Analysis

Netanyahu Admits His Coup Conspiracy Theory Was Based on a Rumor

Netanyahu explains what made him suspect Gideon Sa'ar of plotting to unseat him, and desperately tries to avoid a debate on LGBT surrogacy

Netanyahu walks in the Knesset during a debate on surrogacy.
Emil Salman

Last week we dealt here in depth with what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu termed “the plot of the century” – revelation of the fraudulent, Frank Underwood-style scheme ostensibly concocted by former cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) and President Reuven Rivlin, together with “coalition elements,” to rob Netanyahu of the premiership in the next election. In an edited video clip released by Netanyahu’s bureau, the perpetually self-victimizing leader called it “a subversive maneuver contrary to the will of the voter” (even if no one knows what that is).

The freebie newspaper of the those living in the official residence on Balfour Street started the ball rolling with an unequivocal headline, in font and prominence worthy of an announcement of the outbreak of a world war, declaring that an attempted putsch had been foiled.

The next day Sa’ar went on the airwaves and demanded that Netanyahu reveal the names of the anonymous sources he’d based his claims on. That didn’t happen, of course.

By week’s end, the story had disappeared without a trace. The appointment of the new Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, the prime minister’s visit to Oman, the hostilities at the border of the Gaza Strip and the Shabbat massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue filled the news pages.

This week, the prime minister met in his bureau in Jerusalem with diplomatic correspondents for an off-the-record briefing. He was asked what had made him suspect Sa’ar. His reply was nothing less than illuminating: “Three people told me they’d heard it,” he said in something of dismissive tone. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not; it revealed a lacuna in the law we hadn’t known about. We’ll have to fix that.”

Yes, after the political drama, the Shakespearean saga about an over-arching act of villainy that has no parallel in Israeli history – the prime minister confirms that the whole story was no more than the fruit of uncorroborated rumors.

“Three people told me.” Or was it two? Maybe they all got their info from the same source? He doesn’t have a clue. Maybe it’s the same sources who whispered to him that Likud’s candidate in Bat Yam was being assisted by Shlomo Filber? (More on that below.) We’ll probably never know.

Five days passed between the premier’s initial, bombastic pronouncement at his birthday party in the bureau, and the all-clear signal. The question is: If he’s ready to dismiss the conspiracy and relate to it skeptically with reporters, why doesn’t he go before the cameras as he did when he accused Sa’ar and, by implication, Rivlin?

The “lacuna” he supposedly discovered refers to Article 7 in the Basic Law on the Government, about the creation of a new government: “When a new government is to be formed, the president, after consulting with the representatives of the Knesset factions, shall entrust the task of forming a government to one of the Knesset members who has agreed to do so.”

Every neophyte political reporter who has chanced to cover an election campaign can quote that article by heart. There is nothing more critical on the day after the election than the consultations with the president. Only Netanyahu, who’s served at the top for three consecutive terms (during which the law has been relevant, following annulment of the direct election of the prime minister), didn’t know.

In each case that he’s had to form a coalition – in 2009, 2013 and 2015 – he didn’t know. The last two times he was panicked before the elections by the thought that the president (Shimon Peres in 2013, Rivlin in 2015) would choose a candidate of the center-left to form a government. And now Netanyahu wants us to believe him when he says he didn’t bother to check the relevant article in the law? Attorney David Shimron forgot to tell him about it? If he doesn’t know this article, what does he actually know? Maybe it’s all part of Netanyahu’s line of defense, which worked so well in keeping him out of line of suspects in the affair of the submarines and the vessels: If Shimron didn’t tell him what the article says, it’s no wonder the lawyer also hid from him his part in mediating business transactions between Israel and Germany.

The 40-excuses effort

On Wednesday afternoon, the Knesset held what’s known in parliamentary jargon as a 40-signatures debate. That relatively rare event – held when, following the submission of signatures from 40 MKs, the prime minister can be forced to participate in a legislative discussion – is the prerogative of the opposition and requires the prime minister’s participation.

The subject of the debate, initiated by MK Ofer Shelah, chairman of the Yesh Atid Knesset faction, was the government’s discrimination against the LGBT community in Israel. The context: the law that bars gay men from carrying out a surrogacy procedure in Israel.

Netanyahu really didn’t want to step into that minefield. In the past he had issued a clip in which he promised to support an amendment to the existing law. His Haredi partners summoned him for a reprimand. When the amendment came up for a vote, he pressed the “no” button.

His problem was that the 40-signatures debate is under the control of the opposition. Only its members (or the Knesset speaker) can agree to postpone it. In the two days preceding the Knesset session this week, the prime minister’s aides sweated overtime trying to get it called off. Every lame excuse they could think of was invoked. (Spoiler: to no avail.)

To begin with, Netanyahu’s bureau contacted opposition whip MK Yoel Hasson (Zionist Union). The prime minister has to prepare for his visit to Albania, Hasson was told, and he’s requested a postponement of the debate.

Knesset members embrace their Zionist Union colleague Itzik Shmuli after he delivers an impassioned speech during a debate on surrogacy.
Emil Salman

That was a ridiculous argument from the outset and could only be rejected out of hand. But Hasson presented it to his Yesh Atid colleague Shelah. “Are you kidding?” Shelah guffawed. Hasson left empty-handed. (The trip to Albania was cancelled.)

The next day, Tuesday, came the horrific road accident along the Dead Sea, and the death of Religious Services Minister David Azoulay. The internal WhatsApp group of heads of the Knesset factions carried this message from Hasson: “In the wake of the serious accident and Minister Azoulay’s death… has your opinion changed about the relevance of the 40-signatures debate?”

“Negative,” Shelah quickly responded. “Azoulay’s funeral is tonight and the accident is serious but not a reason [for postponement]. Not budging.” MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint Arab List) joined in: “Not relevant, I agree with Ofer.” Meretz was also against a postponement. It was clear to everyone involved that Hasson was only serving as a conduit, an envoy of the prime minister’s aides, but among themselves, they wondered why Hasson was being so hyperactive.

When Netanyahu’s circle grasped that Hasson couldn’t deliver the goods, they decided to contact Shelah himself. On Tuesday night he received a call from a “source” in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The prime minister has an important meeting with ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer. Can we move the Knesset session to a different date, Shelah was asked.

Shelah knew that Dermer wasn’t even in Israel. He suggested to his interlocutor that he check what he was saying. The bureau got back to him: True, the ambassador isn’t in the country. Forgive the mistake. Shelah forgave.

Netanyahu’s bureau still had one card up its tattered sleeve. The cabinet, the media was told, will meet for a special memorial session in the wake of Minister Azoulay’s death. When? At 4:30 P.M. on Wednesday. The Knesset session had been scheduled for 4 P.M. Shelah stood his ground. The bureau appealed to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, also to no avail. He wasn’t about to lend a hand to any such smelly maneuver.

The pressure on Shelah didn’t abate. He rebuffed it. The memorial meeting was postponed to 7 P.M. The Knesset debate took place at the appointed hour. Netanyahu came, sat, listened (or pretended to listen) to the blistering speeches. The most touching speech was delivered by MK Itzik Shmuli (Labor), a member of the community, who said to Netanyahu: “Prime Minister, look me in the eye and tell me why Yigal Amir can be a father and I can’t.”

Netanyahu didn’t look up from his papers. When he ascended to the podium, however, he had an answer that was the epitome of leadership, morality and honesty: I support it, but I don’t have a majority of the coalition with me.

Credit where it isn't due

The Labor Party published huge ads in the newspapers on Thursday: “Back to winning!” At the top was a large photo of the party’s leader, Avi Gabbay, and Einat Kalisch-Rotem, Haifa’s mayor-elect. The names of veteran mayors – Ron Huldai from Tel Aviv, Motti Sasson in Holon, Be’er Sheva’s Ruvik Danilovich, and Ran Kunik in Givatayim – along with newcomers, such as Ronen Marley in Nahariya, also appeared.

All of these elected mayors, new and veteran, ran on independent slates with the support of other parties, including some right-wing ones. The attempt to attribute Huldai’s victory (for a fifth consecutive term), or Sasson’s (sixth), or Kunik’s (second) to their affiliation with Labor and indirectly with Gabbay is something that can only be realized by means of a paid advertisement.

They won thanks only to themselves. At most, it can be said that their membership in the Labor Party didn’t hurt them. This also true for Kalisch-Rotem, who didn’t so much as defeat a mayor who’s held office for 15 years, as that the mayor, Yona Yahav, lost. Haifa was always red or reddish. Yahav, too, is a Mapainik – i.e., affiliated with Labor’s forerunner – from birth who defected to Kadima when it rose to power in 2006.

Gabbay is at least consistent. He conducted himself professionally and forthrightly this week. Netanyahu, less so. Losses by candidates in the municipal elections are not due to him, and any achievements weren’t chalked up because of him. In any event, it’s impossible to assess the impact – or lack of impact – of the premier’s involvement in the places where he stomped for a local candidate. Those who went to the polls did so because they were thinking of the good of their community, not about Bibi or Gabbay and their peacock feathers.

The problem with Netanyahu in these elections was (again) the zigzagging, the pressure, the susceptibility to rumors. Bat Yam is an excellent case in point.

A day before the voting there, there appeared on the Facebook page of independent mayoral candidate Yossi Bachar – the successor, and some would say long arm, of former Mayor Shlomo Lahiani (who reached a plea bargain on corruption charges in 2014) – a supportive clip from the prime minister. Senior Likud officials, who without exception came to the city to support their own candidate, Zvika Brot, suspected that the ad was fake – a “cyberattack,” as Yahav claimed had been launched against him on the eve of his defeat in Haifa. In fact, someone had apparently whispered to Netanyahu that Shlomo Filber, who turned state’s evidence against him in Case 4000, was serving as a campaign adviser to Brot. (Brot says in response that he doesn’t even know Filber.) One thundering whisper was enough for the prime minister to invite Bachar to his office.

But now that both Brot and Bachar will be facing off in a second round (because none of the candidates in Bat Yam received 40 percent of the vote this week), with Brot perceived as the favorite, Netanyahu is “thinking about” backtracking and voicing support for the party’s official candidate. This is beyond cynicism. It leaves shame cringing in the dust. But him? He won’t blink or blush when he invites Brot in, embraces him warmly and calls on the citizens in Bat Yam to vote for him.

Illustration: Jerusalem mayoral candidates fight as Netanayhu watches.
Amos Biderman

We’ll meet again

More than a few Likud politicians – most of them no longer active in politics, but a few who still are – have learned a painful truth over the years: Netanyahu doesn’t know the meaning of friendship. At the moment of truth, the value of collegiality eludes him.

Now this lesson has been learned by Environmental Protection and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin, who finished third in the Jerusalem mayoral race. Netanyahu’s support for the campaign of this man, his closest, most loyal and most committed cabinet colleague, was a case of too little, too late.

For months the premier kept mum, ignored Elkin, didn’t force the recalcitrant local Likud branch to back the candidate. He projected the feeling that in his heart he didn’t support Elkin’s candidacy. During that critical period, however, others had their noses to the grindstone. Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas), MK Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah) and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), wily political foxes all, romped in the vineyard without a care. They leveraged limited electoral clout into a critical mass that brought their candidate, Moshe Leon, to pole position for the top job in Jerusalem.

If Leon wins the November 13 runoff against Ofer Berkovitch and succeeds outgoing Mayor Nir Barkat, it will not be on his own two feet. He’ll be leaning heavily on those three distinguished gentlemen – most of all on Gafni and Dery. The vast majority of Leon’s votes, 85 percent, came from UTJ and Shas voters. Leon himself was able, according to the polls, to muster only a few thousand votes and his slate (“Our Jerusalem”) didn’t win a single seat on the city council.

Memory fails to summon up a case of the mayor of a large city who doesn’t have a council faction of his own. Without a nucleus, or even a crumb, of control, Leon is likely to be a mere puppet on a string, managed by his patrons, who are themselves represented by a large number of council members in Jerusalem.

There’s no way to know whether the result would have been different if Netanyahu had gone all out for Elkin. But it’s not only results that matter; intent counts, too. It was only in the final week of the campaign that Netanyahu bestirred himself. He visited Mahane Yehuda market with Elkin (we won’t be cynical and say the tour was really for his own benefit) and he made a video clip.

All this was very reminiscent of the premier’s belated efforts on behalf of Yuval Steinitz during the recent contest for Jewish Agency chairman. For long months Netanyahu didn’t lift a finger, while Isaac Herzog was slowly and quietly preparing to become the senior representative of the Jewish people. When Netanyahu finally remembered, it was too late.

Elkin won’t say a bad word about the prime minister. At most one could detect a trace of bitterness in his voice when he admitted, in a conversation with activists on Wednesday, that if the nation’s leader had entered the fray earlier, he might have had an easier time. Perhaps it would have blocked the rise of Berkovitch, who was dubbed the “secular candidate.” Elkin did have the decency to say that he wouldn’t have won no matter what Netanyahu did.

The low turnout in the traditionalist neighborhoods of Jerusalem, combined with the surprising stubbornness to remain in the race – a hopeless cause from any point of view – of the Haredi candidate, Yossi Daitch, and his patrons, the Gerer Rebbe and deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman (Agudat Yisrael, part of UTJ), finished Elkin off.

“When I entered the race, in June, you all thought I had reached an agreement with the Haredim. I told you that that was not the case, and you didn’t believe it. Well, it’s a fact,” Elkin told me on Wednesday, between Knesset debates. “It’s true that Litzman was inclined to support me. That was replaced by a puzzling insistence on Daitch. They decided to commit suicide. What will they do in the run-off? Go with Leon, the candidate of Gafni, whom they loathe, or with Ofer Berkovitch?”

Elkin, who has an unrivaled grasp of the political arena, admits that he was surprised by the strength of Shas and Degel Hatorah in Jerusalem. It was far in excess of his calculations. He has a fantastic ability to analyze the consequences of his failed bid – which has also plunged him into personal debt – rationally, coolly, mathematically. As though he were an outside observer.

“All the commentators thought I wouldn’t have entered the race if I wasn’t certain of victory. That was never true for even a second,” Elkin added. “I knew I might lose. I thought I should take the risk. I believed that I could be the right person for Jerusalem at this time. I set out without Bibi, without Likud support, without an agreement with the Haredim. I had to raise funds on the run. Guarantors signed for the loans I took. I’ll have to return it all – no small challenge.”

Elkin behaved like a perfect gentleman. As soon as the results came in, he announced that he intends to use his ministerial post to help whoever wins. He’ll soon have to gird his loins for the Likud primary ahead of the next general election. He’s been away from the national scene for half a year, while his party rivals have been stomping the country.

Former champion chess player Elkin is returning to the national league as a loser. He can only hope that the mercy and empathy of the good folks out there will prevail over the gloating from his rivals at the top.