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Netanyahu Forces Gantz's Hand Even Before They Swear in a Government

And it’s a sign of things to come

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Israel's new cabinet, May 2020.
Israel's new cabinet, May 2020.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The Knesset hall had been scrubbed and sterilized, and Kahol Lavan’s new ministers were feeling tingles of excitement. And yet, as with everything Benjamin Netanyahu arranges, the last minute was actually the next-to-last minute – before the anticlimax. Netanyahu, having failed to appease his party’s whiners, twisted the arm of his new buddy, Benny Gantz, one more time and forced him to postpone the swearing-in ceremony to Sunday.

As expected, the Kahol Lavan chief insisted that the swearing-in be held Thursday night. After all, hadn’t he and his people endured enough? But then Gantz yielded to Netanyahu. Apparently this was a sneak peek.

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Perhaps as befitting his lifestyle, Netanyahu’s fifth government will be Israel’s largest and most expensive ever. He too started out moderately ambitious and became the messiah king. There was a time when he would have settled for one cigar box, not whole crates.

Times change, his appetite grew. Still, it seems the current ministerial monster is the lesser of evils. If another election had been called, it very likely would have increased the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc and helped Netanyahu implement his plan to take over the law enforcement system, dismiss the attorney general and appoint a bath mat looking like Dan Eldad. If Eldad had remained state prosecutor during Netanyahu’s corruption trial due to start this month, that would have been a great help to Defendant No. 1.

New laws would have crushed the Supreme Court, neutralized the attorney general and awarded the cabinet and governing coalition absolute power. Maybe we wouldn’t be like Turkey, but we’d be approaching Viktor Orban-land, a pariah in the Western world. But the Hungarian’s Israeli colleague sees him as a close friend and maybe even as a mentor – a limited democracy in the service of one man.

The new coalition will ensure that the prime minister’s trial proceeds as it should, to its end. With the justice portfolio in the hands Kahol Lavan’s Avi Nissenkorn, the courts won’t be closed down even if a thousand more coronavirus patients are discovered.

Netanyahu knows this, so he’s augmenting his legal team while firing up the incitement and slander. This is a multiarmed machine, an evil empire stretching from the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street, where the main well-poisoner resides. It stretches to his collaborators in the cabinet and the Knesset, to outposts in the media, and to the sewage flowing on social media.

The troops have been tasked with generating a toxic, conspiratorial network of alternative facts. The topic: the huge corruption! It’s the decade-old Harpaz affair, whose cadaver has been hauled out in a way that would make Viktor Frankenstein jealous.

The new title: the Mendelblit-Ashkenazi affair, roping in the attorney general and the former military chief who’s now No. 2 in Gantz’s party. That’s the source of evil, that’s the danger that threatened democracy then and is threatening the beloved leader now. That’s why there are all those corruption cases against Netanyahu.

Thus the top law enforcer is forced to complain to the police that he and his family are receiving death threats. The Hamas-like video that I mentioned last week – depicting a funeral for Mendelblit – was only discovered by the television channels following the attorney general’s complaint.

For weeks the madness has been running amok, and the prime minister hasn’t uttered a sound. After all, he’s not the master of his tweets or responses. He’s subordinate to the chief censor, his son Yair, the snake’s head of the slanderers and the callers for Mendelblit’s blood.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit attends a conference at Tel Aviv University, January 28, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Netanyahu isn’t one to learn from history. In 1995 someone stood in his way, one Yitzhak Rabin. Back then it was inflammatory speeches that fueled flaming hatred and horrifying demonstrations, with Netanyahu present at Zion Square and a faux coffin added for good measure. To this day Netanyahu feigns innocence; as far as he’s concerned, he was just fine. Today the one standing in his way is Avichai Mendelblit, and history is repeating, not fully God forbid, with venomous WhatsApp groups and social-media ghouls thrown in.

We can’t expect anything new of Netanyahu; that’s who he is. This is his way, and it will be his legacy. But how can we explain Gantz’s silence, which was broken only Thursday, when he finally took the trouble to tweet a denunciation?

The deputy prime minister needed nearly a full day to open his mouth once the attorney general filed a complaint with the police; that is, only after the coalition agreements had been signed, the swearing-in had been set and the portfolios had been distributed. Only then the fearless warrior had the courage to scribble a few words that may not sound so good to his new partner.

Goon show

Israel’s 35th government is like Forrest Gump and that box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get. It’s so crooked that even a yearlong lockdown and a new vaccine wouldn’t straighten it out. Ministries are cut in two, three or four, and there are inexplicable rotations at midterm in the cabinet and even in the Knesset committees. And of course, there are the insulting nothing portfiolios.

In everything concerning his party, Netanyahu came filled with a desire to appease the guys, who refused to be appeased. Like Oliver Twist, top Likudniks asked for more. All Netanyahu’s wheeling, dealing and shenanigans were no good and the process stretched far beyond the allotted time, leading to a farce that was embarrassing even to Bibi’s standards.

Let’s start with what’s already known, even if not officially. The promise to appoint Miri Regev foreign minister in the government’s second term is undoubtedly the trick of the century. Its possible conclusions contradict one another. Maybe Netanyahu has no intention of carrying out the rotation, so he doesn’t mind promising that an ignorant, hectoring former army spokeswoman will serve in the state’s top diplomatic role.

The Knesset during the coronavirus crisis and the week before the new cabinet was sworn in, May 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Or the opposite is true: He’ll step down as promised, and his successor will be stuck with this vulgarity who will wander around the world with a huge entourage, leaving a trail of disgrace and embarrassment.

Regev, the outgoing culture minister and incoming transportation minister, turned up her nose at her new portfolio. The Transportation Ministry is a dream for many top Likudniks. It has a huge budget and huge projects, and it lets you cultivate ties with the heads of local governments. These are the elementary rules of Likud politics. The Public Security Ministry is much more limited, being in charge of a statutory body, the police.

That’s exactly the point. As with the Culture Ministry, the lady’s not for working; that’s not really her thing. She wants to make some noise, troll, incite and divide. She doesn’t need the heads of local governments. Like Bibi, her base is among the simple party members. They share the hard core that hates the elites and the imaginary “left.” That’s exactly why the prime minister sweated in an effort to appease Regev.

Next, outgoing Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who overtook Regev in the race to the Public Security Ministry. He’ll serve as a human wrecking ball.

The man who has made damage and dispute his trademark will set out to implement the methods he learned from the Balfour residence, and he’ll do it at the ministry in charge of the investigators considering further corruption investigations into Netanyahu. Many of these investigators are due to appear in court and argue for the prosecution against the defendant. The Netanyahu family expects Ohana to succeed where his predecessor, Gilad Erdan, failed: in torpedoing investigations.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana at a rally in March 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Encouraged by his success at the Justice Ministry – where his greatest success was making the attorney general the most threatened official in the country – Ohana won’t settle for less in his new role.

Next, Yuli Edelstein. After his shameful last few weeks as Knesset speaker – when he refused to step down – he’s being given a chance to make amends at the Health Ministry. Edelstein is coming with enthusiasm and goodwill. And the notion that the ministry needs a medical doctor at the top is populist and superficial. Its director general would preferably be a successful director of a large hospital, but the minister must be a seasoned senior politician. (And Edelstein was elected first on the Likud ticket, placing him right behind Netanyahu.)

This politico should be familiar with the corridors of power and the Knesset, someone who has cards to play at the Prime Minister’s Office and leverage against the incoming finance minister, Yisrael Katz. Only in this way can Edelstein demand the necessary funds.

A veto by Kahol Lavan has put outgoing Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the state’s second most important role, Knesset speaker. If Edelstein’s spitting in the Supreme Court’s face was a one-off, Levin, whose hostility to the court is ideological, will have a term marked by a revolt against the justice system.

When Edelstein deliberated on whether to carry out the High Court’s decision and convene the Knesset to vote for his successor, Levin advised him to say no to the Supreme Court and invite its president, Esther Hayut, “to come with the court guard and open the Knesset herself.” It will be no surprise if Levin, who will have the Knesset guard at his disposal, sets up his own private militia to point its bayonets and barrels at the justices on the neighboring hill the next time the legislature and judiciary clash.

There is no abomination that this coalition hasn’t whitewashed and no bad joke that hasn’t become a much worse reality. Haim Katz, who was indicted for corruption and dodged a trial thanks to his friends in the Knesset, will again head the Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. That’s precisely the scene where Katz allegedly committed the offenses he was indicted for.

Mendelblit gets death threats on one side and spat in the face on the other. And when he looks up he sees a prime minister who has taken out a contract on him.

Flattery, not revenge

A day before the swearing-in of the 33rd government in March 2013, Gilad Erdan agreed with Netanyahu that he’d be both communications and strategic affairs minister. Erdan went to sleep happy. At midnight he was awakened by the phone; it was Bibi.

Netanyahu shared with Erdan a problem that had cropped up with Yuval Steinitz, who had been forced to part with the finance portfolio, which was given to Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. Steinitz demanded compensation, something with a “strategic” flavor.

So Netanyahu asked Erdan if he was willing to concede. Erdan, still half asleep, mumbled something. Netanyahu thanked him warmly and hung up. When Erdan woke up, he wasn’t sure if he’d been dreaming or was the victim of an obscene phone call. This week, after the announcement that Erdan would be the ambassador to both the United Nations and the United States, someone advised him to drink a lot of coffee and stay up late.

Gilad Erdan during a visit to the Arab town of Deir al-Asad during the coronavirus pandemic, April 19, 2020.Credit: Rami Shilush

The ceremony for placing Erdan a sea and ocean away was bombastic. Flags and a podium were placed on the stage at the prime minister’s residence; only an honor guard and trumpeters were missing. The prime minister parted from the new ambassador with warm words, and the latter responded in kind.

But this was only the setting for a brutal, vindictive move by the Netanyahu family. The real story isn’t the platitudes but the frequent tweets by the elder son, who makes sure to “like” and “share” with the outgoing public security minister every vilification hurled at him on social media by the Bibi cult.

Gadi Taub, a contributor to Haaretz’s op-ed page, tweeted a picture of the future ambassador with former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and the words “Erdan’s failure at the Public Security Ministry.” According to Taub, the failure was that Erdan hadn’t thwarted the investigations into the prime minister.

Yair Netanyahu “liked” this, of course. The father praises Erdan in front of the cameras while the son sprays slime from his laptop on the second floor. That’s how they divide the work.

The family decided to punish Erdan not only for his “failure” at the Public Security Ministry, as if Alsheich hadn’t been forced on him by Netanyahu, who believed the religious settler would work for him. Bibi also punished Erdan for setting up the new public broadcasting corporation.

If Erdan hadn’t been a popular Likudnik repeatedly coming in near the top in the party primary, Netanyahu would have found a much more humiliating way to take revenge on him. He may have offered him some nonsense portfolio that Erdan would have refused. But with Gideon Sa’ar lurking on the backbenches, the risk of pushing Erdan into Sa’ar’s arms prevailed over the delight of revenge.

Realizing that Erdan wouldn’t settle for the United Nations alone, Netanyahu offered him Washington as well until the rotation. After five exhausting, frustrating years at the Public Security Ministry, Erdan was ready to move. Netanyahu knows him. He detected Erdan’s weariness and created a situation where no other option existed.

Social distortion

Nobody can equal Netanyahu in making up portfolios. His creativity is only matched by the new ministers’ opportunism, dragging Israeli politics into a deeper abyss.

It’s heartwarming to hear about the exponential growth in ministries dealing with social affairs in Netanyahu’s governments. We have social affairs, social equality, and now with Orli Levi-Abekasis, community development; well, that’s one way to translate it. Israel’s poor will surely be gratified by all the new government jobs going to other people.

The chief opportunist, Gesher chief Levi-Abekasis, stole her Knesset seat from the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance. Now she’ll get a chance to sanctimoniously preach to the public.

Orli Levi-Abekasis taking a brief break from the political fray in March 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Maybe she’ll find beside her Yoaz Hendel, the new communications minister. When he pledged allegiance as a minister, he would have even made George Orwell envious. He followed his despicable defection from Kahol Lavan with an ultimatum for generous party funding.

Let’s add to that right-winger Rafi Peretz; until Thursday it wasn’t clear which portfolio he’d get, after Netanyahu withdrew his promise to appoint him minister for Jerusalem affairs and heritage.

In his short political career, Peretz has managed to demolish a party, turn Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir into someone even the left felt pity for, and break another commitment to his partners in the Yamina alliance, the last party to make it into the Knesset after the March 2 election. Notwithstanding Netanyahu’s desire to cause damage to Naftali Bennett and his rogue colleagues, Peretz owes his feats of failure to his dominant wife Michal and her relationship with Sara Netanyahu.

By now our tears have dried regarding the tragedy that befell the most enthusiastic group to sign the pathetic loyalty pledges to Netanyahu. Yamina had better do some soul searching. It’s time for its constituent splinter parties to close shop and for their members to join Likud. Who the needs these minnows when Likud is the most loyal representative of the settlers and both the new and old right ?

Likud will best surrender to the rabbis’ messianic fancies, expand the occupation in the West Bank, enlarge and increase the number of settlements and legitimize illegal outposts. Maybe in the near future sovereignty will be imposed on Area C in the West Bank, peace with Jordan will be revoked, and the “risk” of a peace agreement with the Palestinians will disappear for good. What will Bennett, Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich or their successors then have to offer their constituents?

Ultra-Orthodox ascendant

Meanwhile, it’s interesting how much of the economy will be controlled by the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, a phenomenon that has gone over our heads.

With the generosity of the emergency government and Kahol Lavan legislators who promised – but who remembers? – a “secular unity government,” a number of outposts have been abandoned to the most sectoral politicians in the Knesset. They’ll be submitting to the most extremist rabbis.

The Construction and Housing Ministry and the Knesset Finance Committee will be in the hands of United Torah Judaism. The Interior Ministry, the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, and the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee have been given to Shas. This committee has never been held by an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, party. In fact, it usually goes to the opposition – in the name of parliamentary and socioeconomic balance.

A parliamentary veteran has called this cluster of jobs and positions a “nuclear power,” noting that all economic life in the country is dependent on these ministries and committees. The Haredim will have leverage over every economic or financial sector – and when you give leverage to these guys, the most sophisticated and skilled parliamentarians there are, they know how to use it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press briefing on the coronavirus, March 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Yaakov Litzman, who was hapless as a health minister, will now have control over the entire construction industry and all the country’s real estate. Well, we know he’s an expert at brokering after all that brokering for his community he did.

Shas chief Arye Dery will remain interior minister and Negev and Galilee development minister, but now he’ll also have the Planning Administration, which will be returned to the Interior Ministry from the Finance Ministry. This powerful body was moved to the treasury in 2015 so that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon would have a full toolbox to carry out his housing plans.

Also, the Israel Land Authority will migrate from the Finance Ministry to Litzman’s ministry, as will the government company in charge of housing and rentals.

Together, Dery and Litzman and Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism will hold economic-political power that their parties have never held. It will be disproportionate to the government’s broad base. The two Haredi parties together have 16 of the Knesset’s 120 seats – Shas nine and United Torah Judaism seven – a shade more than a fifth of the governing coalition.

How did this happen, you might ask? Again, the Haredim know more than just the Torah. Dery and Litzman “gave in” on the ministers front – the easiest thing to give in on. In return, they demanded and received three of the most important committees in the Knesset.

The third committee, by the way, is the very powerful Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which will be headed by an MK from United Torah Judaism. This scandal went over our heads, too.

The Ashkenazi Haredim will head a committee that discusses legal procedures, Basic Laws and – according to its platform from the day it was established – maybe a constitution. Or a non-constitution. The Ashkenazi Haredim are the harshest opponents of enacting a constitution. As far as they’re concerned, a constitution already exists, and of course it’s the Bible. Who needs another one?

Traditionally, the Haredim don’t like unity governments, because their power is weakened in such a configuration. The Netanyahu-Gantz government is the exception: The ultra-Orthodox would never have had such great power in a narrow government. There is a God, despite everything.

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