Analysis

Like a Mafia Movie: Ministers Swore Allegiance to Boss Netanyahu While His Wife Called Out 'Traitors'

Critics who said Netanyahu should go because of his Temple Mount flip-flop and limited settlement construction have embraced him once again after recognizing their true enemy: The left

It was good week for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all things considered. The political arena signaled to him that the intensifying police investigations against him, his official designation as a bribery suspect and the signing of an agreement with former ultra-confidant Ari Harow to turn state’s evidence do not a red line make. They are not developments that justify coalition action. He hasn’t been abandoned, he hasn’t crumbled and no question marks have appeared with respect to his leadership or the stability of his government. His popularity ratings have barely changed. Hardly a dent has been made in the number of Knesset seats the polls are predicting for his Likud party.

Netanyahu’s electorate behaved as expected under the circumstances, closing ranks around the beleaguered leader who is undergoing daily media hazing. Likudniks who only a month ago accused him of damaging national honor in the case of the Temple Mount metal detectors and judged him to have failed, flocked back to his arm with a warm embrace. With all due regret and respect for the sovereignty trampled at the entrance to the Mount, the left is the great enemy, the demon that necessitates the closing of ranks. Indeed, the umbrella of demonization also covers the media, the police and the state prosecution (the latter “a barn full of shit,” in the words of an expert on the subject, Likud MK Oren Hazan).

After a few days of hesitation and silence, even the last of the ministers hurried to pledge loyalty to the boss in a spectacle that recalled scenes from Mafia movies. All that was missing was the kiss on the forehead. One after another they surrendered to the pressure of the masses, who demanded that they rally around the flag. Without loyalty there can be no membership, stressed Likud members, whose votes the party’s MKs and ministers may need in what could turn out to be early primaries.

Three ministerial stalwarts – Ayoub Kara, Miri Regev and Tzachi Hanegbi – needed no inducements: They were there from the get-go, ready to sacrifice themselves, declaiming the feeble messages emanating from the prime minister’s Balfour Street residence as though they were the Ten Commandments. Other Likud ministers – Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan, Haim Katz (a well-known saint, who is himself suspected of bribery), Ofir Akunis and Yuval Steinitz only made their entrances in Act II.

Yisrael Katz and Erdan made do with cool Facebook posts – too little and too late for Bibi and Sara. “Let them give interviews, let them give interviews,” Netanyahu grumbled. As for the Lady, she tends to call those who don’t toe the line by names deriving from the Hebrew word for “traitor.” “You’re not yet one of the traitors,” she said recently to one cabinet minister whom she perceived as insufficiently domesticated. Coming from her, that was a compliment.

Others also came running: representatives of the deep settler right, who just a moment ago vowed furiously, teeth gritted, to get rid of Netanyahu because of his surrender on the Temple Mount security issue, and/or the prolonged construction freeze in West Bank settlements, and/or his inaction regarding the looming demolition of 17 structures in the illegal Netiv Ha’avot settler outpost. Now they melted in his presence like a popsicle at high noon in July.

The outgoing head of the Samaria Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, who two months ago suggested that Likud consider a different candidate for prime minister, announced, “This is the time to strengthen the prime minister,” because those who are striving to topple him are seeking “to uproot the settlements and establish a terrorist state.” Assaf Fassy from Otniel, a well-known figure in the settlements, tweeted: “Two months ago, I thought the prime minister had to go because of his intention to embark on a dangerous course. I am not one of his followers, but what’s happening now in the media puts me on his side.”

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara react to his supporters during an event by his Likud Party, in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2017.
AMIR COHEN/REUTERS

Many others in the religious-Zionist movement voiced similar sentiments. The leaders of Habayit Hayehudi, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayeket Shaked, understood which way the wind is blowing. Both lost no time this week in expressing support for Netanyahu. They sent a double message: one to their voters, urging them not to leave Netanyahu in the lurch; the other to Likud voters who, when the unimaginable day comes on which they remain without a shepherd, will be courted by Habayit Hayehudi.

Even Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, the freebie paper Israel Hayom, which for a fleeting, lightning-fast moment seemed to be showing incipient signs of developing a journalistic backbone, quickly resumed the Soviet stance it’s been displaying for a decade. Its pages were an exact copy of the talking-points memo concocted in the house on Balfour Street by the pair of suspects and their son Yair.

Right-wingers do not rush to desert leaders who (appear to) have strayed from the straight and narrow. If outgoing and incoming Labor Party leaders MK Isaac Herzog and Avi Gabbay, respectively, were to find themselves in a similar situation, involving even less serious suspicions, we would be seeing mass flight: Not a dog would remain to defend them. That’s the right’s advantage over the left, and it’s always been like that, from the period of the corruption in the Labor Alignment of the 1970s to this very day.

“Likud is family,” said one of the participants in the rally in support of Netanyahu on Wednesday, “and you don’t choose family.” Not for nothing was that party, in its earlier incarnation as Herut, known as a “fighting family.”

Two cheers for democracy

On Wednesday evening, at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, we got a preview of the next general election campaign, which may well be closer than ever. The basic ingredients are in the pot – a wild, inflammatory, militant attack on “the media” and “the left.” All that’s left to do is light the fire.

That’s what Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is under police investigation for suspected bribery and fraud, did before thousands of ardent supporters in a Donald Trump-style event, unprecedented in these parts for a ruling party. The only other party leader to ever orchestrate such a show of support for himself was Shas’ Arye Dery, two decades ago. And we all remember how that ended.

Netanyahu was careful not to utter a single word against the law enforcement agencies. He’s not stupid. But his appearance at this disgraceful spectacle was not just an insult to the intelligence of any upright person. It was also a defiant spitting-in-the-face of the police investigators, the state prosecutor and the attorney general. It was at them that he aimed his poisoned barbs.

He tried to look relaxed, but he radiated anxiety. He tried to display humor (“I heard that Kaia [the family dog] will be summoned for questioning. Under caution!”), but cold sweat seeped under his collar. He’s given better speeches, in terms of both content and pageantry. He didn’t forget to pay essential lip service to his wife and to her “righteous” late father, who was entangled through no fault of his own in the affair of the couple’s alleged personal misuse of state funds.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks during his Likud Party conference in Tel Aviv, Aug. 9, 2017.
Oded Balilty/AP

One straight line connects the supporters of “Hebron shooter” Elor Azaria, convicted of manslaughter in the death of an incapacitated Palestinian, who accompanied him in a “victory” convoy to prison on Wednesday, and the placard-bearers at the Tel Aviv rally: their deep contempt and burning hatred for the judicial establishment, the rule of law, and the concepts of both equality before the law and democracy. It’s no surprise that Netanyahu is the common denominator to both groups. This is how far Israel has deteriorated in 2017. Neither Ehud Barak nor Ariel Sharon nor Ehud Olmert, all of whom were interrogated or suspected of crimes, would have even conceived of taking part in a frenzied spectacle like this.

The left and the media, “who are the same thing,” in Netanyahu’s words, are responsible for his being investigated, he asserts. Of course. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, both of whom he appointed, are, together with State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, by implication, longtime members of the leftist Meretz party and all are out to overthrow him, because their efforts to do so at the polls failed. The open season that the prime minister has declared against the left and the media will quickly spill over into the arena of the law enforcers and gatekeepers. No one will be immune to the wrath and despair of a distressed prime minister who is losing his grip.

He didn’t mention even one political adversary by name, apart from alluding to Ehud Barak (“the old man with a new beard”), who is apparently a source of consternation for the premier. For his part, Gabbay, the new Labor leader, became an easy target for Netanyahu when he took part in the weekly Saturday evening demonstration across from the attorney general’s home. But Netanyahu chose deliberately to ignore him. He doesn’t want to empower Gabbay in any way, but even more, he doesn’t want to divert his audience’s attention for even a second from the two general-purpose punching-bags: the media and the left.

The rally, organized for the premier by the coalition whip, Likud MK David Bitan, was intended to distract the public from the investigations, from the embarrassing, stomach-churning details that have emerged and will continue to emerge in large doses. The aim was to focus attention on the political arena. Right vs. left is where Netanyahu has and always will have the advantage. In the short term, he undoubtedly succeeded. For the next few days, public debate will be conducted solely along political lines – between left and right, coalition and opposition. The more the attacks on the prime minister and on the nature of the rally intensify, the more his supporters will build a wall of human shields around him.

Despite all the background noise, the investigators will not abandon their work, Ari Harow will not go back on his agreement to spill the beans about Netanyahu, and the evidence and testimony and recordings will continue to pile up on the desks in the right offices.

Netanyahu has already been in situations like this, and even at the same venue in Tel Aviv. On the eve of the 1999 elections, when he realized he was about to lose power, he convened his supporters and, with pressure mounting, began to roar, followed by the crowd, “They are a-f-r-a-id! They are a-f-r-a-id!” (“They” being the media, of course.) That event has entered the pantheon of formative Israeli political moments of recent decades. That bestial, vulgar display may well have deterred many of his supporters, who on Election Day stayed away from the polls, leaving him with a crushing defeat at the hands of Ehud Barak. Long afterward, Netanyahu admitted he’d made a mistake.

On Wednesday, it became obvious to everyone that he hasn’t learned anything and hasn’t forgotten anything.

Hard-core traitor

MK David Bitan at a Likud event held in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

A Channel 10 News public opinion poll this week showed Likud losing hardly any of the strength it has in the current Knesset. That’s the good news for Netanyahu. The bad news is that 66 percent of those polled, among the general public, said they think he has to resign if he is indicted. That statistic is penetrating deep into his camp, but stopping at the hard-core supporters, who will never turn away, no matter how much corruption sticks to him.

That’s grounds for concern for the premier, but not in the immediate future. On the contrary. A final, conclusive indictment, following a hearing and the like, is a matter of a year to a year-and-a-half away, based on accumulated experience and the estimates of legal experts. The whole panoply of headlines from this past week, earth-shaking as they were, were tantamount to a series of particularly alluring trailers for a movie that will not be released until late in 2018. Until then, we can look forward to no few milestones: the police recommendations, the decisions of the state prosecutor and the attorney general, the hearings and ultimately, the final decision in each case. And, as part of a certain scenario, petitions to the High Court of Justice.

It makes sense for Netanyahu to call an early election for, say, early 2018. Before a final decision by the attorney general. The longer he waits, the more likely it is that he’ll have to compete in an election under the shadow of an indictment, which will make victory difficult. For an election to take place early next year, he’ll have to work to dissolve the Knesset after it returns from the summer break, near the end of October. The month of November could be critical and possibly even dramatic.

A police recommendation to try him and his wife will fuel the election engine for him personally and for Likud. It will constitute “proof” that there is, as he put it at the rally, an “obsessive hunt on against me my family, with the goal of carrying out a government coup.” The sane and the decent among Likud ministers and MKs, and the new candidates who join the party’s slate, will be compelled to adopt this line. The war room that will be set up at the Balfour Street residence will unleash the Bitans, the paid internet commenters, and the friends of Yair who are deploying the party’s new-media system against anyone caught deviating one iota from the official line.

This week, we saw Likud’s elected representatives coerced to act as extras on the margins of Netanyahu’s horror show, where he seemed to be tying their fate to his. Some of them are people of integrity who have long been fed up with the parasitic and swinish behavior of the imperial couple. But woe to them if they utter so much as a word or a syllable, if they clear their throat or raise an eyebrow in a manner liable to be construed as an expression of reservations. The ax will be raised forthwith. And their fate is also sealed if they dare to absent themselves from a rally without a real reason, like being on a vacation abroad. Their heads will roll even before the Likud jingle ends.

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, a senior Likud figure, has been in Balfour Street’s sights a long time, since the start of the investigations saga. He’s one of Sara’s “traitors.” And not just any traitor, but a hard-core traitor. The fate of suchlike is well known.

This week, Kan radio correspondent Zeev Kam reported on a series of anti-Katz remarks attributed to Netanyahu at a closed political meeting. “We’ve all heard about the senior minister who’s planning to replace me. Let him keep planning. We all know who it is,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying, in part. At a recent private meeting, Netanyahu said contemptuously, “Yisrael is already comporting himself as though he’s prime minister.”

These remarks are designed to find their way into the media in order to teach Katz a lesson and make him a reviled figure among Likudniks, who have loathed subversion against the leader from the dawn of their movement.

Netanyahu is not eager to confront Katz directly, or to liquidate him. He wants to calm things down ahead of the tough period that looms. But he’s dealing with the minister by other means, through indirect channels, through orchestrated leaks, so that he’ll still get the point.

Well, it worked, as it usually does. Katz fell into step, issued a statement of support, attended the Tel Aviv rally, and planted two kisses on the cheeks of the prime minister’s wife, who somehow didn’t look all that pleased. But everything ended peacefully and hope springs eternal.