Anarchy Prevails in Israel, and It Starts With Netanyahu

Without any personal example, proper management or reasonable enforcement, Netanyahu proves that he is to blame – rather than protesters he likes to cast as 'anarchists'

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

Anarchy, in its standard definition, refers to a society with no central government. In the definition of the intrigue-rife residential floor of Balfour Street in Jerusalem, anarchy refers to a protest of devoted, tax-paying, army-serving citizens who are fearful for their country; people who are unwilling to tolerate the disgraceful management, the depth of the crisis, the corruption; who have had it up to here with a prime minister who’s forcing them to tie themselves to his political and judicial future, like a millstone around the neck of an entire country, which is threatening a kill confirmation even as it sinks implacably into the depths.

Anarchy prevails in Israel. No, not that of the paranoid prism through which the Netanyahus see the world. It’s rampant here according to the dictionary definition. Anarchy is a series of senior figures who warn the public not to violate the draconian regulations they set forth, which undergo changes faster than you can say Jack Robinson; and at the same time, those who warn and preach, including cabinet ministers, including the family of the prime minister, his advisers and his aides, flout the most basic guidelines.

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While the rules of the coronavirus era – some of them oppressive and tainted by ulterior motives – have become our bread and butter, they cast the bread aside and go back to eating forbidden cakes. MKs from the opposition and ministers from the coalition. Senior officials and even the head of the Shin Bet security service, whose agents are snooping around in our phones and sending people into quarantine wrongly – but we are not allowed to occupy ourselves with his “private affairs.” Who hasn’t sinned, who hasn’t been caught?

The central government’s absence from our life is revealed to us in every newscast. There’s no need to go back in time. Pick a day, any day, and gasp and shudder at the thuggery on the one hand and the governmental chaos on the other, which continue relentlessly to be uncovered in all their ugliness in a kind of endless loop.

It’s usually the same mix, consisting of a lack of personal example, a mess in epidemiological management, chaos in enforcement where it’s least needed (demonstrations, it’s always the demonstrations), and an absence of enforcement where it’s most needed (Haredi areas). Cynicism rules our lives. Two weeks ago, the cabinet convened for a Zoom session under the rubric: “Economic aid for business owners and families.” Two and a half hours, no less, were devoted to the demonstrations. The chief squawkers were naturally the flunkies David Amsalem, Miri Regev and Amir Ohana (all Likud). The Kahol Lavan bloc ministers were distraught. “Tell me, aren’t you ashamed?” minister Itzik Shmuli (Labor) asked. They guffawed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the press, September, 2020.Credit: YOAV DUDKEVITCH/ AFP

Also floating in this moldy soup are disgraceful bureaucratic failures that are depriving those who are languishing under the economic crisis of the little succor that will keep them alive; and above all, managerial disarray that is thrown into sharp relief by the criminal trial of the de facto anarchist.

From big to little, nothing is really being managed here. The sloppiness even pervades the work of legislation of the coronavirus regulations, which anyway no one understands or is updated about completely, including those who are involved in formulating the regulations. Wednesday, for example, was the expiry date of the demonstrations clause in the emergency legislation, which no one noticed. You will say that this is due to an overload of legislative efforts on a vast scale. No. In fact, the only thing on the government and Knesset agenda is the coronavirus regulations. Likud, as this column has reported, isn’t consenting to have the ministerial committee for legislation meet, even though numberless necessary laws and amendments have piled up (only to put Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who is a stye in Likud’s eye, in his place).

On that day, the Prime Minister’s Office let it be known that Netanyahu was “considering” the transfer of powers for dealing with the coronavirus to the local governments. As though the epidemic hasn’t been raging here for seven months. Shortly afterward, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry engaged in a free-for-all. Finance Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) released quotes of his remarks that add up to an indictment of Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud) but primarily of the Big Boss.

Katz is a political tragedy, and the tears over it are costing us dearly. By the Ides of March, when the virus assaulted Israel, it was already clear that the public treasury was going to look like Lake Kinneret in its worst days. There was nothing left to pump, and all the glop was going to come floating to the top. Katz chose with a clear head and a willing heart to enter this quagmire. It’s not clear how a person who perceived himself as a candidate for prime minister, as a fine-tuned political navigator, decided that the way to the top was to become a kamikaze pilot. These days it’s better to be a simple MK. Just ask Nir Barkat.

Edelstein’s close circle fired back quickly that Katz should occupy himself with salvaging the economy instead of trying to be an amateur epidemiologist. Netanyahu also let loose a furious response. At that very moment, another Likud statement was issued, attacking Kahal Lavan with no holds barred. Why did the ruling party jump as though bitten by a snake? Because their in-laws in the dysfunctional family dared – what is the world coming to? – to demand a state budget. And immediately. No, there won’t be a budget for the coming year, as long as the accused hasn’t decided what’s best for his survival scenario and what best serves the caprices of his wife and son.

In the face of the disaster that is being played out before our eyes, Kahol Lavan is continuing, for the time being, to roll up its sleeves and shake a big stick at its coalition partners. The party’s MKs are clashing with their colleagues from Likud, and the senior figures are setting in motion moves that are sending a clear message: We are here, we’re not going anywhere, we will fight in the government for the causes that led people to vote for us – even though the majority of those people have vowed never to do so again.

It’s not easy to impose this tough line, both because of the turmoil in the party’s Knesset faction and because of the statesmanlike character of Benny Gantz, the party’s leader. In a meeting of the MKs held this week, following the resignation of Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir and the rebellious remarks of MKs Miki Haimovich and Ram Shefa, Gantz urged them, almost pleadingly: We have to be united, it’s impossible for everyone to do what he wants. Without me there is no Kahol Lavan, and without Kahol Lavan I don’t exist.

Now, that’s starting to be worrisome: a kind of self-glorification combined with a crying lack of self-awareness. In any event, Kahol Lavan barely exists, and on what basis did he decide that without him the party will evaporate? His colleague, Gabi Ashkenazi, undoubtedly bit his lip insistently.

Bush league

As Netanyahu increasingly grasped the depth of the troubles and the abyss of mistrust on the part of the public, he decided to switch gears. Last week he talked only coronavirus. He’s trying to recapture the command posture from the start of the epidemic. But it’s not working for him. Another finding that emerged from Channel 12’s public opinion poll this week not only showed Naftali Bennett (Yamina) drawing close to him, in terms of the percentage of the public who think he’s best suited to be prime minister, but plunged Netanyahu, for the first time since he returned to power, into the twenties on this question. In the aggregate, a far greater percentage preferred the rival candidates over him. In his performance rating, he’s also below 30 percent in all the recent polls. Shades of Ehud Olmert after the second Lebanon war.

In the recent election campaigns, ubiquitous billboards proclaimed “Netanyahu – a different league.” Seen in photos with the world’s powerful figures, resplendent in his Spencer Partridge suits, he was in his element. But that element consists of 90 percent cosmetics and 10 percent substance. The coronavirus crisis peeled away the layer of makeup and revealed him exactly for what he is: the league for doling out jobs, at best. A failed manager, frenetic, surrounded by low-quality aides and advisers, sycophants and court jesters. He is foiling the actions of his loyalists and obsessively torpedoing his coalition partners. Even when he tried to push through things that are genuinely important to him, like tax benefits or flying to Washington in a private plane, he failed. How can he succeed when the executor is a maladroit like MK Miki Zohar, symbol of the ciphers Netanyahu has collected and elevated, together with other types whom his predecessors wouldn’t have invited to so much as an interview for the job of assistant to the assistant political adviser?

Giant banners of Netanyahu shaking hands with Putin and Trump hung on the Likud's party headquarters in Tel Aviv, July 28, 2019. The words in Hebrew read, 'Netanyahu, a different league.'Credit: Nir Elias/Reuters

Take the responses, for example – seemingly not a critical issue, but it’s another element that reveals Netanyahu’s non-management in all its nakedness. He decided to focus entirely on coronavirus messages, as we saw. But whereas the prime minister’s PR people went along with this, Likud’s social media accounts couldn’t contain themselves. In the past few days they’ve continued to hurl political trash at a dizzying pace at Gantz, Bennett, MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Likud) and basically at anything that moves. An odor of acrid perspiration wafts from this panicky behavior.

The keys to this arena of messages are ostensibly held not by Netanyahu Sr. but more by Yair, the son, and his longtime pals Yonatan Orich and Topaz Luk. And the son has long since outpaced the father, that’s plain. The incompetent documentary operation in the enemy’s rear by Luk and the family’s spokesman, Ofer Golan, illustrated the anarchy that reigns in the royal courtyard.

Another example of the wackiness that’s enveloped the Balfour Street residence is the response issued by the new-media geniuses in the case of the hair stylist who slipped into the PM’s home to deal with the Lady’s locks. The response should be studied in courses for media advisers in the lesson about “how not to formulate a press communiqué.”

It’s a masterpiece of contradictions and inconsistencies (“The lady is an influential public figure,” we’re told by the same people who never miss an opportunity to insist that Sara is a private person and therefore has the right to run as wild as she pleases); of self-righteousness and preachiness (reams of words about how the “lady” sticks to the coronavirus guidelines); of lies (the prime minister’s wife was supposedly recruited to shoot a PR clip for Sukkot, so a hair stylist was needed. Obviously. The important clip of a few seconds was uploaded to her Instagram account, which has just 32,000 followers. It’s all clear as an excuse for the visit of the hair stylist); of infantility (“She assumed that one could make use of a hair stylist’s services, as on the television channels”); and, of course, of self-embellishment (“She is maintaining her routine of work as a ‘child psychologist’”). The profession has to be mentioned, because if, heaven forbid, it’s omitted from any communiqué, the sea itself will catch fire.

The episode involving Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud), which left its mark in the latest poll, confronted the Balfour Street residence with a dilemma. Gamliel isn’t the apple of Bibi and Sara’s eye. She’s more like the worm in the apple to them. Firing her is exactly the leadership move that would put a little wind into Netanyahu’s flagging sails. It won’t happen. He held consultations with the advisers, the spokespersons and senior Likud figures close to him about how to proceed in Gamliel’s case. In the end he decided to wait, in the hope she would resign of her own volition (yeah, he picked the right customer). The grounds for doing nothing will be: If I fire her, I will have to fire every other minister who’s caught. Not to mention the coronavirus felons (mostly feloness) he has at home. Minister Gamliel will be punished, and prime minister’s wife gets off scot-free?

“Every intelligent person will rebuff anarchy; every free person will abhor dictatorship,” Menachem Begin once said. If he were to see how his successor is offering precisely those two alternatives, he would not only turn over in his grave but dig a few meters deeper into the earth.

Waiting for history to repeat

The main gainer from Netanyahu’s anarchy is of course Bennett. In the financial markets, a short position is a way to make a killing when a stock loses value. And broker Bennett is adept at squeezing every possible gain out of the government’s blundering. 

The leader of the right-wing Yamina alliance has gone from being a niche politician to the white knight taking more Likud Knesset seats every week. The voters are crying out for a redeemer, an alternative. For them, Bennett, the opposition leader de facto, is the answer.

In the election campaign Kahol Lavan ran with the slogan “No more right or left.” The proof of that thesis wasn’t provided until the coronavirus crisis, and when it was provided the person who profited from it turned out to be Bennett. For most Israelis, the old positions are of no interest, nor are territories, Arabs or identity politics. Only health and the economy matter.

Naftali Bennett speaks at the Knesset, September 2020.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

In private conversations, Bennett has been saying: I’m the only candidate for prime minister. He elaborates: Nothing will help Bibi this time. Even if the infection rate falls and the pandemic is stymied, this crisis has ruined people’s lives.

That takes us back to the pre-Bennett period, to the 2006 election, when Likud led by Netanyahu was almost wiped out. This was actually because of Netanyahu’s correct and courageous management as finance minister, but the votes of the lower classes were scattered to his right (Shas and Eli Yishai’s party) and to his left (Labor and the Pensioners Party).

Bennett believes that history will repeat, that once again, the victims won’t forgive Netanyahu. Well into 2021 we’ll be seeing those grim signs – “Closed,” “For Rent” – on tens of thousands of small businesses that went under or will yet go under, as well as the hundreds of thousands of unemployed and indigent.

This time, Bennett believes, the surge in the polls isn’t a momentary mirage. “Netanyahu is certain that he’ll whistle and his voters will come running, as usual,” an acquaintance quoted Bennett as saying.  

A similar message was tweeted by Netanyahu’s son Yair parallel to an official Likud message: Bennett is strong in the polls, but in the voting booth the Likudniks come back home. “That won’t happen this time,” Bennett told his interlocutor. 

And once again there are two channels of communication: that of the prime minister and that of the Likud leader. While Likud’s social media accounts were talking about “the left-wing media’s embrace” of Bennett, the prime minister’s official media channel was humming a different tune this week, one we haven’t heard since he threw Bennett and his sidekick Ayelet Shaked, both anathema to the family, into the opposition.

“In the first wave we were a united, cohesive government and a public that responded,” an official statement by the prime minister noted. In other words, when “the bloc” was solid, everything was cast-iron. Between the lines, Netanyahu is intimating to Bennett that a comeback into Bibi’s arms is possible, and that above all he’ll be reminding Bennett (and the voters) that if Bennett is part of the right-wing bloc, he’s part of the Netanyahu bloc.  

Bennett, though, isn’t having it. Stage by stage he’s separating from the connection with Netanyahu. His soaring popularity is being noted not only in Likud, it’s spreading into the Shas electorate and the moderate Lithuanian – non-Hasidic – part of the ultra-Orthodox community. You can even hear his praises being sung in the Ger Hasidic sect.

The conclusion: Netanyahu, you have a successor! And if the dots connect, let’s see Netanyahu stop the Likud folks who eternally crave power, including the members of the party’s Central Committee and their families behind them, from entering a coalition that Bennett (or Bennett and opposition leader Yair Lapid) might cobble together.

National disunion

Bennett is the first to import the British model of a shadow cabinet, something that has never been tried in Israeli politics. He has done it with dizzying success, too. His surge in the polls, something that had been blocked on the right for a decade, has revived his old dream of a different form of right-wing government. Likud B. 

That’s the Yamina he wants: with a secular majority, a religious minority, esteemed professionals and popular public figures. But he has a couple of hardal – nationalist ultra-Orthdox – seats, headed by Bezalel Smotrich, with whom it’s impossible to forge a ruling party.

A well-known figure in the arena, who likes Bennett a lot more than he likes Netanyahu, to put it mildly, recently told Bennett: You have to dump Smotrich. 

That appears to be the case. There’s no reason to wait with that decision. Ephemeral damage of one less seat, two at most, and then keep on surging – producing a ruling alternative on the center-right – is preferable.

But Smotrich knows what’s going on. The higher Bennett climbs in the polls, the more Smotrich, who heads the National Union component of Yamina, defies him. It’s no longer confined to major issues such as the bill to establish a commission of inquiry into judges’ alleged conflicts of interests. Now it’s happening on a daily basis.

Smotrich’s Twitter account sometimes looks like a replica of Yair Netanyahu’s page. He’s defending the prime minister regarding his legal issues and savaging Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit nonstop. His message machine, both in terms of content and timing, seems fully synchronized with that of the prime minister. That coordination might in fact now be taking place, behind Bennett’s back, to get the “wayward” candidate back in line.

This week, Smotrich told Channel 12 that he’ll take part only in a right-wing government; that is, not only left-wing Meretz but also Lapid is unacceptable to him. He also took pride in the flattering polls, as if he had anything to do with them. 

It’s like the old story about the fly who hitches a ride on the back of an elephant that crosses a dangerous river. When they get to the other side, the fly shouts out: We did it!

The last mission

In every election campaign in the past decade the question has arisen: Will Ron Huldai be the savior of the center-left camp? 

The longtime Tel Aviv mayor went along with the speculation. He weighed his options, consulted, pondered aloud. He seemed to enjoy the buzz. In the end he always decided to stay in the city.

“I still have a lot to do,” was the general reason. To his interlocutors he also explained that he had no desire to run in the primary of the Labor Party, his traditional home that has since fallen apart. Somehow, the feeling was that he never really meant it. The attention flattered him.

Now, more than ever, he’s painting himself into a corner with an apparently solid commitment to enter national politics. But now Tel Aviv is dying. Businesses have been shut down, restaurants are deserted. Unemployment is rising, migration is turning negative. 

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai (right) with President Reuven Rivlin and coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu, August 2020.Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO

Young people, no longer able to afford the rent, are returning home. Homelessness is increasing. With no night life, culture, festivals or parades, the city has lost its vitality. The prevailing scenario says that 2021 will be no different.

Since being elected for a fifth term, Huldai has continued to cruise the city and enjoy what he created, and justifiably so. In the recent past he went abroad a good deal, and received a royal welcome as one of the world’s most successful mayors. 

Then the coronavirus struck. The flights were canceled. The gray today is very gray, as the Israeli song goes.

He has been mayor for 22 years and has turned the city into what it is, for good and for better. He’s also the city’s physician and psychologist. No one understands Tel Aviv better than Huldai.

With messianism, racism and chauvinism swirling all around, and with a zealous, corrupt leader ensconced in Jerusalem who symbolizes the opposite of liberalism and humanism, Huldai is the defensive shield of the “bubble.” He’s the certificate of sanity. His dominance and status are the city’s insurance policy against the evils outside. 

When in the past two decades did Tel Aviv need his abilities, experience and bulldozer tactics more than it will in the years ahead, the years of rehabilitation and climbing out of the pit? Will he desert the city now? For what? To form a party that will win six or seven seats at most, as the polls predict?

He’d be appointed transportation minister or economy minister in the next government. Or sit in the opposition. Well, terrific.

The truth needs to be told: Huldai has no base of support outside Tel Aviv. The votes come from Meretz, Kahol Lavan, the remnants of Labor, maybe a fraction from Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. He wouldn’t get one seat from right-wing voters.

Most of the people in his base live in Tel Aviv. That’s not the way to save the state from the government, which he opposes with a passion and even demonstrated against last Saturday, hurting his arm in the process.

At 76, as the elder of the center-left tribe, he can be a kingmaker, lend support to a potential successor as Tel Aviv mayor, and before that, position himself firmly behind a party in the center-left bloc in the general election. He’d be placing at its disposal his popularity, resources and connections.

And he’d be taking part in the post-coronavirus revival of the city. That seems a worthier scenario for the permanent tenant on the 12th floor of city hall.