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The Master Plan: Clone Likud Without Bibi and His Sycophants

For several months the prime minister's rival has been secretly spinning his web. Each week more advisers, lawmakers, mayors, key activists joined the secret circle

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

 One of the people who were in on Gideon Sa’ar’s intention to resign from Likud is retired politician Moshe Kahlon. The points of resemblance are clear: two top Likud people who, because of the popularity they accumulated (both came in first in the party primaries, in different years and also in their ministerial positions), entered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bank of targets. They were marked out, humiliated and shunted aside.

Kahlon quit Likud, established the Kulanu party, came back as his own boss and not as a hireling, as he put it, and became a powerful, long-lasting finance minister. Sa’ar quit for a time-out of five years’ duration. This did not injure his political brand. He has demonstrated the irrelevancy of Ariel Sharon’s theory about remaining in the game – “Stay on the wheel” – in the present era.

Why Israel’s anti-Bibi left is so lost – and chasing yet another general as its Messiah. LISTEN

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Sa’ar came back, climbed his way into the top level of Likud, ran in the party leadership primary against Netanyahu and was defeated. Now the paths of the old friends are crossing once again. Sa’ar has resigned from his party, is establishing an independent slate and is aiming for the very top, to become prime minister. Kahlon aimed lower, at the Finance Ministry. For him, it was the peak.

In their conversations, Kahlon encouraged Sa’ar: You can’t stay, you don’t need to stay. They had been spared the need to share feelings and diagnoses as to the reason for the resignation. When he is insufferable, he knows how to be absolutely insufferable, Kahlon once said of Netanyahu. When he makes you fed up with him, he puts you in a state of mind where you can’t even look at him.

Kahlon went back to being a member of Likud, and he isn’t even able to explain why. He does business in Abu Dhabi. He had two pieces of advice for Sa’ar: Firstly, avoid, just as he himself did back in the day, establishing a “refugee camp” – a slate that gathers in lawmakers facing the end of their career, who are maybe looking at the chance of getting elected again from below the cutoff point and, secondly, quickly adopt an action plan, anorganizing principle, an agenda for Israel 2021. In short, Bibi no, but not just “Anyone But  Bibi.” It isn’t sustainable.

Sa’ar didn’t need the second piece of advice. He has a detailed platform. It will be presented at the appropriate time and place. He has rejected the first recommendation. The first two joiners are Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Handel. Once every three months, more or less, the duo hops, like a disoriented kangaroo, from one party to another. Their Wikipedia entry is updated more frequently than the dollar exchange rate. Let us hope that when they wake up in the morning, they remember what party they’re in.

They started out in Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem, together with him they joined greater Kahol Lavan and then they abandoned it without batting an eyelid (for the sake of national unity) for lofty positions in the cabinet and Knesset. As members of Derekh Eretz in the Kahol Lavan bloc, most of the time they played in the Netanyahu-Likud field; they thwarted the establishment of a narrow government headed by Benny Gantz and the passage of the “Netanyahu laws” that would have prevented a person under criminal indictment from running for office, and this week, even the Equality Law proposed by Kahol Lavan MK Eitan Ginzburg.

Now they are with Saar. Pontificating about proper governance, bla bla bla, from the heights of the positions they got from Gantz at the expense of a slate they hadn’t been part of for a long time. At least they have been spared the disgrace of seeing the digit “0” beneath their photos in the public opinion polls.

Next in line are Likud MKs Yifat Shasha-Biton, Sharren Haskel and Michal Shir Segman. There is nothing for those three women in Bibistan. Haskel and Segman supported Sa’ar in the primaries. They are far from the grating Bibi-ist chorus of frogs and for that reason they are condemned to be eliminated.

Shasha-Biton is an independent – she did not become a member of Likud like her former colleague form Kulanu, Eli Cohen, who cheerfully volunteered to be another spineless clown of a courtier in the service of the king. She is an opinionated, challenging figure  within the ruling slate, especially in her capacity as chairwoman of the parliamentary coronavirus committee, which was robbed of its authority by the government in the “Major Coronavirus Law” (and Sa’ar, incidentally, was the only Likudnik who voted against it). 
As the two leading outsiders on the Likud slate, permanent targets for the venom from the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, Shasha-Biton and Sa’ar have been cooperating for some time now on a number of issues. Her position with the public is strong. Public opinion polls have predicted six or seven Knesset seats for her. 

Hence her pondering whether to try her luck with a slate of her own or to agree to serve as Sa’ar’s No. 2. At worst, No. 3, if former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot jumps in, and for his sake only. In any case, she knows that the number of votes she can bring in is shaky and too close to the necessary minimum, certainly now, when the arena is becoming more crowded and difficult.

Politically, she is exactly suited to the politicians mentioned above: rightist, but not Bibi-ist. Someone who wants to put an end to Netanyahu’s rule, but not destroy the entire bloc. Rule by the right that is proper, dignified, liberal. Old-fashioned. This is not just an aspiration; it’s a commitment. Sa’ar is saying to his close associates: I will not sit in a government under Netanyahu, absolutely no way. Nor under opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid). I’d prefer the opposition. Make no mistake, we are building something here for the long term.

Arik and the buddies

As we know, all eyes are on Eisenkot. In the expected battle royale in the forthcoming election, he is in effect the only relevant general who can be called up for reserve duty. He offers added value, both with respect to image and with respect to votes. Eisenkot has had innumerable meetings with politicians during the past year. Many of these meetings found their way, somehow, into the media, though not of his own volition. Still, one close connection never leaked, the one between him and Sa’ar. 

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot in a Tel Aviv stock exchange meeting, January 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Their friendship was born in 2001, in the office of newly installed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sa’ar was appointed government secretary. Eisenkot had been military secretary under Ehud Barak and stayed in that position for about six months after Sharon took over. When he left to move further up the chain of command, enjoying Sharon’s esteem and affection, it was Sa’ar who presided over his farewell party at the Prime Minister’s Office. 

People close to the former chief of staff recall that the meetings between them took place in the offices of Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin’s Institute for National Security Studies. Eisenkot was a research fellow there during his cooling off period between the military and politics. Sa’ar spent time there, too, but their stints did not overlap. 

Every party leader who might want him showed up. Avigdor Lieberman came with a public opinion poll indicating that Eisenkot would deliver four or five Knesset seats from Netanyahu’s bloc to Yisrael Beiteinu. Economy Minister Amir Peretz  matched and raised: In his opinion poll, Eisenkot would bring him Labor eight more Knesset seats, about as believable as the 15 seats Peretz had predicted for himself with Orly Levy-Abekasis. And, of course, MK Moshe Ya’alon (Telem), Defense Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (Kahol Lavan), MK Naftali Bennett (Yamina), Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, and opposition leader Yair Lapid visited him, too. Ehud Barak, whom Eisenkot very much esteems, also calls a lot. He is interested in educating the rookie in the fields of Israeli politics, which are strewn with mines. 

Gantz knew that the chances Eisenkot would come to rescue the diminshed Kahol Lavan were nearly non-existent. Incidentally, even though Sa’ar is slaughtering them in the polls, Kahol Lavan officials are enthusiastic about his initiative. He received many pats on the back and encouraging looks in his last day in the 23rd Knesset. They understand that they don’t have the wherewithal to topple Netanyahu. So fine, let Sa’ar do it. In the end, it should be Israel above all parties, shouldn’t it?

Back to Eisenkot. Our research fellow listened to all the above-mentioned visitors but didn’t commit to anything. Ya’alon’s strange utterance on Channel 12 last Friday, in which he announced that Eisenkot “won’t make Gantz’s mistake” but would join up with him as Telem’s number 2, flustered Eisenkot –  though this is hard to imagine about a person who looks like a tranquilizer advertisement.

Eisenkot was not able to recall a single statement, even as an insinuation, from which Ya’alon could have arrived at this far-reaching conclusion. Ya’alon is a strange political animal. Fortunately for him, Yair Lapid is displaying patience and not rushing into an ugly, public divorce, as in the case of Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni. Not that he has much choice. As with Zionist Union, both sides would lose from such a move. 

One fact is pretty much inarguable. Eisenkot is a classic second fiddle. He wouldn’t be for Ya’alon, not only because of the latter’s poor electoral prospects but also because two former chiefs of staff cancel each other out. Rather, he can play second fiddle to any civilian, be he Sa’ar, Lapid, Lieberman or Bennett. His synergetic usefulness beside any one of them is immeasurably more effective than in any constellation with other top brass. 

He will decide once the Knesset dissolves. As a military commander, he will decide mainly based on data and intelligence. If he arrives at the conclusion that he can prevent Netanyahu from forming a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox coalition by joining forces with someone else, he will presumably enter the fray. If he thinks he will be superfluous, he will stay out. He doesn’t have the political bug raging in his body; he is mainly interested in being an effective antibody to the acquired failure syndrome known as Netanyahu’s rule.

Diseases without immunization

Next week, the Knesset will swear in as Sa’ar’s replacement, a veteran Bibi-ist, Nissim Vaturi. Legend attributes to him the invention of the expression “Haide Bibi,” a throaty impassioned roar that burst into our lives at the Likud victory event at the Israel Convention Center after the 1996 election. The Likud princes sat on the stage, stunned, embarrassed, wondering whether they were at a political event or in the stands at Teddy Stadium with the rowdy and racist Jerusalem Beitar soccer fans. 

Sa’ar is no longer serving as a thorn in Netanyahu’s side. However, he is leaving behind as proxies at least four lawmakers, maybe five, who will vote according to his instructions. In certain circumstances, this group could be of significance. Let’s say that Gantz agrees to prolong Netanyahu’s term in office for another year in return for promising to make the rotation ironclad (which won’t be honored), and the Knesset will have to vote. Today, the coalition numbers 72. Subtract four “Gideonites” and that leaves 68. Take away the left side of Kahol Lavan that is expected to rebel, and you’re down to 62 or 63. It’s still a majority that could postpone the election by half a year, but it’s already dangerously close. 

Gideon Sa'ar voting in the Knesset's coronavirus cabinet, July 2020. Credit: Adina Welman / Knesset Spokesperson

Sa’ar’s prime-time speech lasted seven minutes. Those seven minutes shook up the Israeli political scene, which had already come to terms with its fate: an election in March 2021 that would most probably end up with Netanyahu remaining as prime minister. This time, he’d head a homogeneous coalition that would give him his heart’s desire – exemption from facing trial while crushing the law enforcement and justice systems, as his pals ruling Hungary and Poland have done.

Netanyahu was stunned and bowled over by the move. The meeting of the coronavirus cabinet was canceled at a moment’s notice. He then compiled a venomous list of talking points for his supporters, who ran to the studios to excoriate Sa’ar. One of those who volunteered to do this was Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin. Since when does the holder of the second highest official position in the state go to a television studio to talk petty politics? This same Levin was once an ally of Sa’ar’s, but today he is the man who is trampling the separation of powers in the name of Bibi-ism. He participates in the parliamentary group’s caucuses, an act from which his predecessors in the position refrained. There is just once conclusion: Levin, who has the most hallucinatory and dangerous ideology in the whole of Likud, sees an opportunity in Netanyahu’s fall into the abyss. He has a chance to ride on the back of a leader who lacks all compunctions and who only wants to flee from justice, in order to realize his own dangerous dreams. “The Supreme Court justices will be chosen by the government,” he said of his vision this week, prior to Sa’ar’s resignation. “The president of the Supreme Court will be elected by secret ballot in the full Knesset.” 

In parallel, Netanyahu has gone back to being the spokesman for every dose of vaccine that lands here. Indeed, a huge achievement, worthy of esteem, and never mind the details of the costly and non-transparent contracts that were signed with the drug companies. On the evening of Sa’ar’s declaration, Netanyahu tweeted for the umpteenth time that he had called and spoken with the CEO of Pfizer. An international tycoon who is invested in Israeli media once told one of his people that the prime minister of Israel never stops pestering him on the phone, about every bit of nonsense that gets reported. “It drives me crazy, but it’s a prime minister and I can’t not answer,” he complained. Quite possibly, the CEO of Pfizer has said similar things to the people around him, in light of the deluge of nagging phone calls coming in from the office of the Israeli prime minister every time he needs to dazzle the audience’s attention back to his direction. 

The next day, he showed up at the airport for a photo-op with the vaccine cargo. He smiled and ascended into the belly of the plane with a heroic expression on his face. We’re lucky he wasn’t wearing a white jumpsuit and holding an Uzi under his arm. He declared at that same opportunity, at long last, that he is prepared to be the first to be vaccinated. We have been waiting for weeks now for such a declaration from him, from which he had refrained. He is prepared to suffer a few side effects when necessary in order to stop Sa’ar.
However, there is one illness against which no vaccine can help him. Let’s call it hemo-familia, incurable bleeding caused by wife and offspring. In addition to his sick miserliness, his lack of restraint and his obsession with the media, it was his housemates at the official residence on Balfour Street who moved him by giant steps towards all the criminal entanglements he is in. They are also the ones who time after time mess with the sophisticated political calculator in his head, causing it to make fatal miscalculations.

The bottomless hatred for Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Gideon Sa’ar has made them lose their minds. The Netanyahu of yesteryear would never have distanced the parliamentarians from his government, were it not for the lady and Junior. The enemies this household has made for itself are only getting stronger. Now, the increasing drizzle heard outside the Balfourian tent isn’t coming from the bladders of the rejected; it consists of inflammable material that could destroy the entire tent.

A matter of time

For many months Sa’ar, thoroughly and secretly, wove his woolen blanket. Each week the circle of the secret grew: advisers, lawmakers, mayors, key activists.

Nothing leaked until just before it happened. Half an hour before Sa’ar planned to make his political declaration, Lieberman said on the radio he had concluded that Bibi’s rival was leaving Likud: If twice a week on the eve of an election he criticizes Netanyahu, there’s no doubt he’s going that way.

Why did Sa’ar choose this timing, risking that this step would postpone the election and put him for an undetermined period outside the Knesset? We can hypothesize a number of reasons: 1. Fear of an information leak.

2. In the Knesset he is tied hands and feet to coalition discipline; it’s hard to express what he really thinks.

3. The scenario that the election will be postponed and he’ll be left on the outside for a stretch doesn’t scare him. He once stayed home for five years, came back and landed in the top five on the Likud slate, despite the war Netanyahu obsessively waged against him. Plus he’s relying on Gantz to ensure that their government remains hated and dysfunctional.

4. Support for Bennett’s Yamina party was steadily rising, thus there was a concern about a point of no return.

The intelligence in the hands of Bennett and Shaked wasn’t as good as Lieberman’s. They were looking antsy on Wednesday in the Knesset. Their battle plan had focused on a single front, facing Netanyahu and Likud. Suddenly a second front opened. For a while now Bennett has been trying to have his cake and eat it, too: attacking Netanyahu but not declaring his candidacy for prime minister and not saying what he really believes: Netanyahu remaining in power is dangerous for Israel.

Advisers and associates implored him to be clear from the start, to declare his candidacy and stop boxing with Netanyahu wearing extra-soft gloves. Sa’ar did it, and within a day he battered from both Netanyahu and Bennett a respectable chunk of votes. In some opinion polls he moved ahead of Yamina, while in all of them he moved ahead of Bennett as a suitable prime minister.

One more thing. Sa’ar is a Likudnik in his blood. No other Likudnik has scaled the peaks he has scaled while taking flak from the dictator. He bit his lip, girded his loins and stuck to his goal: leadership of Likud after Netanyahu.

His political senses are sharp, so Likud’s leaders need to view this move with a lot more concern, because this act, his resignation – perhaps more than those of many top Likudniks before him – reflects the future that Sa’ar has diagnosed for the movement. And this isn’t only for the era in which Netanyahu is an ugly and murky reflection of what this party once was.   

Once this terrible, violent elephant leaves the cage, we'll likely see a splintered party with wars between mediocre hopeful successors on the way to political destruction. It will be destruction upon which everyone outside Likud, both on the right and the left, will gleefully feed.

Gideon Levy, a de facto Bibi-ist

My Haaretz colleague Gideon Levy is concerned – not about a corrupt leader, inciter, liar and anti-democrat who’s leading society to destruction. Nor is he worried in the only context that interests him – Bibi as someone who has thrown the conversation with the Palestinians in the garbage, making them more despairing and weaker than ever.

No, Levy is worried because Israel is “stricken with hatred for Netanyahu,” as he wrote in an op-ed Thursday. He also linked me to this diagnosis, someone he believes takes an excessively “positive” view of politicians like Sa’ar and Likud's Gilad Erdan, or Bennett, only because they come out against Netanyahu. Time after time, Levy bewails the resentment toward his admired leader – of course, while he barrages with hatred anyone who isn’t Netanyahu.

For several years now the icon of the left has become a de facto Bibi-ist, a hallucinatory process, but not imaginary. After all, the political extremism he represents encounters with veiled eyes the extremism that is Netanyahu. Extremes sometimes meet, as is well known. Here, the meeting leads to a binational state, the very nightmare to which both Levy and Bibi are leading: the former as an aspiration, the latter in action.

Levy is the only person who has supported with the same enthusiasm both Netanyahu and a party empathetic toward terror like the Joint List's Balad. He has declared that between Gantz or Lapid and Netanyahu he would vote for the latter without hesitation. He heaps masses of praise on Bibi; for example, on his avoidance of war. (Levy has forgotten how defense officials have been restraining Netanyahu’s caprices for 24 years now, from the Khaled Meshal assassination attempt to an attack on Iran.)

If anyone is stricken with hatred, it’s Levy – for the left, for the defense establishment, for the justice system. Maybe this is what makes Levy admire Netanyahu so much, despite everything he knows about him. There’s a certain congruence between them; both are agents of chaos, enmity and divisiveness. As far as Levy is concerned, Netanyahu can set Israel on fire, whether symbolically, in terms of values – or even in deed.

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