Analysis

Early Elections No Longer Loom - So Why Is Netanyahu Campaigning?

For the Israeli PM, the best time for elections is now, before the police decide whether to indict him ■ Why is Sheldon Adelson's lawyer representing Israel's new broadcaster against Netanyahu?

Illustration: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu with Miri Regev in a pita.
Amos Biderman

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign team sits down to write the scripts for Likud’s ads in the next election, one will already be packaged and waiting on the shelf. Just take it down, send and forget. TV viewers saw it on the eve of Independence Day, in a ceremony that is supposed to be completely nonpartisan, consensual and unifying. Injected brutally and crudely into this tribal campfire was a dose of distilled political propaganda, which praised and lauded our distinguished leader in a sequence of scenes that generated a vintage, Soviet-style aroma and ranged from the humorous to the grotesque.

Netanyahu walks alongside a row of flags. Netanyahu clutches a flag in his hand. Netanyahu is shown with soldiers, having coffee with soldiers, shaking the hands of soldiers (what’s prohibited in election ads is permitted on our national holiday), Netanyahu with superpower leaders Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping (the latter two preside over countries that consistently vote against Israel in every international forum, including the abhorred UNESCO, but in the prime minister’s eyes, they’re a decoration to glory in – more so, for example, than Angela Merkel and Theresa May).

And, of course, there is Netanyahu’s bass voice accompanying his imagined achievements with self-admiring narration (“We’re taking natural gas out of the sea!”), as though it were he who had personally managed the underwater searches. In short, as though there hasn’t been anyone here but him for the past 69 years.

On the eve of Independence Day 2010, a year after he’d become prime minister for the second time and then-MK Reuven Rivlin had been chosen as Knesset speaker, Netanyahu announced that he intended to send a filmed speech to the torch-lighting ceremony. The Knesset speaker, who is traditionally the star and chief speechmaker of the ceremony in Jerusalem, responded by saying Netanyahu’s plan was fine with him, but he would stay home.

Netanyahu backed off. He didn’t dare raise the demand again until, on the eve of the 2013 Knesset election, he dumped Rivlin and replaced him with Yuli Edelstein. And, amazingly, the Mount Herzl torch-lighting ceremony has been graced from that day to this by a prime ministerial speech. Edelstein learned the lesson, so got to retain the senior post after the 2015 election.

Until this year, Netanyahu made do with a video filmed in his office, from which he greeted the audience at the ceremony and viewers at home. This year, as his imperial mood and paranoia intensified, he demanded an upgraded video. Edelstein, who surrenders to him every year anew – though probably no one bothers to ask him now – has downgraded the independent character of the popular ceremony. He’s become a doormat.

The repeated close-ups of the prime minister’s wife and her friend – the culture commissar whose ministry is in charge of the ceremony – in the live coverage of the Monday night event are part of a personality cult that has become an inseparable part of life here. There’s no use in the producers telling us they “didn’t get orders from anyone” to focus on Sara Netanyahu and Miri Regev (13 shots of Regev; 9 of Mrs. Netanyahu – a shocking statistic that meant the resilience of the thick, bulletproof glass in the prime minister’s residence was probably put to the test later that night). This kowtowing and sycophancy is another reflection, even if colorful and piquant, of the loss of national integrity that has descended on us.

The short, surprise visit paid by the Netanyahus to the barbecuing public in a Jerusalem park on Independence Day itself – undertaken solely to generate a tweet – made many people wonder what on earth is going on here. If the Mount Herzl propaganda video looked like the opening of an election campaign, the spontaneous encounter with delighted and supportive barbecuers created the feeling that Netanyahu is in an election campaign only he knows about.

The early-election threat that existed during the crisis over the new broadcasting authority has ostensibly passed. At the time, Netanyahu was determined to dismantle the governing coalition, whether because of the corporation or because of the police investigations against him. But he backtracked when he discovered the intensity of the opposition to an early election, both in Likud and in the coalition parties.

But the fact remains that, for him, the best time for an election is now, before the police decided whether or not to recommend an indictment. Every conversation he has with an acquaintance or political colleague quickly slides into the question, “Are we really going to depose a prime minister here over cigars? A few cigars?”

The fact that Netanyahu raises the issue without even being asked shows his intense apprehension. He feels the noose tightening around his neck. That feeling is seeping into every corner of the political arena. All the players are acting as though we’re on the brink of an election campaign, though none of them has a logical explanation or reasoned assessment about its timing or motivation.

For example, the leaders of Habayit Hayehudi repeat in every interview that they have no complaints about U.S. President Donald Trump, who wants to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The fault, they say, lies with Netanyahu, who didn’t take advantage of the golden opportunity he was given last November 8 to create facts on the ground. Clearly, then, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked have also joined the political fray.

So has Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), who is having promotional videos made about his achievements in the first two years of the current government. The same holds for the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties, who will not forgo legislation to prohibit the opening of grocery stores on Shabbat. None of them wants an early election, but all of them know it could happen at any time.

The wolf and the lamb

The connection between the “fascist right” and the “traitorous left” drawn by Knesset Speaker Edelstein in the torch-lighting ceremony is comparable to likening the wolf to the lamb. It’s a comparison as infuriating as it is unfair. In 2017 Israel, left and right are far from being equal in status.

The left is a persecuted minority that is treated savagely by those in power: They legislate against it, subject it to witch hunts and delegitimize it. There are the “left-wing associations,” the “left-wing [broadcasting] corporation” and the “leftist” justices of the Supreme Court, as they’re branded by Yariv Levin, the minister who’s closest to Netanyahu. Israeli army officers who dare speak of morality are similarly slandered. President Rivlin, who urges civil rights and tolerance, is a “leftie.” The investigative media is “left-wing and wants to topple the government.” MK Benny Begin (Likud) and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon are left-wingers because they revere the rule of law, even in the West Bank.

In the Israel of Netanyahu, left-wing blood is cheap. When the self-styled “social activist” and lawyer Barak Cohen hurls gutter language at Culture and Sports Minister Regev in the street, he’s urgently summoned for a police interrogation on suspicion of assault and insulting a public servant.

When three MKs are attacked verbally (“whores,” “traitors,” “Nazis”) and physically – spat upon and assaulted by water bombs – by right-wingers at the entrance to a hard-to-swallow “alternative Memorial Day” in Tel Aviv, the event hardly makes waves. Maybe because the three were Zehava Galon, Michal Rozin and Esawi Freige from Meretz. A large police force was present at the event and probably prevented the three from being lynched, but the police are not rushing to make arrests.

Edelstein wields a big stick against MK Oren Hazan (Likud) and Balad’s representatives in the Joint List, but he walks very softly when it comes to Netanyahu’s caprices. Under his tutelage, the Knesset has effectively become an arm of the government. Setting the vote on the first reading of the bill to reduce the new public broadcasting authority for Thursday at 7 P.M. represents a new low in the management of our legislature. It’s an utter trampling of the rules of the game. The Knesset doesn’t operate on Thursdays, and debates don’t get underway in the evening other than under extraordinary circumstances, which do not readily come to mind here. On top of which, the Knesset’s summer session is due to open on Monday.

When the cabinet and coalition yield to the whims of a prime minister who’s lost his sense of morality, it’s the role of the legislative branch to tell him: You have gone far enough. The opposition MKs who decided to boycott this farce did the right thing.

Foregone collision

In its meeting on Wednesday after the Independence Day holiday, the cabinet discussed the bill to split the broadcasting authority. Culture Minister Regev – who is unable, no matter how hard she tries, to hide her frustration and hurt pride at losing the communications minister appointment to Tzachi Hanegbi – launched into her usual monologue: “What’s the point of the corporation if the public” – she used to say just “we” – “doesn’t control it?”

“It’s exactly the same model as in the previous bill,” Hanegbi reminded her. (In fact, it’s the only model the attorney general is willing to defend before the High Court of Justice.)

“That’s the problem,” Regev complained. “It’s not supposed to be run by someone’s private club. It’s really too bad this is the legislation you came up with,” she said, reprimanding Hanegbi and indirectly the person who appointed him. “It’s a bad law. It’s a bad corporation that’s managed badly.”

Another Likud minister, Ofir Akunis (who also wanted – and still wants – the Communications Ministry), joined the celebration: “This whole law is very bad. A bad law that creates a bad corporation.”

Justice Minister Shaked snapped back. “Why are you always bad-mouthing the corporation?” she shouted at the Likud ministers. “It’s your corporation. Aren’t you sick of grumbling all the time? Enough already!”

Akunis mumbled that he’d been against it from the start. Education Minister Bennett, who enjoyed the Likud infighting, said to the Likud ministers, “I want to remind you that this law is totally yours. You’re the ones who signed off on it.”

Netanyahu retorted, “I want to remind you that everything we want to do in the realm of the media requires you in the coalition to back us.”

Bennett: “That’s stated in the coalition agreement, Mr. Prime Minister.”

The new bill, which was patched together hastily as part of a political agreement between Netanyahu and Kahlon, is studded with inbuilt pitfalls. It’s a “communications Tower of Babel,” said someone who’s knowledgeable about the bill.

The merger of the new public broadcasting corporation (called Kan) and the old Israel Broadcasting Authority is a collision waiting to happen. It won’t work because it can’t work, and that’s exactly what the prime minister is hoping for. He’s seeking failure and collapse, which, absurdly, will serve only him. He’ll boast that he was the first to see that the whole thing was going to be a major flop.

The case of the lawyer

Avigdor (Dory) Klagsbald in 2012.
Moti Milrod

Passage of the first reading of the bill to crush Kan means the date on which the broadcasting corporation will petition the High Court of Justice against the government is getting closer. The lawyer Kan has hired, Avigdor (Dory) Klagsbald, is one of the top white-collar attorneys in the country, the head of a super-expensive, super-prestigious law firm. His clients are the country’s high-capital elite, and his involvement in the case is no less interesting than the case itself.

One of the main clients sustaining Klagsbald’s firm is U.S. casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, owner of the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom. He and Klagsbald have a close personal relationship. According to one report, Klagsbald briefed Adelson ahead of the latter’s possible interrogation in the police investigation into Netanyahu’s meetings with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes.

Not long ago, Klagsbald approached the High Court on behalf of Adelson and outgoing Israel Hayom editor Amos Regev, in the matter of a petition by Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker to obtain a record of the phone calls of Adelson and Regev with Netanyahu. (The three are opposed to the petition, of course.)

As Adelson’s man in Israel, Klagsbald is discreet. He shuns the media – the loyal, secretive lawyer that every person of wealth would want by his side, but that few can afford. Given the usual relations between a mega-client like this and the firm representing him – and given Adelson’s known relations with Netanyahu – it’s unlikely Klagsbald would have accepted a case that seeks to dislodge the rock of the prime minister’s existence without the agreement of the chief provider.

Klagsbald is known for his penchant for big money. He would never have considered representing a public body that’s not capable of paying him a tenth of the fee he usually takes, and that will place him in a direct confrontation with the prime minister, if by doing so he were to risk alienating his firm’s mainstay.

Conclusion: He’s taking no risk at all. Adelson, who’s Netanyahu’s patron and benefactor, did not cast a veto – maybe he even gave his blessing, who knows? For Klagsbald, who doesn’t usually handle marginal cases like this, it’s important to represent Kan against Netanyahu. It may even be important for him to defeat Netanyahu in a matter that’s so dear to the prime minister’s heart. And he’s not used to losing High Court cases.

That’s what makes the case so complicated on a personal level, and so fascinating from a journalistic perspective. There is no doubt that for Netanyahu, Kan in its present format – before the ruinous split – is a strategic threat and an inexplicable obsession. There’s no knowing how Netanyahu will react if Klagsbald persuades the court to intervene. Anything is possible. Not long ago, Netanyahu was ready to dismantle the coalition over this issue.

Adelson is undoubtedly aware of this. After all, according to the prevailing assumption, the 2015 election was held early on his behalf and for his benefit. He is not preventing his lawyer from representing the media body that Netanyahu loathes, and against which he is waging a life-and-death battle that has acquaintances wondering whether something has come loose in him.

What can we infer from this about the current state of relations between Adelson and Netanyahu? Is there trouble in paradise? Do the Netanyahu-Mozes transcripts, in which Netanyahu is heard treating the free newspaper as though it were his private property, have anything to do with it? If only we knew.

I asked the distinguished lawyer whether he’d requested, and if so had received authorization, from Adelson to represent Kan in the High Court petition against the government and the prime minister. As expected, Klagsbald replied very courteously that he does not customarily talk about his clients or his cases with journalists.