Analysis

Believing It's 'Game Over' for Netanyahu, Israel's Political Arena Gears Up for Elections

With the advent of a new U.S. administration, PM Netanyahu will have a singular opportunity to show the people of Zion – and the attorney general – that he is irreplaceable – even as his indictment, and an election, may loom.

The onset of the Trump era with Friday’s inauguration is a ray of light in the darkness of the investigations shrouding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not only because of the departure of the hostile Obama and the removal of the noose from around Israel’s neck, but above all because this is a singular opportunity for Netanyahu to prove to the people of Zion, and to the attorney general on Salah Al-Din Street in Jerusalem, that he is irreplaceable. He is the right man at the right time in the right job, and his removal now, over a handful of cigars and a few bottles of champagne, would deal a serious blow to Israel’s national interests.

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In the months ahead, before Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit decides how to proceed in the cases involving him, the prime minister will doubtless spare no effort to flaunt and gloat over his close friendship with the 45th president of the United States. He’s expected to visit the White House next month. Undoubtedly we’ll witness a dizzying spectacle of embraces and lofty declarations and solemn promises that will leave no room for doubt: The Clinton-Rabin or Bush-Olmert duos are like so much deadwood when compared to the hot Bibi-Donald pairing. The diplomatic and security harvest that the two are going to reap for Israel is no less than special, and it would be a tragedy to plow it under.

There’s no real dispute over the factual foundations underlying either Case 1000 (gifts from tycoons) or Case 2000 (the Arnon Mozes affair). In the first there’s detailed testimony from the “well-known benefactor,” Arnon Milchan, together with receipts and invoices aplenty; in the second there are recordings. The decision about whether to indict will rest on legal interpretation and on an assessment of whether a conviction is likely. You don’t remove a prime minister if a conviction isn’t in the bag. But there’s also no ignoring the public atmosphere and mood – which also affects the attorney general and the state prosecutor. Cognizant of this, Netanyahu will make feverish efforts in the period ahead to leverage his relations with Trump and the benefits that will accrue to Israel from it.

In the meantime, he’s organizing his own cheerleader-like appearances before Likud members. Members of the party’s central committee who greeted him on Monday by chanting “Bibi king of Israel!” wouldn’t stop loving and adoring him even if he were to shoot someone to death in Zion Square (much as Trump predicted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Ave. and still win the election).

Work is being done in other channels, too. Netanyahu is sending his gophers in the Likud Knesset faction to submit a bill on Sunday that would prohibit investigations of a serving prime minister (other than offenses involving sex, violence, drugs and security matters). It won’t apply to him retroactively if it passes, but the narrative it generates will serve him.

He’s also transmitting messages, through close MKs and ministers, to the effect that even if he’s indicted he will not resign, because he’s not obliged to do so. A 1993 High Court of Justice ruling stipulates that a cabinet minister can continue his term if he’s indicted. However, a ministerial resignation (or dismissal) is not the kind of thing that engenders a constitutional and political crisis, dismantles the government and drags the country into elections. A minister is appointed; a prime minister is elected by a vote of confidence in the Knesset. So, Netanyahu might ask to stay on and demand a speedy trial (which was the assessment, this week, of a minister who’s very close to him). In any case, it’s not certain the High Court would compel him to resign.

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The feeling among Likud’s top ranks and most of Netanyahu’s coalition partners, however, is that the game is almost certainly over. There’s no way that a police commissioner he appointed and a cautious attorney general, who in the past was part of his close circle and one of his loyalists, would be putting him through the seven circles of hell if they weren’t convinced that there’s a solid basis for indictment and conviction.

It’s also hard to believe that the attorney general – the supreme authority in the law enforcement system, the official entrusted with preserving the state’s values and norms, the gatekeeper of public interest – will close Case 1000. What message would that send to the country’s other elected officials? That each of them has the right to choose his own private ATM, philanthropist or sugar daddy, who will ply him unceasingly with benefits worth hundreds of thousands of shekels?

Black September

The political arena is in the meantime gearing up for elections next September-October. The prevailing view is that a decision about whether to indict the premier will be made in May-June, the Knesset will be dissolved and elections held about 100 days later. That’s the working assumption of three coalition party leaders who regularly exchange views.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset, February 10, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The profoundly frustrated Likud ministers, who for the first time in a generation see the Promised Land – where there is a possibility of moving up the party ladder – looming, are treading on tiptoes. Any remark or slip of the tongue by them implying forbidden organizing or unlawful assembly could be disastrous. At this time, when Netanyahu is fighting for his political life, Likudniks are expected to display loyalty, not subversion. Anyone caught with his thumb in the pie will immediately be denounced as a traitor. Superhuman self-discipline is the order of the day.

Channel 2 News reported this week that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) may run for party leader in the post-Netanyahu era. Edelstein’s been playing with the idea since before the investigations began. He’s very popular in Likud. There are likely to be six or seven candidates in the first stage, so why not him, too? The split will be so deep, the bad blood that will run between sworn rivals Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan so thick, that it’s precisely a nonpartisan candidate with a unifying, conciliatory message who could take the whole pot.

If Netanyahu resigns and Likud holds a primary election for a new party leader, Edelstein will enjoy the not-insignificant support of Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin. The two have been friends for a long time and have much in common: Both are from the former Soviet Union, both live in Gush Etzion, a bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem (although Edelstein not so much because he’s moved to Herzliya Pituah with his new wife), both are religiously observant.

In addition to Katz, Erdan and Edelstein, others on the starting line are likely to be Culture Minister Miri Regev, our ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, and possibly Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who will hope to get votes from the Netanyahu camp, may also run. Alternatively, Hanegbi, who became Netanyahu’s Rocinante in the last Knesset, could throw his support behind an outsider: Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who knows that the only road to the premiership runs through Likud.

For now, Lieberman’s performing as a responsible, judicious, non-militant defense minister. This week he even extended the term of Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot for a fourth year, and did so elegantly and even humanely, just a day before Eisenkot was hospitalized for the removal of a cancerous tumor.

Lieberman also came to Netanyahu’s defense this week and offered his assessment that, “based on 17 years of experience in investigations and tales,” Netanyahu will not be indicted in the Yedioth Ahronoth affair, involving a deal the premier allegedly concocted with Arnon “Noni” Mozes, publisher of the daily, whereby Netanyahu would receive favorable coverage in the paper in exchange for instigating measures that would reduce the power of the competing free daily, Israel Hayom. Lieberman’s support of Netanyahu will be chalked up to his credit among Likudniks, in the event that he wants to join that party and run for its leadership. By the same token, by the way, Lieberman was placing a “kosher seal” on Noni Mozes, in whose paper the minister is one of the immune-to-criticism favorites.

If the primary in Likud is held after the government is dissolved and not as part of an attempt to establish an alternative one during the current Knesset, former minister Gideon Sa’ar is expected to call off his time-out and return to the arena. A Channel 2 News survey this week gave him far higher support in Likud than the two ranking ministers in the party, Erdan and Katz (10, 5 and 3 percent, respectively).

Likud ministers have been asking the heads of the other coalition parties not to rush to elections if Netanyahu resigns, but to preserve the coalition and the government – with a new prime minister from Likud. That would block Sa’ar (who is not an MK and therefore cannot serve as prime minister in the current Knesset). Shas leader Arye Dery has already rejected this idea: A resignation will lead to elections, he asserted. Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett is also not wild about the idea. Even though he’s in line for serious promotion – to the post of foreign minister – if a new Likud-led government is formed in this Knesset should Netanyahu resign, his eyes are on the premiership itself.

Elections held in the shadow of a serious crisis in the ruling party could revamp the current balance of power. Likud now has 30 seats, Habayit Hayehudi 8, but next time it could be 22 vs. 14, and that could be a game-changer.

A billboard campaign that plugs the two-state solution by playing up demographic fears
Gil Cohen-Magen

Bibi and Sara see the voices, as we read in Exodus, and are horrified. As far as they’re concerned, there is only one worthy and appropriate heir, and his first name is Yair. The public knows nothing of his skills and abilities, but it’s already clear that he possesses one trait that no leader can do without: He maintains friendships with the super-rich and likes the good life.

Us and them

Commanders for Israel’s Security is a non-partisan, apolitical movement of some 250 retired senior security personnel from the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad and the Israel Police. The organization was founded after Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in summer 2014, by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amnon Reshef, who continues to head it.

This is a group of well-wishers, not Israel bashers or messianics. Men and women with no political ambitions, who are well off in their private lives and are concerned for the country’s fate and its security. This week they launched a serious, comprehensive campaign, following work of many months, in four main areas, involving proposals for improving personal and national security; for preservation of the two-state option; for enhancement of Israel’s international status; and for bolstering the Palestinian economy and rehabilitating the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

The title chosen for the campaign: “We have to separate from them now.” To drum up interest and generate a media buzz, giant billboards were put up and video clips posted showing militant Arab demonstrators chanting, “We will soon be the majority.” (On the billboards that slogan appears in Arabic.) In other words, if we don’t separate ourselves from them, either unilaterally or in an agreement, Israel will become a binational state with an Arab majority.

Behind the provocation, then, lies a plan. And when it was made public, the extreme, dogmatic right rejected it out of hand for understandable reasons. For its part, the extreme, dogmatic and perhaps romantic left, which like its rightist twin has long since lost contact with reality, cried out: Why separate from the Arabs? Why hate? Come on guys, it’s not nice.

The campaign organizers held two discreet meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu before going ahead with it. The first was held last August. Reshef, a former commander of the Armored Corps, was joined by former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit and by a former Shin Bet deputy director, Aryeh Felman. Their decision to launch was made in the wake of those meetings.

Netanyahu met with them in the security cabinet room. With him were a battery of advisers and his military secretary, Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano. The trio was impressed. “To begin with,” Reshef said to Netanyahu, “read the bottom line of the letter I sent you.” It read, “Lead, and we will stand behind you.” Reshef and his associates attributed great importance to this; it was intended to show Netanyahu that if he were to implement their plan in whole or in part, he would enjoy a flak jacket in the form of the backing of Israel’s top security personnel.

“Netanyahu read it and was taken by surprise, at least that’s how it seemed from his body language,” Reshef told me this week. “I wanted to neutralize all suspicion and antagonism on his part in advance.”

Reshef started to explain the main points of the plan. After a time, Netanyahu stopped him. He asked for a writing pad and for Isaac Molho, his diplomatic emissary, to be called in. Molho arrived. The presentation continued. Reshef and Netanyahu huddled over the maps in the pamphlet. The prime minister took many notes related to security ideas the group was promoting: erection of a fence in Gush Etzion, construction of a road parallel to Highway 60, creation of a directorate to rehabilitate East Jerusalem neighborhoods and so forth.

The meeting lasted 90 minutes, and at its conclusion Netanyahu requested a second meeting. “He was very attentive, asked questions, the atmosphere was exceptional,” Reshef said, adding, “Occasionally he said things that suited our approach, such as that he advocates two states.”

In their second meeting, however, two months later, the security trio met a very different Netanyahu. They had hoped to hear reactions and comments, but the premier launched into a long and detailed monologue about Israel’s excellent international situation. It was the same talk that dozens of journalists heard last summer.

Finally the three lost their patience and cut him off. “You are not replying to us specifically,” they complained. “Not to worry, I’ll get to it immediately,” Netanyahu said to calm them down (a line also familiar to journalists) – but he never got there. Time after time at this same meeting, the three tried to staunch the flood of words, but in vain. Netanyahu was in his element. What happened to him between August and October? Maybe it was during that period that he learned about the investigations underway. Maybe he heard the police had those hot recordings. Who knows?

Toward the end of the meeting, the three grasped that no juice would come from this lemon, as the saying goes. “For years, Israel has been dragged in the wake of events and has not initiated anything,” they told him. “If we don’t initiate, the international community will start taking us to all kinds of places. You have to come out with some sort of initiative. If you don’t, we will.”

“We need to meet again,” Netanyahu said. “We’ll be happy to,” they replied. “And don’t forget,” Reshef told him as they left, “lead and we will follow.”

Outside, one of them expressed bitter disappointment. “He didn’t say a thing,” he said. But Reshef said he was pleased. “What do you have to be pleased about?” the other person asked. Reshef: “I think he’s afraid of us. That’s why he asked for a third meeting. Because he wants to lull us, so we won’t do anything.”

I asked Reshef what his conclusion was. “That’s the difference between a politician and a leader,” he said. He has no expectations, nor is he counting on that third meeting happening. By the way, some time ago the organization's plan was also presented to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, at his request. I asked the presenter what the defense minister’s impression was. “Lieberman at least has balls,” he replied without elaborating.

Nothing will come of nothing

The parliamentary opposition naturally has no effective tools in its Sisyphean struggle against the government. Occasionally it pushes through a bill in preliminary reading – a symbolic, short-lived and essentially meaningless accomplishment. Its options against the prime minister are even fewer. Netanyahu doesn’t show up for no-confidence-motion debates. He dispatches Yariv Levin, the ministerial liaison with the Knesset, to reply instead.

One effective weapon is a “40 signatures” debate: If the requisite number of MKs’ signatures are collected, the prime minister is obliged to appear in the Knesset plenum and sit there with a sour face for two hours, listening to all the speakers. He then responds. The last word is reserved for the leader of the opposition.

The last time the Knesset held a debate under those terms was in March 2016. Ten months ago. Since then, nada. But it’s neither the coalition nor the Knesset speaker that are sparing Netanyahu this unpleasantness – rather, the opposition is shooting itself in the foot here. Why? You won’t believe it.

For months, beginning with the start of the Knesset recess last August, Meretz leader MK Zehava Galon has been trying to persuade Zionist Union and Yesh Atid to join the effort to collect the 40 signatures. (The opposition has 54 MKs.) When the Knesset reconvened in November, she renewed her efforts, but to no avail.

Galon told me this week that the reason the other MKs are declining to force Netanyahu to face a 40-signature debate, even at a time of investigations and embarrassing revelations, is their fear that he will steal the show. They will shout and scream and point fingers, but the TV news shows will serve up Netanyahu.

I found it hard to believe that this was the reason. And anyway, that’s not how it works. The news programs, the websites and the newspapers preserve a balance. I asked MK Merav Michaeli, who chairs the Zionist Union Knesset faction, about what Galon said.

“That’s right,” she said in confirmation. “There’s no reason to give the prime minister that platform. He exploits it with no connection to what we say. He will say, ‘There will be nothing, because there is nothing,’ and that’s what will be reported in the end.” That position is shared by her counterpart in Yesh Atid, MK Ofer Shelah, she added.

I asked Shelah why he rejected Galon’s efforts to drag Netanyahu to the Knesset plenum. He said he’s not familiar with any such effort by Galon. Why hasn’t there been one of those debates since March 2016? “Because we arranged a procedure of parliamentary questions [under which seven ministers, including the prime minister, are obliged to appear once during a Knesset winter or summer session, to field questions about their ministries], and no special request [for a 40 signatures debate] came up.”

A powerful stench arises from these feeble excuses. During the period of the investigations against Ehud Olmert, the opposition made intensive use of the 40-signatures option. Every month, during 2007-2008 the suspect underwent hazing in the Knesset, and no one even thought of claiming he was stealing the limelight. In those days, the prime minister got no passes.

But now the chief opposition figures are MKs Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog. Each of them is tainted. Lapid worked for Arnon Milchan, and also for Noni Mozes at Yedioth Ahronoth; his wife still works there. He remains very friendly with both men. He seems to be incapable of even uttering the names Arnon or Noni. This isn’t just cowardice and dishrag leadership, it’s also a warning light. In the polls, Lapid is the leading candidate to replace Netanyahu. If he’s unable to say a bad word about his two pals and former employers, who can say that, as prime minister, his behavior will be more ethical than Netanyahu’s?

As for Herzog, he too is a personal friend of Milchan’s, and he was backed by Yedioth in the last elections. And Herzog himself has an open file of alleged election offenses hanging over him.

These two politicians’ hands are tied, they dare not speak out. With an opposition like this, whose militancy is largely internal and internecine, Netanyahu can rest assured. With it there really will be nothing – because there is nothing.