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Netanyahu's Government Begins to Unravel Over Bill to Legalize West Bank Outposts

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Illustration: Bennett in the role of the dj making a club full of politicians dance to his tune.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman

Forty families living in the heart of the West Bank in mobile homes fraudulently set up on Palestinian-owned land, and a modest new public broadcasting corporation that hasn’t aired even a single show, are driving the government coalition and its leader up the wall. The Justice Ministry – from the attorney general on down – along with ranking officials in the Defense Ministry, are toiling 24/7 to come up with a legal formulation that will allow the outpost of Amona to be moved intact to a nearby hilltop. Anything to keep the offenders happy.

In the recent fires, 120 families lost the homes they built or bought legally. Hundreds of people are wandering between hotels and other family members, while they wait for compensation. They face years of exhausting battles against the bureaucracy. Too bad they didn’t live in Amona. The security cabinet did not meet twice, for hours, this week to discuss possible housing solutions for the victims of last week’s fires. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leaving that issue to the relevant ministries, headed by the treasury, as is the practice in a normal country.

But “normal” is the last word you’d use for Netanyahu when it comes to a few dozen families who knowingly violated the law and settled on privately owned Palestinian land. He was willing to devote most of his time this week to them. To the point where he didn’t have time to bite into the apple of his eye, the public broadcasting entity.

In the meantime, the cost of housing continues to spiral upward – a 9-percent rise, on average, during the past year. In high-demand areas, the price of a new home skyrocketed by 14 to 17 percent. The figures were reported this week by the Property Appraisers Association. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon claims that at some point, the prices will level out and then fall, but for now it looks as though the sky’s the limit.

The PAA report reflects a sad situation, one that is a source of depression for hundreds of thousands of families in Israel, whose dream of owning their own home is fading fast. In the summer of 2011, half a million people took to the streets and demanded action on this and other issues. This week, more than five years later, there’s still nothing to show for it. The worrisome data didn’t even create a ripple, however, in the government or Knesset. Since the start of the parliament’s winter session, the political arena has been preoccupied with two issues: settlements and media, media and settlements.

The Amona madness and the disgraceful saga of the bill that would legalize illegal outposts vividly illustrate the systemic collapse, moral deterioration and loss of a proper statesmanlike approach on the part of Netanyahu, his government and his Knesset faction.

There isn’t the slightest resemblance between Netanyahu as he was at the start of his successive terms as prime minister, and what we’re seeing now. In 2009, he froze construction in the territories so as to assist the negotiations with the Palestinians. The settlers merely protested. The years that followed saw the evacuation of outposts and random structures in Migron, Beit El and elsewhere. The evacuations passed relatively quietly. Rulings of the High Court of Justice were honored, and without tricks and base attempts to circumvent, postpone and fudge them. There was an aura of respect in the corridors of power.

In the past few years, the power of the settler lobby has grown enormously. But it's not the voice of the Yesha Council of settlements that is being heard. The Amona people and a few extremist, messianic rabbis are twisting this government around their little finger. They’re managing the government the way the local sheriffs in Hebron managed the scene of the incident in March, during which Elor Azaria shot an incapacitated and dying terrorist (as revealed this week in Channel 2’s “Fact” program).

The Likud Knesset faction underwent a total face-lift in the government that came to power in 2015. Almost all its MKs are far right, clones of their colleagues in Habayit Hayehudi. Anyone who espouses a different approach is afraid to come out of the closet for fear of the voters’ revenge the next time there’s a primary. And as for Netanyahu – can anyone imagine him freezing construction in the settlements today? He warns against legislation that he fears will lead to his facing the International Court of Justice in The Hague – and yet votes in favor of the same legislation in a preliminary vote in the Knesset. Looking to the right, the premier sees Naftali Bennett rising in the polls, and his knees grow wobbly.

The whole circus surrounding Amona and the settlement-legalization bill derives from petty politics played by petty politicians who are squabbling over a few seats in the right-wing constituency. Moshe Feiglin is no longer in Likud, but the evil spirit of the former MK has seized control of the party’s parliamentary faction. The blogger Shimon Riklin, whose name has become synonymous with raucousness, hucksterism and provocation, is also popular in Likud. Last week, Netanyahu himself shared a post from Riklin on his Facebook page. So much for Netanyahu’s rants against “bloggers.”

Benny Begin, October 2016.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

Other than MK Benny Begin, there are no temperate, sane people in the Likud Knesset faction for whom the rule of law is a sacrosanct principle, rather than a hollow phrase. Bennett believes that it’s up to Netanyahu to wield his influence over Begin, to ensure that he absents himself or abstains in the vote on the “formalization bill,” if it takes place, because his vote could tip the balance. Certainly as long as Kahlon continues to insist that his Kulanu party will not vote for the bill, which contains a clause bypassing a High Court of Justice ruling about Amona.

Bennett shouldn’t count on that. The whole purpose of Begin’s being in the Knesset is to prevent passage of the sordid legislation, which he has termed, and rightly so, the “plunder law.” With his vote Begin would erase the shame of his very presence in this Likud Knesset faction.

He knows it, Netanyahu knows it, and his supporters in Likud also know it. That’s the reason that they began a smear campaign against Begin on Thursday via a Whatsapp group (in the “sender” rubric, it said Likud, in English), reaching party members ranging from field activists to central committee members, to MKs and ministers. It began with the message that, “Benny Begin has two standards of morality! One for Jews, and another for settlers. One for Bedouin, and another for settlers.”

Comfort zone

Last Saturday night, Education Minister Naftali Bennett got a phone call from the Justice Ministry asking him to come to a hotel in Ramat Gan for an urgent meeting with senior officials from the legal establishment. He was met there by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and three top Justice Ministry lawyers. They explained their objections to the legislation that calls for legalizing settlements, particularly its potential for harming Israel in the international arena. When they finished, Bennett had a question and a comment: “Have you said all this to Netanyahu? He supports the bill. He voted for it.”

The next day, Netanyahu convened the security cabinet for a six-hour discussion on the topic. With sensitive issues he prefers this relatively small forum, which is also less right-wing than the full cabinet. He also likes to wrap purely political topics in a quasi-security cloak. “Some ‘security cabinet meeting,’” one of the ministers related. “Suddenly we discover [Likud MK] David Bitan and Minister Yariv Levin, who is not a member of the cabinet or even an observer, but he and Bitan serve as the political and coalition arms of the prime minister.”

“I am not married to the legalization law,” Bennett said at the meeting. “I am looking for solutions – tactically for Amona, and strategically for all the housing units that are in a similar situation. Bring me solutions and I’ll forgo the legislation.”

Kahlon declared that he could not vote for a bill that contains a clause that would defy the Supreme Court and abase its justices.

Habayit Hayehudi chairman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“Whoever doesn’t vote for the law tomorrow, including the Amona clause, is unraveling the coalition,” Bennett warned.

Netanyahu reiterated that passage of the law was liable to result in “senior Israelis” being hauled before the court in The Hague.

“For the past four years, since I entered politics, people have been frightening me with The Hague,” Bennett said. “Whenever I want to build a house, the whip of The Hague is dangled before me.”

The attorney general enumerated several options, both strategic and referring to Amona specifically. Bennett was pleased with all the excitement. “Mr. Prime Minister, I am totally in favor of the solutions being proposed here. Carry them out, implement them,” he urged Netanyahu. “I’ve been asking you to for half a year to move on them.”

That’s probably accurate. Bennett has badgered Netanyahu to deal with Amona before the deadline set by the High Court for its evacuation, Dec. 15, 2016. Indeed, that date is marked on Netanyahu’s calendar. The date of the U.S. presidential election was not a military secret, nor is the date when President Barack Obama will leave the White House. The scenario in which Obama, in the interim between Election Day and inauguration day, orders his UN ambassador not to veto a resolution from the French or someone else in the Security Council on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has featured regularly in the prime minister’s nightmares for a long time. Yet he did nothing.

He has no problem understanding situations – he’s one of the most intelligent understanders we have. The problem is in implementation. Chronic postponement is part of his makeup. And then there are the fears, real and imagined, and the sharp rightward turn, what Ehud Barak – who in his dotage has become the chief ideologue of the left and the most articulate exponent of its viewpoint – this week called “the nationalist dybbuk of Netanyahu and the right wing.”

The security cabinet reconvened Wednesday morning, just hours before the full Knesset was scheduled to vote on the settlement-legalization bill. Contrary to what Bennett had thought, Kahlon reasserted that the 10 Kulanu MKs would not vote for it in its present incarnation. “In that case, I consider myself to be free of coalition obligations,” Bennett retorted.

What did Netanyahu do? He did not demonstrate leadership. He went to his comfort zone: postponement; just as the vote had been deferred to Wednesday, it was again put off – this time until next Monday.

Until then, a lot of people will be working hard, among them legal experts, officials from the Defense Ministry and ministers Levin and Zeev Elkin, along with Bitan and others, of course, to avert an explosion.

“The coalition is starting to unravel,” Netanyahu said to a certain individual on Wednesday, after he’d spent a few hours in the Knesset and seen the chaos first-hand. But the fact is that no one in the coalition wants an early election. Kahlon, Bennett, Arye Dery, Yaakov Litzman, Moshe Gafni – everyone is satisfied with the way things are, all in all. But if there is something that could topple this government prematurely, it’s a lack of leadership, and the prime minister’s loss of eye contact with his country’s political and diplomatic interests.

Sara Netanyahu at the Jerusalem Regional Labor Court in 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

Stormy weather

We were promised a storm, and we got one. On Thursday, Sara Netanyahu was called in for another police interrogation about the affair involving the prime minister’s residences. At the same time, it was announced that Gil Sheffer, who was chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Bureau between 2010 and 2014, was also under investigation, in his case, on suspicion of unrelated sexual-harassment offenses. But Sheffer is the person who was closest to the Lady, and who, during his tenure in that position, was busy tending to her demands, complaints and personal proclivities, from dawn to dusk.

This correspondent would not presume to guess what Sheffer might have said during his interrogation, or to what extent he shared his extensive body of knowledge with his interlocutors, but one thing is clear: He is not going to throw himself on the fence for the Netanyahu family, and he has his reasons for this.

The Mrs. was set to be questioned on Thursday regarding “new information” in the hands of the police, which, you may remember, was supposed to have finished its investigation into the household matters about a half year ago with a recommendation to put Sara Netanyahu on trial. It is possible that the source of the new information is the testimony of Sheffer, or perhaps it came from Meni Naftali, former manager of the Prime Minister’s Residence, or perhaps both men, and maybe other keepers of court secrets.

The supplementary questioning of Sara may well be evidence of what newspapers once described as “the noose is tightening.”

In an unrelated and entirely coincidental – or perhaps not – development, on Wednesday, the Facebook page of Sara’s husband carried a lengthy post that lashed out at “central figures in the left and in the media,” who were accused of political persecution of the premier, and of waging an “all-out personal war” against both him and his family. Just like that, out of the blue skies (which a day later became cloudy), and without any obvious basis for the charge. Twenty-four hours later, however, the basis emerged: Sara.

When Netanyahu wrote his post, he must have known that the police had been in touch. With no other recourse, he did what he does best: accused “the left” and “the media” of a plan to bury him politically. One can only imagine what his response will be when it becomes clear to him that the incriminating information was supplied to the police by several people who were among his trusted aides over a period of years.

Gil Sheffer joins a long list of “graduates” of Netanyahu’s bureau and the PMO who ended up in the police interrogation chambers: former chiefs of staff Natan Eshel and Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s former parliamentary adviser Perach Lerner, the former deputy director general of the PMO Ezra Saidoff, and former deputy head of the National Security Council, Avriel Bar-Yosef. Each man and his own scandals, each man and his own imbroglios – each man to his own fate.

The French connection

Just as the chirping of the wagtail bird heralds the advent of autumn in Israel, it’s worth listening to the tunes sung by coalition whip MK Bitan. In some cases they’re meaningless, but there are times when the ideas that Bitan floats reflect the frame of mind that prevails behind the double doors of the “aquarium,” aka the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

“Sometimes David helps me a bit more than necessary,” Netanyahu once complained, in the period when he was denying any connection between him and the Bitan-sponsored bill to shut down the new public broadcasting corporation. He should have added, “But not when I ask him to help me.”

The ears of some politicians pricked up this week when Bitan announced, at a conference of the Israel Bar Association, that he intends to sponsor legislation that would prohibit police investigations of a serving prime minister. Bitan will undoubtedly claim that he never discussed this with Netanyahu, that it’s his private initiative. Just like the broadcasting corporation. But it’s worth recalling the 2009 election, when Netanyahu regained power after the resignation of Ehud Olmert, politically and publicly battered and humiliated by a flood of police investigations. Netanyahu grasped then that all that would be remembered of Olmert’s tenure as prime minister was the highly problematic Second Lebanon War – and nonstop investigations.

Between the election and the formation of the second Netanyahu government, the so-called “French law,” which protects the president of the Republic from investigations, was very much on Netanyahu’s mind. In fact, he obsessed about it, people who were then in his close circle said this week. He wanted to pass the law in some form at the very start of his government’s tenure, but it didn’t work out.

Seven-plus years on, Bitan, with his telepathic powers, who knows what the prime minister will be thinking in two months’ time, announces that he’s on it. On the French law. What can we glean from this? That this issue is preoccupying the Balfour St. residence today.

But, someone might say, even if the law passes, it will not be retroactive: the current investigations of Netanyahu will not be halted. And he’s no altruist; he would not push through a controversial law that will benefit only his successors.

Formally, the legislation being mooted would not be able to extricate Netanyahu from his troubles. But if it does pass, the general atmosphere might change. The zeitgeist, the discourse, will be transformed. In a possible, albeit completely theoretical situation in which a decision is made to indict the premier, there will be those who will call for a halt to the proceedings, because, after all, there’s a law on the books prohibiting investigations of a prime minister. A public debate will ensue, various elements will be cited, some will allege persecution and political annihilation. Anyway, legislation won’t hurt.

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