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Mutual Mistrust Will Wreck Netanyahu-Gantz ‘Coronavirus Emergency Government’

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The marriage that brought about Israel's "emergency government," April 2020.
The marriage that brought about Israel's "emergency government," April 2020.Credit: Amos Biderman

On Sunday evening, the Likud and Kahol Lavan negotiating teams held a meeting. Like most preceding meetings, it was described in the media as “decisive.” Some issues were resolved. The teams went home.

About an hour later, Likud sent Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz’s representatives an updated version of the agreement. The recently reached deals didn’t appear in it.

Kahol Lavan's people were pulling out the little hair they had left. They once again asked themselves, who are we talking to? The prime minister and his authorized representatives, or sales reps for the indicted real estate developer Inbal Or?

The hell with what’s been settled, Gantz’s people discovered. Their partners apologized; sorry, there was a mistake. We’ve sent the correct, final version now.

The next morning, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Gantz went to the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street with that version in hand. He and Benjamin Netanyahu reviewed the final provisions that had been settled the previous night. But the prime minister wasn’t happy. Let’s add something here and here, he said.

Gantz was about to explode. I get it, he said: You don’t really want to close the deal. He got up and went to the Knesset to prepare for the official ceremony, which involves the Knesset speaker. What else could he do? He’s the speaker.

For the first time, Likud was really panicked. Anti-Netanyahu legislation that would prevent a criminal defendant from forming a government had already been submitted to the Knesset.

The prime minister’s representatives called their colleagues in Kahol Lavan. Let’s keep talking, they suggested. You don’t understand, Gantz’s people responded. It’s over. We’ve had it. We’ll meet in the Knesset Arrangements Committee.

A desperate phone call was made to Shas Chairman Arye Dery from Balfour Street. For the past several weeks, he has served as psychologist, mediator and proposer of compromises for the two commanders. He has gained their trust (and also that of Kahol Lavan No. 2 Gabi Ashkenazi, with whom he formed an extremely close connection that helped move things forward).

Dery called Gantz and asked, what happened? Gantz unloaded all his complaints and all the abuse he suffered from his “No!” partner, to quote the Supernanny from the television satire “Eretz Nehederet.”

Give me a minute, Dery urged. He called Netanyahu, said whatever he said, and the rest is history: At 7:15 P.M., a moment before the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony began, the documents were signed.

Both Bibi's and Gantz’s faces fitted the atmosphere of this solemn day. Even with a microscope you couldn’t have found a shred of festivity between them.

They were left exhausted and embittered – like a prince from the House of Habsburg and a princess from the House of Hanover dragged into a marriage to prevent a war. They were separated by the 2 meters mandated by the Health Ministry and invisible kilometers of loathing and distrust.

And the marriage contract is a document of unprecedented depravity in Israeli politics. This agreement – which requires legislation that the Knesset began debating Thursday – reflects the moral rot that has spread from Balfour Street during the Netanyahu era, the influence of the villa’s evil, baleful residents.

The core of the agreement consists of restraints and guarantees that are supposed to ensure that the Prime Minister’s Office rotates from Netanyahu to Gantz after 18 months. But Netanyahu’s promises get ridiculed as utter nonsense. And not just his verbal promises. He has proved in the past that even his beautiful signature is worth zilch.

His legacy among Israeli leaders is the legacy of the lie. The virus of falsehoods is his best biological weapon, and as has been proven, there’s no immunity against it. Deceit is his modus operandi and trickery is his profession. So Kahol Lavan tailored a legal straitjacket, tighter than the one worn by Hannibal Lecter.

This spectacularly bad agreement is an appalling monument to Netanyahu’s shamelessness and utter lack of inhibitions. It’s a cruel abuse of our system of government, our Basic Laws, the standing of our legislature and the independence of our judiciary. It’s an agreement that, for the first time in Israel’s history, shortens the elected Knesset’s term. Why? It’s not clear.

With Netanyahu there’s no reason to be surprised. He degenerated to this nadir long ago. But Gantz and Ashkenazi, who are now complaining about their drubbing by the media and by their former colleagues from before Kahol Lavan's split, never gave their voters reason to suspect that their hunger for power would turn them into complete cynics.

Maybe it’s the fact that both of these former army chiefs are political novices. They have no respect for or understanding of the democratic institutions that have been built in Israel over the years. With their generals’ eyes they view the Basic Laws as a pesky hill that has to be flattened on the way to the target.

What took Netanyahu about a quarter of a century and four terms as prime minister to become, they’ve achieved in a little over a year in politics. They’re outstanding students, but of the wrong teacher. Their teacher can gaze upon his inferior students and smile contentedly. There are areas where they’re outshining even him.

The “Norwegian Law,” also known as the “skipping Norwegian Law,” was tailor-made for them. When a minister resigns from the Knesset and a new legislator must be chosen, they can pick their own people and skip over the factions that split from Kahol Lavan. On Thursday, they reportedly backed down from this, but then did a U-turn – another U-turn – and decided to try to pass the bill anyway.

This democratic and constitutional abomination will apparently be kicked by the High Court of Justice straight onto the ash heap of history where it belongs. The only skipping Norwegian who’ll be remembered here – at least among fans of dead and gone negotiations – is UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen.

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu at the prime minister's residence after signing the coalition deal, April 20, 2020.

And we have falafel

The coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, has done marginal damage to Israel – in terms of both the number of dead, of whom the vast majority have been seniors, and the number of patients on ventilators. Either way, it’s the first big crisis Netanyahu has faced in his 14 years in power. It’s a socioeconomic crisis whose effects remain unknown.

It can’t be compared to, for instance, the social justice protests of 2011, which for a moment looked like a shift that would change the world order but vanished like a soap bubble. And they can’t be compared to the 2014 Gaza war.

The term “coronavirus emergency government” was already a joke during the exhausting negotiations between the parties, and it gives off a nasty stench. This is an “emergency government” roughly on par with Netanyahu’s commitment to the ridiculous clause in the coalition agreement about establishing “a cabinet of national reconciliation.”

It’s a government where Yaakov Litzman, the symbol of failure, detachment and contempt, remains health minister, while Gilad Erdan, an active, effective minister, is dropped from the Public Security Ministry in favor of Miri Regev, whose specialty is lighting bonfires and fanning the flames to excite the media and stoke thunderous applause from her base.

If the crisis were nearing its end, that would be one thing. But Netanyahu – as a pessimist, hypochondriac, member of a high-risk group and of course Sara’s husband – is convinced that we’ll face an even worse outbreak.

Each day underscores the mess that is our government; there’s no single body managing (“integrating”) events. Instead, a long list of agencies are working along lines that don’t always meet – the National Security Council, the Mossad, the army, the Health Ministry, the Magen David Adom ambulance service, the health maintenance organizations.

The economy is on the brink of destruction, but the government is miserly, and rivaled only by the bureaucratic hurdles it has created on its way to destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Meanwhile, on camera, the supreme leader feigns a meaningless fatherly concern and phones a poor falafel seller whose tears on our television screens went viral, alas. The morally bankrupt is exploiting the economically bankrupt.

Political sources say that as usual in times like this, Netanyahu doesn’t make a move without the fresh polls he receives every day – sometimes more than once a day. He navigates the popular mood, which is no longer obeying every “directive” and is becoming increasingly skeptical about the wisdom of the government’s measures.

One more comment about Litzman. Many people wonder why he hasn’t seized the opportunity to run for his life from the disaster, a place he was unfit to occupy even when the health care system was at peace. I’ve already offered one explanation: No other ministry lets its head help members of his community on an individual basis.

But however critical this may be, it isn’t the main reason. Litzman is about to face a pre-indictment hearing, after which a decision will be made on whether to indict him in two cases. One stems from the illegitimate pressure he applied on behalf of the ultra-Orthodox Israeli Australian Malka Leifer so that she could obtain a “professional” opinion ruling her unfit to stand her pedophilia trial. In the other case, Litzman is accused of pressuring ministry professionals not to close a restaurant whose owner is close to him, even though its disgraceful hygienic conditions made people sick.

In other words, ministry staffers at various levels have information about Litzman. As long as he’s there, running things via his aides, they might keep their mouths shut for fear of his vengeance. But the moment he leaves, they might even reveal a few new scandals.

A standard trope in detective fiction is that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. Maybe in this case the criminal has decided that the best thing to do is not leave to begin with.

Kahol Lavan's Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz campaigning in February 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Total exhaustion

“What power does the prime minister have?” Netanyahu has preached to his staff forever. “He appoints the ministers, he fires them, and he sets the agenda for the cabinet and the security cabinet.”

This sparse description might sound unpretentious, but it also includes a great deal of truth. It’s what provides Israel’s prime minister, and his counterparts in civilized countries, the power to govern. But today, the checks and balances come only from the High Court of Justice.

As a result, someone close to Gantz told me, Benny’s achievement hasn’t been appreciated enough – the same way the scope of what Bibi is giving up hasn’t been understood enough. Netanyahu will not appoint or fire the ministers from Kahol Lavan, nor will he set the agenda for the cabinet and the security cabinet by himself. Everything will be done by mutual agreement. Whatever is not agreed on will not be brought up for discussion.

“The media enjoys beating up on Gantz so much,” this confidant complained. “As a result, it tends to minimize the important of what has happened here: Another hand is on the wheel, another foot is on the pedals.”

Let’s go back a bit. A week ago, on Thursday, the coalition agreement appeared almost fully baked. A few media outlets announced that the signing was near. On Friday morning the negotiating teams met again, progress was made and it was agreed that Gantz and Netanyahu would meet Saturday night on Balfour Street, sit as long as they needed, and in the morning, if Allah willed it, they would sign.

The meeting lasted about six hours, and when it ended, Gantz proposed: Yalla, let’s sign. Netanyahu took his time. Just a moment, he asked. Let’s check this section, and this one, and that one – as usual, wearing the other guy down.

Gantz got mad. He got up and went home to Rosh Ha’ayin. That’s it, he told his people, Bibi won’t sign, he doesn’t intend to sign. He feared that Netanyahu was wearing him down and covering things up with subsections, chicanery and endless talking.

This deceitful behavior landed on fertile ground. Every day, people hurt by Netanyahu – and throughout the years their bodies have strewn the road – have been phoning Gantz and warning him: He’s a con man, he won’t sign, Sara and Yair won’t let him.

In Gantz’s inner circle, some pushed him to polish his weapons and call up the reserves; that is, to convene the Knesset Arrangements Committee chaired by Avi Nissenkorn and fire up the anti-Netanyahu legislation. Gantz refused. The reason? It could only have been Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, that duo that entered the Knesset with the exalted goal of replacing the criminal defendant. But now they refused to support the legislation that would have achieved exactly that.

Not for the first time, and not for the second, those two saved Netanyahu from misfortune. And Netanyahu will joyfully grant them Likud’s votes for the bill the two sponsored to let them receive outlandish state funding for their party. It’s a fictitious party that broke off from a party that had never run independently in an election, one formerly within Kahol Lavan. And it’s trying to rob the public coffers of millions of shekels.

But in the spirit of these days of enormously wasteful coalition agreements, where being paid for the privilege comes before forestalling the collapse of the economy – in the name of “governmental stability” – what’s another few million shekels for the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the new coalition?

But God forbid we should suspect them of a double standard. Hauser and Hendel are both honorable men, as Shakespeare would say.

Yoaz Hendel, left, and Zvi Hauser in the Knesset, April 29, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Subsidized housing

The scandalous clause on the two prime minister’s residences – Netanyahu will retain one when he becomes deputy prime minister – was born already in the first round of talks on a unity government in October. The outline by President Reuven Rivlin addressed the eventuality that the prime minister would become “incapacitated.”

Kahol Lavan’s negotiators at the time, Shalom Shlomo and Yoram Turbowicz, realized that the talks could explode on this matter. The family has two and a half other extremely expensive houses.

The “half,” by the way, is because Spencer Partrich, the national schnorrer’s benefactor, bought joint ownership in one of the houses. The expenses and maintenance were paid for in full by public funds. So were the teams of workers, cleaners, security guards and drivers.

Let’s leave them in Balfour, the negotiators said, or arrange an alternative residence for them. The coalition agreement uses euphemisms like “housing arrangements” and “security procedures.”

The size of the cabinet had also been discussed before the coronavirus crisis. Likud demanded 40 ministers at the time, 20 for each side. The Kahol Lavan negotiators demanded no more than 30.

Tell me, Likud’s Yariv Levin asked them, how many ministers are there in today’s government? Without Googling! They couldn’t remember.

See? Levin said, nobody remembers how many ministers there are. There will be some noise for a day or two and then people will get used to it. Who did he learn this theory from, word by word? Netanyahu, of course.

The Judicial Appointments Committee was a serious bone of contention. The nine-member panel consists of the Supreme Court president and two of her colleagues, two members of the bar association, two ministers, one of whom is the justice minister, who chairs the committee, and two MKs, one from the coalition and one from the opposition. The judges are supposed to be chosen in a secret ballot.

Look, Netanyahu said, I have to assume that anything that isn’t in our full control will act against me. That is, when the time comes to appoint Supreme Court justices, the judges, lawyers, new Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and the opposition MK will gang up and vote in whomever they want. I demand a veto in this committee as well, as we have in every other matter.

This defendant has an interest in having as many conservative, right-wing justices as possible on the panel that hears his appeal in his corruption cases (assuming he’s convicted). So Netanyahu suggested altering the law on the Judicial Appointments Committee, changing the required majority from seven (out of nine) to eight.

Kahol Lavan wouldn’t have it. This committee is the most important thing to champions of the rule of law. It must not be harmed.

So let’s decide that Ayelet Shaked is the opposition’s representative, someone suggested. But we don’t know for sure that her Yamina party will be in the opposition, another said. Well, then the opposition won’t have a representative. Let’s put Zvi Hauser on the committee. He’s hostile to the court just like Shaked and Levin are.

To bind the signatories to the agreement they decided to include the names of Knesset candidates in it. Netanyahu wanted Likud’s May Golan. Gantz was shocked – not this MK who hounds refugees and made a name for herself by revealing her ignorance on TV panels, not this vulgar creature who hurls obscenities at the Supreme Court. I won’t sign a document naming her, he said.

The compromise was Osnat Hila Mark, a lawyer, No. 38 on the Likud ticket. Since Likud has 36 MKs, she’s two MKs away from the Knesset. But she’ll enter parliament once the Norwegian Law is passed and two Likud ministers resign as MKs. If the lady doesn’t behave and vote according to the orders from the prime minister’s residence, she can be ejected from the Knesset if those two ministers return.

This elaborate construction reeks of extortion, but this is definitely the agreement’s spirit. Setting up the coalition involves so many obscene acts that one more or less won’t matter.

I asked a Gantz associate who supported the agreement if this is what the former military chief entered politics for. “The alternative was a 61-MK government under Bibi. Hendel and Hauser would have joined him, and then we would have had an unsupervised annexation of the West Bank, wholesale legislative changes, and a dismissal of the attorney general,” he said.

I responded: What will happen if the High Court strikes down the legislation and no government is formed? Another election?

"No," he said. “Bibi will form a government of 61 MKs with Hendel and Hauser. If the High Court intervenes against what’s called the people’s decision and the Knesset’s will, those two will feel free to join. Others will follow.”

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, March 2020.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

Stealing from a thief

Pompous and out of touch, as is customary for him, Labor Party chief Amir Peretz went back to giving interviews this week. He has taken the trouble to raise his media presence – for those who still have the strength to see and hear him – and has been firing off press releases at an irksome pace.

A terrorist attack near Ma’aleh Adumim in the West Bank? The response by “former Defense Minister” Peretz arrives immediately. Using this same title, he took his spot in the television studios and declared that he, the emperor of a dead party, wouldn’t allow annexations in the West Bank that could harm regional stability. Yes, as if someone might actually ask him.

But security is only one of his hats, of course. Business owners are going under? Here’s another announcement, this time with a different title: “The candidate for economy minister, Amir Peretz.” The guy whose rear end has yearned for its missing throne – even more than his mustache has missed its face – has been banging about even before the Labor party’s convention has approved the agreement between the party and Kahol Lavan and joined the coalition government.

It was refreshing to rediscover that the pomposity, the stream of hollow phrases and the appalling lack of awareness haven’t left the man who has reduced Labor to the dimensions of his now-defunct, three-seated Am Echad party from two decades ago. But Peretz has no intention to learn a lesson, not even from the disgrace of bringing aboard Orli Levi-Abekasis only to have her flee to Likud.

On Sunday, the party convention will vote on the agreement using a website set up for that purpose. They’ll hear the justifications in favor from Itzik Shmuli, the designated social affairs minister. The prosecution will be represented by Merav Michaeli, the party’s third MK.

Any result below 60 percent for joining the government will be a resounding surprise. “We’re working hard, we aren’t treating it like a walk in the park,” Shmuli told me Thursday. Even a walk in the park, I told him, isn’t what it used to be.

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