Despite Kahlon's Warnings, Netanyahu Courts the Israeli Right

The chances Zionist Union will join the coalition seem slimmer than ever. Meanwhile, scandals are threatening Habayit Hayehudi.

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IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon returned this week from a working visit to the United States, where he heard praise from all and sundry for the Israeli economy, coupled with deep frustration with respect to the vacuum in the diplomatic arena and the continued occupation and building in the territories. “We will not be able to go on siding with you indefinitely,” Democratic members of Congress told him.

Next week, Kahlon will share his impressions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also wants to seriously examine Netanyahu’s approach to the possibility of enlarging the coalition, now that the budget has been passed. Kahlon, the leader of the Kulanu party, is pushing harder than anyone for the government’s expansion, preferably with the addition of Zionist Union. To that end he will also soon meet with that party’s leader, MK Isaac Herzog. So Kahlon will want to hear from Netanyahu whether there’s any point to his efforts, or whether he’s wasting his time.

In fact, Zionist Union joining the coalition is just not going to happen. Netanyahu has veered sharply rightward since his return from Washington. He has told recent interlocutors that there’s no chance, no one to talk to and nothing to talk about with the Palestinians. He also lost no time in downplaying the photograph of him shaking hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Paris climate talks this week. Don’t draw any conclusions from that gesture, he told reporters who accompanied him. I have no expectations from Abbas and neither should you. It was just a matter of protocol.

Those comments were of course aimed at the political right in Israel. Any possible small dividend the country could have reaped in the international arena from the handshake, certainly given the country’s gloomy diplomatic situation, was undercut by the prime minister’s “clarification.” He’s still aiming squarely at his political base, his core constituency.

Political sources close to Herzog admit, with a note of disappointment, that the door to the government is shut for the coming months, if not for good. That assessment did not change even after Herzog met with Netanyahu for one of his periodic update briefings several days ago. The premier held similar meetings this week with Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid and with his bitter rival MK Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu.

Publicly, Lieberman sounds determined not to join the coalition before Netanyahu makes substantive security-policy revisions (and replaces the defense minister with him). He also wants a series of agreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties to be scrapped. That’s not going to happen. But the signs are that, if anyone, Netanyahu’s bureau is marking Lieberman as the preferred and most realistic candidate to join the coalition.

Here’s evidence of that, some of it circumstantial: 1. The meeting with Netanyahu; 2. The rightward thrust; 3. Netanyahu’s plan, first reported here, to establish a large and invincible right-wing slate ahead of the next election, to include Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Kulanu, possibly Shas and definitely Yisrael Beiteinu. For, despite the bad blood between them, Netanyahu considers Lieberman an essential partner for that project – he can deliver a few valuable seats of Russian-speaking voters; and 4. Two teams that Netanyahu set up this week, under Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), who is the government’s liaison with the Knesset – one for “changing the system of government,” the other to advance legislation that would enable Israelis abroad to vote.

Apart from Lieberman’s disagreements in the realm of defense policy – attesting to the portfolio he wants – no issues tickles his fancy more than “changing the system of government” and allowing Israelis overseas to participate in the democratic process in Israel.

Kahlon’s dream, though, is bringing in Herzog. A coalition of 85 MKs (61 + Zionist Union’s 24), even if 15 of them are loose cannons, would be paradise for the finance minister. He wouldn’t have to transfer unnecessary funds to the settlements and wouldn’t have to coddle individual MKs, each of whom has the power to topple the budget. Kahlon would be only too happy to agree to the budget requests of Herzog & Co.

Ten days ago, in the marathon all-night session in which the Knesset voted on thousands of clauses and objections in this year’s budget bill, Kahlon regaled Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with the following allegory: “When a synagogue has 10 member, there will always be a minyan [prayer quorum of 10 males]. If another three join, there will never be a minyan, because each of them will count on one of the others to show up.”

“Tell that to Bibi,” Katz said, and Kahlon did. Netanyahu smiled and nodded. He took the point: For Kahlon, the cooption of Yisrael Beiteinu’s six MKs is not the preferred option.

Compulsive behavior

After duly noting that Likud MK Oren Hazan is a stain on his party, we need to look at the antics of the other hero (or antihero) of the state comptroller’s report that was released this week: Habayit Hayehudi leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. He’s what’s known as a recidivist, an offender who repeats the same offenses, whether he’s not aware of the gravity of his deeds or – and this is more likely in the present case –whether he actually is very aware but doesn’t give a hoot.

Bennett’s disregard for laws regulating the funding of election campaigns, including primaries, was first seen three years ago, in the first primary election he contested in Habayit Hayehudi. He was reprimanded and fined. He was in breach of the law again in the 2013 election campaign, and again was scolded and fined. And this week – surprise! – who’s the star of the comptroller’s report on financing during the 2015 campaign, with the same disdain for the law?

In the past three years, Bennett has paid fines of more than 50,000 shekels (about $12,000) to the state coffers. The affluent high-tech whiz who in his previous career made more than one successful exit couldn’t care less. Maybe the roots of his behavior lie in his childhood, or in his army service, or in the years when he was chief of staff for then-opposition leader Netanyahu and learned a thing or two from him about bypassing certain procedures and cutting corners.

The response of the education minister’s bureau to the report is highly instructive: “The minister will study the report respectfully when he returns from a hasbara [public diplomacy] mission abroad and will correct all that requires correcting to avert a recurrence of these things. “Respectfully,” “hasbara mission abroad,” “avert a recurrence” – are we alone in thinking that this sentence was written amid gales of laughter in a kosher New York restaurant?

Impulsive behavior

Yinon Magal’s resignation from the Knesset this week – in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment committed before his election to parliament – came as a relief to his two good buddies and his two partners in the “trio” at the top of the party: Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Every day Magal continued to hold the title of “MK from Habayit Hayehudi” condemned him to a slow and excruciating political death, and Bennett and Shaked to joint bloodletting.

Bennett was blasted first of all because he’s the party leader – the one who brought Magal into the national-religious party as a secular pet, who became a pest. The pressure on Bennett from inside the party intensified by the day, and it was only his good luck that he was abroad this week and didn’t have to confront the critics face to face.

Second, he was slammed because he’s the education minister. When the story broke, he declared that he would show “zero tolerance” for such despicable behavior. But then, when the number of women who stated that they’d been sexually harassed by Magal rose from two to four, the minister went silent. He spent time in television studios in the United States but didn’t given an interview to any Israeli media outlet. Not a mark of courage on the part of a politician who draws most of his metaphors from his service in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit.

Shaked, too, wears two hats that haven’t helped her cope with the party’s embarrassment: She’s a woman and she’s the justice minister. But she, like Bennett, chose to place friendship above all. Her initial response to the whole affair was minimalist and evasive. She too was then silent until Magal’s resignation, and in her reaction she chose to praise the alleged sexual harasser who humiliated women.

“I am more determined than ever in my vision for a strong Jewish Zionist movement of religious and secular members. The country needs it,” Bennett tweeted after his ‘bro resigned. Good luck with that. The next time he tries to bring in someone without a kippah or a beard, he’ll be reminded of both the fiasco with the former soccer star Eli Ohana, who was driven out of the party soon after he was brought into it – apparently for being a Mizrahi (a Jew of North African or Middle Eastern descent) – and also about Magal, who this week made a final departure from the Knesset via the service entrance.

Opaque transparency

The tweet by MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union), stating that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) had blocked a live broadcast of the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee’s deliberations on the natural-gas deal, touched a very sensitive nerve in the Speaker’s bureau. That was a “grave and dangerous move,” Yacimovich had written, to which Edelstein responded that the accusation was “grave and populist.” Yacimovich said Edelstein moved the committee’s deliberations to a side hall where there are no television cameras. He denied any malicious intent, saying he only wanted to do well by other committees, which were envious of the media attention being heaped on the one chaired by MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union).

Yacimovich is not known for making unfounded allegations, and she continues to stand by her account. Which leads us unavoidably to the discussions of a committee established by Edelstein to consider the future of the Knesset Channel. Its meetings are hidden from the public eye and ear, but apparently members of the committee are in general not pleased by the channel. Some of its members think it is too independent, opinionated and critical of the MKs, because it functions like a news channel. One idea, reported this week in TheMarker, is for the channel to make do exclusively with broadcasting Knesset committee deliberations, without any commentary.

On Wednesday, in a first substantive indication that this is the intention, Edelstein’s bureau stated that in the coming months television cameras would replace the Internet cameras in all 15 committee rooms; at present, TV cameras are installed only in one room. On the face of it, the change would seem to be transparency at its best. In fact, the aim is the exact opposite. The result will be that the Knesset Channel will no longer broadcast serious programs and in-depth interviews of MKs by serious journalists. The Knesset Channel is a real asset for those who are devotees of Israel’s contemporary politics and of its political and parliamentary history. Certainly it’s to be preferred over the endless mystics, palm-readers, star-gazers and others of their ilk whom we get nonstop on the main TV channels.

Mum’s the word

Last week the blogosphere was in a dither about an interview in which MK Lapid told an ultra-Orthodox media outlet that he did not say to Shas leader Arye Dery in a pre-2015 election television debate, “You are a convicted felon, I will rehabilitate you.” This time truth was on Lapid’s side. What he said was, “You are a convicted felon and you need to be rehabilitated.”

In the year that has passed, Lapid – who stated in the campaign that convicted felons have no place in the Knesset or the government – decided to cozy up to the Haredim in the hope that one day they would back him to become the country’s prime minister. This week, too, another tale of Lapid’s campaign of buttering up this community emerged.

On Monday he came to the Likud Knesset faction to fulfill a mitzvah: writing the final letters in a Torah scroll donated by a Ukrainian businessman from the Chabad movement to the Israeli parliament. Lapid, along with other MKs, did the writing and went on his way.

That same day he surprised members of his faction by announcing that he was supporting Dery’s recommendation that new bills of currency be adorned with Mizrahi figures. In the previous government, as finance minister, Lapid did not seek to restore the lost honor of Mizrahi intellectuals – he was busy bashing Dery and Ashkenazi Haredim.

On Wednesday, Dery showed his gratitude. The Knesset debated two similar though not identical bills about policy toward the disabled, particularly autistic individuals. One bill was submitted by MK Orly Levi-Abekasis, from Yisrael Beiteinu, the other by Lapid, who has an autistic daughter. The coalition decided to support Levi-Abekasis’ bill. But then Dery told the coalition leadership that Lapid had asked him to ensure that his bill, too, was included in the final version of the legislation, so that it would be noted for posterity that he also had a hand in correcting the longtime injustice of the state’s behavior toward autistic children and their parents.

“He has an autistic daughter,” Dery told his interlocutors. “We can’t ignore that. We need to be humane.” In less diplomatic language, Dery stated that Shas would not agree to prefer Levi-Abekasis’ motion exclusively. Effectively, he forced the Likud leaders to incorporate Lapid’s motion into the package.

When Lapid learned of this, he immediately sought out the convicted felon who needs rehabilitation. Dery was sitting with about 10 MKs and advisers on the side of the Knesset chamber. Lapid rushed over and thanked him effusively. “You did a great deed, you behaved with nobility of spirit, I won’t forget it, I owe you a great deal,” Lapid said to him, and added, according to some of those who were present, “I will be happy to thank and praise you publicly in any way you choose, just tell me how you would like it to be done.”

Dery’s media adviser, Barak Seri, tensed up. That was the last thing he needed. “It’s alright,” he told Lapid, “there’s no need, no need.” Lapid got the hint. He took the podium and thanked Levi-Abekasis, the Likud MKs who helped him, the leaders of Zionist Union and Meretz. Heeding Seri’s injunction, he made no mention of Dery.

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