Benjamin Netanyahu sits in his office, or in his official residence or his home in Caesarea, sucking on his cigar. He makes his calculations, analyzes the map of his interests, considers his next moves: When to call for an election? What would be most worthwhile for him? What would be the least beneficial for his rivals? Should he lean in the direction of a “short” campaign – 90 to 100 days – or an extended one of five months? A brief, productive one, or a long, exhausting one? Would Benny Ganz, for instance, benefit more from one or the other?
Of course, and maybe above all else, the prime minister’s mind is filled with investigations and the decisions to be made about them by the attorney general which, like the horizon, seem to be moving ever further away. But even if they tarry, they will surely come.
Netanyahu has had an entire month, since the beginning of the High Holy Days, to ponder the issue of the election. Everyone who has spoken to him lately, between all the holidays and the weekends that blended into one another, has gotten the impression that his decision will come in the next 10 days, before the Knesset convenes for its winter session on October 15. Or at the very latest, by the first weekend in the parliamentary calendar.
He doesn’t have to make a decision in an active way. Early next week, the Council of Torah Sages, the spiritual leaders of Agudat Yisrael, the Hasidic faction of United Torah Judaism, will convene to debate and determine once and for all their position on the legislation calling for induction of ultra-Othodox men.
The council’s emissary here on earth – in the Knesset and the government – is Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. All of the members of the coalition understand that, up until now, he has been the fiercest opponent of a shortening of its tenure. He would rule with total decisiveness, as if he had heard directly from the Holy Presence itself, in all its glory, that the government would devote all its remaining days and invest its very soul to staving off its opponents, and so survive until November 2019.
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No more. Optimism and hope have abandoned Litzman. In private conversations, he estimates that an election will take place during the first three months of next year. In other words, the 20th Knesset will be dissolved within the coming month. The elderly rabbis he represents are not willing to consider even the slightest hint of a compromise or shred of concession on the matter of conscription. The practicality that dictates the path of both UTJ’s sister Haredi party, Degel Hatorah, and of Shas, is in their view heresy. A desecration of the Divine Name.
There is always a possibility that the rabbis will soften at the last minute and alter their stubborn stance in exchange for more time to make amendments to the latest version of the military draft bill that the Ministry of Defense has proposed. To that the minister of defense will declare a firm “nyet!” He has voters to court as well. And this is not the time to be seen as a wimp. The ball will then roll back into the court of the great sages of our time, and at that moment, when the council hands down its ruling, the lid sealing this pressure cooker of a political system will fly up into the heavens like an especially agitated S-300 missile launched by the Russians.
Certain people have met with Netanyahu recently. They spoke calmly about these scenarios. Their conclusions have all been identical: There is no reason to drag things out. If it’s fast, it will not be ugly. The Knesset’s winter session, they agreed, will in any case be conducted in the shadow of an election, which ensures proposals of a host of populist and budget-related legislation, conducted by MKs in an end-of-semester exhilaration – in short, a parliamentary mess par excellence.
The coalition partners will troll the prime minister from morning til night. Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett will demand the building of 700 residential units in the middle of nowhere in the West Bank. Shas’ Arye Dery will go crazy about businesses open on Shabbat, while Litzman will call raise a holy ruckus about other work taking place on the day of rest. For his part, Lieberman will harden his stance vis-a-vis the Haredim. And his ongoing arguments with Bennett are likely to lead to fisticuffs in the middle of a security cabinet meeting. The defense minister has already beaten a child who drove him crazy once.
Who needs this headache?
The prime minister was recently asked: With all this going on, why don’t you just already announce that you are closing up shop?
“What’s the hurry?” answered Netanyahu. “Let someone else do the work.”
New York, New York
Culture Minister Miri Regev and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara’s flattering and sycophantic performance before Bibi and Sarah, last Friday evening in a New York hotel room, is another sign of the times. Two individuals who are immune to either shame or self-awareness wallow at the feet of two others, who relate to such obseqiuousness with alarming naturalness. The prime minister wears an expression of seriousness and severity, like someone who looks like he has no choice. His wife is beside herself with joy, scattering regal smiles to all as she accepts the embarrassing words of praise. (This event was documented by Globes journalist Tal Schneider, via her Twitter account).
There is no other Western leader (or their spouse) who would dare to produce a tasteless self-parody such as this (and just to dispel any doubts, it was a command performance). Based on our acquaintance with the two sides, one should not dismiss the possibility that the libretto itself was dictated in advance, or at least its chapter headings. And if it wasn’t, if the groupies acted on their own accord, they certainly knew that no one will shut them down. Oמ the contrary.
What a blockbuster musical could have been written here, with lines like these from verse-master Kara: “He’s simply admired by leaders / in the Middle East / like no one else. / This is something that crosses all borders / topographical and human and everything else surrounding Israel!”
Or this, from Miri the Minstrel Minister: “Prime Minister, we are proud of you / we love you / we are happy that you are our prime minister! / And you, Mrs. Netanyahu, / thank you for the way you lead / together with the prime minister. / You are a winning couple, a winning family, and what pride you bestow upon us!”
Like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the two ministers paid their way in full and in public for their places on the prime minister’s plane and for their stay in the luxury hotel. For themselves and their assistants. Regev won on points. Her description of Sara Netanyahu as a “leader” will certainly be to her advantage when the next coalition is created.
Previously, it is only in dictatorial regimes that we have witnessed such things. Such scenes may remind us, for instance, of Saddam Hussein’s cabinet and top brass praising and cheering him moments before defeat in the Gulf War, or Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops, seen against the background of the ruins of Syrian cities that he bombed without mercy, or the treatment of Kim Jong Un and of his father and grandfather before him.
The whole crazy spectacle in Manhattan signifies not only the depths to which we have sunk. It is also a sign of the future. The next electoral campaign will be characterized by the same narrative – that “there’s only Bibi,” and “there’s no alternative.” That without Bibi there is no state, no army, no economy, no diplomacy, no intelligence and no cyber. Without him, the sea is dead and the world has burned up.
The campaign will revolve around a single question: “yes” to Netanyahu or “no” to Netanyahu. The Likud’s senior figures will be expected to fall in line and go with the flow. Kara and Regev have drawn the lines and set the bar for their fellow ministers and MKs.
This will be the standard. Whoever fails to suck up, whoever does not praise, glorify and exalt the Leader and his wife will be viewed as hostile. The position papers written by the candidate’s campaign staff will include the requisite content. Woe to anyone who diverges from or diminishes it.
No one at the top ranks of Likud ever imagined that Netanyahu would appoint Kara communications minister. No one thought Regev would be invited to meetings of the security cabinet. In our days, in our age, however, every hallucination can become a reality.
Among today’s Likud ministers, the only ones who can sleep peacefully in the knowledge that their advancement toward the next coalition is assured – on the widely shared assumption that Netanyahu will indeed be the next prime minister – are those two clowns. Their senior colleagues will not advance. Because there is simply nowhere to go.
Netanyahu will never appoint Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa’ar, or Yisrael Katz to one of the three top ministerial posts: defense, treasury or foreign affairs. His declaration some two weeks ago at a meeting of coalition heads, that the next government will be a “copy-paste” of the present one, was intended not only to convince those party leaders to agree to lower the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset, but also sent a razor-sharp message to his “senior ministers”: Say “thank you” if you get to stay in your unimportant ministries; that’s the maximum you can allow yourselves to expect. The valuable portfolios will go first of all to coalition partners. If they want them, they will get them. With pleasure.
Moshe Kahlon – who quit Likud and founded a competing party, Kulanu, garnered 10 mandates, most of them at the expense of his original party, three years ago, and landed gently in the Finance Ministry – tends to mock the friends he left behind: “It’s preferable to be self-employed than to be Netanyahu’s employee.”
“Preferable” does not begin to describe it. They bow their heads, knowing that he’s right. There are no major portfolios for them, only medium and small ones.
Kahlon left, competed, and now he’s treasury minister. Avigdor Liberman left, competed against Likud several times, and his record already includes two tenures as foreign minister and one as defense minister. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked were in the Likud and considered running for Knesset, but gambled on Habayit Hayehudi; now they’re education minister and justice minister, respectively.
The “35-40 mandates” that Netanyahu has set as Likud’s goal in the upcoming election has meaning above and beyond expressing the natural desire of every party leader to see his party grow by 10 to 20 percent. Nor is it just an obsession with an electoral achievement that matches that of Ariel Sharon in the 2003 election (38 mandates). And it’s not simply rooted in personal ambition motivated by hatred and fueled by an ancient familial vendetta aimed at undermining and destroying the power of Habayit Hayehudi. Behind this hoped-for goal is a view to the impending decision of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.
This week, two heads of coalition parties and two senior Likudniks sketched out, in conversations off the record, the following screenplay: If Likud really wins big in the election and garners at least 32-33 mandates, in contrast to single-digit results for his coalition partners, Netanyahu will feel strong enough to get potential coalition partners to commit to providing personal protection for him in any coalition agreement. He will set the bar as high as possible: a commitment to support passage is what is called the “French law,” which would prohibit putting a serving prime minister on trial.
If they won’t agree to that, he will set his sights a little lower: He’ll demand a written and public commitment not to quit the coalition prior to any legal proceedings being taken against him and the handing down of a final judgment. Meaning, after any and all appeals have been exhausted.
If that doesn’t work, a third alternative will be to require of coalition partners a promise him that they’ll wait to decide on their own paths until after a final ruling comes from the attorney general regarding an indictment. Not an initial decision, “conditioned upon a hearing,” but after completion of the full pre-trial procedure, which is a matter of at least a year. To that request, Netanyahu is certain to receive the full agreement of all the coalition partners sitting with him at present.
Which leaves the following question: What will be Yair Lapid’s response if the premier offers him the foreign affairs portfolio? The temptation will be great, and so will the risk.