Netanyahu and Lieberman Are in a Standoff Over Gaza. The Government's Fate Is at Stake

Lieberman's all-or-nothing terms for joining the coalition have put Netanyahu on edge

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Illustration: Lieberman whips an elephant-shaped Netanyahu in a circus scene.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Amid the danger that lurks for us, the darkness that envelops us, the stench that’s smacking us, a rather delightful comic moment was recorded this week: Benjamin Netanyahu was caught in a lie. In interviews he gave on the eve of the election, he had denied – vehemently, contemptuously, even angrily – the brazen allegation that he was planning to push through an immunity law tailored specifically to his personal and felonious measurements. But now, alas, suddenly it’s actually taking shape before our very eyes.

The media went into shock. Footage from the pre-election interviews was broadcast time and again. Who would have believed that the person known as a shining beacon of honesty, integrity and values, the pillar of fire that strides ahead of the camp of the Sons of Light, would be caught saying something that’s not completely true?

Netanyahu is said to be blessed with a special psychological mechanism: He believes in the lies he utters, large and small alike. Journalists, politicians and foreign leaders are exposed to them on countless occasions. His prevaricating is pathological, like his other well-known traits: extreme stinginess and terminal greed. Like an automaton, he’ll scatter his falsehoods every which way, even those endowed with a short lifespan, their mendacity destined to be revealed within days or hours.

And he couldn’t care less. In any event, he won’t be held accountable to the voters, some of whom undoubtedly believe him. There are, thank God, people who do the dirty work for him. The Miki Zohar and Amir Ohana types, his unfortunate gofers, who will happily vie for the chance to appear in the media and justify the premier’s lies on his behalf.

The wheels of the immunity law began to turn on the late December day when he decided to hold an early election. He hitched a ride on a real excuse – the crisis-generating draft law – and dissolved the Knesset, in order to stem the surging tide of indictments being prepared against him by the state prosecution.

In the meantime, everything is going according to the Machiavellian plan. The coalition will be formed early next month. The hearing with respect to the suspicions against him will be deferred to September. The intertwined legislation – immunity plus the so-called override clause establishing the Knesset’s supremacy over the High Court of Justice – will be passed into law by mid-August. The scheduled hearing will be canceled. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will appear before the Knesset’s Likud-dominated House Committee, ask to have Netanyahu’s immunity lifted and then be summarily kicked out the window.

The Likud members of the committee are preparing a hazing ritual for the books, for Mendelblit. He will detail the offenses of which the prime minister is suspected, they will pounce on him, sneer at him, shut him up. The discussion will become a drumhead trial for the attorney general, the prosecution, the police. For Netanyahu, it’s a question of life or death: serving under the protection of immunity, or ending up with a trial that will very probably land him in jail.

The immunity law isn’t the main thing here; in a sense, it is even superfluous. If he has a majority to push the legislation through four votes in the Knesset plenum (a preliminary one and three others) on three different dates, it goes without saying that he can garner a majority in a one-time vote in the House Committee to oppose the lifting of his immunity. So the real story is that of the administrative “override” that will prevent the High Court from overturning Knesset decisions – that is, of the House Committee. This is the heart of this whole process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, May 5, 2019. Credit: Abir Sultan,AP

In theory Netanyahu could pass up the amendment to the immunity law and focus on its existing version, as long as he gets the override legislation passed. It would even help him in the eyes of the public.

Why isn’t he doing that? Because he is worried about what will happen in the Knesset. How will Gideon Sa’ar, Yuli Edelstein and Gilad Erdan vote? The three of them have said in the past that they object to the so-called French law – which would bar the indictment of a sitting prime minister – which is just as self-serving and as rotten as the immunity law. (Incidentally, Netanyahu is considering thinning out the ranks of that trio by sending Erdan to the United Nations as ambassador; it is not yet known if the latter has agreed.) And how will Roy “the Leftist” Folkman of Kulanu vote? And Moshe Kahlon, a friend of former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak?

As is known, we’re dealing with a paranoid person here. So he’ll go for the whole hog and the country be damned.

“Why is Netanyahu willing to go to the limit over the immunity and override issues?” asked someone who knows the premier well and speaks to him frequently. “Because he knows full well that otherwise he has no chance of getting out of all this without being imprisoned.”

The emerging clash between Netanyahu, individually, along with the Knesset and the government, against the judicial establishment, will be of asteroid force. The history books will talk about Israel before the crime – and after it. MK Gabi Ashkenazi this week delivered his maiden speech in the plenum. “History will judge those who assisted someone to evade justice,” he said.

Opposite him sat the members of the coalition-to-be. Some lowered their eyes, others guffawed.

Waking up yesterday

Like all of us, Avigdor Lieberman has a few forbidden pleasures. We’ve come to know some of them over the years: expensive Cuban cigars, fancy hard cheeses, tennis, and systematic abuse of Benjamin Netanyahu. The order of that list is up for argument. The last item naturally crops up less frequently, but in Lieberman’s knapsack it’s standard issue, when it comes to the long and raucous political jousting that’s gone on over the past quarter of a century between the two men. When Netanyahu goes into an election campaign, he always takes into account that afterward, Lieberman will suck his blood with a teaspoon of saccharine. He’s never “disappointed”: The nightmare scenario always repeats itself, one way or another.

After the 2009 election, before recommendations were made to the president about who should form the coalition, Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, with his 15 Knesset seats, shuttled between Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni (Kadima), positioning himself as negotiating with both parties. Netanyahu, according to some sources, was in danger of succumbing to dehydration, brought on by excessive perspiration.

In 2015, Lieberman slammed the door on the coalition negotiations two days before the end of the allotted time, leaving Netanyahu at the mercy of the vengeful hands of Naftali Bennett and with a bare-bones coalition of 61.

Only once in the past decade was Netanyahu spared this experience, but even that wasn’t to his advantage. On the eve of the 2013 election, knowing what lay in store for him, he signed a very generous coalition agreement with Yisrael Beiteinu and merged that party with his Likud slate. Likud’s interests were sold cheap, without any bargaining, at fire-sale prices.

Let’s return to the 2019 Lieberman. On Monday he went before the cameras at a meeting of his faction in the Knesset and did what he knows best: turned the screws. Two weeks before the final deadline for forming a coalition, after which the mandate for designating an MK to form the government reverts to President Reuven Rivlin, Lieberman upped the ante. As the Americans like to say of such situations: He’s made the game more interesting and more nerve-racking.

Lieberman rattled off five ironclad conditions for his joining the coalition: a military resolution rather than another temporary arrangement in Gaza; passage of the army-conscription bill for the ultra-Orthodox, in its current form, in second and third votes in the plenum; larger and guaranteed pensions for the elderly; awarding to his party of the chairmanship of the Knesset’s Interior Committee; and cancellation of DNA tests by the rabbinate to prove a person’s Jewishness.

It’s all or nothing – call only if you intend to say yes, he declared calmly, announcing that he and his coalition negotiators were unilaterally disengaging from the talks with Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, Likud’s chief negotiator, who’s been seen wandering around the Knesset hunched over and despondent of late, lamenting his bitter fate. He’s been treading water for the past month-plus, knowing that all his negotiating partners are holding off on engaging in serious talks until the final 72 hours before the premier’s coalition-forming deadline comes into effect.

In the Prime Minister’s Bureau, they watched the Lieberman show with astonishment tinged with agonizing déjà vu. Here we go again. Netanyahu got in urgent touch with everyone who has direct or indirect ties with the problematic client. He tried to find out how final the ultimatum delivered to him so publicly really is. In a moment of frankness during one of those conversations, he said to his interlocutor, “I’m not sure I’ll succeed in forming a coalition this time.”

What Netanyahu heard from his visitor is that he shouldn’t take the situation lightly and that Lieberman isn’t kidding. Having remained outside the government last time with a happy ending, the Yisrael Beiteinu chief is definitely liable to do it again. This time there’s also no particular ministerial portfolio that he hankers for. He was defense minister for two and a half years, foreign minister for a long spell, and he served in quite a few economic capacities. The man has certainly conquered all possible summits and can now adopt a nonchalant attitude, knowing that the hourglass is running out in his favor.

He has no satanic plan to torpedo the formation of the government and hurl an immunity-less Netanyahu into the jaws of the judicial system. The fantasies conjured up this week, to the effect that Lieberman is planning the sting operation of the century, are groundless and naive.

MK Avigdor Lieberman at the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

Still, as speculations to that effect increased, he took action: All four of his MKs were asked not to give interviews. In the meantime, sources close to the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman intimated to the media that he’s bent on peace, not an explosion.

There’s no problem of mistrust between him and the prime minister. On the contrary: Lieberman truly believes that Netanyahu doesn’t intend to deal with the Gaza Strip in the way he thinks is right. So, until they reach an agreement on that and the other four conditions, he’s out – but high-spirited and sure of his path.

Very narrow bridge

After the election Lieberman met with the leaders of Kahol Lavan, who tried to persuade him to defect. “First, you don’t have an option for forming a government,” he told them, “and second, the overwhelming majority of my voters want Bibi. I don’t have the right to betray them.”

So what’s his story? It’s classic brinkmanship. Both about Gaza and about the draft law. He apparently thinks Netanyahu will meet him halfway on the Gaza issue and that the Haredim will also crack.

Moshe Gafni (leader of the Degel Hatorah faction of United Torah Judaism) and Arye Dery (Shas) can live with the version of the draft law that passed its first vote in the last Knesset. The problem, as always, is Agudat Israel (the other part of UTJ) – or, more accurately, the Gur Rebbe. Well, let the majority persuade the minority.

“I don’t pay twice for the same goods,” Lieberman said this week in private conversations, when asked if he would agree to the establishment of a committee that, within a specified time after the new coalition is formed, would arrive at a solution. “The original formulation, that of the defense establishment, was submitted to the Knesset, after all the committees met and all the discussions ended. The Haredim wanted it to pass. They stood outside the plenum, with the door open, to ensure there was a majority.” (The bill passed its first reading with the votes of Yesh Atid.)

Lieberman rejected the suggestion that in the next round, too, the bill would go through, even without the ultra-Orthodox, with help from Kahol Lavan, which has expressed support for it. I don’t enter the coalition and hook up with the opposition, declared Lieberman, who is demanding the “hermetic sealing” of all the issues, as they are articulated in the existing version of the draft law, and “of everything on the record, with full transparency, no games” – before the government is sworn in.

Lieberman dismisses the talk in the political arena about a compromise being worked out secretly. “We haven’t seen any reply from the Gur Rebbe or any document. No one will pull the wool over my eyes. Our five issues are the minimum.”

Netanyahu told one person he spoke with this week that he thinks the reason for Lieberman’s umbrage is the prime minister’s refusal to accede to his requests and introduce a substantive change in the policy on Gaza prior to the next round of fighting. The two have met three times since the election and talked mostly about the Strip, much as a defense minister-designate would talk to a prime minister-designate. No agreement was reached. Far from it.

“The IDF has detailed plans, Netanyahu is familiar with them, the time has come to implement them,” Lieberman said this week to someone who asked about his plans. “I will not agree to be defense minister again in a situation in which policy is decided but not implemented.”

As an example, he cited the West Bank, Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, which the last government decided to evacuate. The High Court did not intervene – in fact, it green-lighted the decision – but Netanyahu has postponed the evacuation three times.

“I have no interest in torpedoing anything,” the former defense minister said. “I have stated, and I mean it, that we will not support any alternative candidate [for prime minister]. But we will also not forgo any of our demands.” On Wednesday, he clarified that stance: “We will not support any candidate, outside Likud or inside it,” without his demands being met.

What will happen if Netanyahu presents to the Knesset a government based on 60 MKs, without Yisrael Beiteinu, but announces that he is holding the defense and immigrant absorption portfolios for that party? Will Lieberman consider abstaining and thus pave the way for the government’s establishment?

“I hope they won’t try to drag me to that place,” he replied. “How did [Menachem] Begin put it? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

MK Moshe Kahlon.Credit: Nir Keidar

Keeping the books

With a calculator – real or virtual – in hand, the present and designated finance minister is working out the rising and monstrous costs of the coalition agreements and doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He’s inclined toward the latter.

Every once in a while Moshe Kahlon gets a call from Minister Yariv Levin. How much will it cost us, Levin wants to know, regarding the demands raised by the negotiators on the other side. What are they giving in return, exactly? Not much. In the meantime they’re behaving as though they have a serious case of bulimia. The state’s coffers look to them like a treasure chest that they’ve inherited from Grandpa.

An expert team in the Finance Ministry receives the monetary demands from potential coalition partners, and factors them into the next state budget. At the conclusion of the negotiations, Kahlon will come to Netanyahu with the grand total. He’ll tell him how much can be paid out and what it will entail. He has red lines, though. The pensions Lieberman is demanding? That can be discussed, but they’ll have to be allotted in stages. Raising the health tax – as the deputy health minister, Yaakov Litzman (UTJ/Agudat Israel), is asking? Maybe by a quarter of a percent, for the benefit of more hospital beds. The public will understand, if that move is marketed properly.

As of this writing, 30 days after Netanyahu got the nod to form a government and less than two weeks before the gong signaling that time has run out is sounded, Kahlon hasn’t appointed a treasury team for the coalition talks. People are saying I’ve disappeared, he observed this week, but that’s absolutely not true; I’m here. But there’s no point in finalizing an agreement if I don’t know what the final numbers are. Bibi understands, he has no complaints about me.

The option of a 60-seat coalition, without Yisrael Beiteinu, which people in Likud are starting to mention out loud, is a nonstarter for Kahlon. He will not agree to serve as finance minister in a teetering minority government subject to extortion, in which he is the one forced to block with his own body any future economic tsunami.

Even without the economic load he’ll carry, the next coalition isn’t looking like a picnic for Kahlon. When the bitter moment arrives at which that new group will be called upon to participate in an obscene act against Israeli democracy in order to save an offender from standing trial – the finance minister will be the first to be reminded of his firm assertions in the last government: “I will not support any custom-tailored law. If an indictment is submitted against Netanyahu, he will have to resign as prime minister that same day.”

Ironically, Kahlon will be blasted for his flip-flopping more than Netanyahu is being blasted today, when his lies are being exposed. That’s the way of the world. No one expects anything from the prime minister any more.

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