Analysis |

Fate of Israel's Government Riding on High Court Decision

As Israel's lame-duck government waddles along until an election date is set, Netanyahu meets potential rival Gantz. Meanwhile, Gabbay and Livni – pretenders to the center-left throne – have a fraught face-to-face

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Netanyahu meets with new Israel Defense Forces recruits, Tel Hashomer, November 26, 2018.
Netanyahu meets with new Israel Defense Forces recruits, Tel Hashomer, November 26, 2018.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

This Sunday, the extension the High Court of Justice granted the Knesset to enact a new conscription law (or non-conscription law, as opponents call it) will expire. In the absence of alternative legislation, the existing law will mandate – alas and alack, woe is us! – the drafting of all ultra-Orthodox young men of a certain age. And that means dismantlement of the coalition and an early election.

The prime minister has instructed the State Prosecutor’s Office to ask the High Court for an additional four-month extension. Reason: There’s a new defense minister. That doesn’t even qualify as an insult to the intelligence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t want an early election. I want to serve the whole term, until November 2019, he told the leaders of the coalition parties this week. If push comes to shove, they believe, he could live with May, which, for some reason, is the month most mentioned in this context. MK David Bitan (Likud) is telling lawmakers that that’s the real goal: to get to the end of January and then dissolve the Knesset. A subsequent election campaign of 100-120 days and we’re home safe.

With Netanyahu we have already had sacrosanct target dates that couldn’t be changed – and they evaporated in a blink of the eye. Now it’s May. Why? Some say the timing will be good for him after the fanfare of annual Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies. The nation will be euphoric and he’ll be riding high on public exposure.

Others argue that the suspect from the Balfour Street residence is bent on getting the country to the polling booth after a presumed preliminary decision by the attorney general to indict him – pending a hearing. It’s vital for him to manage the event of the hearing – and possibly also the negotiations for a plea bargain that could keep him out of prison – from the position of a prime minister who has been reelected despite the well-known suspicions. According to a political source, that’s the advice the client got from his lawyers.

During the meeting of heads of coalition parties early this week, Netanyahu turned to Deputy Minister Yaakov Litzman, the senior representative of Agudat Yisrael, the Knesset party most adamantly opposed to the draft bill. “Nu, Reb Yaakov, what’s up?” he asked. “With what matter?” Litzman replied with feigned innocence. “What will be?” the questioner persisted. Said Litzman: “If there is no new [version of the proposed] legislation, we will resign. If the law ends up being the one that’s now going through the Knesset” – which has passed the first of three votes, with the support of Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid – “in that case, we will also resign.”

The length of the extension the High Court may or may not announce will determine the date of the election. We’ll know on Sunday. In the meantime, the coalition is alive and breathing. Not really kicking, as its internal cracks widen.

The new rule set by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon for the 10 MKs in his Kulanu party, that they are free to vote as they please on issues not connected to security or the economy, is a violation of the coalition agreement. But Kahlon is already in election-campaign mode. He’s out to snare the soft right, the center-right. Maybe those people, he hopes, will appreciate the responsibility he’s showing.

One minister described the situation of the coalition in the period leading up to its dissolution as “death by a thousand cuts.” That American expression refers to a method of torture that was popular in imperial China.

One serious cut that’s causing the ministers and MKs lots of pain is the ban on leaving the country that’s been imposed on them. Without their usual overseas forays every month or two, they’ll soon start showing signs of claustrophobia.

And speaking of survival under extreme conditions: The new defense minister met midweek with commando troops. They sat at Netanyahu’s feet, masked, all eyes on him. He stood in the center of the circle, attired in a black battle-dress jacket, lit up like the moon on a stormy night. He also found time this week to visit the Israel Defense Forces National Induction Center, and have lunch and bond with the November crop of new recruits.

Netanyahu, who’s been prime minister for a total of almost 13 years, is discovering the joys of the portfolio that has charmed many good people before him. With soldiers there’s no fear of interruptions or complaints like the one from that boring nag in Kiryat Shmona. Leading up to the election we’ll probably see plenty of photos of him in the company of soldiers – after all, there’s nothing more flattering or consensual.

It was reported this week that since assuming his new post as defense minister, Netanyahu has held a number of consultations on security matters with former chiefs of staff and defense ministers. The list is illuminating: Shaul Mofaz, Moshe Arens, MK Amir Peretz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz.

Arens left the Defense Ministry 19 years ago; Mofaz, 12 years ago; and Peretz, 11 years ago. What could they possibly tell him that he doesn’t already know? And it was precisely the more relevant people, who held the defense portfolio in the past decade, who weren’t invited: Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman.

Which goes to show that with Netanyahu everything is personal, not necessarily just business. He’s been friends for decades with Arens, who served as defense minister at the end of Netanyahu’s first term. He likes Peretz. With Mofaz, he didn’t have any really bitter disagreements, but if he did they’ve already made up. Gabi Ashkenazi isn’t wild about Netanyahu, but he hates Barak a lot more, so he’s qualified to be invited for a chat.

The meeting with Gantz (whom for years he has referred to as a “wet noodle”), a potential rival of real heft, drove the press corps into a frenzy. They can relax. Netanyahu wanted to see what makes Gantz tick, sniff him out, form an impression. Call it “VISINT” or “HUMINT” – visual or human intelligence, in the lingo of the trade. Even if the two didn’t talk politics – due to the presence of the premier’s military secretary at the meeting – it was present, in the words that were exchanged, the hints that were dropped, in the things that were left unsaid, in the friendliness or antipathy displayed.

All a-Twitter

Some friendly advice to people interested in politics: Keep an eye on the tweets of coalition chairman David (Dudi) Amsalem (Likud), and pay attention to his media interviews. They are an effective means for discerning the content of the messages he has been receiving from the Prime Minister’s Bureau and the Balfour Street residence.

“They take an excellent law, refer to it by the name ‘Gideon Sa’ar,’ and try to turn into something abominable,” tweeted an incredulous Amsalem this week. “The bill says something simple: The president will assign the duty of forming the government to the party head who has the support of the largest number of Knesset members.”

Amsalem tends to echo every word dictated to him by Netanyahu or his Jonathan Urich de jour. The more absurd or mendacious the message, the more he will identify with it. This is one of his characteristics, typically accompanied by a self-righteous rolling of the eyes.

About a month ago, Netanyahu himself, at his own birthday party, seemed to be accusing a “former government minister” of being behind the “plot of the century” against him – that is, an attempt to fraudulently deny him the mandate to form the government. It’s Sa’ar, his associates were told: He’s coordinating things with his friend, President Reuven Rivlin. That’s why it’s necessary to change the law so as to obligate the president to give the task of forming the next government, after the election, to a party chairman – not to “just any MK who has agreed” to it.

Since then, several weeks have passed. The Prime Minister’s Bureau received reactions from the field. Likud members, the activists, weren’t buying the story. Some of Netanyahu’s associates even suggested that he was helping Sa’ar more than he was hurting him. The new situation demanded a change of approach: Don’t talk about it in personal terms, came the order to the MKs. Talk about the principle involved and about the powers of the president.

The “Gideon Sa’ar bill” is the most recent obsession on Balfour Street. “Sa’ar” is today’s version of the Public Broadcasting Corporation, which preoccupied Netanyahu two years ago. Avigdor Lieberman got it right last week when he said that in contacts of his Yisrael Beiteinu associates with Likud politicians regarding a package deal meant to advance right-wing bills, they discovered that what interested their interlocutors, more than any ideological concerns, was the bill that bears the name of Netanyahu’s nemesis. For more details, refer to Amsalem.

Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman

Gruesome twosome

Avi Gabbay has had it with Tzipi Livni – with her endless search, like a restless butterfly collector, for alternative leaders for the center-left, as long as they’re not him. For a long time, Gabbay, Labor Party chairman, has spotted signs of lack of collegiality in MK Livni, head of Hatnuah, which together with his party forms Zionist Union. He sees her efforts to promote herself and her aims as harmful to the general interest of the center-left camp and to him in particular.

The gloomy polls, the internal wrangling, the threat of a split within Labor and the incessant buzz about his murky future as party leader – all these are fraying his nerves. Which isn’t surprising. You’d have to be made of galvanized steel to withstand that daily battering. Gabbay is partaking of the menu that was offered to his many of his predecessors. The Labor Party, or Zionist Union by its current name, is a restaurant with few diners, and a kitchen staff of Shi’ite suicide bombers that know how to serve only one dish: bitter herbs.

Two reports from the last week made Gabbay’s blood boil. One was published in this column, about a private survey commissioned by Livni to examine the number of seats Zionist Union would get with her as its leader (20, which is six or seven more than is predicted under Gabbay, according to other polls reported in the media). The second was a report by Ayala Hasson on TV Channel 10, according to which Livni and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon met – separately, a few hours apart – with Ehud Barak in his Assuta Tower home in Tel Aviv.

Livni explains that these meetings are part of her effort to attract serious people to Zionist Union, “in order to bring about an [electoral] upset.”

But Gabbay has no illusions: The “upset” would amount to the party’s turning its back on him. He has no doubt that Livni and Barak were discussing ways to remove him as Labor leader; he’s discerned a systematic, deliberate campaign to unseat him. As part of that process, he recently had a visit from an emissary, who claimed to be speaking for himself, but whom Gabbay is convinced was sent by the gruesome twosome of Ehud & Tzipi.

That person made a suggestion: Gabbay, Barak, Gantz and Livni could meet and agree to conduct a series of polls to determine which of the four would be likely to garner the most Knesset seats as head of the center-left bloc. The winner would be crowned candidate for prime minister.

Gabbay spotted a trap intended to lure him into the chute that leads cattle to the slaughterhouse. What’s the trap? Gantz, after all, won’t agree to the suggestion. Why should he? He’s riding high. He’s forming his own party. So in the end there will be three. The polls might show that Livni is more popular than Gabbay, but that’s an optical illusion, he believes. Her support is only from the left-center, and mainly from the left. Livni is incapable of getting even one-quarter of a Knesset seat from the right. She and Barak, with their anti-Bibi tweets, are playing by themselves in a sandbox.

Gabbay believes that the intention behind the indecent suggestion was to bypass the results of last year’s Labor primary – and then to bypass him. “I was elected by a body of 57,000 people,” he was overheard saying. “They want to be elected on the basis of a sample poll of 500 people. That’s not going to happen. I won’t play the polls game.”

The past week really set him off, and Gabbay decided to confront his subversive rival, as he sees Livni. They met on Monday at the Knesset. To describe their conversation as “rough” would be an understatement.

“Instead of conducting polls about how we can win, you’re conducting polls about how to beat me, how to push me aside,” he told her. “All those surveys and meetings place only one question on the agenda: Who will should me?

“You are weakening me and, indirectly, all of us,” he continued. “As long as I’m perceived as being temporary, as being a candidate for replacement, we will never recover in the polls. You should be seeing to it that I’m strengthened, not weakened. Every time you give an interview, you say, ‘only a [center-left] bloc, only a bloc’ – your message is that I and Zionist Union are not the solution but the problem.”

In conversations with confidants, the Labor chairman says he regrets having appointed Livni head of the opposition in July, to replace Isaac Herzog, who became chairman of the Jewish Agency. The bitterness is understandable but it’s all wisdom in hindsight: In any case, he had no choice. She held a pistol to his temple in the form of a public threat to leave Zionist Union with her four Hatnuah MKs.

Besides the uptick in Livni’s media appearances, Gabbay sees no electoral gain from her appointment. Before July, Zionist Union was getting an average of 15 seats in the polls. After Livni was appointed leader of the opposition, Zionist Union started faring worse in the polls. She hasn’t attracted new voters, rather perhaps she’s scared off some of the existing ones. Now the party is polling two to three fewer seats.

Livni and Barak already tried, and both failed, Gabbay is saying in private conversations; they’re not new merchandise. They’re a trend that makes left-wingers feel good. The only game in town is Benny Gantz. His hookup with Labor is perfectly natural, Gabbay believes. In the end there are only two brands: Gantz, who will attract right-wing voters, and Labor, with its history and its roots.

“If instead of talking every day and all day about hooking up and about a bloc, if you were to say that you support me, believe in me, and that Zionist Union is the thing, we would become stronger. Gantz will lose two seats [in the polls], we’ll go up to 16 and he’ll go down to 10, and then he’ll come to us,” Gabbay suggested, during his conversation with Livni.

You don’t need to have particularly good ears to figure out, from what Gabbay is saying in closed forums, that he’s not ruling out the possibility of stepping aside in favor of Gantz. But first, let the latter come out of his hiding place, jump into the arena, give a few interviews and get scorched and scratched. Then it will become clear whether he’s made of the stuff a politician needs and whether his shares are worth anything or are a bad investment.

I asked Gabbay how this saga will end. He said he didn’t want get into the issue any more, but that he did have a message for Livni, Barak, MKs, for all the conspirators and also the supporters. “There’s a chance for a turnaround, despite all the polls,” he observed. “I see it on the ground every day. People are fed up with Bibi, and on D-day they won’t vote for him. We can do it.”

We received the following response from the office of the opposition head: “Since May 2013, I have been working to bring together those who share our path, in order to foment a turnover. That’s the reason for the founding of the Zionist Union, which created a lot of hope. My interest is the country’s welfare, and I hope that we will be wise enough to occupy ourselves with replacing the government and not with ourselves.”

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