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The High Court Allowed Israel’s Most Demented Government Ever. Now It Will Get Uglier

Eleven justices unanimously agreed that the explosive political issues are within the court’s jurisdiction, and Netanyahu's base is as inflamed as ever

Yossi Verter
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Israel's warped coalition government, May 2020.
Israel's warped coalition government, May 2020.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter

After about 17 months of political crisis, government paralysis, three general elections and one pandemic that wrecked the economy, the Netanyahu-Gantz cabinet will be sworn in Wednesday at the Knesset.

The nightmare that began in December 2018 will come to an end, at least in its current form. As long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t regret the arrangement over the weekend, which he’ll be spending at home with his wife and elder son. Sometimes a nuclear family is more like a nuclear disaster.

The swearing-in will take longer than usual, both due to the emergency regulations and the surfeit of ministers, some of whom won’t have any idea what they’ll be doing in the cabinet. If the event could have a soundtrack it would probably be a requiem – a mass for the democratic rules of the game that somehow survived here for 72 years.

Eleven High Court justices unanimously legitimized the strangest, most warped governing coalition ever engineered in a political laboratory. We’ll never know if the gun pointed at their heads – the threat of a fourth election – affected their judgment. Still, they left a few explosive charges scattered along the new government’s path.

Take the Judicial Appointments Committee, which Netanyahu attributes great importance to, probably too much. The judges all but say that when the committee is formed without anyone from the opposition, as Netanyau demands in the coalition agreement, they’ll consider this detrimental to the opposition’s standing; in other words, they’ll probably strike the measure down.

Netanyahu’s insistence on excluding the opposition from the committee is perplexing. It’s said he wants to take revenge on Shai Nitzan, the former state prosecutor, who headed the legal battle that produced Netanyahu’s corruption indictments. Or that he wants to make sure that right-wing judges are appointed who will probably have mercy on him when he appeals his possible conviction in district court.

The first day of High Court hearings on the Netanyahu-Gantz governing coalition, May 3, 2020.
The first day of High Court hearings on the Netanyahu-Gantz governing coalition, May 3, 2020.Credit: Yossi Zamir

His obsession with Nitzan is well known. Maybe all he wants is to thwart Nitzan’s appointment to the Supreme Court. The other argument, however, is irrelevant. The appeal against his possible sentence, in two or three years, will be heard by the more senior justices. The candidates appointed over the next four years won’t be part of this panel even if the verdict is delayed.

So the logical conclusion is that Netanyahu chose the issue of the Judicial Appointments Committee as a political hand grenade, and he’s holding the pin. If the High Court of Justice struck down the clause on the committee now, Netanyahu would have blown up the coalition agreement with Kahol Lavan and dragged Israel into another general election. The pretext would have been that the “deep state,” lurking in the Supreme Court, was disobeying the nation that voted him “a majority” – a lie that Bibi likes to repeat.

How will he act if his version of the committee is struck down in a month, after the government has been formed? He won’t push for another election – that’s going too far even by his standards.

But what about the legislation that would deny the High Court the power to intervene in Knesset legislation? That’s a simple solution. Netanyahu has a sure majority in the Knesset for that, even without most Kahol Lavan members. Suffice it for Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, his pair of saviors and collaborators, to vote in favor and then, presto, the bill bypassing the court – the bill that’s the court-hating right’s dearest wish – is passed

One last word on the High Court. Apart from its erudite performance witnessed by hundreds of thousands of Israelis on TV this week, the residents of the Prime Minister’s Residence realized that sometimes their conspiracies pay dividends.

Former State Prosecutor at his farewell ceremony, December 2020.
Former State Prosecutor at his farewell ceremony, December 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

They're reminded of previous incidents; for example, the kippa-wearing attorney general from a right-wing family, or the kippa-wearing police commissioner. Avichai Mendelblit and Roni Alsheich were loyal first to their duty, responsibility and the state’s institutions. What we saw at the High Court is the latest example.

Eleven justices unanimously agreed that the explosive issues are within the court’s jurisdiction and worthy of debate. They warned against a weakening of the opposition’s status – yes, even judges like David Mintz and Noam Sohlberg, both settlers and kippa wearers on whom court-bashing rightist politicians were relying.

Even people on the left admit that considering the alternative – another election or the narrow, right-wing, ultra-Orthodox government that Netanyahu might have mustered – the current option is preferable.

The role of Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi, Chili Tropper, Avi Nissenkorn and other Kahol Lavan ministers will be mainly to moderate things, dilute things, sometimes block things. At the start, the various veto mechanisms created by the lawyers will have a mitigating effect.

But as the days go by and the pandemic atmosphere ebbs, the inevitable problems and glitches will develop. It will be like the ones that plagued the unity governments in 1984 and 1988; conflicts, mistrust and scheming were their daily bread. But most of the time they stuck to the ground rules.

Still, acute ideological differences endure, a toxic political atmosphere that could blow up any day, mainly over the prime minister’s legal battle. And Bibi’s Likud party is a Bibi-worshipping Likud, and some of its potential ministers are embittered by being left with nothing after the distribution of the spoils. So it’s hard to expect the same rules of the game or common decency. This game is going to be emotional, ugly and uninhibited.

Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi on election night, March 2, 2020.
Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi on election night, March 2, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

The mating game

Around 100,000 Likud members received a message on their cellphones this week, referring them to a newspaper story about a harsh state comptroller report on the Foreign Ministry. The message included a summary: “The comptroller concludes: Yisrael Katz failed in the Foreign Ministry! ... Katz can’t control the mess! Katz destroyed the Foreign Ministry and we can’t let him destroy Israel’s economy and put our livelihoods at risk!”

On the eve of forming a government, who’s besmirching the likely next finance minister? Maybe someone who wants the post for himself. We know of only one person who has a public commitment from the prime minister for the job – a commitment that as soon as it was uttered was worth less than a Kinder egg on a hot tin roof. This person is the huge ego called Nir Barkat.

By the way, the text message was sent an hour after Katz invited Likud members to hit a hyperlink that would give them “vital information” from the “designated finance minister.” It was the first time Katz had used that title, which raised suspicions that the attack on him was an appropriate Zionist response for stealing the virtual title from someone else. Barkat’s people denied any connection.

Barkat may soon join the club of top Likudniks who will be downgraded to inconsequential portfolios, and even a rotation or no portfolio: Yuli Edelstein, Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa’ar, Yoav Gallant, Tzipi Hotoveli, Tzachi Hanegbi, Avi Dichter, David Amsalem. Some of them have long political and ministerial experience and made the top 10 in the party primary, far ahead of Justice Minister Amir Ohana at No. 21. But as far as the two who call the shots are concerned, he’s number one.

Senior Likud members know from experience that Netanyahu’s standard dish will be slop. They’ll eat the government leftovers and say thank you. Power struggles against Netanyahu have proved pointless since 2015.

Netanyahu met with Edelstein on Wednesday, a rare meeting when every senior Likudnik is begging for five minutes with the boss and is denied. Netanyahu wants to end the portfolio negotiations with Kahol Lavan and close a degrading deal with Yamina to his right. Only then will he have time for the portfolio-starved members of his party.

A protest against then-Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, March 2020.
A protest against then-Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, March 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

He has ambassador jobs to hand out for the United Nations, London, Paris and Canberra; this last one was required to seduce Likud’s Sharren Haskel, who lived in Australia for six years. Haskel supports Bibi nemesis Sa’ar, whose loyalists Netanyahu still wants to weed out as much as possible. Hotovely and Ofir Akunis are likely UN candidates.

One way or another, many will remain disappointed. Edelstein, Katz, Erdan, Sa’ar and Regev are the first five on the ticket. The people in slots two and five are assured of a portfolio; slots one, three and four are on shaky ground. Never in a Netanyahu government has anyone in the top five not served as a minister.

Barkat will make do with an economic portfolio, maybe energy and water. Edelstein will expect a reward befitting his status – education, health or some senior portfolio tailored especially for him, with a promise of the Foreign Ministry in the second half of the three-year term. The courting game between the leader and his people is like those female praying mantises that eat the male’s head.

Back to Ohana. According to the wind blowing in the Balfour residence, he has overtaken Miri Regev in the race for the Public Security Ministry. If so, it’s because of his impressive record at the Justice Ministry; that is, appointing Dan Eldad acting state prosecutor.

Eldad delivered the goods twice. Just before the election he brought up Fifth Dimension – a defunct spyware-tracking company where Gantz was once chairman – with no apparent justification. Then, just before leaving office, he disinterred the long-buried Harpaz affair and reignited the conspiracy theory that had been debunked by the police, state prosecution and Supreme Court that Mendelblit played a role in the affair.

Netanyahu must have felt a twinge of envy. He had appointed Alsheich police commissioner, Nitzan state prosecutor and Mendelblit attorney general. The way he sees it, they all betrayed him; that is, they didn’t reward him by burying the mountains of evidence.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaking at an accountants' conference, Jerusalem, March 2, 2020.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaking at an accountants' conference, Jerusalem, March 2, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In contrast, young Ohana succeeded where the master failed. Eldad took a routine question from a journalist and turned it into a lethal weapon, ostensibly to show that the legal system was corrupt, closed, persecuting people and whitewashing misdeeds. With this achievement, Ohana is the candidate to head the ministry in charge of the investigators, in whose drawers new evidence on Netanyahu has accumulated.

The incoming prime minister and his family expect Ohana to repeat the success and even outdo it in his new job. If he succeeds, the sky’s the limit. Maybe they’ll adopt him as another son. If he fails, he’ll be marked a traitor and a leftist, a deep state man. His head will be chopped off if he dares go near the residence.

Hatred à la Hamas

Like a landowner who sics his dogs on any intruder, real or imaginary, Netanyahu sent his mercenaries this week to threaten the High Court justices who heard the petitions against him and the coalition agreement. After two days of hearings, the order came from the supreme commander to launch a second assault wave, this time against Mendelblit, the attorney general.

The attack is raging right now, managed by journalists with a vested interest, politicians – Amsalem is the most vociferous, it’s natural to him – and the Bibi-worshippers on social media. The whole thing is orchestrated by the favorite son from the residence on Balfour Street.

A week ago Yair still wondered if the High Court justices were part of the mythological Illuminati, then he launched a series of deranged tweets against the attorney general replete with the usual filth of his handiwork.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, right, at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 9, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, right, at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 9, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

The target was Mendelblit once he announced he would serve as acting state prosecutor after the High Court temporarily barred extending the term of the acting prosecutor, Dan Eldad. The residents of the prime minister’s residence found this defeat hard to swallow; they expected Eldad’s term to be extended so that he could continue to serve the man who appointed him. They wanted him to continue harassing the attorney general as he prepares his people for Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Even Mendelblit’s opinion to the High Court, saying the petitions against the coalition government should be denied, didn’t appease the inflamed base.

Social media serves as a sewer for all the Bibi-worshippers’ hatred. One video, it’s not clear from whom, shows a traditional funeral in Africa. The faces of the attorney general, former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, Supreme Court justices, leftist politicians and journalists are transposed into the funeral scene. The clip ends with cheerful music as Mendelblit is lowered into the grave.

It was like those Hamas propaganda clips that showed the bleeding bodies of Zionist soldiers and burned Israeli flags. The new works of art are being put together on mysterious computers; they’re passed on to the relevant WhatsApp groups and from there on to social media.

This is war, and it’s escalating with no interference. Who will interfere? Kahol Lavan? Soon the leaders of this party will be deep in the affairs of their ministries. Later they’ll discover that they’ve turned into collaborators with a prime minister corrupt to the core. They’ll console themselves with the comforts and perks of power, with their “conciliation cabinet.”

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