Netanyahu Fled a Crucial Knesset Vote, Rendering Gantz Relevant for Once

The prime minister told Likud to vote against a committee to investigate judges, but changed his mind at the last minute, apparently at his son's urging

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a government meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a government meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

For over 24 hours, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu debated what he should do with the hot potato that lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich placed before the Knesset: The establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the conflicts of interest of the Supreme Court justices.

He was not quite comfortable with such a humiliation. The justices' behavior is lacking, broadcasts hubris and demands correction, but a commission of inquiry?! And a parliamentary one at that, which houses types like Yamina's Smotrich, who was rescued from a harsh indictment by the skin of his teeth for his actions during the Gaza disengagement, or Likud lawmakers May Golan and Osnat Mark, who are competing to see which one of their (remarkably poor) vocabularies is richer in curses against the Supreme Court?

Netanyahu zigzagged, but the entire time he leaned toward ordering Likud MKs to vote against. A message in this spirit was passed on to the disappointed Knesset members. But just before the session, he flipped. Even Arye Dery's furious shouts and phone-slamming did not do any good. The Shas chairman had identified in the decision a clear and immediate threat that the governing coalition will be dismantled – and that the budget that the Haredim have been waiting for with such longing so their yeshivas and institutions will not become “financially crippled” would not be approved.

There is an ancient understanding in the political system: When Netanyahu unexpectedly changes his opinion, at the last minute and sometimes against his own clear interest, he is not acting spontaneously. He is being activated. His handler is located in the Prime Minister’s Residence. This time the fingers were apparently pointed at his son Yair – himself a tweeting machine of low-brow insults and curses against the justices. In the twisted division of authority and wills in the Prime Minister’s Residence, Junior is responsible for the judicial system, and the missus runs the financial matters. The shameful debate in the Knesset Finance Committee on Netanyahu's tax refunds was Sara. The harassment of the judges – that’s Yair. And the prime minister? A pawn in their hands.

On Wednesday, the news broke that there will be a criminal investigation of the caretaker of the Prime Minister's Residence, for disrupting court proceedings and providing false testimony. This is just another episode of a never-ending soap opera. But it is not the caretaker who is responsible for Netanyahu’s troubles, but the wife and son. His scathing loss in the Knesset brought Kahol Lavan back from the dead and made it relevant again. For the first time, Benny Gantz, from quarantine in his residence; Gabi Ashkenazi, who sent sparks flying in the Knesset and justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, fought over a matter of principle that their voters care about – and won.

Netanyahu granted invaluable validation and an easy victory to Yamina, too, which after a month and a half of being lost in the opposition, could finally show some pride to its voters in a move dear to their hearts, even if it failed. It showed, once again, what a mistake it was them out of the government. Netanyahu gave in to his basic instincts – or, more accurately, to the instincts of you-know-who – and it cost him dearly. Smotrich and his friends are now accusing Likud of not delivering the goods, and they're right.

Like a commander who flexes his muscles, calls out "after me!" and then flees the battlefield, the Likud chairman fled the Knesset plenum. He managed to shoot himself in the foot a number of times. At first, when he inflamed his hard core base, which despises the Supreme Court and smelled blood – and a few hours later, he disappointed them. In addition, he strengthened the narrative that is already trickling deep down into the public’s consciousness that the coronavirus crisis and the worst economic and social disaster in Israel’s history – and we haven't seen the half of it yet – is not among his top priorities. The foolishness of annexation, the swinish greed of tax refunds, slaughtering the attorney general and now this stillborn committee come first. If this wasn't enough, he played into his "winning" image, and ended up painted as the schlimazel – or as "absent," as Knesset Secretary Yardena Meller announced.

For anyone in politics, there's no doubt: If the proposal had passed, the government would have collapsed. Which raises the next question – why did Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman not let it happen? They did not show great wisdom. All they had to do is to have the MKs from Yesh Atid-Telem and Yisrael Beiteinu leave the Knesset hall. The government would have descended into chaos, and would have fallen apart just like that. The two of them would have been celebrating a sweet victory.

It was not just Netanyahu who acted against his own interests. Lapid and Lieberman did too, and in doing so they, in practice, saved Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan, their sworn enemies. The defeat Gantz and his colleagues served to Netanyahu and Likud will allow them to compromise with him on the question of the budget, which will grant the government a life expectancy of a few more months. But that is not enough. If they don’t vote in favor of the proposal to establish a commission of inquiry into the submarines affair next week or make another forceful move, all the benefits they accrued on Wednesday will disappear all at once.

And a last word on MK Miki Zohar, the coalition leader. In a move that was pathetic and preposterous– synonyms for the man himself – he tried to shift the blame yesterday to no other than President Reuven Rivlin. According to Zohar, Rivlin acted in the shadows to bring about the result in the Knesset. Sure, Rivlin has not been an MK for six years now. In comparison, at a distance of only half a kilometer as the crow flies, sits MK Benjamin Netanyahu, who intentionally avoided showing up in the Knesset, where he could have used his magical influence to prove his cosmic abilities and transport the Likud MKs who were playing hooky back into the hall.

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