Analysis |

Gantz Decided to Present Netanyahu With Ultimatum, but Only Has One Card Left to Play

Meanwhile, Israel is among top five countries where leaders will be biting their nails on November 3. Still, Netanyahu won’t rend his garment in mourning if Democrats return to the White House

Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter

The Kahol Lavan leadership, as we all know, consists of three men who are also the top cabinet members: Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn. Each has a party nickname; Gantz is “the compromiser,” Nissenkorn “the stubborn one” and Ashkenazi “the changer,” for the flexibility of his opinions.

But no longer. In recent weeks the tone at the top of Kahol Lavan has been unified and aggressive: “Yes, break it!” – like the title of an article by right-wing legend Ze’ev Jabotinsky back in 1932.

Break it, at any price. And as if to undermine themselves, the three (and other cabinet ministers) are barricading themselves behind iron statements and commitments from which any retreat would be political suicide for a party already suffering in the opinion polls.

In the spirit of the times, the party posits three nos: no to compromising on the budget, no to relinquishing the rotation of the premiership, and no to continuing the status quo that’s paralyzing the government and preventing the work of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and the advancement of dozens of appointments. The threat is unambiguous but the party has only one card: an election.

Still, we could end up with Benjamin Netanyahu coming back to head a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox government that would make all his wishes come true: cancellation of his corruption trial, replacement of the attorney general with a clone of State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman, and the appointment of a flaccid and appointer-friendly police commissioner.

The dynamic between the two parties – Kahol Lavan and Likud – and their leaders is heading toward an inevitable bust-up that will mean a dissolving of the Knesset and an early election in March or April at the latest, or February at the earliest.

The most likely option? In mid-November, Gantz will declare that the 2021 budget is making no progress, so on December 24 the Knesset will automatically dissolve. A less likely possibility: Kahol Lavan will support a no-confidence motion that would anoint one of the opposition chiefs prime minister. Another less likely possibility: a motion to dissolve the Knesset proposed by an opposition party.

To the best of my knowledge, the people in Kahol Lavan don’t have a thorough plan with target dates and the like. They don’t think anything will happen next week; all eyes are on the United States.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid intends to propose a motion to dissolve the Knesset. Kahol Lavan won’t support it. Lapid will have to retract the motion, because if it doesn’t pass, it won’t be possible to propose a similar one during the next six months. The level of trust between Gantz and Netanyahu is below zero.

“Benny doesn’t believe a word Bibi says,” said one of the party’s ministers. “He has reached the point that if Netanyahu tells him the sun is shining, he’ll open a window to check.”

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, October 15, 2020.
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, October 15, 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset

Ditto Ashkenazi. He sees the end of October as the time for a final ultimatum before declaring game over. Gantz, “the compromiser,” is giving a little more leeway: early-to-mid-November. Maybe he has an eye on the U.S. election Tuesday. One notion is that if Joe Biden wins, Netanyahu’s appetite for an election will wane.

Of course, the considerations are mostly elsewhere. Will Netanyahu hit the floor of public opinion and be able to climb back up thanks to good coronavirus numbers? Will he be able to butter up his scarred rivals (with one false promise or another) to create the exit best for him – dissolve the Knesset in March and an election in June, when a vaccine is well on the way?

Mire either way

Israel is among the top five countries where the leaders will be biting their nails into Wednesday morning; the other four are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Donald Trump survived the coronavirus thanks to swift, expensive and intensive medical care that only a person of his status could receive, including steroids. This is clear in the way the Orange Man emerged from the illness: dancing and cavorting at a gaggle of election rallies.

Another victory by Trump will inject the steroids all the way to Jerusalem. It will be celebrated at the prime minister’s residence with tremendous cheers. There can be no greater gift and moral boost for Netanyahu, who’s getting whipped in the opinion polls. Confidence in his abilities and his government’s performance has plunged by two-thirds since the start of the crisis.

From his celestial heights the prime minister, the great supporter (one of the few) of the U.S. president around the world, will be able to keep depicting himself as peacemaker for us, amen. Cash deals and secret weapons backed by the wealth of the concealed interests of the Trump family and their cronies will continue to help us, amid peace, nonbelligerence or normalization agreements with more Muslim countries.

If to Netanyahu’s chagrin Biden is elected, the diplomatic momentum in the Middle East will enter a deep freeze. At least for a while.

Biden’s line on the Palestinian issue is clear, as it is with Iran. He’ll bring the United States back into an agreement with Tehran to postpone its nuclear program – and accordingly, the Sunni states in our region will wait to see how the power relations are rebalanced in the most volatile arena in the world.

A Trump rally showing images of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, late October 2020.
A Trump rally showing images of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, late October 2020.Credit: Al Drago / NYT

Still, Netanyahu won’t rend his garment in mourning or cry out that the sky has fallen if the Democrats return to the White House. He knows how to get along.

In conversations about American politicsת his late father, Benzion Netanyahu – both in his presence with Zionist leaders from Israel and abroad, and with Israeli policymakers – would dismiss his interlocutors’ concerns about one president or another. There is a president, there is Congress, he would explain. If the president isn’t with you, work against him on Capitol Hill.

Benzion’s son, an Americologist, has refined this method. Before the four years of paradise he had with the Trump administration, whose looniness has worked to Netanyahu’s favor, he took the blows of Democratic presidents who loathed him.

Netanyahu worked against them in the arenas that suited him, among the Republicans in the House of Representatives. As he maintained, this was to protect Israel from liberal peace-seeking villains who aimed to do it ill.

Actually, for the most part, these efforts were to achieve domestic political gains. In his megalomanic world there is no longer any difference between the two. He is the state and the state is he.

To the especially sour lemons that were the relations with Washington in Barack Obama’s days, Netanyahu generously added Likud-rightist sugar and produced a sweet, refreshing election beverage. After all, who but he, Mr. Another League, the man whose perfect American accent melts members of Congress, can face down a U.S. president “hostile” to Israel?

Netanyahu’s rivals in Kahol Lavan will also thoroughly examine the outcome of these elections. If Trump is reelected, they will have to keep swallowing the current twisted situation. Agreements will be made without their involvement and they – the ministers of foreign affairs and defense – will work night shifts to improve conditions and minimize damage.

But if, immediately after a Trump reelection, the diplomatic blitz (which is after all a good thing) continues with more treaties with more countries, what kind of face would Kahol Lavan have to break up the government and go for an election? It would probably be forced to postpone, yet again, its ultimatums. But in doing so it would clash with its bloc of legislators demanding immediate action.

Either way, Israel will go back to dealing with the mire of the coronavirus, the large and small failures, and politics will once again revolve around the government’s non-functioning and disgraceful management of the crisis. Kahol Lavan will congratulate whichever man gets elected, wait a bit until the deadline for approving the budget goes by (on the assumption that Netanyahu won’t do anything to bring forward the rotation of the premiership) and the Knesset will dissolve automatically at the end of December.

Until then, Netanyahu will rejoice with Trump or shine a forced smile at Biden, and Kahol Lavan politicians will embitter his life as best they can. What else can they do?

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett speaking at the Knesset, September 2020.
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett speaking at the Knesset, September 2020.Credit: Shmulik Grossman / Knesset

Batty Bennett

For six months now, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett has been spouting the slogan he coined: If it’s not about making a living, it’s not interesting. He has successfully ignored the background noise and Likud’s attempt to distract from the fact that its showing in the polls has been eroded by Yamina on the right. In the thin air at the highest altitudes, you need nerves of steel. Bennett proved staunch, until this week.

A not especially sophisticated spin by Netanyahu and his people got Bennett totally losing his cool, as seen in a series of baffling actions and pathetic statements. It started a week ago. Against the backdrop of the worsening relations between Likud and Kahol Lavan, opposition leader Lapid aimed some barbs at his former partner, “If you guys vote for the no-confidence motion I submitted, Netanyahu will start packing that evening,” Lapid declared from every platform.

The hype produced on the internet around this fantasy option (that Bennett, along with the Joint List of Arab parties, would crown Lapid prime minister), fell on Netanyahu like a winning roulette ball. He began to batter his rival: Bennett will go with Lapid, Bennett will anoint a leftist government. At first, Yamina people projected indifference; 50 times we voted for Lapid and he voted for us, they explained. And of course, we’ll do it again.

On Friday evening on the news talk show “Ulpan Shishi,” moderator Rina Matsliah brought up a scenario: The agreed-on candidate for prime minister won’t be Lapid but rather his No. 2, Moshe Ya’alon – on condition that Ya’alon doesn’t run for prime minister in an election but only serves for a limited period.

This happened Friday evening and Bennett observes the Sabbath. He was also waiting in the hospital for back surgery. However, after every Shabbat comes Saturday night, and five minutes after the Sabbath queen departed, Yamina released a hysterical statement that marked the start of the collapse. Not collapse – meltdown.

“We will not be partner to a coup supported by Heba Yazbak” – a Joint List legislator from the Arab nationalist Balad party – “or sinister political exercises,” the press release shrieked. “You don’t replace a foul carcass with a rotting cadaver. The failed Netanyahu-Gantz government must be replaced by a new, energetic government headed by Naftali Bennett, who will deal with the coronavirus and economy, and mend the rifts in the nation.”

Hmmm, where to begin?

1. Since when is a parliamentary vote a “coup”? This is, after all, the awful terminology of the prime minister’s residence.

2. Why bandy about Heba Yazbak again? Haven’t we had enough of right-wingers in the media who blab themselves to death that way?

3. “Foul carcass” and “rotting cadaver.” The prime minister isn’t a foul carcass and Ya’alon isn’t a rotting cadaver.

4. We were informed, as an aside, that Bennett will run for prime minister. Is that how one declares a candidacy, on a Saturday evening filled with whines and barbs?

5. And is that how they want to heal “the rifts in the nation” – with nasty epithets for a prime minister and a former defense minister and army chief?

Yamina's Ayelet Shaked speaking at the Knesset, October 2020.
Yamina's Ayelet Shaked also on the podium.Credit: Shmulik Grosssman / Knesset

6. And the timing? It came at the end of the weekend we were informed of the normalization agreement with Sudan, and Israelis were mourning the death of beloved film actor Yehuda Barkan. So this is when Bennett remembers to announce that he’s running for the top job? As the Brits like to say, “He can’t put a foot right.”

And it didn’t end there. The farce that began Saturday night continued on Monday. Did Yamina vote with Lapid once again, this time in the no-confidence motion against the government?

Well, on Monday, the day of the vote, Yamina legislators vanished from the Knesset hall. They didn’t even vote for a no-confidence motion that their party had backed. That’s how heavily the dread of Netanyahu fell upon them. From the prime minister’s perspective, all this is an encouraging bit of news. There's something to work with.

“Why did you feel pressured?” I asked Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked. “I didn’t feel pressured,” she replied. “We wanted to show that we aren’t in their game. Lapid says we’ll go with Bibi, and Bibi says we’ll go with Lapid. Both of them are peddling illusions.”

“You didn’t even vote for your own no-confidence motion,” I asked. “What’s this fear that fell upon you?”

“We wanted to ridicule the event,” Shaked said, trying her best. “Nobody does numbers on us.”

“Tell me: ‘foul carcass’ and ‘rotting cadaver.’ Is that your recipe for healing rifts?”

“Right, those are inappropriate words,” she admitted.

“And what will happen next time?”

“I don’t know. Maybe we’ll vote again for Lapid. We’ll do whatever we want to do.”

Birds of bad taste

Orli Levi-Abekasis and Rafi Peretz are among the most despicable of politicians. The political hitchhiker and the rabbi have a lot in common.

Both jumped parties and stole Knesset seats that didn’t belong to them, broke promises and drove sharp knives into the backs of their partners. They both sold themselves for a mess of pottage in the form of an absurd, totally made-up ministry. Over both their heads hovers a zero, their electoral power in public opinion.

They’re the aphids on the leaves of the tree that’s the Netanyahu government. They kept quiet for months, disappeared from the spotlight, maybe hoping their disgrace would be forgotten.

This week, amazingly, both returned to the headlines, riding the same horse: the commemoration day for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. With the scent of the approaching election pounding in their nostrils, and with it the knowledge that their political demise is approaching, the two decided to remind the voters of their right to exist.

Labor-Gesher-Meretz leaders Orli Levi-Abekasis, left, Amir Peretz and Nitzan Horowitz at Labor Party headquarters in the wake of Monday's exit poll results, March 3, 2020.
Orli Levi-Abekasis, then with Labor-Gesher-Meretz, with Amir Peretz, center, and Nitzan Horowitz, March 3, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

Levi-Abekasis gave an interview to the free propaganda rag Israel Hayom and proudly related that last year, when she was running for the Knesset for Labor-Gesher-Meretz, she absented herself from the memorial ceremony for the assassinated prime minister. She said that when asked, she replied: “Rabin is yours, not mine.”

The problem here isn’t her desire not to attend the ceremony. That’s even understandable. She sees herself as a rightist. The murdered man followed the path of the left. It’s her right, as they say.

Nor is the problem the crude way she expressed herself, as if she had been invited to a drug-fueled rave by a bunch of lefty hipsters – and she, pure as the driven snow, waved them off in disgust. She didn’t learn manners from her father, former Foreign Minister David Levy, never mind the minimum dignified behavior of an elected official.

The problem is the boasting, and the motive is transparent: to rehabilitate herself in the eyes of right-wing voters so that some stray opinion poll will give her a Knesset seat and a half and some naive party leader will maybe load her onto his slate. For that, she’d kick Rabin’s corpse.

Presumably that isn’t going to happen. Netanyahu won't reserve a spot for her, and Bennett wouldn’t think of this. Let her try Labor chief Amir Peretz; if he fell into her web once, maybe it would happen again.

Both Levi-Abekasis and Rafi Peretz are incorrigible. They’ll be able to celebrate their political end together while wasting several hundred thousand votes.

Rafi is also hunting for a political arrangement. He too is expected to face a disappointment. This man has betrayed everyone – Bennett and far-rightists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.

His place is in the rubbish bin of Israeli politics. Peretz chose the “educational” route. In a letter to Education Minister Yoav Gallant, he demanded reparations for the insult to Rachel from the Bible, who according to tradition died on the 11th of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, the day before Rabin was assassinated. Because of Rabin, mourned Rabbi Rafi, Rachel isn’t receiving the public honor that’s due her.

For one year Peretz served as education minister. That included the 11th of Heshvan last year. He could have sent the same letter to himself, but now he’s exhuming the most relevant figure he could find as a clumsy wink toward his audience on the messianic religious right.

Four seats are the threshold for entering the Knesset. Rachel or any of the four matriarchs in the Bible aren’t going to help Peretz tickle out even half a Knesset seat.

And to extract political gain out of the bitterness of Rabin’s fate? Even Netanyahu would say to Levi-Abekasis: That’s so ‘90s. Move on.

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