Annexation Simmers, Coronavirus Rages – and Netanyahu’s Busy Mulling an Early Election

Ministers from the prime minister's Likud party say he’s never the one to bring up the issue of annexation. Either way, Gantz is finally showing some moxie

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Gantz and Ashkenazi celebrate as Netanyahu's annexation is postponed.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The silence with which July 1 passed, without the sovereign power annexing a single windblown West Bank hilltop and without the security cabinet holding even a symbolic meeting, was the epitome of an anticlimax. It wasn’t the beating wings of history that were heard throughout the Middle East, but the desperate attempts of a duck trying to take off from a lake.

LISTEN: Bibi's bonanza, arresting activists and the death of God TV

-- : --

In January, when he arrogantly descended from the dais he shared with Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to declare that a decision on applying sovereignty to parts of the West Bank would be brought to the cabinet that very Sunday. The settlers danced on the rocky hills of Samaria and in the streets of Washington. The harbingers of redemption blinded the national eyes.

But since then, nothing. Only the drawing of maps.

Avi Berkowitz, the young envoy sent by Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner (“a child sent by a child,” according to a senior Israeli official familiar with the ups and downs of annexation), arrived Saturday night and left Wednesday. He left behind a list of demands for “significant diplomatic quid pro quos” – as Netanyahu put it in private conversations – that Israel must give the Palestinians.

The U.S. administration isn’t where it was in January. A diplomatic source described this to me as follows, riffing on the saying about the failures of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: The maximum that Netanyahu thinks he can give, from a political standpoint, is currently less than the minimum the Americans are demanding.

The words “Netanyahu” and “giving,” as we all know, don’t usually go together, despite the similarity of their Hebrew spellings (netinah for giving). The prime minister is the type who always insists on a free ride and then demands change from the driver at the last stop. Any concession – like reclassifying part of Area C, the section of the West Bank assigned full Israeli control by the Oslo Accords, as Area B, where Israel retains security control but the Palestinians have civilian control – would run into heavy resistance on the right.

For three years, Trump’s people worked on their plan with Netanyahu and his people – or alternatively, as some say, at Netanyahu’s direction. But almost six months after its unveiling, the plan has gone back to the drawing board, and perhaps onto the ash heap of history.

Trump gives his gifts capriciously, in spurts. Nobody in Jerusalem really knew when or why he would keep his promises, like moving the embassy to Jerusalem or withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran. In terms of timing, both of these came as a surprise. They also put him odds with most of his administration and, of course, weren’t preceded by any staff work.

Now, when he’s trailing far behind Joe Biden in the polls and the coronavirus is battering the United States mercilessly – including a significant worsening in red states that were supposed to be in Trump’s pocket – it’s hard to get hold of him to settle the annexation issue. The hills of Judea are crying out for tidings, but Trump Hill isn’t answering.

That’s also what Netanyahu explains to people on the right who are pushing him to annex. The White House’s attention isn’t focused on Israel, he says, but on the coronavirus, the economy, domestic problems, the U.S. elections and the flood tide against Trump in the polls. The momentum has been lost.

Cabinet members from Netanyahu’s Likud party who are in regular contact with Bibi about their ministries’ affairs say that during their meetings, he’s never the one to bring up the annexation issue. As one minister put it, “If the media weren't preoccupied with the issue, I wouldn’t even know there was such a thing.”

Since the Americans left, the prime minister has sounded pessimistic and skeptical about the chances of annexation, Netanyahu’s interlocutors say. He still believes he can extract something significant from Washington, but the pitfalls are vast. Until he gets an answer from the Americans – and who knows when that will be – he won’t do anything.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posing for a picture at a Jerusalem hotel, June 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Roadside budget bomb

Netanyahu is keeping two balls in the air – applying sovereignty and passing the state budget. Ostensibly, there’s no connection between the two, but actually there is, big-time. If the first ball falls, he’ll use the second to try to break up the government and call a new election, while blaming the failure of annexation on Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party.

Gantz and his partner in the party’s leadership, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, will wear this disgrace proudly. It’s exactly what the center-left bloc expects them to do. Not only is the prime minister holding “discreet” talks with the Americans, so are the defense and foreign ministers, and their influence has been felt in the talks with Berkowitz.

If Netanyahu nevertheless gets a green light from Washington to apply sovereignty anywhere, and he does so, he still has his second roadside bomb, the budget. The deadline for getting the budget through the Knesset is August 28, 100 days after the government was sworn in. Failure to pass it means the Knesset will automatically dissolve and an election will be held within three months, during which Netanyahu will head a caretaker government. If the government falls for any other reason, Gantz will head the caretaker government.

Holding an election in late November, when the seasonal flu and the coronavirus will both be running rampant and the hospitals will be overflowing, sounds insane. So an election would likely be postponed, and postponed again, and yet again. And during all that time, guess who would be prime minister?

Calling an election while simultaneously postponing it, a maneuver that would halt any political momentum that might threaten Netanyahu, fits Bibi the way tanning beds and carrot oil fit his favorite American president. Still, the Likud chief fears the unknown as he stands on the edge of the cliff of the coronavirus era and the economic crisis.

In a closed meeting this week, he was quoted as saying, “My opponent in the election will be neither the opposition nor the remnants of Kahol Lavan. They don’t worry me. The truly difficult opponent will be the coronavirus.”

A Kahol Lavan minister told me this week that so far, Gantz has insisted on a two-year budget running through the end of 2021, as stipulated by the party’s coalition agreement with Likud. “But I’m not convinced we won’t ultimately be persuaded into the budget Netanyahu seeks,” the minister added. “Annexation is a disaster. A four-month budget isn’t a disaster; it’s just silly. If we agree, we’ll demand something in exchange.”

“What?” I asked.

“For instance, waiting to annex until after the U.S. presidential election in November.”

“In other words, never,” I said.

“We’ll see.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Jerusalem, June 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

He regrets to inform you

Netanyahu’s weekly statement at the start of the cabinet meeting Sunday opened with an expression of regret. “The timing of the Finance Committee’s discussion was wrong,” the “economic cripple” said, referring to the Knesset panel’s decision to grant him special tax breaks. “I regret this.”

Veteran ministers exchanged stunned looks. The last time they remember their leader in a conciliatory mood after a weekend in the bosom of his family was, well, never.

That isn’t the mood at the prime minister’s residence. Forty-eight hours with his wife Sara and son Yair always stir up the anger and contentiousness. (“When I needed him for something important,” a former senior aide once said, “I would wait at least until Tuesday, when he’d be calmer.”)

He apparently didn’t brief Likud legislator Miki Zohar on the new tack. Zohar continued complaining this week about his boss’ miserably low income and the fact that the law doesn’t let him moonlight.

It’s not clear whether Zohar actually wants the prime minister to look for sidelines, but his statement was inaccurate. Even while in office, Netanyahu definitely received a nice income plus many other benefits, ranging from cigars to peak profits on dubious stock deals.

The next day, influenced by a Channel 12 poll showing a near 20 percent tumble in support for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, Netanyahu told Likud legislators he intends to focus more on the economy. But he didn’t specify which economy he meant. The day after that, it once again became clear he meant his household economy.

The pretext, of course, was his corruption trial – and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. An opinion submitted by the latter to the State Comptroller’s Office, saying that Netanyahu couldn’t accept a corrupt gift of 10 million shekels ($2.9 million) from a prosecution witness in his case, sparked a furious outburst from the prime minister’s family. This was expressed in disturbed tweetstorms by him and his son.

News broadcasts Tuesday were once again full of heartrending stories about the collapsing unemployed and self-employed, about parents who can’t put a hot supper on the table. At the very same time, Netanyahu was bombarding social media with a double-digit number of tweets in just a few hours, all consisting of smears and incitement against Mendelblit and lamentations over the millions denied him (though he’s already a multimillionaire).

Exactly one week after his fatal error in the Finance Committee, he had already returned to his violent, egoistic element, despite the polls showing that even his fans want to hear something else. They’d like to know how “the world’s No. 1 country in dealing with the coronavirus” has once again become a health catastrophe – persona non grata in countries that are opening their borders to tourists. They’d like to understand how he’ll get us out of the economic hole he created.

If not solutions, they’d at least like attempts. And if not concrete measures, then at least empathy.

And when he isn’t preoccupied with his trial, he’s busy with that crazy annexation. If it actually happens, even in a slimmed-down version, the aftermath is likely to deal another mortal blow to our collapsing economy, which is already on a ventilator and the verge of an induced coma.

Applying sovereignty won’t provide work for a single unemployed person or prevent a single bankruptcy. But the settlers – some of them – will applaud him, and he’ll finally have a “legacy” that doesn’t reek of corruption, incitement and hate-mongering.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at Tel Aviv University, January 28, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Gantz sees the light

Gantz squeezed his way through that narrow crack this week, albeit with typical hesitancy and awkwardness. After five weeks of tiptoeing quietly and politely around Netanyahu, as if he were a British butler in the service of a cranky lord, he finally realized where he was living. And with whom.

His basic decency, willingness to cooperate and desire not to  rock the boat so that the rotation of the prime minister’s job won’t fall from the deck gave way to a grasp of reality. And the situation isn’t easy.

The penny dropped at the cabinet meeting, when Netanyahu prevented Gantz from saying a few alternative words to the media after the prime minister was through. After Gantz protested to Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Asher Hayoun, who got caught in the line of fire, Netanyahu growled, “He can talk later,” and shrugged his shoulders with contempt.

When Hayoun tried to salvage something from the situation, Gantz replied sardonically, “It’s okay, I understand,” and put his face mask back on. His eyes strayed to some far-off point in the room as if he had seen the light.

He gets the picture. The fact that Netanyahu, the great champion of two-year budgets, is insisting on approving a new budget for just four months is a transparent maneuver to deprive Gantz of his turn as prime minister.

The Kahol Lavan chief now understands that the way the coalition agreement is implemented doesn’t depend on him. Even more, he understands that his limp-wristed behavior has driven away more than half the voters who remained with him after his split with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. He realizes that even the last remnants, the voters represented in the pathetic nine Knesset seats predicted by one recent poll, expect him – through his actions but also through tough talking – to justify his pretext for entering the government: tackling the coronavirus crisis.

Between attending to his in-box as defense minister and the thought that if he regularly serves pounds of flesh to the constantly hungry lion he’ll be able to succeed him on the savannah in November 2021, Gantz has grasped his mistakes. He had forgotten that he represents a bloc, something Netanyahu never forgets.

When journalists publish investigative reports, Netanyahu screams that they’re trying to topple the right-wing government. When an indictment is filed against him, he shrieks about a “governmental coup.” When decisions that don’t suit him are made, he accuses the decision-maker of joining the left.

Gantz, in his new incarnation, is already running a kind of election campaign. If Netanyahu is heading toward an election, whether sooner or later, then fine, let’s hold one right now.

Benny Gantz, left, and Benjamin Netanyahu during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 31, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Gantz leaked his statement to the American peace team that annexation should wait until after the virus has passed. He responded quickly  to the political arrest of a retired general, Amir Haskel, during a protest, hinting that the government sought to limit the right to demonstrate.

He – with Ashkenazi and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn – came quickly to Mendelblit’s defense against Netanyahu. To confront Bibi’s mouthpieces and the attorney general’s despisers in the media, they should also have highlighted Judge David Rozen’s report, which demolished all the tendentious, irresponsible media reports about Mendelblit.

Gantz is starting to talk about the economy and the coronavirus, the coronavirus and the economy. So are his ministers. That’s exactly what his base expects to hear.

He’s also doing something else. While one hand is disengaging from Netanyahu’s caresses and displaying signs of independent movement, the other pulled out a sword this week and brandished it in a different direction, at Lapid.

In a series of social media posts, Kahol Lavan attacked the Yesh Atid chairman no less brutally than the latter attacked his ex, Gantz, when Gantz joined forces with Netanyahu. Gantz knows very well where his precious lost Knesset seats have gone. But the question is, have they been lost forever? Apparently, the answer is yes.

After all, there are words but no initiatives, no actions, no clear direction. There’s no clear doctrine. He should learn from Naftali Bennett, whose right-wing Yamina alliance has soared in the polls, doubling its strength.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein is buried in his ministry’s affairs and in spats around the powerless coronavirus cabinet’s table. Finance Minister Yisrael Katz watches Netanyahu stealing credit for the few decisions Katz has made to benefit ordinary people, and he spends the rest of his time making his way through the angry demonstrators outside both his home and his office.

Meanwhile, the shadow minister for health and economic affairs alike – Bennett – is dogging them both. He is searing on TV and radio, has put out a flood of proposals and launched an “economic journey” among businesses around the country.

His seemingly authentic concern for the unemployed masses, the tens of thousands of closed businesses and the newly poor has made him the only representative of a collapsing, desperate constituency. Bennett has chosen two catchphrases – “making a living” and “bread.” At a time of crisis, even a high-tech tycoon and sworn capitalist can build on a social-justice arsenal.

Bennett has been crafting plans for fighting the virus while also addressing the economic ills it has caused. That’s exactly what Gantz should have been doing from day one in the government.

“So what happened, Benny decided to die on his feet?” I asked one of his ministers.

“I’m not saying we won’t die,” he replied honestly. “But hold off on the eulogies for a little while.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah during the coronavirus crisis, June 15, 2020.Credit: Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

Sweat in August

Two presidents, one from an important, friendly country in Europe, and one from the Palestinian Authority, spoke over the past 10 days with Israeli officials. The first, a devoted fan of Israel, spoke with all his heart.

“You want so much to be Europe,” he told his interlocutor. “You want to be a part of us in soccer and basketball, and Eurovision, of course. The trade between us is breaking records. You expect us to support your diplomatic war against Iran. You come to us with demands to back you at the UN, and what don’t you ask for? But when you take such a dramatic step, you don’t even talk to us.”

Speaking in a different tone and to a different person, Mahmoud Abbas mocked Netanyahu’s shows of self-promotion around the coronavirus. “Your prime minister portrayed himself as a magician who beat the virus,” he said. “He claimed that world leaders were phoning him to learn how to fight the virus. If he’s such a magician with 300 dead, what am I with five?”

The death toll in Israel had hit 326 by midday Friday and 12 among the Palestinians in the West Bank. I have no idea what Abbas’ government has done in the past two months to prepare for the second wave, but no doubt the Israeli government vacillated, and the swapping of ministers and bureaucrats as well as a lack of coordination among the agencies fighting the virus created confusion.

The only clear voice throughout this period was that of the supreme leader raging against those bastard conspirators who concocted baseless indictments – under leftist pressure, of course.

Israel hasn’t created an effective testing system for breaking the chain of infection. It hasn’t improved its system of epidemiological investigations. It hasn’t prepared a plan as it would for a war. It hasn’t recruited thousands of students and taught them how to examine patients. It hasn’t backed up the labs.

The success of the first phase of the crisis was rightfully attributed to Netanyahu – and the painful failure now. “I directed the biological institute to find a vaccine,” the prime minister announced. “I ordered them to cut the time for receiving test results to 12 hours,” he declared. “I agreed with Cyprus and Greece to renew flights on August 1,” he informed us.

Maybe one day historians will write about the vaccine developed in record time thanks to him, of the speedy tests that broke the chain of infection, of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who chilled out abroad in the summer of 2020. Until then, we’ll be counting the thousands of new patients, and we’ll be sweating in the Israeli furnace that is August. All of us together, without exception.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: