Analysis

Netanyahu and Gantz Are Already Campaigning, and Israel Slides Into Election No. 4 on Autopilot

The prime minister will bang on about the horrible protesters, the imagined violence, the ‘anarchists,’ the wider left and the ‘mobilized’ media

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Even though it’s customary to moan about the way Knesset members err in representing the people, the legislature now seems to be reflecting the public’s mood correctly. Bills get struck down, debates heat up and the opposition trolls the coalition from both right and left.

The major parties in the governing coalition loathe one another and, certainly in such a time of emergency, were expected to work seriously and join forces. How naive that expectation was.

The Knesset looks like the internet – a seething house divided. On Wednesday everybody fought with everybody. Above them hovered a number of bills, all reflecting political instability and a lack of trust.

The legislation called for the right for the Knesset to override the Supreme Court, as well as commissions of inquiry into both the submarine case and alleged political motives in the police. Meanwhile, 40 signatures were collected to hold a debate on the “social collapse.”

This debate, in which the shouting threatened to shatter the protective glass above the Knesset hall, wasn’t attended by Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. Benjamin Netanyahu’s main partners in his unity government agree with every word the opposition said about the prime minister. He, as usual, shot “you’re boring me” looks at the speakers the few times he raised his head from the papers in front of him.

There’s no information on any serious discussions taking place on a compromise on that elusive 2020 budget. If talks are going on, they’re being held in such secrecy that even key players are unaware of them. If anything, there are signs that Netanyahu is trying to form a new government of only 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, as indicated by the denials of immediate suspects like former Netanyahu aides Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser.

But the national denouncer on the right, Naftali Bennett – and the new star in the polls – has no intention of granting Netanyahu the required votes, even if Bibi does find two defectors who can give him a narrow government.

Some see other signs, like the dismissal that was never carried out: removing Yifat Shasha-Biton as head of the coronavirus committee. If we’re heading for an election, it would be unwise to harm a national hero. After all, support rallies are being held outside her house, unlike the stormy protests outside the prime minister’s residence calling for Netanyahu to resign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Knesset, August 5, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the Knesset, August 5, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

The state is now gliding on automatic pilot to an election, to be scheduled immediately if the budget law isn’t passed by August 24. Netanyahu is already there, as seen in his Knesset speech this week and on his tour of businesses in Ramle, where he pulled out a 200-shekel ($59) bill at a steak house. Based on experience, we can assume the bill was pushed into his hand by an associate and is unlikely ever to be returned.

Gantz's Kahol Lavan, meanwhile, launched an online campaign listing its accomplishments. Some of them give the finger to Kahol Lavan's partner in government, like “passing the law banning ‘conversion therapy’” and “preventing an annexation.” Too late, and probably too little.

“What will you do if an election is called on August 25?” I asked a senior figure in Kahol Lavan. Will the party resign immediately, try to revive its status as an alternative in the opposition, or stay put and conduct a campaign from the coalition?

We didn’t think of that, he said. We’ll do what’s good for the country.

That means they’ll stay where they are so that the Bibi-ists don’t take over their ministries, mainly the Justice Ministry, to destroy them. Mind you, such a scenario would demonstrate Kahol Lavan’s contribution to the country, after it betrayed its voters after the last election.

Apart from the pressure on Netanyahu from within and his desire to be in a good political position before the evidence stage of his corruption trial – a bad situation for the rest of us – another reason for his seeking an election was revealed this week. A one-year budget, which has become a sad joke, will let him continue giving the public carrots for two or three months.

Netanyahu hinted at his intention to scatter more money on his subjects ahead of the fall Jewish holidays (instead of economic plans to pull us out of the health and economic crises). A budget that includes 2021, as Finance Minister Yisrael Katz has reiterated, will be a budget of cutbacks. Without drastic slashing and new taxes, Israel won’t be able to stop the fiscal firestorm.

Netanyahu doesn’t want an election in March with such a budget, which would pour more oil on the bonfire of rage. It’s either an economic crash or a crash at the polls.

The head of the Knesset coronavirus committee, Likud's Yifat Shasha-Biton, July 2020.
The head of the Knesset coronavirus committee, Likud's Yifat Shasha-Biton, July 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Unhappy house

His face gray and sullen, his jacket buttons struggling to contain the weight gain, the sun beating on his swollen eyes, the prime minister stood at the entrance to Home Front Command's headquarters in Ramle. The reporters asked him about his toxic son’s latest emission in which Yair called the protesters against his father “aliens.”

“These are political demonstrations, leftist demonstrations, it’s completely clear,” Netanyahu said, distorting his face. “There are strange things there ... even surreal. I think that’s what my son meant.”

What can we say, he has suddenly become a severe critic. Perfectly nice protesters, totally harmless, a few of whom attract attention with disguises, colorful costumes or various accessories, fall afoul of his refined taste. In the ‘90s, when Netanyahu led processions with a coffin and a noose, or when he gave speeches at rallies where right-wing activists with knives slashed doctored pictures of a prime minister in an SS uniform, he showed less sensitivity.

Balloons in the form of erect penises with the phrase “let’s go Sara’le, we’re leaving” really are repulsive. Demonstrators who wave them serve the narrative of the house on Balfour Street. In general, we have to admit that the protesters aren’t doing him any damage. In fact, they’re the only ammunition he has.

All we have to do is look at his speeches, including the one in the Knesset Wednesday, his tweets and the statements “by Likud,” which are actually issued by Balfour Street. They portend his strategy for the next election, God help us.

He’ll bang on about the horrible protesters, even though he says they represent “hardly a quarter of a Knesset seat.” He’ll carry on about the imagined violence, the “anarchists,” “Yair Lapid and Ayman Odeh,” the wider left and the “mobilized” media.

There’s no slime, lie or libel that he wouldn’t throw into the bonfire – as long as we don’t talk about his monumental failure in handling the pandemic, his “uneducated” decisions, as new coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu put it, or about the economic disaster than has fallen on millions of Israelis.

Protesters at Jerusalem's Paris Square near the prime minister's residence, August 2020.
Protesters at Jerusalem's Paris Square near the prime minister's residence, August 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Now of all times, when a leader is expected to stir hope and show empathy for the people, Netanyahu’s preoccupation with himself and his family is breaking records of obtuseness and narcissism. The Netanyahu family is sucking up all the attention and wants more.

We saw it in an “interview” he gave a fellow-traveling TV channel in which he complained of harassment of his wife, who’s actually a mean-spirited, offensive creature, according to court decisions. Again and again he asked us to sympathize with his family’s hardships – as usual blind to the millions of people collapsing under the coronavirus crisis.

“Why are the women’s organizations quiet about the harm done to my wife?” complained the national moaner. Not a word about single mothers who don’t have money to buy food for their children, about women whose small businesses have collapsed, about hundreds of thousands of unemployed women living from hand to mouth. His wife is the one who needs protection – from pink balloons.

The picture he paints isn’t completely wrong. The family really is falling apart. The son, once was described by Bibi as his wisest adviser, is dragging his father into the most radical of realms. The rest of the time he’s a never-ending source of embarrassment. The wife, aiming to “refute rumors,” put out an embarrassing, crudely edited video that actually corroborated rumors.

Maybe the protesters are sending the family into a tizzy. Maybe it’s the trial, whose schedule has been set. Maybe it’s the fear of the election results.

On Wednesday, when opposition leader Lapid spoke in the Knesset and Netanyahu was forced to listen because of the debate format, something flustered him: Lapid’s description of Netanyahu one day leaving Balfour Street for good.

“The electric gate will rise, the first Audi, then another Audi with security guards, then the truck with the personal effects, and then the gate closes,” Lapid said.

The Likud leader shifted uneasily in his seat, took his mask off and drank some water. It’s frightening to think what went through his mind.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaking at the Knesset, August 5, 2020.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaking at the Knesset, August 5, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman

Bibas as Bibi’s silent partner

The news site 0404, which is fed largely by the Netanyahus’ talking points or an attack on anything that smells sane, liberal and democratic, got a sensational scoop this week.

Haim Bibas, the chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities and mayor of Modi’in-Maccabim Reut, may form a new party and “run for prime minister.” It sounded so groundless it clearly held a grain of truth.

I asked Bibas, an old associate of Netanyahu, about it. “There isn’t an election now nor will there be, so the issue is irrelevant,” he wrote back, adding emotional words about the need to revive the economy and help the unemployed.

I couldn’t detect a denial, so it warranted some research. Netanyahu apparently wants to set up a shell party focusing on social issues to run in the next election.

It will portray itself as a center party, neither right nor left. It will field people from the battered self-employed and others associated with social activism and campaigns for the unemployed. Maybe it will also feature local government heads who have run on independent slates, and maybe, it's hoped at the Balfour Street residence, it will have somebody like Shasha-Biton.

According to the plan, which the sources say is backed by preliminary polls, this slate could steal one to one and a half Knesset seats from Likud. But most of its votes would come from voters who have despaired of Kahol Lavan. In the right atmosphere, the party’s potential is five or six Knesset seats; these legislators would swear allegiance to Netanyahu immediately after the election. They would give Netanyahu the majority to form a government.

Until recently, the electoral messiah’s donkey that was supposed to win it for Netanyahu was Abir Kara, who founded a group that advocates for the self-employed and small businesses. A series of reports (including by yours truly) exposed his hidden intentions, nipping his theoretical chances in the bud. But the need still exists, so Bibas’ name cropped up.

Haim Bibas, head of the Federation of Local Authorities, November 2019.
Haim Bibas, head of the Federation of Local Authorities, November 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

The race to Lebanon

The horrific explosion at Beirut’s port occurred at 6:22 P.M. on Tuesday. After the world – and Israel – ingested the disaster’s dimensions, the Defense Ministry started planning aid options.

The first thought was to set up a field hospital at Rosh Hanikra near the Lebanese border, based on Israel’s treating of wounded people from across the border during the Syrian civil war.

An official who wanted to speed up the process called the National Security Council at the Prime Minister’s Office and asked for an opinion. The officials there had no idea. Nobody had spoken to them. Nobody had given any instructions.

Meanwhile, the defense and foreign affairs ministers, Gantz and Ashkenazi, talked and then tweeted that, at their instruction, Israel had approached Lebanon via international officials and offered medical assistance.

The tweet came out at 10:21 P.M. A minute later President Reuven Rivlin retweeted it. Sixteen minutes later he tweeted a statement expressing his sorrow and offered assistance in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

Rivlin’s three-language tweet was quoted in almost every media outlet around the world. But during all those hours, the fastest tweeter on earth, famous for snatching credit from his colleagues, kept silent.

Only at 10:54 P.M. a sign of life emerged from the Prime Minister’s Office. As the pathetic English-language statement put it: “Pursuant to his approval of humanitarian and medical assistance to Lebanon, Prime Minister Netanyahu has instructed NSC head Ben-Shabbat to speak with UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Mladenov in order to clarify how Israel can further assist Lebanon.”

Tel Aviv City Hall lit up as the Lebanese flag after the Beirut port disaster, August 5, 2020.
Tel Aviv City Hall lit up as the Lebanese flag after the Beirut port disaster, August 5, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Two comments: 1. Netanyahu didn’t “approve” anything. Ashkenazi and Gantz took the initiative, while he was busy with who knows what. 2. Nickolay Mladenov is no longer the UN special coordinator for Lebanon. He was replaced by Jan Kubis.

This sloppiness was followed by an amusing display of dissonance the following day. A cacophony of screams from the prime minister’s residence took issue with the Lebanese-flag light show with which Mayor Ron Huldai had adorned Tel Aviv City Hall. This loud complaining took place as Israel’s official media accounts proudly showed a photo of the red, white and green display throughout the globe.

In with the spineless

The bleak face of Likud’s Knesset caucus this year is reflected most palpably in its recent changes. Gilad Erdan and Tzipi Hotovely are now ambassadors, so Ariel Kallner and Osnat Mark entered.

Erdan will head to the United States next week, and Hotovely to Britain two weeks later. Both are fugitives from a disaster area, not only because Israel is a red country regarding the coronavirus crisis, but mainly because Likud politics is sick and there’s no cure in sight.

An infusion of new blood is commendable in any field, but not always – and certainly not in this case, both because of the substitutes’ quality and the motives behind the move.

Erdan, one of Likud’s more respectable faces, was kicked to the UN building in New York because he fell from grace with the prime minister’s residence long ago. He was loyal and avoided clashes with the boss, but in the empire’s current standards anything short of self-abasement and canine faithfulness isn’t enough.

Instead of Erdan, who’s a popular, experienced politician, Netanyahu chose spineless creatures whose most active organ is their tongue – Miri Regev is now transportation minister and Amir Ohana has replaced Erdan as public security minister.

Tzipi Hotovely in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020.
Tzipi Hotovely in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Hotovely is a tough ideologist from Likud’s rigid right wing. Her stances on the Supreme Court are no different than those of another hardliner, Yariv Levin.

But she has limits. She chose not to take part in the notorious photograph at the Jerusalem’s District Court where defendant Netanyahu, surrounded by his supporters at the top of the party, railed at the law enforcement agencies. Erdan was also absent.

Who attended? Kallner and Mark. When the job requirements for positions in law enforcement are vulgarity and crassness – Mark and Regev were made members of the Judicial Appointments Committee, on top of Ohana as public security minister – no wonder this is what you get.

It wouldn’t have occurred to Erdan to scold the acting police commissioner and the Jerusalem police chief for the way they’ve handled the protests outside the prime minister’s residence (and “leak” the recording of the rebuke so as to appease the family that’s never satisfied).

Kallner was in Moshe Feiglin’s group when the latter was in Likud; he’s one of the wacky Temple Mount delusionists. Mark is like that Israeli woman who went ballistic when a flight attendant wouldn’t give her chocolate. We presumably won’t see either of them in the next Knesset, whenever it’s elected.

Amsalem’s antics

Once a week (at least) the Knesset-cabinet liaison, David Amsalem, takes the Knesset podium to respond to the opposition’s proposals and motions. It’s such a painful spectacle, so low, that it’s fascinating.

After all, we get a rare glimpse at the minister’s distorted way of thinking, expressed in a screaming, whining, confused stream of consciousness. Here a few phrases from last Wednesday:

Likud's David Amsalem speaking at the Knesset, July 2020.
Likud's David Amsalem speaking at the Knesset, July 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Tu B’Av, the so-called Jewish holiday of love, “should be celebrated every day, but the left doesn’t know what love is.”

“We’re the ones who have been persecuted since the state was established! Even when we’re in power!”

Nearly a decade ago Maj. Gen. Yoav Gallant, now with Likud, wasn’t appointed army chief “because of a few trees he planted near his house.”

“Case 1000 [the lavish gifts case against Netanyahu] – I don’t know if you didn’t start it; I have such a scenario in my head,” Amsalem said while gesturing toward the legislators of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.

Let me just add that Amsalem is also the minister for cyber and national digital matters. If there’s any responsibility left in Israel, a skilled internet technician should be called urgently to check if some virulent virus hasn’t taken over the haunted minister’s consciousness.

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