Analysis

Netanyahu Is in Full-on Election Mode, Driven by His Present and Future Anxieties

Even Benny Gantz realizes that the rotation that would make him prime minister will never happen. The only question is the date of the next election

Yossi Verter
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The Lapids and Netanyahus, fathers and sons.
The Lapids and Netanyahus, fathers and sons. Credit: Leo Altman
Yossi Verter

It’s not the coalition squabbles or the expectation of a snap campaign with a quick gain of more Knesset seats. And it’s certainly not matters of ideology that stand at the core of Benjamin Netanyahu’s calculations ahead of the decision everyone is waiting for: a fourth general election or not. What drives this warped matrix is that all-too-famous component: the man’s present and future anxieties.

So we’re witnessing two parallel tracks being managed by him; one is the launching of an election campaign with the same moldy phrases about leftists, Arabs and the media, as well as accusations of trumped-up corruption charges against him.

The second track is being pursued partly due to the pressure from his ultra-Orthodox partners: the preservation of the governing coalition, for now, with a revisit of the agreement between his Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan.

The blatant violation and the mafia-like pressure to amend the agreement have one major goal: control over the appointment of the next police commissioner, who, with the attorney general, will have to quickly decide whether to launch further corruption investigations.

Whatever happens, this rotten coalition will quickly cease to function; the rotation that would make Gantz prime minister will obviously never happen. What happens after that is no less important – the choosing of Avichai Mendelblit’s replacement as attorney general at the end of 2021.

True, Kahol Lavan’s obtaining and strengthening of the Justice Ministry yielded negative results: its drop in the opinion polls. But this was the party’s main achievement. The tough stance by Avi Nissenkorn as justice minister, backed by the leaders of his party and the law enforcement chiefs, is the most painful thorn in the paw of the lion from Balfour Street.

This is the greatest risk as far as he’s concerned. Netanyahu will continue to challenge Nissenkorn and the entire system. Every person in the chain of people investigating Bibi has been through this meat grinder. Chief police investigator Meni Yitzhaki and Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich have retired by now, as has State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan. They’re looking after their own interests, far from the blazing flamethrowers of Netanyahu and his assistants in the Knesset, the cabinet and the media.

Mendelblit and his deputy, Liat Ben Ari, are still in the fray. The campaigns against them, which include investigations, vilification, threats and media blitzes of lies and slander, are only growing. This week, joining the mix was the woman who will decide, with her two colleagues, the fate of the accused. She’s the head of the court panel, Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman.

Likud lawmaker Shlomo Karhi, the most useful pawn currently at the disposal of Netanyahu family in its assault, has put the judge in his sights with a made-up charge of a conflict of interest. This was only a matter of time, and it’s a mere trifle compared to what Her Honor can expect as the evidence phase of the trial of defendant No. 1 draws near, starting in less than six months. What awaits her is hell on earth, in the best tradition of the crime organization that has settled in at the prime minister’s residence.

In the meantime, political allies and close family members are urging Netanyahu to kill the next phase of a bill that would postpone the budget crisis (and make even more ridiculous the arguments made by the prime minister on this issue). Instead, an election campaign would immediately begin. Kahol Lavan’s leaders are aware of this and are calculating their moves in the impossible campaign that awaits them.

Netanyahu himself is already campaigning to the point of exhaustion, visiting stores, buying falafel. His video blog has resurfaced, as have the posts about “tremendous achievements,” trying to overshadow the depressing headlines describing the real situation, one of an economic crisis, an uncontrolled virus and shameful mismanagement.

Senior State Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari at the Jerusalem District Court before Netanyahu's trial began, May 24, 2020
Senior State Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari at the Jerusalem District Court before Netanyahu's trial began, May 24, 2020 Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Fathers and sons

One more sign of Netanyahu’s mode was on display Wednesday on TV and at the Knesset, where Netanyahu waged a war, an often fascinating one, with opposition leader Yair Lapid. On Channel 12 News, Sara Netanyahu delivered an agitated monologue.

The prime minister volunteered to respond to Lapid regarding the bill that would prevent someone charged with a criminal offense from forming a government. His wife went on the air on a channel that her husband and son have called the “Al Jazeera propaganda channel.” She wanted to share with viewers her suffering and the tribulations of her family, the “good souls,” in her words.

The idea behind both appearances was the same: to deflect attention from the economic disaster afflicting hundreds of thousands of Israeli families and onto the persecution and harassment by dark forces of the poor, defenseless Netanyahu family. And don’t forget the corrupt lawyers inventing cases and hooligan protesters throwing torches at their house, their castle.

Obviously, they only see themselves. The public is only background noise, the media is the platform.

Well-versed people realize that these two, husband and wife, have crossed a line (note the letter Netanyahu sent the attorney general about “zero action on threats” against his family). Their inner voice, a terrible mix of lamentations, paranoia and a deep suspicion of anyone who isn’t them, is bursting out.

At the Knesset, Netanyahu saw an opportunity to drag the conversation into his comfort zone, left versus right. He mentioned “Lapid and Odeh,” Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab parties in the Knesset. He mentioned his experience – and of course the alleged manhunt against him.

His ammunition included a comment by Lapid’s late father, Tommy Lapid, the justice minister in 2003 and 2004. “Clerks can’t be allowed to fire a prime minister,” the senior Lapid said at the time. The junior Lapid, who came prepared, pulled out a quote from another father, Benzion Netanyahu, who advised his son “not to touch money” as a public official.

Why is all this relevant? Let’s say Tommy Lapid held a certain opinion and Yair thinks differently. Does the son have to copy-paste every statement or belief held by his father?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, August 13, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, August 13, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

And similarly, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu – he was a modest man, immersed in his books and research. He didn’t consort with billionaires, was never accused of criminal wrongdoing, and even thought that his daughter-in-law Sara should be more modest and not drag behind her husband everywhere he went. How did he put it once at a family birthday party? “The dignity of a princess faces inward.” But what does Bibi have to do with any of this?

The two rivals, with or without involving their parents, gained something from this parliamentary fracas. Netanyahu marked Lapid as his main rival, entrenching him in this role (for now), while Gantz wasn’t even mentioned.

Lapid’s bill played into Netanyahu’s hands. If the opposition leader had proposed a bill to help business owners, guess who wouldn’t have rushed to the Knesset to make an appearance. But an initiative to disqualify him? That’s his bread and circus.

Returning to Sara on Channel 12: Who didn’t she cheapen, who did this privileged, out-of-touch woman not offend? And this is a woman who has abused and bullied employees at the residence for years, possibly to this day.

She offended battered women (by declaring that she was one), and victims of sexual abuse (ditto). She offended battered children by mentioning her two sons, who are 29 and 25, as the screen behind her showed pictures of toddlers being kicked by sadistic caregivers.

She pounced on women’s organizations that aren’t coming to her defense, on leftist lawmakers, on Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, and on the hosting TV channel, obviously.

This is a woman protecting Nathan Eshel, a former Netanyahu chief of staff who took photos from under women’s skirts. She’s a woman whose elder son expresses contempt for women (and men) on a sexual basis, a woman who tried to falsely accuse Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of having an affair. But she was whining about sexual harassment and verbal abuse in an unbelievable display of obtuseness and insensitivity.

The woman whose son is one of the most violent online trolls, dispensing venom and malice in commercial quantities against anything that moves, was bemoaning her sad fate, complaining  she’s not sufficiently protected.

She didn’t suffice with her perverse comment about feeling like a victim of sexual violence. She cried out, trying to rouse the entire world. Where is the Red Cross? The United Nations? The White House? Male and female Nobel laureates? Why weren’t their voices being heard against the horrible things happening to her?

It’s too bad her media advisers, who were on the line with the show’s editor, yelled for him to stop her frothing verbiage just before things went out of control.

Benjamin Netanyahu with his father Benzion Netanyahu, Jerusalem, July 2006.
Benjamin Netanyahu with his father Benzion Netanyahu, Jerusalem, July 2006.Credit: Flash90/Maariv

Divorce refuseniks

Let’s go back to the election scenarios. Whether an election happens in November or the first half of 2021, Kahol Lavan’s chiefs have decided: We’re staying in this government.

Ostensibly, this flies in the face of political logic. In an election campaign against a rival, you draw strength if you’re in the opposition, not in the government; this is certainly the case considering the chaos we’re experiencing now.

Gantz and his people are looking at the looming disaster through an ideological prism, even if this eliminates them for good. An election campaign will last three months. The coalition talks will stretch out over a few more months.

During this period, as far as it depends on them, the ministers from Kahol Lavan will stay on the job. It’s our national responsibility, a senior minister told me this week.

I asked: What about distinguishing yourselves from your rivals, a critical component in an election campaign? We’ll do this from within the government, he answered. We can’t let Likud take over the Justice Ministry again, as well as the defense, culture and communications ministries.

This choice, patently unnatural, contains advantages and disadvantages for Kahol Lavan. The main advantage is the retaining of power, especially at the justice and defense ministries. A secondary advantage is the capacity to challenge decisions.

The locus of disputes will move to the cabinet after the Knesset is dissolved, at the expense of opposition leader Lapid. In this battle, the adversaries in the cabinet will switch from refereed fist fights to no holds barred.

Kahol Lavan will have some satisfaction in that Netanyahu will be stuck with the ministers from that party. The legislation passed when the coalition was formed prevents him from firing them.

On the other hand, the parity clause will become a dead letter. The Kahol Lavan people will become a minority in the cabinet. Decisions will be passed by regular voting without reference to the clauses requiring an agreement between Netanyahu and Gantz, the two politicians who would rotate the premiership.

This applies to the agenda as well. The only person deciding this will be Netanyahu. What will Kahol Lavan do in this situation? Take him to court for violating their agreement? He’d be too happy.

Netanyahu will probably continue to focus on Lapid. Kahol Lavan, if it wants to survive, will have to wage a two-headed campaign – against Netanyahu and its ex from Yesh Atid, Lapid. The latter, even without the Knesset in session, will be able to mock the chaos and malfunction marring the caretaker government. His bow will also fire in two directions – at the prime minister and at Lapid’s archenemy since May, Gantz.

In this situation, we may witness some fascinating tacit nonaggression pacts: Lapid against Kahol Lavan and Bennett against Netanyahu. Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Bennett’s Yamina on the far right would try to grow at the expense of Kahol Lavan and Likud, respectively.

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting at the Knesset, May 2020.
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting at the Knesset, May 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

True lies

Warning: The following story, related by Gantz to his associates this week, isn’t suitable for our vegan readers. As a young officer, Gantz took part in a survival workshop held by the Green Berets, the elite U.S. Army unit.

One mission was to hunt for their food in the forest. The limited options included rabbits. “You catch a rabbit,” Gantz recalled, “you pet it for a while, calm it down, then you grab it by the legs and slam it against a tree.”

The point of this parable was a comparison to Netanyahu (not a physical one, Sara, relax). Bibi agreed to support a bill for postponing the last date a state budget can be approved. “We’ll kill it quickly,” Gantz said before entering a Kahol Lavan caucus meeting at which he challenged Netanyahu to pass this bill within 24 hours and then start discussing the budget seriously.

But as often happens in a political survival course, the plan went awry. The media, which needs short and catchy headlines, chose to call Gantz’s proposal “an ultimatum,” even though he doesn’t work that way. He wanted to tear the mask off his partner’s face, but Bibi easily turned things around by stating he doesn’t accept ultimatums and a budget could be approved within 24 hours.

The bad news is that on this day of confrontation at the Knesset, Gantz lost due to a cumbersome formulation. The good news is that he, Ashkenazi and Nissenkorn have shed any illusion or hopes regarding Netanyahu. A few months ago they signed a coalition agreement with a man they now know didn’t for a minute plan to keep to it. (And even if for a minute he did, his family set him straight on the subject.)

When the prime minister arrived at the TV studio, he looked into the camera and declared that he would leave the residence at the designated time “with no tricks or shticks.” He obviously knew he was lying. As hard as TV satirists try to portray his pathological mendacity, they can’t approach the reality.

Past and present politicians who have known him for decades have long been aware of this characteristic. He can tell them something completely groundless, totally opposite to the reality. He knows it’s a lie. They know it’s a lie. He knows they know and yet, without blinking, without blushing, out of a deep conviction, he looks into their eyes and tells them tall tales.

Some of them feel uncomfortable. Not everyone can handle such pathology.

It’s not that Gantz and Ashkenazi weren’t warned (the latter was the most enthusiastic proponent of a unity government). Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon, Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor and others shared their experiences and woes in dealing with that client. He won’t honor agreements, he’ll never leave Balfour Street, he’ll only do what serves him in his legal proceedings, they warned, both publicly and in meetings with Kahol Lavan leaders.

“Guys, tell me, what will prevent him from breaking an agreement?” Ya’alon yelled at meetings of Kahol Lavan’s chiefs when President Reuven Rivlin was still trying to find a way to broker a government after the second election. There are drawers filled with agreements he signed and broke.

What, will they put him in prison for that? Don’t you know who you’re dealing with? He’s a recidivist offender. Gantz, and Ashkenazi even more so, were convinced this wouldn’t happen this time. The coalition agreement restricted him, they believed.

They thought a public commitment by him couldn’t be dismissed. The public will punish him, the ultra-Orthdox parties gave their commitment, the coronavirus is upon us, the economy is in a colossal crisis. The man isn’t so irresponsible as to thumb his nose at everything. Three straight failures at the polls have introduced some humility.

How far-off they were. While they were dreaming about a communal enterprise, he engineered a breach in the agreement based on the budget, which he’s using to squeeze his way out.

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