Analysis

Itching for a Fight, Israel's Defense Minister Pokes the ultra-Orthodox Bear

As Netanyahu pretends that it's business as usual, Defense Minister Lieberman tries to impress his electorate ahead of a possible election

Illustration: Israeli public figures in Purim costumes.
Amos Biderman

A Likud MK visited the Prime Minister’s Bureau a few weeks ago, in connection with a matter of interest to him. At one point, in a conversation with the visitor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, innocently, “The person who is liable to dismantle the coalition is [Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, over the army draft law.”

The MK was taken aback. Lieberman? He’ll tear the coalition apart and lose the defense portfolio, the apple of his eye? What guarantee would he have, in that case, of returning to the Defense Ministry?

“What you think isn’t relevant,” Netanyahu replied. “What matters is what Yvet [Lieberman’s nickname] thinks and what matters is what in his opinion will help him with his electorate. Over the draft, he can do the dismantling.” The legislation in question, of which there are two versions, would grant draft deferrals to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

For the first time, the MK noted this week, Bibi had planted in him the notion that the key to sustaining the coalition is held by the defense minister. He’s the weak link – or the strong one, depending on how you look at it.

The conversation in the Prime Minister’s Bureau took place shortly after the conclusion of the crisis surrounding the so-called supermarkets law. Lieberman had instructed MKs from his Yisrael Beiteinu party to vote against the legislation, aimed at closing supermarkets on Shabbat, and thereby almost toppled the government. Netanyahu was surprised by Lieberman’s stubbornness and refusal even to offset the absence in the Knesset plenum of a sick Shas minister by having one of his MKs absent himself.

Watching the footage of the defense minister arriving with his bodyguards at the Tiv Ta’am supermarket in Ashdod one Saturday in January, Bibi concluded that Lieberman was anticipating a general election. As the head of a party most of whose voters are from the former Soviet Union and who are also secular and do army service – a confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox parties is essential for Lieberman, Netanyahu explained.

It was enough to see the defense minister on Thursday, which was Purim, in his Defense Ministry office, dressed up as a Haredi soldier and holding a Torah scroll – no doubt, praying for the induction of United Torah Judaism leaders Yaakov Litzman (to the Sayeret Matkal commandos) and Moshe Gafni (to Shayetet 13, the naval commandos) – to grasp that Netanyahu was on the mark: Lieberman is eager for a clash with the Haredim over the army-induction law. He’s provoking them, ridiculing them.

On Wednesday night, Netanyahu and the heads of the Haredi parties decided to set up a coalition team to address the situation. It’s being led by two Likud ministers, Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin, also known as the prime minister’s firefighters.

At press time, however, the fire seemed to be burning out of control. The gaps appeared to be wide, maybe even beyond being bridged. “It’s not the Haredi MKs,” they complained in Likud, “it’s the rabbis, especially the Gur rebbe. He’s shaking up the entire political system.”

The latest complication was definitely in the spirit of Purim, a comedy of errors: The ultra-Orthodox are demanding passage of a quasi-constitutional Basic Law on Torah Study (aka the “Basic Law on draft-dodging”) before the Knesset adjourns for its spring break, because they fear that by May, the legislature will have been disbanded, in the wake of the Netanyahu investigations. That’s why they have conditioned their support for the budget, on March 15, on the passage of the draft-deferment bill next week.

The treasury minister, Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) is not willing to consider the postponement of the budget bill to May, for the same reason: The horizon is murky. Each side is saying about the other: They really want an election? Do they think it will lead to a better government than this one? And the barrel of fools rushes down river toward the cliff. Lieberman, as we said, is only pouring fuel on the fire. And Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett is just standing on the sidelines.

The question that occupied the political arena this week was: Does Netanyahu actually want an election now – that is, in the spring? Ostensibly, dismantling the coalition over the draft bill would serve all sides – the Haredim, Lieberman and Likud – considering that the latter, in light of the threat posed by MK Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, cannot allow itself to back down again vis-a-vis the religious parties, after doing so both on the supermarket law and the issue of work on railroad tracks on the Sabbath.

An early election would certainly serve Netanyahu, who is becoming increasingly mired in the quicksand of the police investigations against him. A pre-indictment election campaign is the last one he’ll ever win, at least according to the polls. Moreover, if the coalition rope frays and unravels over the draft legislation dispute, no one could charge the premier with having dragged the country into an election for his own personal interests or an ulterior motive.

On Wednesday night, I asked Tourism Minister Yariv Levin whether this isn’t a crisis whose end is already known, because until that evening Netanyahu had been observing it from the side and hadn’t even met with Litzman, Gafni or Shas leader Arye Dery.

“The prime minister definitely does not want an election,” Levin said. “If he’d wanted one, we would already be there. On the other hand, we can’t go on like this, with threats from every side.”

It’s not just a matter of the army-service law, he added. It’s also the nation-state law, which isn’t moving ahead, and it’s also the state budget. “Every other day we get a letter from Yisrael Beiteinu saying they don’t agree with this, that or the other thing.”

I asked him whether he thinks the coalition partners understand that an election is in the offing and are busy positioning themselves accordingly.

“There’s no desire for an election, but what everyone is saying to himself is that if there’s going to be one soon, it’s best to enter it in the best possible position,” Levin said.

Netanyahu at a Likud faction meeting, February 26, 2018.
Emil salman

WhatsApp-gate

Justice Minister Shaked didn’t see it coming. Certainly not from Tourism Minister Levin, a good friend of hers and her partner on the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which she heads, and someone who shares her opinions about the judicial system. She thought she would be applauded for her quick, efficient handling of the WhatsAppGate episode involving the judge and the prosecutor this week. Instead, she suffered slings and arrows.

The day after the story broke on Channel 10 – about improper communications via text messages between Judge Ronit Poznanski-Katz and Securities Authority investigator Eran Shacham-Shavit, concerning Case 4000 (the graft case involving telecom giant Bezeq) – Levin lashed out at Shaked and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut with aggressiveness that was acute even by his standards. He accused them of “a huge cover-up,” of taking part in the contamination of the judicial process, almost of conspiracy to commit a crime. This affair calls for a criminal investigation and arrest, he asserted, not just a complaint to the judicial ombudsman.

Even when it became clear, from the publication of the full exchanges of WhatsApp messages, that no real tampering with justice was involved, no conspiracy had been perpetrated against the suspects and that there was no criminality involved – Levin didn’t relent. He considered the findings of the ombudsman, retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin, merely a continuation of the cover-up. A disciplinary hearing is a joke, in Levin’s view. It will end with the judge getting a reprimand, he predicted. (He’s wrong, by the way. Shaked won’t be satisfied with any punishment less than a lengthy suspension of Poznanski-Katz or her removal as a judge.)

Netanyahu is being investigated relentlessly for matters that barely impinge on the ethical, Levin said this week privately, but two people who contaminated a judicial process, a judge and a prosecutor who behaved as though they were in the most benighted of countries – they are getting off cheap, with a disciplinary hearing. Everyone is participating in the cover-up. I esteem and respect Shaked, Levin was saying, I am a friend of hers, but in this case she has acted unconscionably.

In Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi party, the offensive by Levin – joined by Culture Minister Miri Regev (“This the Bus 300 affair of the judicial system” – referring to a cover-up of murder within the Shin Bet security service in the 1980s) and Coalition Whip MK David Amsalem (“the most serious criminal affair since the state’s establishment”) – was a two-pronged assault: The primary targets were the judicial system and the law enforcement system; the secondary target was the right-wing party of Education Minister Bennett and Shaked.

Levin, Elkin and Regev are Netanyahu’s most obedient attack dogs. They strive to sling mud and trash the judicial establishment as part of the delegitimization campaign they are conducting on behalf of the suspect in three bribery cases. The WhatsApp affair was a godsend for them, coming as it did on the eve of Netanyahu’s first interrogation in Case 4000, scheduled for Friday.

The chaos serves Netanyahu’s cause: He’s now pushing for creation of a parliamentary commission of inquiry to examine the courts and the investigatory and prosecution authorities. The setting up of such a commission would only serve to heighten the theory of conspiracy and persecution as well as strike fear in the hearts of his investigators.

The leaks from the police investigations would be “offset” by leaks originating with the Likud MKs who would belong to the investigatory panel, if it’s formed. Netanyahu’s legal status wouldn’t change: The investigations into all the cases would continue, those who turned state’s evidence would continue to sing, the evidence would continue to pile up. But it could help Bibi in terms of public opinion. That’s all that’s left now.

But that’s a lot, as could be gleaned from a spontaneous conversation between Interior Minister Dery and two Likud ministers who made a pilgrimage to Dery’s room in the Knesset to congratulate the Shas leader on his 59th birthday.

Dery, a serial suspect and interrogee himself, didn’t conceal his envy at the great “luck” that fell to Netanyahu’s lot, with publication of the WhatsApp debacle. “What great luck Bibi has, what luck,” he gushed to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (and afterward to Yariv Levin), “It’s really something!”

“Unbelievable,” Katz replied, realizing that he was facing a Knesset Channel camera and hurrying to correct himself: “Yallah, we’re all for it, no?” he asked rhetorically, adding, “I spoke on Saturday night and backed him.” That comment was aimed at viewers Bibi and Sara and all Likud members who expect the party’s ministers to be loyal to the Leader in his time of trouble. Katz has sensitive antennae.

“I backed [him], too,” Dery said, nodding his head and murmuring in frustration, “But what luck he has, what luck”

Manic depression

There’s much talk about how Netanyahu is functioning in the shadow of the investigations against him. Is he fit – physically and mentally – to carry out all the tasks demanded of an Israeli prime minister? Because, hovering over him are the most serious suspicions the law books have when it comes to an elected official.

Absolutely, the ministers attest. He runs meetings, is attentive, patient, involved. One minister, a member of the security cabinet, maintained this week in a private conversation that this era of investigations has actually contributed to an improvement in the prime minister’s professional conduct.

“Before the investigations, he would postpone security cabinet meetings without end,” the minister said. “Two postponements, three postponements, that was the norm. Sometimes the cabinet wouldn’t meet for weeks. In the last few months, there have been no postponements or cancellations. There’s a meeting every week, sometimes twice a week.”

In the minister’s view, Netanyahu and his aides are apprehensive that any postponement – which would be immediately leaked – would provoke a wave of speculation about what’s going on in his residence, and between him and his lawyers. He’s avoiding delays and his schedule has become sacred.

The interlocutor said to the minister: Fine, Bibi is at his best – but what about you and the others? It’s inconceivable that it’s business as usual for you. You see what’s going on. The person who heads the government is in serious trouble, up to his neck.

“We live in two parallel worlds,” the minister replied. “On weekends, on Saturday night, after reading the papers and watching the commentators, the legal and police reporters, we get into a funk. It seems like it’s all over... On Sunday morning we arrive at the Prime Minister’s Office worried, and the meetings begin. And it’s a different planet. We meet a Netanyahu who’s calm, patient, quiet. Sometimes he’ll come out with a joke about the headlines.

“Cabinet meetings are like a train station: People come and go and chitchat, and he sits and listens to everyone, with infinite patience and calm. Asks questions, makes comments. And in the afternoon we return to our ministries with a completely different feeling. That’s how we live.”

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Meretz morass

The withdrawals of Zehava Galon and MK Ilan Gilon from the Meretz leadership race leave the field wide open for MK Tamar Zandberg. She seems a shoo-in to become the leader of the awakening left-wing party.

The irony is palpable here. When Galon coerced party functionaries to open the Meretz ranks, Zandberg was against the move; it scared her. Afterward she supported the idea. Some 12,000 new members – Galon’s executioners, apparently – entered the door that Galon herself opened wide, to complete the transformation, at her expense.

Galon, as is her way, did not wrap the decision this week to drop out with clichés about having accomplished all she could or family pressures. She was energetic, she was hungry. She longed to be elected for a third time on the wings of the new spirit she embodied, and had plotted to foment an upheaval in the political left: the defection of MKs from the stumbling, depressed Labor Party, who would become part of the Meretz Knesset slate along with other figures. She conducted negotiations with people on both sides.

Had her plan been realized, Meretz would have looked completely different in the next election. But the collective yearning for new leadership – similar to what transpired in Labor last July – came to the fore. Galon could only draw the unavoidable conclusion. She conceded her forthcoming defeat and abandoned the fray. Not a typical move for her. “I am not a Shi’ite suicide bomber,” she said, after announcing her withdrawal.

In the past few weeks, she met with many hundreds of party members. Many said they identified with Zandberg’s stand – as she stated in an interview with Haaretz – against automatically disqualifying Avigdor Lieberman and his party as partners in a future coalition. Galon was sad to see the values she espouses being shunted to the sidelines in the name of cold pragmatism.

“That’s what broke me,” she admitted. “People said, ‘So we’ll sit with Lieberman, so we’ll sit with Bennett, why are you making a big deal out of it?’” It was one more sign of the new spirit that urged her to leave.

Zandberg, too, talked about that “spirit.” In her view, the issue of Lieberman yes-or-no isn’t the main thing: It’s a symptom. Lieberman as a metaphor. The old Meretz is a party that let others steer its course for it. But Meretz under her leadership, she maintains, will determine its own fate.

In parlor meetings, people look at Zandberg with one optimistic eye and one suspicious eye. They want to believe but find it hard to do so. Meretz voters are steeped in suffering. With each election they seem to feel they’re starting from scratch.

In the next election, Meretz will have a new leader (the main contender against Zandberg is Avi Buskila, late of Peace Now) and a fresh slate. Gilon and MK Mossi Raz will probably not run. Galon is gone. Even if it wins five-six Knesset seats, half the party’s MKs in the next Knesset will be new.

All this poses is a problem for Avi Gabbay and the Labor Party/Zionist Union he heads. He could find himself between a rock and a hard place. On the right, Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, which at present look like the only realistic replacement for the Netanyahu government. Many voters may cast a “strategic vote” for Lapid, not because they believe in him, but because he’s the only player on the field.

On the left will be the reinvigorated Meretz: younger and exuding cool. Center-left voters who are fed up with Labor but stayed with it because Lapid blows with the wind too much – while Galon is problematic – might see Meretz 2018 as an acceptable option.

Galon is an acquired taste. She can be irritating, antagonistic, anti-establishment. But she’s a reliable bet. She delivered the goods in two elections. In 2013, Meretz under her leadership won six Knesset seats, and in 2015, when Zionist Union under MKs Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni tried to cannibalize the “little sister,” she still brought Meretz five seats with her own hands.

Her predecessor, Haim Oron, was much more popular. But he managed to scrounge only three seats in the 2009 election.

Zandberg, if elected, will discover that it’s very easy to promise 10 Knesset seats, but much harder to win five.