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Netanyahu Has No One Left to Blame, So He’s Bribing the Masses With Coronavirus Aid

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Illustration: Finance Minister Yisrael Katz and Benjamin Netanyahu throw money at disgruntled Israelis.
Illustration: Finance Minister Yisrael Katz and Benjamin Netanyahu throw money at disgruntled Israelis.Credit: Amos Biderman

In total despair, Yigal Hurvitz, the finance minister in Menachem Begin’s first cabinet four decades ago, coined the phrase “crazies, get off the roof!” The budget deficit grew, the ills of public-sector wage agreements – the legacy of left-wing governments – continued unimpeded, while the world sank into a recession.

The government wanted to shower its voters with benefits and empty the coffers, so the conscientious Hurvitz resigned and Israel went into a tailspin lasting years; the inflationary roller coaster brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. The minister, known as “empty-handed Yigal,” saw playing out what he had warned about.

Four decades later, Benjamin Netanyahu has morphed from a radical capitalist into a socialist on steroids, a “full-handed Bibi.” The crazies have come off the roof, heading straight for the money printers. Irresponsibility reigns.

In the era of the coronavirus, Netanyahu is behaving like someone on a merry-go-round whose floor isn’t flat. The frenzy and confusion look like the rising and falling curves we see on the evening news – the extreme lockdown that served him well during the coalition talks with Benny Gantz, the plummet into an economic crisis and the chaotic handling of the health crisis. He rapidly opened everything up, leading to a second wave that’s even more threatening than the first.

There has been no real staff work in implementing the recommendations, no clear action plan. This applies to the National Security Council, which on Netanyahu’s watch has become an entity headed by people who merely want to please their boss.

His office is also chaos, a place once populated by giants now occupied by minnows, people telling him how great he his. Above all, their sycophantic presence includes the enormous task of placating the lady of the house.

For a moment we forgot that two weeks ago this person was preoccupied with a possible West Bank annexation and was mulling ways to call an early election. The scary numbers of infected people, the gloomy economic indicators and, of course, the sinking opinion-poll numbers and raft of protests have returned his full attention to the coronavirus.

This has only highlighted, yet again, how bad a manager he is, a person who fights bureaucracy with more bureaucracy, piling on meeting after meeting, establishing more and more groups, forums and committees. He follows a frenzied, zigzagging path before regretting it, alarmed, while battlling the professionals in various ministries, people who are clinging to some form of managerial sanity.

Before the 2006 election that featured a weakened Likud, Netanyahu, after his harsh measures as finance minister under Ariel Sharon, would walk into Likud bastions gritting his teeth. People would yell at him: “You took away a 400-shekel [$117] benefit I had, you took it from my children’s mouths! I’ll never vote for you!”

Likud under his leadership ended up with 12 seats in the Knesset. Since then, the man who can quote Milton Friedman in his sleep has changed his spots. He buys his political survival with money. Lots of it. All the sectors he depends on get what they want. He doesn’t dare mess with the public sector (the “fat man” in his famous term), or with the defense establishment.

Who pays for all this? The middle and upper classes, industry including high-tech, and small business owners. Thanks to the high-tech engine, economic growth has kept the budget deficits down. The people paying most of the tax burden, most of whom aren’t his voters, are subsidizing his political alliances.

His latest shocking indiscriminate throwing of money at the people isn’t only irresponsible, it flies in the face of the whole body of principles and beliefs of this Likudnik, who was educated in the land of Uncle Sam. Frightened by the polls, terrified by the protests, he can’t find any other solution.

Today he has no Gilad Shalit to free in a prisoner swap, there are no politicians Netanyahu can blame; the mess is too big to sweep under the rug. What’s left? To provide something that isn’t there to give.

The return to his not-fondly-remembered prime time announcements reveals a different Netanyahu. No political party needs persuading that an emergency is at hand, no caretaker government is working with no oversight, as if it were the only branch of government. And worst of all, the ills are already upon us; they’re no longer the predictions of experts.

This situation is creating tension between Netanyahu and the two main people tasked with handling the crisis: Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz. The tension between Bibi and the latter is enormous.

But because he’s weak at the moment, Netanyahu can’t trample these two ministers with executive orders. Katz gets humiliated in the media. He insists, and rightly so, to stand alongside the prime minister at the press conferences where he announces the handing out of goodies.

But he sits there on the sidelines, waiting for the star player to pull his hamstring. Netanyahu hogs the prime time and leaves crumbs for his minister, a scant few minutes when the cameras linger on Bibi, too.

As I was writing this Thursday evening, the cabinet was meeting for a long, dramatic overnight session. [Early Friday, it decided to shutter gyms and restaurants (allowing only pickup and deliveries), and limit indoor gatherings to 10 and outdoor gatherings to 20. On weekends, beaches and nonessential businesses will be closed.] On Thursday, the intent was to quickly decide and implement things.

Gantz and the ministers from his Kahol Lavan party announced they wouldn’t go along with this crazed pace. The head of the coronavirus shadow cabinet, Yamina chief Naftali Bennett, went on the attack, and rightly so. The three or four Knesset seats he’s gaining in the polls due to Netanyahu’s mismanaging of the crisis could climb higher following other frenzied moves that could exhaust the country.

Gideon Sa’ar, an experienced politician who has been left without a job due to the pettiness of the Likud chairman, hasn’t kept quiet either. He asked: Why rush again instead of holding systematic staff meetings? But the leader’s ears are deaf to any criticism, following the same pattern as his performance.

Early-election watch

Netanyahu’s government that he hated the most, a physical revulsion, was the one imposed on him in 2013. This followed the “alliance of brothers” between Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, who forced Netanyahu to part from his beloved ultra-Orthodox partners. Every day was a nightmare.

After a year and a half, he dismantled this government under false pretenses and rushed to an election. Today he probably yearns for that cabinet, one without a rotation agreement for the prime minister’s job like the one now with Gantz. The steering wheel was in his hands, the brakes under his feet, with no departure date on the horizon to wrack the already-frayed nerves of the wife and son.

The relationship between him and Gantz is a fatal car crash we’ve been watching in slow motion from the minute they got on the coalition highway. We knew that if the fight against the coronavirus went awry, Bibi would blame Gantz, just as we knew that success, any success, would be registered in bold letters under Netanyahu’s name.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

We believe he’ll scupper the coalition agreement at any chance he gets. When the deal was signed, we were convinced, even if we didn’t know exactly how it would happen, that he’d look for any escape route to avoid the rotation. Then came the budget issue and everything was clear.

On Sunday, Gantz will come out of quarantine and come to Jerusalem, where he’ll talk with Netanyahu. The original date for final approval of the state budget was August 28, but this is no longer feasible. The Treasury and the Knesset will need at least one month more.

This means that the one-year budget Netanyahu so much wants will be valid for less than one quarter. This is a trick that even your local kiosk wouldn’t stoop to. Only then, according to his plan, will work on the 2021 budget begin.

Netanyahu isn’t looking for logic, he’s looking for an escape hatch. His eyes are on March 2021. If the budget isn’t approved by March 31, the Knesset will dissolve automatically. An election will be held in the summer, and he will remain as caretaker prime minister.

If the cabinet breaks down for any other reason, Gantz becomes caretaker prime minister. This is the only bug for Bibi in the sophisticated coalition agreement, put in place by Gantz’s adviser, attorney Avi Licht, and Gantz’s negotiating team.

In the meantime, Netanyahu and Gantz are playing chicken. Someone will swerve first, and it’s likely to be Gantz. If no budget is approved by August 28, or if the Knesset sets an alternate date before then, the Knesset will dissolve, with an election held in 90 days at the end of November.

But this isn’t good for Netanyahu, though less so for Gantz. The ex- military chief will start with the nine or 10 seats he has in the opinion polls, and Bibi’s party is in a tailspin. Even people in his base are realizing that he’s not such a genius. Likud has lost six or seven seats in two weeks, according to the polls.

This trend makes a deadlock possible once again. Netanyahu’s bloc has lost far-right Yamina, for now, and no strategist would guarantee that the overall right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc, without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, would win 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Without this certainty Bibi won’t go to an election. He needs a scenario where he forms a narrow government and replaces the attorney general with someone who suspends his corruption trial or agrees to a plea bargain on his terms: no jail and no moral turpitude, with a public apology and a generous financial settlement for the  anguish suffered.

There is no such scenario. Ariel Sharon used to say: “It’s good to be a cabinet member.” These days, it’s good to be in the opposition. All the parties outside the government are getting stronger, especially Bennett’s Yamina. Most of the coalition parties are losing seats; some are already political corpses. As usual, only the ultra-Orthodox are maintaining their strength.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at a cabinet meeting in May 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

A conditional romance

It’s interesting to look at the relations between Netanyahu and Gantz through the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox parties. Their loyalty to Netanyahu is cast in steel, from Arye Dery to Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman. This is a strategic alliance in its deepest sense, under the auspices of the divine spirit, of course.

In the past year, Netanyahu has dragged them twice into an election they didn’t want, as part of his efforts to evade a trial. They gritted their teeth and went along with it. They don’t have anybody else.

Now, with unprecedented power in the cabinet and Knesset, they see how their partner is abusing his partner Gantz, trampling agreements and understandings, behaving despicably and deviously. They see Gantz showing restraint, and the more he tries to restrain himself the more Netanyahu lashes out at him.

They see what’s happening and notice the risks if the current cabinet stays intact. For them there is one culpable person: Netanyahu. Gantz is blameless.

The main thing the ultra-Orthodox parties want is stability. And a budget. If the government falls and we have an election, Torah studies will cease for seven months, until a new government is formed and a budget is approved. There’s no need to say more about the significance of this.

On that day, the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, lawmakers working in the service of the Torah can pack their bags. They won’t be needed anymore. Thus, when Netanyahu allowed Likud legislators to vote in favor of a commission of inquiry into alleged conflicts of interests among judges, a development that would have toppled the government, Dery hung up on Netanyahu and told the nation about it.

And this week, when Netanyahu invited the leaders of Dery’s Shas party, followed by the leaders of United Torah Judaism, to meetings to calm them down, UTJ’s Gafni boycotted the get-together.

MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism in 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

And when “senior Likud officials,” as the announcement had it – though actually people who live in the prime minister’s residence – blamed Gantz for the worsening of the coronavirus numbers, Haredi-party officials called Gantz and expressed their deep revulsion over the wording of the statement and its authors.

And when Santa Netanyahu emerged from the chimney Wednesday evening holding 6 billion shekels ($1.7 billion), it was no surprise that Gafni, who heads the Knesset Finance Committee, was among the first to assail this populist move. Dery and Litzman feel the same.

In a normal situation, Netanyahu would transfer authority to deal with infection hot spots to the Defense Ministry. To the Haredi leaders, no one is more suitable than the Home Front Command and army units that became heroes in Bnei Brak, a heavily ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb, during the first wave.

But there is no one to talk to. The prime minister is unwilling. And as he persists with his obstinacy and failures, Haredi voters are under lockdowns, which they believe are unjustified, and they are falling victim to violent police officers.

In the two months since the government was sworn in, the Haredim have discovered Netanyahu in all his ugliness, while Gantz is his total opposite – a gentleman, a mensch. At ministries held by Kahol Lavan, the Haredim find attentive ears and open hearts. Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who heads the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, respects them. He pushes forward bills they propose.

This week, Defense Minister Gantz acceded to a request by three Shas lawmakers, asking the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to make the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron accessible to people with disabilities, a project that has been stuck for 15 years. “This was a historic and courageous move,” Shas said in praise of Gantz.

Still, Gantz won’t receive their recommendation to form a government; only Netanyahu will. In the opposition sit Lapid, Lieberman, the left-wing Meretz party and the Joint List alliance of Arab parties, all of them ruled out as partners. Kahol Lavan is slowly evaporating; Netanyahu can call an election despite his partners' opposition. The Haredim like Gantz, but they’ll join a government led by Netanyahu.

The hero of quality government

The last victim to crawl out crushed from under the steamroller of talk show Ofira & Berkovic was Abir Kara, who founded the group Shulman that advocates for the self-employed and small businesses. But Kara was exposed as a plant by the prime minister and the finance minister, with whom Kara exchanged text messages during the recording of the show.

The outrageous things he uttered (“we’re responsible for the situation, not the government … you can’t expect the government to look after the self-employed” ) made clear to anyone who still had doubts that this charismatic person had joined their bandwagon so  he could find a spot in the next Netanyahu government.

Kara’s political aspirations weren’t born in the coronavirus era, which of course has made the plight of the self-employed and small businesses much more precarious. The political aspirations were there from the organization’s founding last October.

This week, I heard from a media consultant who has met with Kara in recent months at a Tel Aviv café. Two of Kara’s people were there with him, taking down every word.

Kara was looking for a consultant who could work with the group for free. After all, the objective is sacred, money isn’t part of it. The consultant wondered: What's the objective? Kara answered: To reach the Knesset and cabinet.

The consultant asked: Who is your target voter? Mainly the left-center, Kara replied. That’s why we have the red logo. After the election we’ll take our seats and join Bibi.

The meeting didn’t lead to a link-up, but the consultant was surprised to find that some of his suggestions made their way to Kara’s coronavirus talking points in the TV studios.

Kara declined to comment.

The new electors

After every general election, when it seems we’ve reached rock bottom regarding Likud’s human capital, a sound of digging can be heard from a layer that geologists still haven’t located. That’s where the new people are erupting from – whose addition to Likud’s Knesset roster make it such an all-star team.

MKs Shlomo Karhi and Osnat Mark, for example, make David Amsalem and Miri Regev look like Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle from “My Fair Lady.”

Mark, a vulgar and loud woman, was chosen this week as the Likud representative on the Judicial Appointments Committee, just a moment after she entered the Knesset following the resignation of the two ambassador nominees, Gilad Erdan and Tzipi Hotovely. In the past, Mark has tweeted that the High Court of Justice has carried out a “coup” and established a “violent dictatorship” in Israel. Yes, violent.

She was selected for this job by Netanyahu. He passed over more qualified legislators such as Sharren Haskel, who has been an MK for much longer, Keren Barak, who brought in a lot more votes than Mark, and Yifat Shasha-Biton, a former minister.

Why was Mark preferred? What’s the secret of her appeal? Where are her charms hidden away?

The answer lies in the prime minister’s residence. It turns out that Mark is a good friend of Sara Netanyahu. Along with Mark, Miri Regev was chosen as the cabinet’s representative on the Judicial Appointments Committee. So Sara’s camp in Likud – as opposed to son Yair’s camp – has an excellent outpost on the appointments committee.

By the way, she was the protégé of Amsalem, her neighbor from the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim. In the Knesset on Wednesday, he settled into the chair nearest the ballot box and gave an unmistakable look to every Likud MK who went in to vote. He didn’t want them to make a mistake and pick Ayelet Shaked, a Netanyahu nemesis on the right.

“I don’t know if it was more disgusting or frightening,” said one person who encountered Amsalem’s eyes above the mask.

Meanwhile, the honorable attorney is examining in extreme detail the judicial candidates – as well as those up for promotion, including the judges for Netanyahu’s trial. Also, someone has emerged whose temporary disappearance we greatly enjoyed.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana invited in the media in order to set a new low: playing down the incitement against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination in 1995. “What was called incitement” is the way he put it, referring to incitement that was conducted by one Benjamin Netanyahu, among others.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana in May 2020.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

The headline provided by the favorite of the prime minister’s residence was that within 30 days Ohana will choose a permanent police commissioner. Two mistakes in one sentence:

1. He is not the one who will choose, the prime minister’s residence will. At the very most he will propose, formally, and interview, formally – but only candidates allowed by the empire.

2. Statement 1 is actually incorrect, too. The matter of appointments, one of the most sensitive in the agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan, wasn’t agreed on at all.

The mechanism for reaching an agreement, which was supposed to determine the way appointments such as police commissioner and state prosecutor are made, not only wasn’t resolved, its chances of being resolved are receding. Much simpler disagreements aren’t finding a solution on the battlefield between the two main parties in the governing coalition.

A person involved in the contacts told me Thursday that there is no chance for an agreement; not in a month from now, either.

Whoever is chosen in the end, from inside the police or outside, it seems it won’t be police Maj. Gen. Doron Yadid, the commander of the Jerusalem District. This week, at the height of the clashes with protesters and rioters in Jerusalem, Yadid stood in front of the cameras and called the incident “a left-wing demonstration.”

Oops. Whether it was a slip of the tongue or a wink of the lips at Ohana and Netanyahu, Yadid also shot himself in the foot. The police don’t use such characterizations, not in public and not in closed meetings. There are only two terms for unruly political demonstrations: “far right” or “anarchists.” “Left” paints it in an indelible color.

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