Netanyahu the Magician Finally Fumbles His Rabbit – and the Threat of an Early Election Recedes

It turns out that Gantz and Ashkenazi made clear to Pompeo that annexation was a poor idea, while the failed effort to have judges investigated made Netanyahu look bad in a couple of ways

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Gantz and Netanyahu battle as the coronavirus threatens.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “magician” or even a “king” has become axiomatic in Israeli politics. He’s the man who sees every move against his political rivals as a chess game while they’re playing checkers; he’s the one whose cold calculations, will to survive and healthy dose of luck put him in a league of his own.

But in recent weeks, the magician seems to have lost it. His wand has been bent; the rabbits have fled his hat.

The fiasco of his request that the Knesset Finance Committee grant him a tax break, his violent excoriation of the attorney general and the infighting in the governing coalition – all taking place amid a massive new outbreak of the coronavirus and a deadly economic crisis that’s only getting worse – have made it clear to the Likud leader (in numbers of the kind he understands) that he’s losing the nation. Even if the curve on the graph of his poll numbers hasn’t yet flattened, the public’s faith in him has collapsed.

Then, after all this, he provided another display of his utter alienation and stupidity in the form of the drama around a proposal to form a parliamentary committee of inquiry into alleged conflicts of interest in the justice system (more on this saga later). The dial of his political compass, which is almost always perfectly calibrated, is now spinning nervously, finding neither direction nor rest.

On top of all this came another episode we watched this week. During the bad old days of frequent terror attacks, prime ministers would go to the scene; that’s a basic act of responsibility and leadership. And it cost all of them dearly.

Netanyahu (as prime minister; the opposite rules apply for an opposition leader) has always stayed away from the scene of an attack, whether real or metaphorical. He knows exactly when not to be in the room – when the shit hits the fan.

But the Zoom call he held this week with the owners of collapsing businesses, which was widely covered in the media, was the scene of a political terror attack par excellence. Faced with the accusations against him, the prime minister seemed terrified and depressed.

In the end, he mustered a bit of an echo and roared it at the scapegoat du jour, the head of the Israel Competition Authority, who took part in the discussion. He’ll always be a one-trick pony.

Benny Gantz watched him from the sidelines (or more accurately, from home, since he’s in quarantine). The more Netanyahu’s popularity declines, the more the threat of an early election recedes. “Benny’s karma,” as associates of the Kahol Lavan chief call it, is evidently working. The coronavirus has been good for him.

The possibility of breaking up the government and calling a new election, which seemed like a clear and present danger a week or two ago, is apparently off the table for now. In a kind of bizarre physics equation, the more the popularity of the government and its constituent parties falls, the more resilient it becomes.

Deep amid the economic crisis, the face and voice of Finance Minister Yisrael Katz have disappeared. He and Netanyahu are both uptight, and Katz knows very well that his boss will try as much as possible to aim the arrows of public criticism at the finance minister.

For now, Netanyahu is fanning the mud wrestling between the actual finance minister and the man who was supposed to get the job but was left out of the cabinet, Nir Barkat. If the boys are brawling, maybe someone will forget that the prime minister is the chief culprit for the embarrassing state of the economy and of the country as a whole.

While Barkat is trolling Katz, Naftali Bennett – the standout politician of the coronavirus crisis – is harassing Netanyahu from both the right and the opposition benches. On Thursday, he finished another week of scurrying around among businesspeople (and a raft of media appearances). To borrow from Churchill, never have so few caused so much damage to so many.

And there’s one final issue – the annexation nonsense, which nobody seems to be talking about anymore. A week and a half has gone by since Donald Trump envoy Avi Berkowitz returned to Washington following talks in Israel. And the historic move to apply sovereignty? Nada. It’s as if it never existed.

Finance Minister Yisrael Katz speaking in July 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

It’s hard to believe that in the meantime, Trump has been brainstorming with his advisers and secretary of state to analyze the insights that Berkowitz brought back. As the U.S. presidential election campaign and the coronavirus heat up, annexation is cooling down.

For Kahol Lavan’s leaders, that’s a cause for celebration. It’s a poor man’s joy, but it shouldn’t be underestimated.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Gantz think their quiet work with the Americans has borne fruit. Neither of them wanted this insane idea. Their opposition, as expressed in discussions with various people, was more vehement and reasoned than their public stance.

Diplomatic and political sources say the turning point that halted the annexation virus occurred on May 13, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Israel. He met with Netanyahu, Gantz and Ashkenazi.

What exactly is this “unity government,” he asked? How does it work? And the Kahol Lavan leaders told him, “From now on, Netanyahu isn’t your only point of reference. You also have to listen to us.” The Israeli foreign minister also told his American counterpart that annexation is a piece of diplomatic and security idiocy whose costs outweigh its benefits.

Netanyahu later accused them of “creating friction” between him and the U.S. administration. We didn’t create friction, Ashkenazi responded. I expressed my opinion. I can’t help it that it’s different from yours.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaking in June 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A win for Gantz and principle

The strange political dynamics of the coronavirus unity government became clear in the Knesset Wednesday thanks to the controversial proposal to set up that “committee of inquiry” into judicial conflicts of interest. The person who helped embarrass the government through a roll-call vote was opposition leader Yair Lapid, who gave the proposal’s sponsor, Bezalel Smotrich of Yamina, the signatures he needed for this procedure.

Later, after barbs were exchanged between ministers and Knesset members who are all part of the governing coalition, came an incident that could only be termed bizarre. Likud’s Miki Zohar saw that members of the Arab parties’ Joint List were voting against the proposal and went over to party whip Ahmad Tibi.

“Ahmad! You’re the Joint List! And you’re stabilizing the coalition?!” he said.

“Miki! You’re the coalition whip! And you want to topple the government?!” Tibi responded.

The obvious conclusion from this horror show is that Zohar understood quite well that if the proposal passed, the government would fall. This was also well understood by Speaker Yariv Levin, Shas chief Arye Dery and United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni, all of whom warned Netanyahu that this was the likely result if Smotrich’s proposal passed.

“Why don’t you vote against it, or skip the vote?” Netanyahu suggested to the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties. They exploded at him. Their voters hate the Supreme Court even more than the average Likud voter does. They wouldn’t forgive their party leaders if their MKs didn’t vote in favor.

For a long time, Netanyahu debated over what to do; he was clearly leaning toward torpedoing the proposal. But at the last minute, he reversed course, and the result was the farce we witnessed in the Knesset Wednesday.

It’s well known that when Netanyahu changes his mind suddenly, sometimes in defiance of his obvious interests, he isn’t operating spontaneously. He’s being operated. And the operator is usually located in the prime minister’s residence.

This time, the blame apparently rests with his son, Yair. In the residence’s warped division of powers, Junior is responsible for the legal system, while “the lady,” aka Sara Netanyahu, manages the financial affairs.

This week we learned that the caretaker of this residence laden with suspects is once again being questioned on suspicion of criminal conduct relating to the residence’s management. But the caretaker isn’t the source of Netanyahu’s troubles; that would be his son and wife.

This time, however, Netanyahu’s change of heart was due in part to factors outside his family. Right-wing journalists put enormous pressure on the Prime Minister’s Office, the Knesset speaker and Zohar to bring Smotrich’s proposal to a vote. One observer of this action called the pressure “crazy.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, July 9, 2020.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

The journalists, some of whom work for mainstream media outlets, are all part of the gang that curses and abuses the Supreme Court, its president Esther Hayut, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the rest of the rule-of-law gang. And from Wednesday morning until the vote took place, during which time it wasn’t clear whether Likud would support or torpedo the proposal, the journalists mounted a campaign.

“Break this government up already,” they urged their readers and listeners. “What are we getting out of it? We aren’t applying sovereignty, and Avi Nissenkorn is sitting in the Justice Ministry. At least pass Smotrich’s committee.”

Netanyahu didn’t want to break up the government, but he did want to calm the wrath of the comrades who disseminate his teachings to the masses. So he took the middle road. Likud members were allowed to vote in favor, but there would be no massive mobilization for the vote of the kind Likud knows quite well how to mount.

As for the other side, this searing loss in the Knesset revived Kahol Lavan from the dead and made it relevant again. Gantz, Ashkenazi and Nissenkorn stood tall, fought over an important principle for their voters and won.

On the right in the opposition, Yamina also won a minor victory. On top of the Knesset seats Bennett is taking from Likud as shadow minister for the coronavirus crisis, the right wing’s proposal embarrassed Likud on one of the core issues the parties have in common – the legal system. Smotrich and his colleagues are accusing Likud of not supplying the goods, and they’re right.

Netanyahu, Likud’s chairman, fled the vote like an army officer who shouts “follow me!” on the battlefield and runs away. He inflamed his hardcore base, which hates the Supreme Court, but disappointed it a moment later. Moreover, he bolstered a narrative that’s sinking in ever deeper, and it’s clear from the polls that the economic and health crisis isn’t at the top of his list of concerns.

The defeat that Gantz and his colleagues served up to Netanyahu and Likud allowed a compromise on the budget, thereby extending the government’s life for a few more months. For now, there’s no intention to make blunt use of this shift in the balance of forces within this strife-ridden coalition.

Next week, a proposal to establish a commission of inquiry into corruption in the acquisition of submarines and other naval vessels will be brought up for a vote (again), this time by Lapid. After the way Likud behaved Wednesday, Gantz and his colleagues would seemingly be free to vote their consciences. But as of now, according to Gantz’s associates, they don’t plan to do so. They won’t be the ones to break up the government, at least at this stage.

Gantz's dark humor

Israel’s military chiefs of staff are used to being loved and admired, even after they retire. When they enter a restaurant, there will always be diners who applaud them, toast them or request a selfie with them.

But over the past six weeks, Gantz has discovered what it’s like when people don’t love you. He has been taking lethal friendly fire from his base and has suffered endless insults and derogatory nicknames.

To say he’s just letting this slide off the duck's back would be highly inaccurate. He has taken it to heart. His electorate is shrinking, his senior partner in the government belittles him, and doubts about the likelihood of the prime minister’s job actually rotating to him as planned are more or less the only thing the whole country agrees on.

The Defense Ministry is vacuuming him up as only it can. His ministers, all rookies, are spinning their wheels on unfamiliar ground, some of them in fictitious ministries. They’re nagging him to get them some authority on the budget, something to do.

The Knesset battle that ended in a victory for Kahol Lavan and a major humiliation for Likud was Gantz’s first head-on-head clash with Netanyahu. The latter grossly violated their coalition agreement just two weeks after Kahol Lavan blocked the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the submarines affair.

It smells bad, but I held my nose, Gantz told his people. I honor agreements. I want to preserve this coalition.

Shortly after the vote, he uploaded a video from his home in Rosh Ha’ayin, where he’s quarantined. In the clip he celebrated his victory, but in his own characteristic way. He wasn’t dancing on the rooftops. It’s as if it were unpleasant for him to win.

Benny Gantz in Jerusalem for a meeting with the Greek prime minister on June 16, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

As far as he’s concerned, the account hasn’t been settled. But retaliation will be businesslike, not petty – for example, supporting social welfare bills sponsored by the opposition.

Or maybe Kahol Lavan will vote to appoint Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked the opposition’s representative on the Judicial Appointments Committee. That vote, a secret ballot, will take place next week. In the coalition agreement, Kahol Lavan promised to support Likud’s Osnat Mark. But as noted, that agreement’s provisions have already been violated.

Gantz has developed a black sense of humor. “I’m doing what my critics want, and I’m still catching hell,” he was quoted as saying this week. Still, he added, as if to comfort himself, the 40th blow hurts less than the first.

He has derived some encouragement from the relationship he’s building with the three leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Dery from Shas and Gafni and Yaakov Litzman from United Torah Judaism. The cold shower they gave Netanyahu Wednesday afternoon, in what has been termed a “screaming phone call,” Gantz attributes in part to what they’ve seen with their own eyes: One half of this partnership is honest, respects agreements and isn’t seeking quarrels. The other half is, of course, Netanyahu.

On the gloomy night of April 20, with faces no less gloomy, the two signed the coalition agreement at the prime minister’s residence. About a month later, the government was sworn in.

People who meet with Gantz often wonder what he feels about Netanyahu. True, they worked together for years when Gantz was military chief of staff and Netanyahu was prime minister, but now we’re in a different opera.

These sources’ impression is that even given the low expectations with which Gantz entered this partnership, he has been disappointed. He had hoped that Netanyahu would rise above petty politics and his personal needs.

If that was truly his hope, he evidently wasn’t listening to the warnings from Yesh Atid-Telem’s Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, students with personal experience. Both are former partners of Netanyahu who became his bitter rivals.

Dropping the bomb

In April, during the lockdown in its various forms, two people went back and forth between the offices of two key senior officials. They provided an impressive presentation on a plan for handling subsequent waves of the coronavirus. It was put together by the Mossad in cooperation with people from academia, the health system, the defense establishment and other places.

The plan’s main points were reported this week by Nadav Eyal on Channel 13 News. They include a testing system, ramped-up technology and an improved system to monitor the incidence of illness, which is designed to prevent another outbreak. There’s also one more key item – the appointing of a coronavirus czar who would have sole authority over handling the crisis.

It’s now possible to dispel a little more of the fog surrounding this unusual occurrence. The people pushing this plan were Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and a former senior Mossad official who doesn’t currently hold any active position. And Cohen’s candidate for the position of coronavirus czar was, of course, himself, at the head of his own organization, naturally.

This seems strange, to say the least. Why should an intelligence agency whose main focus is abroad manage a civilian domestic crisis? And after all, the threats the agency exists to address, like an Iran seeking nuclear weapons, haven’t been destroyed by the virus.

The case Cohen made was typical of any intelligence or epidemiology expert. Schools would open, as would businesses and event halls, and the infection rate would start climbing again. Thus the main effort should be invested in locating clusters of infection before they become outbreaks. That’s what an intelligence agency does – it finds needles in haystacks.

In late April, when the curve was on the downswing and the first relaxation of restrictions hesitantly heralded the end of the beginning, Cohen presented the plan to the prime minister – and Netanyahu rejected it out of hand, angrily, according to various sources.

He saw Cohen’s proposal as a no-confidence vote, or at least as an expression of doubt, in Netanyahu’s ability to continue managing the crisis single-handedly (together with the Health Ministry’s then-director general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov). The plan was kicked down the stairs leading from the prime minister’s office, along with the man who proposed it.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at the 2019 Herzliya Conference.Credit: Moti Milrod

Cohen is an extremely unusual Mossad director for this very reason. People who know him say he has high political aspirations. Even Netanyahu sees him as a suitable heir, in the distant future.

His character, which is so different from that of the classic intelligence type, has also led him to push Netanyahu into showy events that are ostensibly intelligence-related but are at least equally political, like the grand unveiling of Iran’s nuclear archive.

Netanyahu presumably thought Cohen’s proposal stemmed in part from a view of the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to forge a high public profile. So no way, it wouldn’t happen on Bibi’s watch.

About two months later, Cohen’s term as Mossad director was extended by six months. There’s not necessarily any connection between these two developments, but the effect is six more months before “the heir,” as he’s being called, can enter the political arena.

The Prime Minister’s Office responded, “Not only does the prime minister not rule out appointing one person to centralize the testing and data systems, but that is exactly what he directed the health minister to do, and he is doing so now.”

Junior partners and then some

With perfect timing, a first-of-its-kind study was published recently. The research examined a terrifyingly relevant topic for Israeli politics: What is the fate of parties that join the governing coalition as second and third fiddles?

The research, which was brought to my attention by Tel Aviv University political scientist Lior Sheffer, was published in the prestigious Journal of Politics. It’s based on 219 election campaigns in 28 European countries that have coalition governments. The study covers the 45 years from 1972 to 2017.

The conclusion is clear: Only the party that heads the government receives a benefit in the next election. The other coalition parties suffer a gap of about 6 percentage points compared with the ruling party. In other words, if in the next Israeli election Likud stays at around 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the other parties in the coalition would be expected to lose seven seats. If Likud wins another four seats, the other parties would lose only three seats.

Of course, these are averages and represent different political situations, but the conclusion is statistically significant because it included hundreds of parties and elections.

The explanation provided is no less interesting than the findings: One reason for the phenomenon is that junior coalition partners fail to carry out their promises to their voters because the senior party controls the agenda. The second reason: Because of the nature of a coalition government, the junior partners can’t sufficiently differentiate themselves from their larger partner in terms of both ideology and image.

Now back to our own swamp; the following are some examples from the last decade. In 2012, Kadima joined the coalition and crashed from 28 Knesset seats to only two. Labor, which left the coalition in the middle of the term – except for its then-Chairman Ehud Barak and his loyalists who founded the Atzmaut party – gained seven seats.

In the 2015 election, Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, Yesh Atid, slimmed down from 19 seats to 11, and Habayit Hayehudi from 12 to eight. Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman, who tends to leave the coalition and later maximize his electoral achievements – abandoned his instincts this time. He remained in the coalition and lost seven seats.

In April 2019, Lieberman – who quit the government six months earlier with a lot of noise – didn’t lose altitude. Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, with all the gifts the finance minister handed out to anyone who asked, plunged from 10 seats to four. Even Shas and United Torah Judaism, members of the government, lost seats.

So, if in some amazing way, maybe thanks to the coronavirus, Gantz has the luck in November 2021 to enter the Prime Minister’s Office and serve for a year and a half, maybe he and his party will be reborn. In any other scenario in which he’s sentenced to an election as Netanyahu’s junior partner, a loss of seven Knesset seats would actually be a pleasant surprise for him.

By the way, that’s exactly the number of seats Kahol Lavan has lost in less than two months of the partnership, according to the opinion polls. Netanyahu specializes in destroying parties and eliminating rivals by keeping complete control over the agenda and preventing rivals from forging a positive narrative for themselves.

The study shows that being a junior partner in a coalition government, whichever the country, is an investment with a negative return. And to be a junior partner in a Netanyahu coalition government is a recipe for bankruptcy.

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