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Netanyahu Spews About Unity but Is Crafting His Next Election Campaign – and Israel’s Demise

The only alliance left for the prime minister is with the ultra-Orthodox, for whose sake he’ll sacrifice us all

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Benjamin Netanyahu recently rediscovered the lost continent, a land called mamlakhtiyut – in this case, being statesmanlike. We thought it had sunk in the sea of the corruption investigations or disappeared  in the whirlpool of indictments and his mad revenge campaign against Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement system.

The prime minister’s language, as you must have noticed, has become more respectable. The rage attacks that seized him occasionally (against a very specific population group) have vanished. He’s gone back to talking about “unity,” as he did on the eve of the government’s formation, when he was courting Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan.

If not for the broadcasts on television news of selections of his summer 2020 hits, showing him firing off the blood libel against “disease-spreading anarchists” and “the incubator of the coronavirus and anarchy,” we’d have thought it was all a bad dream.

The neo-mamlakhtiyut of his recent appearances is discernible as well in our old pal, coalition whip Makhlouf “Miki” Zohar. This Likudnik has undergone a transformation, in no time morphing from the neighborhood bully into the Mother Teresa of Israeli politics.

Only an incorrigible cynic would suspect a connection between the two developments, or with an opinion poll showing that Israelis are sick of this filth, fed up with the crud that’s hurled in their face all the time. They’ve had it with the curses and lies, with the mafia speeches of Likud’s David Amsalem in the Knesset (though there’s something almost lyrical about the way the goodfella slang rolls off his tongue).

At this point, it’s hard to see how the fattened political livestock could escape from the election loading chute of the slaughterer Netanyahu. The timetable is tightening around the politicians’ necks.

Kahol Lavan is threatening to take action if the 2020-21 state budget isn’t passed by the cabinet and sent to the Knesset for approval by the first week of November. The only real option that Netanyahu’s senior coalition partner has at present is a kind of political suicide attack: to dissolve the Knesset and drag the country into an early election toward the end of February. The party’s leaders, Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, are focusing westward on the U.S. election November 3. That too could have consequences for the situation here.

Netanyahu and Likud have chosen the reverse tactic. The style change à la Zohar is part of it. The message they’re sending is: We don’t want an election. We won’t initiate an election. By December 23 we’ll present a 2020 budget to the Knesset (for a week, how lovely), then start working on the 2021 budget.

This of course is a cynical ploy, an economic crime against the state, to enable Netanyahu to schedule a new election during the first quarter of the year. It would take place in May or June, well before the rotation of the premiership with Gantz that Netanyahu doesn’t intend to implement. To that end, everything is kosher. He won’t relax until we reach the edge of the abyss and rub elbows with Venezuela.

The problem is that large swaths of the public, perhaps even the majority, don’t understand that. For many, Likud and Kahol Lavan are engaged in mud wrestling, each side pulling in a different direction, and we’re all being spattered. The media is giving equal time to both sides, generously clearing the ring for the mudslinging battles instead of explaining to its consumers the simple truth.

And with this approach, the media is making it impossible to see who the real offender is. It’s vital to remind ourselves that in this marriage of inconvenience only one side is honoring the prenuptial agreement and only one side is violating, ignoring and lying about it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, October 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, October 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset

Netanyahu’s chief collaborator is Finance Minister Yisrael Katz. If he had one iota of responsibility and integrity, he’d emulate the senior civil servants who abandoned his disintegrating ministry and resign. Katz is more than familiar with the appalling numbers. He’s aware of the depth of the catastrophe that Netanyahu is leading us into, all for personal considerations.

In his heart, Katz is probably outraged, but he’s lending a hand to it. Even Miki Zohar (the new Miki), in a rare moment when the truth escaped his lips, admitted this week that the delay in drawing up the budget stems from political motives.

“I am the finance minister,” Katz declares in every interview he gives, and they are many. As long as he serves as a tool for Netanyahu to implement his schemes, he’s no more than a pathetic caricature of a finance minister. Compared to this display of abject servitude, even Yuval Steinitz’s tenure as finance minister, from 2009 to 2013, resembles a model of autonomy and managerial independence.

Katz is scattering billions of shekels in all directions, like confetti at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He’s trying, futilely, to recruit a budget chief to the treasury as a successor to Shaul Meridor, who stepped down.

His efforts are meeting vigorous refusals. What serious economist would board this Titanic, on which the noises of an orchestra disconnected from reality are screeching on deck as the ship heads for the iceberg?

Living by the sword

It was Ariel Sharon who paved Netanyahu’s way to the courts of the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, in 1996. The intense efforts by the veteran politician among the rabbis and yeshiva heads landed the young candidate in the Prime Minister’s Office for the first time. Of course, Bibi tried to reward Sharon with ungrateful treachery, but in that case, unsuccessfully.

Sharon’s alliance with the Haredim lasted decades. They helped him avoid the dissolution of the Knesset in 2001, stamping out the threat of a Netanyahu comeback against him, and led him to an easy victory over Ehud Barak in the special election for prime minister. “Things you see from here, you don’t see from there,” Sharon liked to say, quoting the song, as he sat in the chair he had long coveted.

That also applied to his relations with the Haredim. When the economic crisis struck Israel unmercifully, Sharon had to push through equally unmerciful budget cuts (together with the finance minister, Netanyahu, his bitter enemy, who received full backing from him). Sharon hardened his heart and threw out the political calculations in the name of national responsibility. The Haredim were hurled into the opposition and Sharon was transformed from revered leader into a bitter enemy in their eyes.

Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, Jerusalem, July 19, 2020.
Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, Jerusalem, July 19, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Over the years, the Haredi arena became Netanyahu’s Canossa: He went there and never came back. At times of relative economic and social stability, there was no problem. He paid the ultra-Orthodox whatever they wanted and passed on the burden to everyone else. After all, he’s used to paying by way of other people’s wallets.

Criminally late and with searing pain, the coronavirus crisis is bringing home the man’s leadership disability. “Netanyahu and the Haredim” is the management failure of the crisis in a nutshell. Having signed a coalition agreement only to violate it a moment later, and bent on using every trick to delay his corruption trial while undermining the foundations of the investigative system, Netanyahu now needs the Haredim more than ever.

He allows himself to hurl poisonous barbs at the protesters, boosting the rampaging right-wing phalanges that are assaulting decent citizens in his name. But when a 92-year-old rabbi is heard casting off all restraint – a rabbi ill with COVID-19 (and no one knows what his condition is, what his grandson is screaming into his ear and what is being announced in his name) – Netanyahu comes out with the mildest of remarks and turns a blind eye to the nonexistent enforcement against tens of thousands of scofflaw Hasidim.

To borrow from Teddy Roosevelt, he carries a big stick against the demonstrators and speaks softly to the Haredim. Anyone with the gall to criticize them in the name of pure reason and national concern, like Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, gets zero backing and plenty of bad-mouthing in the Haredi street and media.

The ultra-Orthodox are with Netanyahu through fire and water and the coronavirus. It’s an unconditional alliance. They’re a strong bloc in the Knesset. Likud has 36 seats, and Shas and United Torah Judaism have 16 between them. If Likud’s showing tumbles, as the polls indicate it will in the next election, their cumulative power will diminish.

They don’t want to lose what they have. Hence the message that United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni directed toward Netanyahu: Don’t even dream of holding an election now; we have a different option – with Naftali Bennett to the right or with your potential successors in Likud.

Gafni and the other veterans know that history repeats. The more they overdo it, the more likely they’ll be punished and left out of the government. So it was with Sharon, so it was in the alliance between Bennett and Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid in 2013.

Will that scenario be reprised in 2021, which all signs say will be an election year? Will masses shout in the town square: Anyone but Shas! Anyone but “Lithuanian” Haredi leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky!?

After the terrorist shooting on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street in January 2016, Netanyahu stood at a makeshift podium near the bloodstains and delivered a horror speech. “A state within a state,” he branded Arab Israelis, in a tone that painted one-fifth of the country’s inhabitants as potential terrorists, and if not, then as plain old criminals.

Speaker Yariv Levin presiding over the Knesset, October 2020.
Speaker Yariv Levin presiding over the Knesset, October 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset

In the meantime, the Arabs, whose school curriculum includes the core “secular” subjects of math, science and English, are the nurses and doctors who welcome thousands of ill Haredim into hospitals across the country and treat them with infinite dedication. The “state within a state” belongs to those who are Jews but not Zionists.

The antagonism against the Haredim is at record highs. The weary non-Haredi public put up with their autonomy, with them not equally shouldering the burden of military service, with the generous appropriations and the hunger for more – until the unforgivable boundary that was crossed during the pandemic. The rabbis’ emissaries in the Knesset understand the situation.

They’re giving more interviews, trying to create a picture that differs from the reality, but their spin isn’t working so well. Or as a senior Haredi figure in tune with reality told me this week: In the election we’ll be the sword that Netanyahu is stabbed with. If he falls, we’ll fall with him; if he survives, we’ll stay with him.

True coexistence

In a world of procedures, the arbitrary move by the Knesset speaker to annul the vote to establish a committee of inquiry into Israel’s acquisition of submarines and missile ships was reasonable. Barely, but reasonable.

From his first moment as speaker, Likud’s Yariv Levin hasn’t behaved like an impartial statesman but like one of the tentacles of Balfour Street. He’s half speaker and half minister, but will always remain the ultimate confidant. As such, he bears further responsibility: to prevent embarrassment to the boss.

And this was surely the mother of all embarrassments. Moreover, the responsibility for this colossal snafu falls in equal measure to Levin and Zohar, the coalition whip. This failure isn’t an orphan, it has two fathers.

Levin allowed one of his deputies, an opposition legislator, to oversee the debate on an ultrasensitive subject about which any mention, be it in protests, art installations or TV panel discussions, drives the prime minister crazy. At issue was a motion by Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg to establish the parliamentary committee.

Zohar, who’s preoccupied with his penitence, didn’t bother to ensure that the Likud legislators would enter the Knesset hall. I’ve noted more than once that Zohar is one of the worst coalition whips ever. Maybe the all-time worst. Still, he never stops giving interviews. He was entrusted with a coalition numbering 72 Knesset members.

Time after time, vote after vote, the government barely squeaks through. In the vote Wednesday, too, about a third of the coalition members were in the chamber. And it wasn’t a revolt; it was agreed in advance that the Kahol Lavan MKs would absent themselves. In other words, Zohar had to ensure that the Likud and Haredi MKs showed up.

The event was broadcast on Channel 99, the Knesset Channel. Everyone could watch it and conclude that the vote was legal. Yes, there was chaos. Yes, Zohar had asked for a roll-call vote, but in all the noise, the session’s chairman, Mansour Abbas of the Joint List, didn’t hear him. Yes, the regulations stipulate that only the government may request a roll-call vote (or 20 MKs in writing), but the custom is that the coalition whip also sometimes does.

It’s also the case that four or five coalition members, among them Likud’s Levin, Zohar, Haim Katz and David Bitan, were in the chamber but didn’t vote, because they thought it was a roll-call vote, not an electronic one.

The Joint List's Mansour Abbas in his Knesset office, September 2020.
The Joint List's Mansour Abbas in his Knesset office, September 2020.Credit: Yehonatan Samiya / Knesset

All this is true, but the vote was still valid. Levin’s decision in turn was validated by the Knesset’s acting legal adviser, Sagit Afik. She made do with rigid proceduralism. She ignored the constitutional, moral and ethical aspect. Maybe it’s not her task to label the Knesset speaker a vote snatcher and a ruling party a degenerate organization that regularly tramples on the rules, norms and basic honesty.

And a word about Abbas, who’s from the United Arab List, which beats Balad in terms of extremism among the Joint List’s parties. Former senior figures in the United Arab List have praised dreams of caliphates in Palestine.

Somehow, Likud always finds common ground with representatives of this party. It’s unlikely that any dialogue between them and Kahol Lavan comes anywhere near the number of contacts between them and Netanyahu and his people. This happened during the dissolution of the Knesset after the first of the three elections, and the attempt to get them to support a government of 60 MKs under Netanyahu during that stretch.

Somehow, before and also after these events, the sides will be able to arrive at understandings. This cordial spirit of heartwarming “unity” also clearly played a role in Abbas’ admitting, after being summoned to Levin’s office, that he had erred and there was reason to annul the vote over which he had presided. There is hope for coexistence, after all.

The ideal husband

It’s become a bore to write about the current face of the Likud movement – “a liberal national movement,” in its official terminology. The national has become dogmatic nationalism, spiced with racism. The liberalism was murdered and thrown out the window in favor of extreme conservatism.

The primitive hardal (nationalist Haredi) components are gaining traction in the party. The best (and worst) proof of this was seen this week in a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. On the agenda was a motion to prevent the economic abuse of women; a main goal is to end the phenomenon of a husband who controls his wife’s bank account and renders her  captive.

The motion was submitted by Likud’s Keren Barak; it was attached to an identical bill submitted by the Justice Ministry with the support of other ministries. It was approved unanimously by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, when it still met, and also by the Knesset in a first vote. The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee convened to prepare the bill for the second and third votes.

Yamina's Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset, September 2020.
Yamina's Bezalel Smotrich in the Knesset, September 2020.Credit: Yehonatan Samiya / Knesset

In the previous Knesset (before the three elections) the hardal slot, which expressed medieval opinions on marital and family relations, was held by Bezalel Smotrich. This week, we discovered that four new Smotriches had turned up in all their ugliness and folly. All four are Likud backbenchers: Shlomo Karhi, Ariel Kallner, Amit Halevi (all three wear a kippa) and Osnat Mark – for her no puddle is too turgid.

Their reasons for opposing the legislation hovered in the dark space of sweeping stupidity, distilled evil and sheer ignorance. Never have Likud MKs held views like these. At least two of them, Karhi and Mark, are Balfour Street favorites, the court jesters often sent to the TV studios to spew the deceit.

Kallner is trying to be admitted to the club. So it’s no surprise that the army of Bibi-ists on social medial fell on Keren Barak, who had submitted the bill, as if she had shamed Likud.

So the next time Netanyahu praises his wife’s “tremendous activity” on behalf of battered wives, or when Sara shamelessly revels in that title, remember the abomination that was hurled in our faces this week from the Knesset.

Huldai strikes back

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai didn’t like what I wrote about him two weeks ago: that in the next three years, the remainder of his term, Tel Aviv will need him to get back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic. So, it follows, he should shelve his national ambitions and stay where he is.

Cogently, he argued in private conversations that no mayor, however successful and experienced, can revive businesses that have gone bust, get the unemployed back to work or create jobs in place of those that have disappeared.

What’s needed for that is a functioning government and a state budget. And that calls for managerial skill, integrity, an understanding of the people’s needs, and priority for the common good over the personal. Accordingly, he's convinced, his place is well east of Tel Aviv, in the government compound in Jerusalem.

He’s poised to form a party, he says, replete with a bank account for guarantees and donations. Huldai has a platform and an action plan that will be presented when the time comes.

What doesn’t he have? Feelings of inferiority, not even toward former military chiefs – those who have tried their luck in politics and those who haven’t yet. In his view, the performance of the former chiefs of staff in the Knesset and cabinet is nothing to write home about. They have severely undermined those who haven’t yet taken the plunge (aka Gadi Eisenkot).

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in his office, March 2020.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in his office, March 2020.Credit: Tel Aviv municipality

In fact, no one can match his record. It’s true he said in a television interview that in certain circumstances he might agree to be in the party’s second slot, but that’s only because he didn’t want to be suspected of arrogance. Heaven forbid.

If the election is held by June, he’s in, heading a slate. If it’s delayed, he’ll remain on the 12th floor of city hall, from where he’ll keep on looking at one of the world’s greatest cities, even in its gloom.

To persuade the doubters, Huldai cites his wife, Yael. On all previous occasions when he toyed with the idea of running nationally, she vetoed it, he says. Stay where you are, she told him. This time, she’s supporting him and pushing him more ardently than anyone.

His thesis is somewhat simplistic. There is no left and right; the annexation, of blessed memory, finished that story.

Netanyahu failed miserably in managing the pandemic, and the public realizes that. The awareness that he’s acting mainly from personal, legal and political considerations is trickling down. The agenda of the approaching election will be economy, livelihood and management.

The people are crying out for a manager who will offer them a new contract. The existing political structure doesn’t reflect the situation of Israeli society, the million jobless and the tens of thousands of owners of failed businesses, who are voters from all parties. And because right and left are in Huldai's view (or in his wishful thinking) passé, he has a real chance.

His overriding desire is to topple Netanyahu. If he’s not elected prime minister but still obtains significant clout, he won’t object to becoming defense minister (maybe because the ministry is in Tel Aviv, not too far from city hall).

The Finance Ministry is also an option. Politics, his analogy goes, is like a box of matches: You enter red, get burned and come out black. A similar fate could befall him, but he can’t sit idly by.

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