift a finger against them.

On the eve of the elections in the United States, when those rabbis sent an open letter calling on Jews to vote for Donald Trump, we didn’t hear a word from Hershkowitz. Recently, a Finance Ministry employee photographed the cellphone screen of the ministry’s legal adviser, Assi Messing, and sent the picture to Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, who used it to shame the jurist and the ministry spokeswoman.

This is more than a disciplinary transgression, but Hershkowitz didn’t summon the man close to the minister for a clarification. Why should he tangle with Herod?

During Hershkowitz’s tenure, the civil service has become a sorry joke. The most important units at the most important ministries aren’t staffed. The Finance Ministry resembles a disaster area. The civil servants most important to Israel’s economy, like the accountant general, budget chief and director general, are acting ministers.

Ditto the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office (and he too is leaving). At the Justice Ministry there’s no director general and no state prosecutor. Zilber herself is in an extension of her term. And for two years now there hasn’t been a police commissioner.

A civil service commissioner worthy of his or her name should have made Zilber’s speech, word for word. But forget it. The man will continue to warm the commissioner’s chair while eyeing his next position. Among these old guard National Religious Party types, it’s a privilege to provide service. But only to one side.

Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz, left, speaking at the Knesset in 2018.
Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz, left, speaking at the Knesset in 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Stranger in a strange land

Danny Danon spent nearly five years in Manhattan, at the UN building, to which he was exiled so he wouldn’t make problems for Netanyahu. He breathed the heady air of the summit of world diplomacy.

He walked among ambassadors of the great powers, cultivated ties with wealthy Jewish-community heads, made friends with colleagues and all told was considered someone who did excellent work. And it must be said: contrary to most expectations.

About a month ago Danon returned to Israel and his political party, Likud. Via a fantastic political maneuver, he managed to get elected again as chairman of World Likud, a job with vast influence and resources he held for years until he was appointed deputy defense minister in 2013.

Likud legislator Miki Zohar, who thought he had the job in his pocket, discovered that the alcohol fumes at diplomats’ famous cocktail parties in New York hadn’t dulled Danon’s political senses. The man remained as sly a fox as before his departure.

Danny Danon, then Israel's UN ambassador, speaking at an event in 2019.
Danny Danon, then Israel's UN ambassador, at a conference in 2019. Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Now the Likud tribunal is deliberating whether the election at World Likud was legal, and Danon is fighting. If he loses – and to the best of my knowledge of that honorable institution, his loss seems certain – he will appeal to a district court.

In the meantime, he’s reacquainting himself with his party and is discovering that it doesn’t exist. There is no party. There are no institutions. There is no party life. There are no conventions. There is no transparency in money matters. Anyone who challenges the leadership is threatened with dismissal.

They’re also trying to dismiss him, as if he were a new Likudnik. It’s all happening somewhere on Balfour Street. This is the party.

He raises issues of regulations, and they laugh in his face. He cites the party constitution and encounters glazed eyes. He demands that a primary be held before the election for Likud chief and the Knesset slate, so that he can run (just for the slate this time), and he’s told that someone is already trying to cancel this process. All that’s needed is formal approval from the central committee.

He’s also discovering the silence. “I don’t understand,” he says in an astonishment that seems authentic, “how everyone is keeping silent. It used to be that in Likud people didn’t keep silent. I talk, I ask questions, and no one opens his mouth.”

To Danon’s amazement, he and the party have moved on two nonparallel lines. While he was there in a foreign land, absorbing international ways, progressing and getting more sophisticated, his political home changed from a varied and vibrant movement into one man’s violent tribe. It’s an entity devoid of any basic codes, stripped of reliability and fairness.

One Likud legislator put it well: “Danny is fighting his war in 2020 with weapons that were relevant until 2015.”

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