Analysis

Fighting to Keep the Crown, Netanyahu Tries to Unmask His Ministers

Everyone but the prime minister himself is making plans for the 'day after'; what happens if he resigns?

An illustration showing Israeli politicians in Purim costumes.
Amos Biderman

Every leak about the police investigations involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sends Likud’s ministers scurrying to the party’s constitution, whose relevant clauses they can by now recite in their sleep. The clause they keep perusing is No. 155, which stipulates that if the party’s chairman resigns, the central committee will elect a temporary chairman for a period of three months, after which a primary will be held among all the party’s registered members to elect a new leader.

Some find this clause a source of hope, others are worried about its implications. The temporary chairman might seek to stay on as prime minister for the remainder of the term, by virtue of heading the party with the largest number of representatives in Knesset – and anyway, after three months in office, who will be able to gainsay him?

But that’s an implausible scenario. It’s more than likely that this Knesset, which in another month will celebrate its second anniversary – the halfway mark of a standard term – would slide into elections, if and when. No alternative government will be formed in the current Knesset, the Likud’s leader will be elected in a primary, and the central committee will be superfluous.

Other cabinet ministers, who also head parties, are maintaining unbroken visual and audio contact with the President’s Residence. In a scenario in which the prime minister resigns, of his own or of others’ volition, President Reuven Rivlin will play a key role in the ensuing political drama. If the Knesset does not want to dissolve itself, should the prime minister resign, Rivlin will be asked to charge one of the serving 120 MKs with the task of forming an alternative coalition government.

One party leader recently checked, vis-a-vis authoritative officials in the President’s Residence, about the president’s range of considerations in making his decision, and was told that the president enjoys absolute and sweeping freedom. The candidate he chooses will not be obliged to present an absolute majority of MKs or even a simple majority. Rivlin has the right to entrust the formation of an alternative government to whoever persuades him that the sheer act of granting him the mandate affords him a real chance of mustering 61 MKs.

That expansive interpretation, fascinating in and of itself, generates all manner of intriguing options, even if they’re theoretical. It’s premature to enter into all the implications.

In the meantime, Netanyahu’s life is hanging between scandal and festival, joy and sadness, optimism and concern – and, some would add, between mania and depression. Every morning he wakes up to a declaration of intentions by someone in his party or government to run for prime minister “in the post-Netanyahu era” – as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) said twice this week. Some era. He’s served as premier for eight consecutive years and might very well reach nine before the attorney general makes his final decisions in the investigations.

To put it another way, he’s like the father of a family whose end, alas, is near, and whose children are discussing how to divide the inheritance in his presence, even as they are wishing him a long life.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow on March 9, 2017.
Pavel Golovkin, Reuters/Pool

MK Avi Dichter (Likud), an old Netanyahu friend who’s newly frustrated (because he wasn’t appointed a minister), couldn’t restrain himself. He told an audience in Modi’in that “in the future,” he will contest Likud’s leadership. So, too, says Yisrael Katz, minister of transportation and of intelligence and atomic energy, who’s in the midst of a tidal wave of interviews, mostly on security issues. Netanyahu asked someone this week, “Tell me, is Yisrael still cooking?” He wasn’t talking about Shabbat cholent in the moshav.

Even Tzachi Hanegbi, Netanyahu’s loyalist – whose good service recently got him a temporary appointment as communications minister – announced that he will run for Likud chairman “in 2023.” It’s not certain that his citing a far-off date will make Bibi and Sara chortle and urge him on. In their eyes, just raising the subject sends an immediate message that there’s something unstable and temporary in the serving PM’s hold on power.

Netanyahu is particularly short-tempered with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan these days, as confirmed by cabinet and security cabinet members. “With alienation and disinclination,” as one of them – not from Likud – put it. Erdan is being careful not to be caught making subversive statements that could be perceived as the final nail in the coffin of the senior personage under investigation by the police. He’s treading a thin line. But the very fact that he bears ministerial responsibility for the Israel Police makes him an automatic putsch suspect.

If to this we add the boiling pot known as the new Public Broadcasting Corporation, which (to change the metaphor) was conceived when Erdan was communications minister – and which Netanyahu views as gravely harmful to his vital interests – we get a toxic, acidic stew of resentment, suspicion and vengefulness. Erdan is paying the price, and will pay more.

Between various trips abroad, Netanyahu was interrogated for the fourth time this week. That event was accompanied by reports that the dispenser of the cigars and champagne to the Prime Minister’s Residence, movie producer Arnon Milchan, had offered additional testimony at his home in Los Angeles.

In the midst of Netanyahu’s interrogation on Monday, a phone call came from U.S. President Donald Trump. Whether or not the timing was arranged so it would disrupt the questioning (that would be so like Ambassador Ron Dermer), it converged precisely with the survival narrative Netanyahu is disseminating publicly. It involves marketing him as a global statesman, interlocutor and adviser, maybe even a mentor for the leader of the free world. A strategic, historical and divine asset to his people, his nation and his country.

In closed forums he was heard saying recently, “What does it matter if I asked [for cigars from Milchan or from James Packer] or they gave them to me? Friends are friends.” In conversations with ministers, the premier unerringly projects calm, sangfroid and governmental stability. In one meeting he told Moshe Kahlon that, as far as he’s concerned, the treasury minister can start working on the 2019 national budget.

People were astonished. The next official election date is November 2019, four years and eight months after the last vote, in March 2015. Even if the rest of the term goes well, without too much turmoil, there’s no way that, with the parties looking ahead to the election, a final budget will be passed in this Knesset. To those present, it was clear that this remark was part of the show, the play, the masked ball that we’re witnessing – and not only on Purim.

Full circle

During Netanyahu’s first term, from 2009 to 2013, we had a foreign minister who for most of that period was declared persona non grata in Washington. Avigdor Lieberman visited Eastern European countries, while Ehud Barak, the defense minister, plied the Tel Aviv-Washington route and was effectively the acting foreign minister.

That situation was more or less reversed during the past year. Lieberman is now defense minister: responsible, judicious, not running wild. He’s openly scornful of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and his electorate in the settlements. Lieberman left the warmongering, targeted-assassination threats and all the rest behind when he entered the gates of defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv. Now in the absence of a full-time foreign minister, it looks as though Lieberman will fulfill that task for the rest of the government’s term. As defense minister, Barak functioned as acting foreign minister in place of Foreign Minister Lieberman. Now Defense Minister Lieberman will function as acting foreign minister for Foreign Minister Netanyahu.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Israeli Defense Defense Avigdor Lieberman stand for the National Anthem at the Pentagon March 7, 2017.
Cliff Owen, AP

Lieberman devoted much of his briefing on Monday with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to diplomatic affairs. His messages were unequivocal: No to the blather about annexing the territories; yes to coordination with the United States. No to an apartheid state as envisaged by renowned political philosopher MK Miki Zohar (Likud); yes to a two-state solution with a territorial swap. No to uninhibited construction in the settlements; yes to restraint and responsible behavior that will not irk our great ally. The Americans’ gratitude was apparent when Lieberman arrived in Washington the next day for a first working visit with members of the new administration.

According to diplomatic and political sources, we are witnessing coordinated, multifaceted and broad-based developments involving the prime minister and the defense minister. It started before Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington, and continued even after his departure. It’s possible that what British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a friend of the U.S. administration, said this week during his visit to Israel – that the United States continues to support the two-state solution and opposes massive construction in the territories – is part of this hive of activity.

Lieberman was sent to the front lines of domestic politics by Netanyahu to lower expectations, calm passions and suppress dreams. His policy statements are coordinated to the last comma with Netanyahu. The coordination between them is the fruit of numberless one-on-one meetings. They have established a pragmatic axis. Netanyahu is treating his former rival as a strategic partner. Lieberman is repaying him by declaring supportively that even if the premier is indicted, he’s under no obligation to resign: He will conduct his defense from his position as prime minister.

Netanyahu has kept mum, allowing Lieberman to do the political work for him. Netanyahu, after all, does not conceive of annexing territories, just as he doesn’t dream of taking any steps to realize the two-state vision, even if he has not explicitly revoked the idea. All the prime minister wants is to survive and get through this term in one piece, preferably without being indicted.

Lieberman has assumed the role of bad cop. He confronts the settlers and their emissaries in the Knesset and the coalition. He absorbs Bennett’s insults, and holds a mirror up to him and his colleagues, something Netanyahu doesn’t dare do. The political base of the Likud leader was and remains right-right. He doesn’t want to come across as too moderate and thereby lose votes to Bennett’s party.

Naturally, Lieberman is paying a certain political price in the right wing for being the messenger of bad tidings, but it’s not an intolerable price. In any event, he’s forgone the ideological right, whom he ridicules as messianic and extremist, in favor of what he terms the pragmatic, responsible right.

Hearing him, the settlers and their representatives in the parliament – Habayit Hayehudi and most Likud MKs – are internalizing the fact that the hopes they pinned on the new government were futile. Trump is not giving them free rein to do as they please. What a disappointment he is. At least with Barack Hussein Obama, they had someone they could hate and accuse of anti-Semitism.

Party scooper

As befitting a pupil of Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett did this week what he learned from his teacher: He announced, surprisingly, that the primary for leadership of Habayit Hayehudi, the old National Religious Party, will be held as soon as possible, apparently after Pesach. A true blitz. The official reason was also lifted from the dusty lexicon that served Netanyahu in similar maneuvers: deployment for a general election. The party must be prepared for every scenario.

Being prepared is important and useful, but Bennett also learned something else from Netanyahu: to pull the rug out from under the legs of potential rivals before they have time to organize properly. With such short notice, and with the spring holidays almost upon us, no one has time to mount a campaign. The dreamers will be left with their dreams.

Bennett has internal opposition in his party. It’s not a threat to his leadership, but even though Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon didn’t constitute a real threat to Netanyahu, either – he still bushwhacked them. The biggest potential threat to Bennett is Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, his protégé who has gained stature. Her repeated assertions that she will run for prime minister “after Netanyahu and Bennett” are perceived not only as spurning Netanyahu but also as dwarfing Bennett.

Ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

With all due respect for the overarching ambitions of Bennett and Shaked, Bennett is still not prime minister and it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he will be. Maybe it will happen in the distant future, if Likud falls apart and Habayit Hayehudi stops being an Orthodox-Hardali (nationalist religious, leaning toward ultra-Orthodoxy) party, or if it merges with Likud and captures the party leadership, or if hell freezes over.

Last week, this column noted that Bennett and Shaked are busy rebuffing persistent reports of trouble in the paradise they present to the outside world. Here’s more proof that tension exists: By advancing the primary, Bennett is aiming to secure his leadership for the next four or five years, in order to obviate a situation in which he’ll have to run against Shaked in less convenient conditions.

Bennett’s game plan is known. He wants to “overhaul” the party, as he puts it. To de-religionize it, with fewer skullcaps, beards and head coverings (he’s allowed to say that, because he himself is religious). He wants to reduce the number of Hardali people, to part for good with the Tekuma party of Uri Ariel and Bezalel Smotrich, to get rid of the Moti Yogev and Nissan Slomiansky types – and in their place to bring in nonreligious men and women who will turn Habayit Hayehudi into Likud’s twin. Maybe even to unite the two parties down the line, as part of the large, right-wing bloc that’s needed against the left-center bloc.

Last time, Bennett tried and failed to recruit retired soccer star Eli Ohana – who was reviled by the National Religious Party’s Ashkenazi establishment for being a Mizrahi – and retired journalist Ynon Magal, who was forced to resign from the Knesset over sexual harassment charges. With Ayelet Shaked, he certainly succeeded, maybe too much so. Paradoxically, if Bennett alters the party’s DNA as he plans, that could work in Shaked’s favor in the future.

Arutz 7, the settlers’ unofficial radio station, reported this week that Bennett does indeed intend to merge with Likud on the eve of an election, as a preventive measure against Yesh Atid becoming the biggest party, and its leader, Yair Lapid, receiving the nod from the president to assemble a government. In Habayit Hayehudi, they’re expecting Netanyahu to move up the election to early 2018, and to compete again for leadership of Likud, even if he has been indicted. One way or other, Bennett will try to assume control of Likud, and under its auspices to become the candidate of the right for the premiership.

Front to back

The blow sustained last weekend by MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union/Labor) in the form of a recording of a conversation held by her associate MK Eitan Cabel with the leaders of his faction in the Histadrut labor federation – in which he tells his people in colorful colloquial language that, contrary to what he and Yacimovich solemnly declared, she is committed to supporting him for party leader – was the first in a series. Afterward, the agreement between them was made public, strengthening the initial assessment that the two had struck a mutually beneficial deal: He would support her as head of the Histadrut by forgoing his delegation in the federation, and she’d back him as Labor Party leader, if he runs.

And then came the third blow: publication of their testimony, prior to the breaking of the scandal, in the Histadrut court, in which they denied any deal or agreement. After they were locked into the denial, the recording of Cabel’s conversation was played for them. Obviously, someone decided to roast them on a spit and turn up the heat gradually. It bordered on abuse.

For the first time in their political careers, the two great rivals-turned-allies found themselves on the wrong side of the front: on the side of the corrupt, the liars, the fakers. Instead of attacking and accusing, they found themselves in a hopeless defensive posture, clinging to the assertion that there is no deal because there was no deal, stuck in a morass.

The publication of the agreement between Histadrut head Avi Nissenkorn and Cabel’s group – a dubious arrangement in itself but not a jaw-dropper – interested no one. Nissenkorn is in any case perceived as a functionary, a manipulator, an emissary of former Histadrut leader Ofer Eini, who anointed him and still pulls the strings in the labor organization. Yacimovich was supposed to bring something new, clean and fresh to the bloated federation. Despite Nissenkorn’s large advantage over her among the big unions and the Histadrut power centers, she seemed to represent the free-thinking voters who are sick of what the old Histadrut stands for.

What started out as a close race between Nissenkorn and Yacimovich evolved into a battle for survival by the latter. A loss to a pale bureaucrat like Nissenkorn is out of the question for her. If she loses the election on May 23, she’ll have no chance of running for the leadership of the Labor Party. Maybe she’ll establish a social-welfare party that will run in the general election and try to gnaw away at Labor. But that’s no simple matter, either.

In the meantime, Labor is mostly backing Nissenkorn. Last week, his close friend Labor MK Itzik Shmuli, sent a letter to party MKs asking them to sign in support of Nissenkorn. As of this writing, 13 of the party’s 18 MKs have signed. That’s no guarantee of victory, but it can’t hurt. It also demonstrates the prevailing assessment in the party: that Nissenkorn is headed for victory and that whoever wants Histadrut backing in the party primary better pay now, and in cash.