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Even Netanyahu Was Surprised by Gantz’s Silence as He Let Loose the Lies

It didn't seem that Kahol Lavan's champions of the rule of law and the pursuit of justice would so suddenly turn into wilting wallflowers

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Ohana, Netanyahu and Amsalem barbecuing Mendelblit as Kahol Lavan's sheep look on.
Ohana, Netanyahu and Amsalem barbecuing Mendelblit as Kahol Lavan's sheep look on.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Benjamin Netanyahu and his people can view the past week as a pretty big success. The district court test went well. Outside, the hundreds of demonstrators who were bused there – on the largesse of an unknown source – waved blue-and-white flags bought from the same source. Their throats then produced the desired amount of invective against Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan.

Inside, a clutch of Likud ministers and Knesset members posed for the group picture with the defendant, their faces obscured up to the bridge of the nose. And there was also one woman not an MK, Osnat Mark, who’s poised to return to parliament under the so-called Norwegian Law after a minister gives up his or her seat. She’ll be appointed to the Judicial Appointments Committee. Nothing here was by chance, of course.

Chani Bleiweiss, Netanyahu’s events coordinator and the strongwoman at Likud headquarters, stood there and kept a watchful eye on the politicians, having reminded them earlier that they better show up on time. Later, the ministers were instructed to memorize the prime minister’s remarks so they could spew them themselves, especially the borderline psychotic narrative that “the entire right wing is on trial.”

Not all of them repeated this in interviews, though Amir Ohana did so enthusiastically. Sometimes the parrot is just as dangerous as his pirate.

Meanwhile, everyone played their roles as expected. The independent media denounced the spectacle, the conscripted media fawned. Outside the building, two leaders of the latter practically broke into a jig to the sound of the Likud jingle amid the hail of curses. “Inferiority has become superiority” is how some people at the Prime Minister’s Office described it. And the message to the judges was clear: Your day will come too.

High on the list of the defendant’s achievements is one very important feat, seemingly achieved without any effort needed: the silence of his partners from Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan. An embarrassed, submissive silence. A laconic tweet here and there, the occasional vague, polite statement about “faith in the system.”

We didn’t think the vanishing act would happen so quickly, that the champions of the rule of law and the pursuit of justice, whose entire political existence was based on the call to remove the corrupt leader and clean up the atmosphere, would so suddenly turn into wilting wallflowers. The line attributed to Ze'ev Hever, the settler leader known as Zambish, could be applied to them. He’s said to have once told Netanyahu: “You know, I didn’t expect much from you, but you still managed to disappoint me.”

Even Netanyahu was surprised by this submissiveness. The first week of the bloody marriage between the parties was extremely fractious. At the end of it, last Thursday, the two partners met to smooth things out. This was three days before the start of Netanyahu’s trial. The Likud chairman asked Gantz, “as a partner,” to get his party colleagues to tone things down and not gloat at his misfortune.

On Sunday morning, ahead of the first cabinet meeting, after which Netanyahu was supposed to arrive at the courthouse in East Jerusalem, the Kahol Lavan ministers met in the Knesset. Gantz urged them to behave nicely. The gist of what he said was: We’ve already broken our basic pledge, we’ve desecrated the Holy of Holies by consenting to join his government and give him our stamp of approval. Friends, let’s focus on our own business, our own ministries, our own affairs.

He and they didn’t know then, of course, that a few hours after their statesmanship at the start of the cabinet meeting, the defendant would tear the mask from his face and show his real face once again. They didn’t know that Netanyahu, backed by his senior ministers and junior MKs (some embarrassed, others drooling with glee), would subject the police and State Prosecutor’s Office to a lynching of lies and much more explicit incitement than the speeches he made against Yitzhak Rabin in the accursed year of 1995.

Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by members of his Likud party, delivers a statement before entering the Jerusalem District Court, May 24, 2020.Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Pool via AP

Gantz's polite people

The prosecutor in the case, Liat Ben Ari, and her team from the State Prosecutor’s Office arrived at the courthouse surrounded by  bodyguards tautly on the alert. As Ben Ari passed by the whipped-up crowd, with armed guards protecting her, maybe it crossed her mind that even crime bosses have trials where the prosecution doesn’t need a special security detail and isn’t bombarded with threatening phone calls or ridiculed in disgusting snuff videos online.

Mendelblit wasn’t there. He and his bodyguards received updates from afar. After the number of death threats against him increased, police officials were asked if his security should be increased too. It’s already at the maximum level, they regretfully replied.

The Kahol Lavan folks watched these horror scenes play out all the way to the entrance of the state institution where the defendant gave his lie-filled “J’Accuse” speech. But having heard, understood and taken it all in, they relied on the muteness they decreed on themselves for the sake of the sacred partnership.

It wasn’t until the next day, after all the criticism, that two of them, Science Minister Izhar Shay and Kahol Lavan floor leader Eitan Ginzburg, were sent to the TV studios to voice gentlemanly dissatisfaction with what occurred. Their statements were completely bland and hardly caused a ripple.

“We didn’t come to fight,” Shay said. “It wasn’t a wonderful speech,” added Ginzburg, who also said he was ready to discuss Yamina’s so-called French Law, which would prevent a sitting prime minister from standing trial. Maybe it would have been better if they hadn’t said anything. Sometimes silence is golden.

Before that, Gantz reportedly saw to it that Kahol Lavan’s campaign videos were deleted from the party’s website and YouTube channel. It all just disappeared – all his principled statements about a prime minister embroiled in criminal cases, all his responses to the massive and nauseating slander campaign against him. (And it still continues. Yes, Miri Regev, I’m looking at you.)

Gantz is ready for a new way of thinking, maybe for the sake of the reconciliation for which a special cabinet was formed. Meanwhile, no one has deleted any Likud videos. The Bibi-ism video library lives on; you can easily find the most sickening hits from the recent election campaigns.

Netanyahu would never have thought of doing the same thing. Delete something?! Him?! No doubt he was deeply touched by the “alternate prime minister’s” gesture. Just a little more effort and he’ll have trained Gantz & Co. to walk on tiptoe, hunched over and silent.

On Wednesday as the Kahol Lavan legislators met, before the cameras, the party leader uttered two cautious statements in support of the rule of law. It was as if the topic were Japanese lace and not politics in the Netanyahu era, where understatement is totally alien.

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at their first cabinet meeting, in the Knesset, May 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

On Wednesday in the Knesset, we were given another example of the emerging nature of this government and its balance of forces. The Norwegian Law, so dear to Kahol Lavan, received preliminary approval from the governing coalition. A week earlier, Likud had blocked this vote as a punitive move against its partner.

This followed Gantz’s (completely inevitable) statement during his interview on the investigative TV news program “Uvda” that Mendelblit wouldn’t be dismissed. Also, the attorney general was kept on as acting state prosecutor, with the approval of Avi Nissenkorn, the justice minister from Kahol Lavan. What followed was predictable – a blowup, understandings, Kahol Lavan’s silence  – and lo and behold the coveted bill made progress and the party with few MKs will soon be enriched with a few more.

Okay, so maybe they’ve learned a little about politics. That is, to keep coalition whip Miki Zohar from pulling the plug on the legislative process again on orders from his boss, Kahol Lavan’s narrative, its “organizing principle,” was sold for a mess of rancid Norwegian pottage. This happened at the end of a week critical for Israel’s existence as a democratic country, and the country’s hallmarks of democracy will keep weakening as long as Netanyahu and his gang are here.

When you’re skidding rapidly downhill, it doesn’t help that only one side of the system has working brakes. The government’s “parity” mechanisms aren’t enough when you’re on the slope to an abyss.

'The beginning of the alternative'

I spoke this week with one of the cabinet members from Kahol Lavan. He was blunt and unequivocal but asked not to be quoted by name.

“We failed our first test,” he said. “After Netanyahu’s performance, we should have been more assertive. It’s not just the prime minister. When Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin calls the opening of the trial ‘one of the nadirs’ of the justice system and David Amsalem calls the attorney general ‘a criminal,’ we have to bring our own moral baggage into the arena.”

You’re destroying yourself as a political alternative, I told him.

“On the contrary,” he replied. “We’re just beginning. When Justice Minister Nissenkorn appoints Mendelblit acting state prosecutor, that’s the beginning of the alternative. When Culture Minister Chili Tropper meets with artists, after Miri Regev refused to see them, that’s the beginning of the alternative. When Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel announces that all his meetings on professional matters will take place at the office with his professional staff, that’s the beginning of the alternative.”

The next day, 103FM published the first poll conducted since the trial opened. Likud won 41 Knesset seats and Kahol Lavan 12. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, for the first time since Gantz decided to form a unity government, surpassed Kahol Lavan with 14 seats. The right-wing/religious bloc swelled to 67 seats, while the center-left-Lieberman bloc won 53.

When that’s the forecast, it’s no wonder that the winds in the corridors of politics are blowing toward an early election again. It’s simply begging to happen. But for Netanyahu to break up the unity government and throw Kahol Lavan to the four winds, four conditions must be met.

Prosecutor Liat Ben Ari at the Jerusalem District Court, May 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

First, by late August, the Knesset must have passed a state budget that covers both 2020 and 2021. (Another possibility under consideration is passing an updated 2020 budget by the end of the year, and then, when the coronavirus situation becomes clearer, passing a new 2021-22 budget by the usual deadline, the end of December.)

The second condition is applying sovereignty to about 20.5 percent of the West Bank, which Netanyahu once again promised to do this week according to the timetable set in the coalition agreement (early July). The third is for Donald Trump to be reelected in November.

The fourth condition is for opposition leader Lapid to stand by his word and vote for repealing the law enforcing the agreement rotating the premiership. That law states that Gantz will automatically become prime minister if the unity government falls apart while Netanyahu holds the post.

Let’s return to the third condition. The political system’s working assumption is that if Joe Biden is elected and the Democrats also win majorities in the House and Senate, Netanyahu will need Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi as flak jackets, whitewashers and softeners in the White House and Congress, both of which will exhibit far less patience with Bibi.

In that scenario, the option of getting himself elected president will arise. Among the people closest to Netanyahu, discussions on this option haven’t stopped for a moment.

It really looks like a magical solution. Jumping to the President’s Residence in July 2021 would halt the trial, which would still be in the early stages of hearing the evidence and witnesses. (“Procedure is the king of the trial,” Netanyahu’s associates say, meaning they’ll use every trick that could help him play for time and drag out the proceedings.)

In other words, it’s possible that a dramatic presidential scenario on one continent would dictate another presidential scenario here in the distant Levant. The Israeli presidency, which is supposed to be a symbolic post in all the right ways, may become a different symbol – one of skirting justice and rewarding corruption. The President’s Residence would become the residence of a fugitive from the law.

Yamina right beside him

Yamina's Bezalel Smotrich, left, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked at a press conference, May 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

During one of the incessant clashes between Netanyahu and Yamina when the rightist party was still a member of the caretaker government with plenty of jobs, Yamina threatened that if it was cast into the opposition, it wouldn’t quietly fume, it would burn the house down in cruel revenge. A war on corruption! Well, what can you say? They promised, and they kept their promise.

The first bill these five MKs submitted was an upgraded version of the so-called French law – one that would not only prevent a sitting prime minister from standing trial, as is also the case for presidents of the country giving the bill its name, but would prevent him or her from being investigated. Corruption has never suffered such a blow.

The last seven years have accustomed Yamina, headed by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked in all its varied incarnations, to serving as Netanyahu’s target for abuse. Its first full week in the opposition shows that its road to being weaned off this habit remains long.

Ostensibly, the bill was meant to embarrass the coalition, especially members of Kahol Lavan. But subconsciously, the urge to please the abusive ruler seems to have become deeply rooted in the Yamina members’ blood. Sitting on the Knesset’s fringes, they’re not doing this for any reward. They’ll suffice with their usual payment – blows to the head.

In the grip of their enthusiasm for an all-out war on government corruption, Yamina members were careful to include exceptions in the bill for crimes like treason, drug dealing and violence. But for them, bribery is fine. A hypothetical prime minister could be caught accepting crates of dollars in exchange for some benefit and the police would be barred from investigating.

These champions of good government even forgot to put term limits in the bill for the leader with immunity to criminal proceedings. He can be reelected over and over. Regardless of who the corrupt leader is, that’s a great incentive for never retiring.

On Yamina’s first day in the desert of the opposition, the media reported that Shaked, the party whip, had proposed a cooperation deal to her counterpart in Yisrael Beiteinu, Oded Forer. Yamina’s more religiously stringent wing, headed by Bezalel Smotrich – whom Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman took care to term “extreme and messianic” – was furious. The idea was shelved, but not before a public spat erupted.

After Netanyahu’s horrifying speech in court Sunday, Yamina’s silence was criticized. After all, somebody in the party served as justice minister for more than four years. In response, the party issued a statement denouncing Netanyahu for defending the justice system in the past.

And now, about that bill. I asked a senior Yamina member this week what the rationale was. You’re in the opposition, aren’t you?

“We didn’t do it to support Netanyahu, we did it to needle him,” he replied. “Let’s see him torpedo this bill. We’re telling him, ‘If you really care about what’s going on, if you really intend to shake up the justice system, put your money where your mouth is and vote in favor.’

“He always positioned himself right beside the system. When the prosecution threw Yaakov Neeman, Rafael Eitan and Avigdor Kahalani to the wolves, and when the Supreme Court abused the settlers and residents of south Tel Aviv, he didn’t lift a finger,” this man said, referring to three politicians whose careers were damaged by investigations or indictments that ended up clearing them. “He remembered to be outraged only when they began coming down on him.”

I reminded my source of a marginal detail: Likud and Kahol Lavan agreed that during the unity government’s first six months, no private member’s bills would be brought up for a vote in the Knesset.

“We’ll wait,” he replied. “This is the first battle he’s gone into without religious Zionism’s support. We’re pressuring him. And not only him. We’ll also embarrass Benny Gantz; let’s see him vote against.”

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