Analysis

Netanyahu's Government Partners Turn on Him in Opposition to Early Elections

Israel has been taken hostage by a leader who looks, sounds and behaves like he's lost his mind; can opposition leader Isaac Herzog cobble together an alternative coalition?

Illustration: Netanyahu's coalition partners point pitchforks at him and his wife as the latter two ride a dragon.
Amos Biderman

This week will be recorded in the annals of Israel as another gloomy and nauseating chapter in the roller-coaster ride on which the country has been taken hostage by a leader who looks, sounds and behaves as though he’s lost his mind. Even leaders of banana republics and developing countries would wince at what’s happening here.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct reflects a syndrome that doesn’t necessarily belong to the political arena. The rules of the game that we’re familiar with don’t apply to him. The most experienced of Israel’s political players, even those who do not wish the premier ill, have despaired of finding explanations that don’t come from the realm of psychology, on one hand, or on the other, that aren’t driven by the possible considerations of someone suspected of criminal wrongdoing who is desperately seeking a way out.

Netanyahu returned from his visit to China before dawn on Thursday to a roiling coalition, all of whose partners are united in a rare consensus: sweeping opposition to early elections.

The rejection front is led by the heads of Netanyahu’s most important, most loyal and most strategic coalition partners – the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. The current government represents their golden age, after two years of opposition austerity. Their standing is stronger than ever, their ministries are thriving, their budgets are bountiful and the public coffers are open to them. They know that these halcyon days will not return, that the current situation is akin to winning the lottery. It’s very unlikely that they will return, after the next elections, to the same portfolios, the same key positions, the same budgetary cornucopia.

The surge in popularity of MK Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is bad news for those two parties. Every post-election coalition scenario they can imagine is at best worse and at worst catastrophic for them. “Bibi spat in our face,” they say of the prime minister’s threat to advance the elections.

MK Moshe Gafni, leader of the Degel Hatorah component in UTJ, stated this week that, “the elections will be in November 2019, unless the Messiah comes.” The head of Agudat Yisrael, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who accompanied Netanyahu on his China trip, undoubtedly told him privately what he thinks.

Netanyahu raised the early-election option in a meeting he held in his residence on Monday last week with acting Communications Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin and the prime minister’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz. They tried to calm Netanyahu down. One of the participants told an interlocutor afterward that his impression was that the prime minister is in serious personal distress. The new public broadcasting corporation is upsetting him? The investigations are worrying him? Yes to all of the above.

Two days later, a social event for coalition members was hurriedly arranged in Hadera at Netanyahu’s order. The timing was peculiar: a week before the Knesset recesses for its spring break. These sorts of gatherings are usually held ahead of the MKs’ return to work.

In retrospect, we know that Netanyahu came to the event primed to create a public rift with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu). The rupture between them had occurred a few days earlier, when Kahlon leveled serious accusations at Netanyahu (a report of which appeared first in Haaretz) concerning the premier’s attitude toward him, his systematic stealing of credit for Kahlon’s achievements, and the way Netanyahu cast responsibility for the fate of the Israel Broadcasting Authority employees on him. The two haven’t exchanged a word since. Kahlon saw the writing on the wall in Hadera and left the event before Netanyahu took the floor.

That did not stop the prime minister from demanding that Kahlon “correct the mistake and the injustice” of the establishment of the new broadcasting agency, also known as Kan, by postponing its debut for six months and revivifying the IBA, which is now breathing its last.

China's Premier Li Keqiang and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 20, 2017.
Lintao Zhang, AFP

Instead of social cohesion, the coalition event became one of confusion, amid an atmosphere of acute crisis. The next day, the forum of leaders of the coalition parties met in Netanyahu’s bureau. Led by Interior Minister Dery (Shas), the ministers demanded that Netanyahu and Kahlon work things out between them. It was quickly agreed that Kan would launch its operations on April 30, as the law stipulates. In the meantime, moves would be undertaken toward passage of new legislation drawn up by Netanyahu and Hanegbi, which would subordinate all television and radio stations to the government. The latter would oversee the media outlets by means of a council composed mainly of functionaries who are close to Hanegbi and the premier. Kahlon promised his support but also had certain objections.

At the end of the day, Netanyahu went home, to the relaxed and conciliatory atmosphere that his wife Sara and his son Yair offer him. On Friday morning, the ministers who thought that the crisis was behind them were astounded to learn that Netanyahu was meeting with a delegation of IBA employees. They understood that he was bent on a renewed confrontation.

At the meeting, which was captured on camera, Netanyahu told the attendees he intended to do all he could to ensure that they keep their jobs. Suddenly, we learned that his heart goes out to workers who just two years ago, in a Likud campaign ad, he had likened to members of Hamas, no less.

The coalition leaders were reeling. Less than a day earlier they had met with him in an intimate forum, where everyone usually maintains decorum in an atmosphere of mutual trust and compromise. They reached agreement and shook hands, but now they were informed by the media that the wound had been reopened and the blood was flowing.

On Saturday, Netanyahu summoned Likud ministers Yariv Levin, Hanegbi and Miri Regev and dictated the necessary talking points, about how coalition agreements must be honored, and so on. So thrilled was Culture and Sports Minister Regev to be invited to a consultation at the prime minister’s home that she imagined, she told an interviewer, she'd seen stars in the sky in the middle of the day. It’s not that Regev has become someone with whom Netanyahu consults about political moves. He is in fact so contemptuous of her that he wasn't willing to entrust her with the position of acting communications minister. He invited her because she’s Sara’s friend and because she would speak on his behalf with proper enthusiasm and tenacity.

On Saturday evening, before boarding his plane and after having published an angry post asking, “Who needs this corporation?” – Netanyahu tossed out the coalition-dismantlement grenade. He then flew off to China, leaving the stew boiling in the pressure cooker.

Bougie the builder

In these crazed days, when the phone rings in the pocket of the leaders of one of the parties – whether coalition or opposition – there’s a not-bad chance that from the other end of the line, the voice of Isaac “Bougie” Herzog will be heard. There are those who would swear that they have seen or heard the head of Zionist Union in two or three different places at the same time, speaking with a number of people simultaneously.

Herzog has been working tirelessly to assemble an alternate coalition, one that will obviate the need for an early election. The law allows the president to grant the mandate to form a government to any one of the 119 other MKs – other than Netanyahu. Herzog is laboring day and night to undertake the complex genetic engineering such an endeavor entails, to produce a creature comprised of at least 61 legislators, with which he can set off to the President’s Residence, if and when Netanyahu tenders his resignation.

He already has 34: from the Zionist Union (24) and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu (10). Actually, they’re not in the pocket per se, but rather on a branch, from which they are liable to fly off at any moment. Herzog still needs another 30 or so MKs, which is where it gets messy.

Zionist Union co-leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni at a faction meeting, March 20,207.
Olivier Fitoussi

Yair Lapid is nervous. The two have spoken, but he has so far avoided giving Herzog an answer. With 25-26 seats projected for the Yesh Atid leader in the polls, he wants an election. It doesn’t suit him to join a government headed by someone else, be it Herzog or Kahlon. On the other hand, Lapid also isn’t dying to try his hand at forming a government (for his part, Herzog hasn’t insisted on himself necessarily being the prime minister; he’s put his own ego aside), to fail because of the ultra-Orthodox parties, and then have to head to elections as someone who was given the opportunity and blew it. If the public realizes that Lapid isn’t capable of forming a government, it will desert his party the way that the residents of Mosul have been quitting their city.

Herzog aspires to sign up 53 MKs, without Lapid, whom he can then push into a corner. But how to assemble 53? It won’t be easy. Meretz would come aboard, but then Avigdor Lieberman wouldn’t follow. Nor would Bennett. The ultra-Orthodox themselves would not be sufficient to bring Herzog over the top. And the Joint List is on the matrimonial blacklist.

Bougie fantasizes a split in Likud, which will bring him some 10 MKs who are reluctant to stand for election. “I have demonstrated my strength in making alternatives,” he commented this week. “What matters is that they won’t bother me from within my own camp.”

The allusion was to Erel Margalit, from Herzog’s Labor Party who, at a meeting this week expressed his opposition to such a switch taking place in the current Knesset, with the claim that the party is on the eve of a primary race for a new chair. Margalit is among the challengers. If Herzog were appointed foreign minister, or even became prime minister, in an alternate government, the primary would go up in smoke, and so would Margalit’s dream of succeeding him.

Evil from the East

In May 2014, Netanyahu was in the midst of a frenzied campaign to prevent his Likud colleague Reuven Rivlin from being elected president of Israel. Then as now, it was the Lady who was the moving spirit behind this. When Netanyahu discovered that Rivlin stood a good chance to win, he decided the time had come to eliminate the institution of the presidency. It’s unnecessary, it’s wasteful, he said. Subtext: Why do you need a president and a president’s wife when you have me and Sara?

He informed senior Likud figures of his plan and flew off to Japan. The interior minister at the time, Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), the most senior figure supporting Rivlin, declared that he would not lend a hand to the dissolution of the presidency. He was seconded by ministers who included Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, and by MKs from Likud and the coalition parties. By the time Netanyahu returned from Japan, the scheme was dead in the water. The episode was one of the causes of the acute rift between Netanyahu and Sa’ar, which led to the latter’s decision to take a time-out from the government and the Knesset.

Three years later, we’re in a similar situation. Netanyahu threatens to advance the elections and then again heads off for the Far East. He has no control over the events. He leaves behind a party and a coalition in shell shock.

This time, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz was the first to scuttle the plot. Speaking on Army Radio, he shot to kill. He savaged Netanyahu’s preposterous idea. “To advance the elections, to dismantle the coalition that still has two-and-a-half years to go, and all because of an argument over a broadcasting body? Is there no end to this?” Katz asked.

Katz’s message was aimed at his fellow Likud MKs. Half of them – 15 of 30 – will not serve in the next Knesset because of the party’s system of internal elections. The message was received and understood. Ministers and MKs alike started to express their public opposition to the prime minister's plot. Some, such as Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, were unafraid and direct; others were more subtle, among them National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz and Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis.

There were also other voices. MK Oren Hazan said he and his colleagues are examining alternatives to Netanyahu without the need to dissolve the current Knesset. Another Likud MK was heard shouting in the Knesset chamber: “We should go home because he’s being investigated? Let him go home!”

In the People’s Republic of China, Netanyahu received real-time reports about the popular revolt in his party. Every interview and every tweet was brought to his attention. He was furious. How in the world do the “soldiers,” as he calls them, have the gall to express an opinion different from mine?! Xi Jinping doesn’t have to put up with stuff like this, so why should he? Katz, who dug the tunnel and paved the road for others, will not soon be forgiven.

Even if the confrontation with Kahlon ends in Netanyahu’s victory, as was emerging on Thursday, and the early-election threat fades, what happened this week was a warning. The collapse of party discipline among Likud MKs, the courage of ministers to speak out against him, MKs’ lack of fear to talk about an alternative – none of this would have been conceivable two years ago, certainly not at this intensity.

It’s all due to one pivotal reason: the police investigations of Netanyahu. People are starting to digest the fact that he won’t be around forever, that his days may be numbered. Besides which, they are fed up with his tyranny, his bullying, the way he ignores them, his declared readiness to drag them to the slaughterhouse of primaries for personal reasons, and his wild and uncontrollable capriciousness, whether it’s related to Kan or the criminal cases against him. It makes no sense from his point of view to move up the elections over Kan, because in that case, the corporation will go on air as scheduled and will stay there until a new coalition is formed, which will definitely not advocate the abolition of public broadcasting. But it does make sense, albeit barely, from his point of view, to hold an election ahead of the likely recommendation by the police to indict him. After the recommendation is submitted and the evidence gathered by the police starts to leak, with some of the testimonies being made public, Netanyahu will find himself in a corner: Every decision he makes – in the political, policy and security realms – will be perceived as tainted.

If the prime minister forgoes the early-elections gambit in this round, he will have to display a victory in the Kan arena. In his own eyes, he’s the lion trainer standing with a whip in his hand. If he shows weakness or is even perceived to be weak, he will be devoured – both internally, in his party, and externally.

Earlier this week, he was told that Kahlon is frightened by the possibility of early elections. Netanyahu, like an experienced battlefield commander, instructed his troops, led by minister Levin, to break off all contact with the treasury people and to carry a big stick.

Illustration: Benjamin Netanyahu tries to revive his wife Sara as journalist Geula Even-Sa'ar appears on Kan TV.
Amos Biderman

That helped: Kahlon backtracked some more. He joined Netanyahu and his mouthpieces in attacking the Kan chiefs who decided to appoint journalist Geula Even-Sa’ar (wife of Gideon Sa’ar) anchorwoman of the evening news. Kahlon cast doubt on the integrity of their intentions at a conference sponsored by TheMarker, and his office added that the appointment was no less than “an attempt to topple a legal government” – in other words, that Kan CEO Eldad Koblenz and chairman Gil Omer (who deserve high praise for the backbone and professionalism they are showing) deliberately announced the appointment at the height of the crisis in order to force an election that would leave Kan unscathed.

Kahlon’s participation in the ridiculous brouhaha over the anchor is payment to Netanyahu, a kind of interim fee on the way to what loomed Thursday as a move to crush Kan by pushing through the new, malicious and dictatorial media-supervision legislation. A source in the Communications Ministry said Thursday that Kahlon had made an additional – and significant – concession, agreeing to postpone by several weeks the broadcast launch of Kan, which would give time for work on the new, destructive legislation to begin. The finance minister's office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Netanyahu and Kahlon are now partners to the same spin and the same untenable narrative, according to which the heads of the new broadcasting corporation are going head to head with the government. In the meeting between them that triggered the crisis, Kahlon said to Netanyahu, “You don’t care about public broadcasting. The only thing you care about is control.” And that’s exactly what the treasury minister will be giving Netanyahu – absolute, unrestrained control – if he agrees to lend a hand to legislation that is unparalleled in democratic countries.

With Kahlon’s fall, the last barrier to the slide into the abyss will be the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit.

The sum of all fears

A few weeks ago, some ministers were sitting with Netanyahu. Kan wasn’t part of the conversation, but someone mentioned it, offhand. Netanyahu acted like he’d been bitten by a snake. “Five against seven,” he lowered. The ministers looked at him. “Sorry?” one of them asked. “Five against seven!” Netanyahu repeated, his eyes darting every which way. “Five there are Noni,” he muttered.

“There” is the Kan council, the broadcaster’s managing body, which consists of 12 public representatives chosen by a search committee. Netanyahu is convinced – because someone fed him this information – that five members of the council are connected, in one way or another, to Arnon “Noni” Mozes. Moses is publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group and Netanyahu’s great adversary, as well as his interlocutor in a recorded conversation about a deal, which is now under police investigation.

Netanyahu sees the new public broadcasting corporation as the mistake of a lifetime. It’s a body that, under the mandate granted it during the era when Gilad Erdan was communications minister, will be independent and enjoy a handsome, annual government budget of some 700 million shekels (about $194 million). Kan, the premier believes now, will persecute him and embitter his life the way Channel 10 did in its heyday. What do you care, people ask him, what kind of ratings they have – 4 percent, 5 or 6 percent at best? To which he replies: You don’t understand anything. We are in a different period. You don’t need ratings today. Today everything goes online and within minutes goes viral.

In Netanyahu’s circle, there are people whose job it is to examine microscopically the history and record of every person who’s hired by Kan, from manager to makeup person. They go into their Facebook page, their Twitter account, their CVs, check who their friends are, who their life partner is.

Naturally, the left-wingers are the enemy. Everyone who ever worked in the Yedioth Ahronoth Group is a terminator, a hit-man. Right-wingers are no saints, either – they are “Naftali Bennett’s people.” Kan’s chairman, Gil Omer, from Army Radio, head of the news desk at Yedioth 15 years ago, is a predator; CEO Koblenz is a snake.

For Netanyahu, Geula Even-Sa’ar’s appointment as anchor of the prime-time news wasn’t a smoking gun, but a ballistic missile. The appointment seemingly bolstered his allegations, fueling his paranoia and heightening all the fears. Geula, Noni and Gideon – and Eldad too. The axis of evil. One big party of conspirators, schemers and persecutors.

Now it’s obvious that Gideon Sa’ar is in control at Kan, people in Netanyahu’s circle say. With his right hand, via Eldad, and with his left hand, via his wife, Geula. It all became clear: Koblenz will organize investigative reports about Netanyahu, Geula will introduce the reports. Her way of raising eyebrows and clearing her throat will help move Sa’ar closer to the premiership. And this is without even mentioning the Lady’s obsessions with the broadcaster-wife of the former minister.

Even-Sa’ar, whose talent, fairness and professionalism are unquestionable, signed with Kan last November. Did people think she was going to emcee a lifestyle program? It was only last Wednesday that she accepted the offer from Koblenz and Omer for the plum job. The official announcement was made on Monday, in the midst of the political crisis, six weeks before Kan is scheduled to go on air.

If Even-Sa’ar had said no, the anchor post would have gone to Yoaz Hendel, from Yedioth, Noni’s paper, for which he writes a column. Hendel was forced to leave his post in the Prime Minister’s Bureau after he and then-cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser complained that Netanyahu’s then-chief of staff, Natan Eshel, had sexually harassed a bureau employee. Hendel is a frequent critic of Netanyahu, so his appointment, too, would not have sat well in the bureau or the residence. Sara still hasn’t got over having to part with “Natan the Wise.”

The political dialogue about the identity and family affiliation of newscasters and journalists has become legitimate in 2017 Israel. We’re so occupied with details and with people, with spins and labels, that we forget the big picture, which is uglier and more repulsive than ever. It’s the spirit of the age, the Erdogan-Putin-era zeitgeist, that Netanyahu is imposing here. In the past, it was done below the radar, with the appointment of directors-general like Uri Porat and Tommy Lapid. They carried out their master’s wishes. Today it’s all out in the open, on the table: Everything goes and there’s no shame.

Chronicle foretold

The Netanyahus testified recently in Magistrate’s Court in their libel suit against the journalist Igal Sarna. They noticed out of the corner of their eye – or one of their entourage noticed for them – the talented documentarian Doron Tsabari, a fierce rival of Netanyahu, who has been hired as a director in Kan’s news department. Tsabari filmed the events inside and outside the courtroom, before and after the proceedings.

“Look,” Netanyahu grumbled to someone, according to one source. “They haven’t even yet started to broadcast and they’re already preparing an investigative report about me.”

I asked Tsabari if he was working on a juicy report. “Absolutely not,” he replied. “I make it a habit to document the period for myself, everything that happens in Israel, from all kinds of angles. A chronicle of the times.”

And there’s plenty to document, thank heaven, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens wrote. We’re getting the worst in large servings, to the point where you want to throw up. When will the best finally arrive?