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Free From Netanyahu's Shadow, Bennett Must Now Curb the Modesty

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Amos Biderman
Illustration: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It was 28 days since the government was sworn in. On Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett again found himself in the Knesset, but this time as a changed man. He cast off the abusive father’s shadow. The exaggerated respect Bennett had shown Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in, the thanks he heaped on him and his wife were replaced by fury, which burst forth in a heap of scorn.

The reasons for this were subjective. And objective. Bennett had expected that his statesmanlike decorum and generosity would be requited by the losing side. What he got instead was an unbridled campaign of delegitimization from Netanyahu, his screamers and his harpies.

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Watching the new opposition leader call Bennett 1,000 different names, just not “prime minister,” was cringeworthy. Another broken norm. Only two of the Likud members who spoke at the “40 signatures” session in the Knesset addressed Bennett as “prime minister” while referring to Netanyahu as “opposition leader.” These were Yuli Edelstein and Yoav Gallant. The rest screamed “Naftali!” at him in a childish, asinine tantrum.

On the objective side, every day Bennett is discovering yet another management failure by his predecessor, another item neglected, appointments never filled, decisions not taken in critical areas. For years he believed that Netanyahu was no mensch (well, the language was less polite) but that Bibi was a successful manager. After four weeks, only the first part of this insight remains, in bold.

At the Knesset, opposition lawmakers are doing things that were never done before. This is part of their refusal to recognize the new coalition’s legitimacy. They are conducting an endless filibuster over every bill (including those they support), immobilizing the system.  This is happening even with humane, consensus issues like the bill on the time limit for preserving DNA samples after sexual assaults. What do they care? There is a government and there is an opposition. Let them burn the evidence, let the rape victims suffer.

As prime minister, Netanyahu aimed to burn down the clubhouse with the powerful blowtorch afforded him by his office. Now, with his shrunken power, he is using the parliament to foment more destruction and chaos. It's as if the massive damage he inflicted in the 30 months of paralysis he forced on the country with the four consecutive elections weren't enough.

The coalition is suffering huge, harsh, embarrassing losses. The most recent was the own goal by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy. His exhaustion got the better of him. Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have two weeks until the summer recess. (Next week has been defined as a week of agreements, because of the religious holidays Tisha B’Av and Eid al-Adha.) Between August 5 and October 1, they will have to reorganize the columns that fell apart and the soldiers who took some wrong turns.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, left, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli in the Knesset last week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The case of Yisrael Beiteinu MK Eli Avidar, who isn’t playing nice, has been put in the hands of Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo, under supervision from above by Lapid. Apparently Avidar will be appointed to a ministerial position, but not at the expense of Yisrael Beiteinu and on condition that the party chairman, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, doesn’t make trouble. Lieberman is stubborn and proud, but the government's survival is more important to him.

Netanyahu’s strategy is to expose the government pants-down to prove that it's unqualified and impotent. So he'll keep doing his thing in the winter session as well, in the hope of driving the government to exhaustion and despair and driving the public to throw up its hands. He realizes that the state budget will be passed in November; the Joint List of Arab parties will provide a safety net. He has a plan to establish a new government in the current Knesset, without another general election. The plan has a name: Benny Gantz.

Approaches from Netanyahu's office to Defense Minister Gantz are ongoing. Netanyahu doesn’t give up. The math is simple: His camp has 52 Knesset members, Gantz's Kahol Lavan has eight. Together that makes 60. To replace a sitting government, a no-confidence vote requires 61 of the Knesset's 120 legislators, and the consent of the candidate for prime minister.

Netanyahu is proposing to Gantz, via emissaries who are scurrying back and forth with full authorization, that he be the candidate. Maverick MK Amichai Chikli of Bennett’s Yamina party will be their 61st. Gantz will serve for two years as prime minister and Netanyahu will come back for the rest of the term. That’s the standing offer.

As far-fetched as it sounds, this thing is alive and kicking – for Netanyahu, less so for Gantz. Bennett is well-informed and keeping one eye open. No worries, a top Kahol Lavan person told me this week. The emissaries come but Benny has no dilemma. He's committed to the government of change. Maybe there isn’t any dilemma but there is disquiet, not to mention a smidgeon of bitterness.

Confirmed governability

As Harry Truman once said, a statesman is a politician who died 15 years ago. Bennett doesn't intend to disappear and wait on the pages of history. It's clear to him that establishing himself in his predecessor’s most natural field of action, diplomacy, is his most important task, one that will waft away the delegitimatization that the opposition is spritzing all over him.

Bennett speaking at a press conference this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

He's working well with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog, he doesn’t take credit that isn’t his and he gets it that this cake can feed everyone. He also understands that contact with Pfizer, for example, is considered an act of statesmanship in this strange period.

Bennett was right in his remarks from the Knesset podium this week. His actions have been effective and swift against the coronavirus' delta variant. He sewed up an early supply from our acquaintance Albert Bourla of Pfizer, and also the first agreement in the world for swapping stocks of the vaccine, with South Korea. Netanyahu would have whipped up an extravagant photo-op from such developments.

On Wednesday afternoon Bennett presented his slideshow on the increase in the number of COVID cases. He deliberately chose not to take over the prime-time news broadcasts. His show of how to do an elbow bump with a woman from his staff was unnecessary and took us back to Netanyahu’s demonstration of how to sneeze.

Maybe Bennett suffers from excess modesty, one of his partners has suggested to me. It wouldn’t hurt if moves like the ones with Pfizer and South Korea were hyped a bit more. You can let the news cycles count the number of confirmed cases, but you can also count your confirmed achievements.

For now, the decision-makers aren’t clear on the current coronavirus outbreak. Is this a fourth wave, as the COVID hawks are saying, or  just an exacerbation that's putting us to the real test – the possibility of setting up a coronavirus routine, one that doesn't damage the economy and ordinary life? And above all, how long will the government and its leaders be able to play the good cop who lays down few restrictions, and when will they have to pull out the baton to use on the public?

In the coronavirus cabinet there was talk of limiting mass gatherings and going back to the "green passport" for concerts, large venues and the like. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who seems to have been reborn this month, objected: This is a complex matter. It's impossible to place limits only on this sector, whose leaders will petition the High Court of Justice over discrimination, and I'll have a hard time defending such a measure.

Bennett took advantage of the opportunity to restore Mendelblit’s honor, which had been trampled by the man the attorney general has put on trial. “If the attorney general, who is one of the wisest and most experienced people here, is saying that this is complicated, then he's right,” Bennett said. Mendelblit blushed; one person present said he even giggled a bit. He was heard whispering to his deputy Raz Nizri: “Who would have believed it?”

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset on Monday. Credit: Emil Salman

Turkish for beginners

Back to matters of state. The icing on this cake is of course waiting for Bennett in Washington, where he will arrive next month. This week he's meeting with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Democrats and Republicans).

Members of President Joe Biden’s party have told him how happy they are that after so many years, Israel is going back to talking with the Democrats. Even a few of the Republicans nodded. Their graciousness was apparently a harbinger of what awaits Bennett when he meets their boss at the White House. On that occasion, apparently, Bennett won't be required to proffer any baksheesh.

In Jerusalem corridors, nevertheless, some people are talking about a statement on “reducing the conflict,” the topic Bennett has discussed in a long series of meetings with Micah Goodman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. This isn't something that should push the right wing’s buttons, and it doesn’t make Bennett a leftist, but it does send a positive message to both Washington and Ramallah. Still, a peace process with the Palestinians isn't feasible; not with the existing government. Put that issue into the pot and the lid will fly off.

On Monday the new prime minister and the even newer president held their first working meeting. Later that same day a phone call rang in the President’s Residence from Ankara. What began as an exchange of courtesies developed into a concrete discussion of nearly an hour between President Isaac Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A diplomatic source curbs the enthusiasm, though: Even after the conversation, there is no expectation that a new leaf will be turned over with Turkey anytime soon. Erdogan, of course, is our greatest denouncer in the world after the regime of the ayatollahs. He's hosting Hamas in his country. He has no interest or ability to change his spots on this issue, and a rightist Israeli prime minister has no interest in being conciliatory with the mercurial Turkish tyrant who could turn against us at any moment.

The outreach wasn’t a momentary caprice on Erdogan’s part. On the day Herzog was sworn in, a Turkish proxy came to him at the Knesset and told him directly that Erdogan would like to speak with him. In the past, Netanyahu was against any conversation between Herzog's predecessor, Reuven Rivlin, and Erdogan. When the approach to Herzog came, as is customary the president forwarded the request to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking in Ankara on Wednesday.Credit: Adem Altan / AFP

The director general of Lapid’s ministry, Alon Ushpiz, held consultations. Within a few days, Herzog received a green light to take the call. Gantz was also briefed in advance and afterward.

Speaking of Rivlin, it’s interesting to spot the differences we're already seeing. During the tenure of the previous president, his conversations with Erdogan brought down barrages of slurs and buckets of garbage on social media, even when the issues were highly sensitive.

So it was when Rivlin and Erdogan spoke about calming the tension on the Temple Mount during the crisis there in 2017. Netanyahu and his clamoring supporters made mincemeat of the president and his good intentions. And so it was when the Turkish president sent a condolence letter to Rivlin after the death of his wife Nechama; even then the incited social media loons couldn’t restrain themselves from spewing their filth.

Herzog, by contrast, is rapidly revealing himself to be one of those Teflon presidents. Nothing sticks to him. This trait and his international network of connections are important tools in Israel’s new and improved basket of diplomatic capacities. Until proved otherwise, the Herzog-Lapid-Bennett trio is promising harmony at the top, the likes of which we haven't seen since at least 2009.

Bibi’s conspicuous absence

Every Monday afternoon, at the end of the Likud chairman’s remarks to his caucus, the lawmakers applaud him. The senior people (Edelstein, Gallant, Yisrael Katz, Nir Barkat) applaud stingily – it’s more protest than applause.

The sycophants (Amir Ohana, Miri Regev, David Amsalem, Galit Distal Atbaryan) cheer like the Italy fans after that last penalty kick the other night. They strain to catch the eye of “the great prime minister!” (That’s what Distal Atbaryan shouted in the Knesset this week.)

Let it be clear: This phenomenon is unique to Likud. It was born last month after the regime change. The opposition leader’s office sent out orders to the lawmakers: Address Netanyahu as “Mr. Prime Minister.” Clap at the end of his remarks, in the public part of the meeting.

A moving truck at the prime minister's residence last week as the Netanyahus moved out.Credit: Emil Salman

When he is shorn of power and status, all he can do is take comfort in a fake title and consolatory applause.

Until last weekend he had the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem. As the protest wave against him last summer gained pace, the various protest groups coalesced in a giant demonstration on the date of the fall of the Bastille, July 14. They marched in their thousands, with torches and signs that referred to Paris’ bloody streets 232 years ago.

In the week when we’re once again commemorating that date, la famille Netanyahu left the residence. From the demonstrators’ point of view, the Bastille fell at long last.

Netanyahu’s adjustment difficulties are seen in his perplexing absence from two events dear to his heart: the annual memorial ceremony for Ze’ev Jabotinsky at Mount Herzl and the memorial session at the Knesset. In the past, he made a point of attending the Mount Herzl ceremony every year.  His engagements as prime minister never prevented him from being there.

Last Friday, Mount Herzl was bereft of his presence. Maybe the occasion lost importance in his eyes from the moment the right to speak was denied him. (Protocol stipulates that only the president and the prime minister make speeches, and even then they’re only allowed to quote from the great right-winger’s writings.)  

Two days later, Netanyahu was also absent from the Knesset memorial session for Jabotinsky. There, actually, the opposition leader gets to speak. This is a strange story. Netanyahu’s name appeared on the Knesset computer alongside those of four other speakers: Speaker Levy and Prime Minister Bennett before Netanyahu, and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Likud’s Ofir Akunis after.  

When Bennett completed his remarks, there was no trace of Netanyahu. Sa’ar then spoke, and still no Netanyahu. Then came Akunis’ turn. And his leader? Nowhere. The speaker closed the session.

New Hope's Zeev Elkin, left, President Isaac Herzog and Likud's Ofir Akunis at the Ze'ev Jabotinsky memorial on Mount Herzl last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A little while later, a post went up on Netanyahu’s Facebook page, with the speech he had intended to deliver, accompanied by an opaque statement from the absentee: “Every year I take part in the discussion in the Knesset in memory of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. This year, for reasons that I hope to be able to make public soon, I was prevented from participating in this important ceremony.”

The right-wing press reported that it was due to “a diplomatic conversation that was prolonged.” Maybe a fifth peace agreement? With Saudi Arabia? Wait a second, he’s not prime minister anymore. For 12 years straight no diplomatic conversation was ever important enough to stop him on the way to the Jabotinsky session. What could be so important now?

Well, experience teaches that usually his delays and absences stem from more prosaic reasons.

Cheating ourselves at the Persian bazaar

Of course, Netanyahu’s speech in the Knesset the other day on the new government’s shortcomings had an Iranian chapter. He accused the Bennett-Lapid government of “abandoning the fight against the nuclear agreement that’s taking shape with Iran” and of “relinquishing the sovereign principle of defending Israel from an existential threat” because of Lapid’s supposed commitment to the Americans of a “no surprises” policy.

(And this was claimed by the man who urged Donald Trump to sign a defense treaty between the two countries whose first provision was a commitment to zero surprises and zero “sovereign” action.)

Bennett had a hard time restraining himself. He returned to the podium and stated that never in Israel’s history had anyone “talked so much and done so little on Iran.” According to a political source, if Bennett had gone into detail, Israelis would have become depressed and Iranians would have rejoiced. We’re lucky that he’s responsible.

As Netanyahu spoke, the head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Ram Ben Barak, a calm and easygoing person, was so irritated that he nearly rushed up to the podium in attack mode. The next day, I asked this legislator from Lapid’s Yesh Atid party what the fury was all about.

Ben Barak was deputy head of the Mossad until 2014. Then, until May 2016, he served as director general of the Intelligence Affairs Ministry and the Strategic Affairs Ministry. “Bennett was right,” Ben Barak told me.

“He said what all the defense chiefs are saying. [Netanyahu] brands himself the father of the operation to thwart the Iranian nuclear project, but he’s the third. Ariel Sharon gave the directive [to Mossad chief Meir Dagan], Ehud Olmert continued this policy, and after them came Netanyahu. It’s just that he, unlike them, caused us the greatest damage.”

It wasn’t only Bennett who became aware this past month of information he wasn’t privy to before. Probably Ben Barak has learned a thing or two.

But he preferred to talk about the past: “On the eve of the 2015 election, when it became clear to the administration that Netanyahu intended to go to Congress and speak against the agreement that was taking shape, we – me, Minister Yuval Steinitz and National Security Council head Yossi Cohen – were at the security conference in Munich. We were called into the Americans’ rooms.

“They made it clear to us that from that moment there would be no more updates and consultations on the details of the agreement. Until then, they had involved us in everything, consulted us every day, sometimes also took our position. We had tremendous influence.”

According to Ben Barak, it’s Netanyahu’s fault that the agreement that was ultimately signed was significantly less good than it could have been if the connection between Israel and the U.S. administration hadn’t been severed.

“More major damage was caused when Netanyahu persuaded President Trump to pull out of the agreement unilaterally,” Ben Barak says. “Nobody disagrees that during this period, the Iranians improved their capabilities and got very close to a bomb. What are we going to get now? The same agreement, in conditions that are a lot less good for us.”

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