The Sa'ar Effect: Netanyahu and Bennett Left Scrambling for New-old Strategies

Gantz will be delighted to see Netanyahu suffer defeat at the hands of the former Likudnik ■ Sa’ar throwing his hat into the ring left Naftali Bennett stripped of a strategy

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Supposedly the ceremony is over. All the paths have been blocked. On Tuesday at midnight the Knesset will dissolve itself automatically and Israel will tumble into a fourth election over the course of less than two years. The noose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an indicted man fleeing trial, is winding around the country’s neck will grow ever tighter. Another five months, at least, without a national budget, without oxygen for a gasping economy.

Additional billions of shekels will be poured into the bottomless pit of campaigns and Election Day and the day off from work, along with coronavirus logistics that will inflate the bill. More huge salaries will be paid to advisers who will flood us with venomous, mendacious, filthy propaganda.

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And with a not-unreasonable scenario for a fifth round.

Rumors – or are they actual news? – of negotiations and compromise will accompany us until the moment of dissolution. That is the nature of the genre. Technically, it is not possible to approve the ridiculous 2020 budget (for all of eight days), and certainly not the budget for 2021, in two days of parliamentary work. There will have to be a postponement of a month, a month and half, at minimum. Are Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz and Netanyahu capable of reaching an agreement? And what will it include? Sacking Avi Nissenkorn from the Justice Ministry, as Netanyahu is demanding – a man indicted for felonies sacks a justice minister; makes sense, really – would render Gantz persona non grata. He would not be able to show his face in the street. Or in the room at the Knesset where his party’s caucus meets; they would revolt against him.

All the other alternatives, like prolonging Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister for two years and then “rotation” with the alternate (yeah, you bet), or some other contrivance that will batten Gantz’s standing and guarantee him a horizon, are doomed to be violated and trampled by the signatory to the original agreement. A crook remains a crook, even when he signs a new check. A snake remains a snake, even when he sheds his skin and baas like a lamb. And a sucker isn’t supposed to sanctify his suckerhood after he has been humiliated and scorned dozens of times (unless he enjoys that).

We are heading for an election, period, Gantz is telling his interlocutors. All kinds of people are coming to him, appealing to him. For the people’s sake. An economist comes, a well-known rabbi comes, a politician comes and all of them get the “look.” Someone described to me Gantz’s expression as that of a jihadist suicide bomber after indoctrination and half a year in a training camp. Seeing Netanyahu suffer defeat at the hands of former Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar (previously it was Yamina lawmaker Naftali Bennett) would fill him with joy.

Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, a failed and harried cynic, accused Gantz on Thursday of “a terror attack on the citizens of the state.” No less. Netanyahu’s partner in holding the economy hostage to their violations of the coalition agreement dares to open his mouth. The economic terror attack is entirely attributable to him and to the man who appointed him to his position. A prime minister who humiliates his finance minister at every possible opportunity, only so the latter will come with the porridge bowl in his hands and beg: “Please sir, I want some more.”

Until the bitter end, the disorder will continue to reign, and the duo of Netanyahu and Katz will just make it worse. Instead of a budget, an election economy of grants (along with a massive budget cut that will be felt later on, especially among the weaker classes). In the spirit of the times, Herod will dress up as Santa Claus. Nothing will be done properly. Like the repeated postponements of the meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, so as not to get in the way of the photo-op of the year: Netanyahu being vaccinated on Saturday evening in front of the camera.

A lot of credit is due to Netanyahu for getting the vaccines. And all the credit given will not satisfy his appetite. “I have worked hard to bring them to you,” he wrote this week in the gazillionth social media post glorifying his own actions. Someone has to remind him that it is we who are paying both for the vaccines and the salary of the person who has taken charge of bringing them.

A Joint List

The email from lawmaker Avigdor “Yvet” Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) proposing to Sa’ar, opposition leader Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Bennett that they all join together in a single slate that “will run against Likud and the ultra-Orthodox” landed in the addressees’ inboxes at midnight Tuesday. In perfect coordination with the newspapers going to press. The next day it was the top headline in Yedioth Ahronoth and on Ynet.

Yisrael Beiteinu is dropping to five or six Knesset seats in the public opinion polls. Sa’ar, like a flesh-eating bacterium, is biting into it as well. Lieberman urgently needed someone or something to get him back into the headlines. He scribbled an “initiative” and sold it exclusively to his favorite media organization. The effect he was seeking never came. The political arena reacted by dismissing it, and the public yawned.

Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in Jerusalem, December 2020. Credit: Dani Shem Tov / Knesset Spokesperson

The news cycle was dominated again this week by Sa’ar. Lawmaker Yifat Shasha-Biton, a Likud renegade, joined his slate and it soared to 21 Knesset seats in the Channel 12 poll (versus 27 for Likud), forcing all the relevant players to think again. At the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street and at the Prime Minister’s Office, according to people who have been in and out, a sense of siege prevails. Netanyahu’s confident performances receiving cargoes of vaccines at the airport conceal an inner storm. A rightist and ultra-Orthodox government that will carry out his schemes and exempt him from trial had seemed within reach until a week ago. No longer. Sa’ar, he says in closed conversations, is someone I believe. He will never join up with me.

Netanyahu knows how to read public opinion polls. The ones that he himself commissions are painting the Knesset seats that abandoned him in a definite color: Likudniks in their blood who have become fed up with him and the bunch of lightweights surrounding him. He is looking for an antidote. A Herutnik – from the historic progenitor of Likud – an old-fashioned fan of the Betar Jerusalem soccer team, as opposed to the current “Familia” of racist hooligans, who will be slotted into the top 10 on the slate without having to go through the party primary and perhaps, there’s a slim chance, will manage to stop the bleeding. The problem is that there are no such people left. Sa’ar is the last Likudnik who kept on going and finally broke. But Netanyahu is looking. He recently contacted a general in the reserves who was born into the original Herut “fighting family” and offered him a slot. Yoav Gallant should take note. Thus far, this hasn’t gone anywhere.

The number of times this insight has been written here is the same as the number of crazy tweets from the residential quarters at Balfour Street. Yet let us note once again: Like someone who has been spooked by a ghost and cannot help but submit to his impulses, to the familial madness that surrounds him, Netanyahu has been systematically distancing the quality people of public stature – dozens of them. From former cabinet ministers and Likud stalwarts Dan Meridor and Benny Begin to Moshe Kahlon and Sa’ar. Now Shasha-Biton too.

She is one of the few politicians in Knesset whose name equals votes. About three or four Knesset seats’ worth, realistically speaking. He should have swathed her in cotton wool, cradled her, made her an ally. And again, the impulse, the suspicion, the resentment. When she stood up against his irresponsible conduct and that of his government in the coronavirus crisis, instead of bringing her closer to him he sent his Sancho Panza, coalition whip Miki Zohar, to threaten her. The latter is the spitting image of the type that pushes away Likud voters who go over to Sa’ar.

Last Friday, Balfour read what was written here about the close relationship between Sa’ar and Kahlon. He was one of the few confidants with whom Sa’ar consulted prior to his resignation. Netanyahu, a conspiracy and intrigue junkie, added 1+1 and arrived at 5,000: Kahlon, from the outside – having resigned from active political life – made the connection between Sa’ar and Shahsha-Biton (who had been a member of his Kulanu party, which eventually became part of Likud, and with whom he has maintained a good relationship). He encouraged her to take an independent, confrontational stance with regard to coronavirus issues.

Sa’ar defended her, spoke out against the intention to depose her from the chair of the Knesset coronavirus committee and, together with her, submitted a proposal for a law to change the electoral system. Thus, purportedly, the troika – in Netanyahu’s imagination, or his son’s – conspired to cook up the putsch of the century. It may be worth mentioning that no such thing ever happened. All the traits that show up in Netanyahu do not necessarily show up in his colleagues.

The Third Way

Sa’ar’s throwing of his hat into the ring left Bennett stripped of a strategy overnight. In the span of a week, his side of the field was emptied of enough votes for seven or eight Knesset seats, which rolled cheerfully over to the new guy’s turf. Bennett had to go back to the drawing board. Not only has the new slate sabotaged his plans, but so did the final “No” he heard from Shasha-Biton, whom he had pursued with the relentlessness of a gung-ho fighter in the Sayeret Matkal special ops unit in a night raid.  

Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Nahariya, Israel, January 8, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

The 21 Knesset seats Bennett had on average, people around him have been saying this week, were split in three: center-left voters, Likud voters who can’t stand Netanyahu and hardline right-wing voters. From the outset, they say, we didn’t have much hope regarding the first third. We knew they were a confused group, fleeting visitors who came to sleep over and would leave at the first opportunity. 

The 12 or 13 currently stabilized Knesset seats are his new, realistic glass ceiling. Hence, his war plan also needs to undergo a revision. Last Wednesday, the day after Sa’ar’s announcement, Bennett declared in the Knesset that he is against boycotts and disqualifications. The tough rhetoric, the sniping and mercilessness against Netanyahu he had employed because of the prime minister’s failures in dealing with the coronavirus – rhetoric that could only be interpreted as an absolute bill of divorce from the man – was replaced overnight by clichés along the lines of “We are all brothers.” 

For what is the point of having an election, of running, of presenting a vision, a path, an idea if two minutes after the polling stations are closed you rush into the embrace of the man, the vision, the path, the idea against which you fought and preached, and you enable him to continue with his failures and, in Netanyahu’s case, his very lengthy time in office; a regime that throughout nearly its entire length Netanyahu boycotted, rejected, disparaged, humiliated and insulted Bennett and his partner lawmaker Ayelet Shaked. Still, despite all this, Bennett decided. He and his colleagues will change their stance.  

This is the birth of The Third Way, Yamina version. There is one camp that is “Just Not Bibi,” says Bennett in his briefings to his Knesset faction, and there is a second camp, which is Yamina. If it ends up with 18 seats, it will be in excellent shape. If it ends up with 12, it will still be in pretty good condition. He will be the “kingmaker:” Either he will anoint himself, in rotation with someone or other, or he will anoint someone else, or, at the very least, he will go back to the Defense Ministry backed by significant political strength, in a coalition that will be dependent on him.  What can sabotage this? If Sa’ar breaks his word and rushes to join up with Netanyahu before he does. 

It would be a mistake to automatically situate Bennett in Netanyahu’s pocket, people around Bennett are saying. First of all, he will recommend himself to the president as the candidate most likely to form a government (incidentally, splitting the recommendations among Netanyahu, Sa’ar, Bennett, Lapid and maybe others is liable to cause a huge headache for the president and the entire system). Secondly, he will play according to the cards in his hand. Every Zionist party chairman who believes in a Jewish and democratic state will be kosher as a partner. That could be Sa’ar, Lapid or Netanyahu. 

Sa’ar’s commitment to appoint Shasha-Biton as deputy prime minister confounded Bennett, to say the least. What has she done in her life, his people wondered, how is Gideon relinquishing an asset like that so soon and so quickly? Are these his negotiating capabilities?

Cool it, reply Sa’ar’s people. Deputy PM is a function that rarely comes into play: If the prime minister travels abroad, or goes in for medical treatment and there is an urgent need to convene the government (a scenario that has never occurred, except for the precedent of Ehud Olmert at the time of Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke), Yifat will definitely be able to deal with the task. In security matters, for purposes of convening the security cabinet, there will be another deputy – the defense minister, for example. If 78-year-old U.S. President-elect Joe Biden could appoint Kamala Harris, a rookie senator, as his deputy and nobody saw that as problematic, Shasha-Biton is also capable.

The real story behind the peace with Morocco

Netanyahu spent last weekend with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the Sa’ar drama turned what had looked like an easy stroll to a sixth term as prime minister into a mountain trek in a blizzard. On the other hand, there was the happy news of Morocco climbing onto the bandwagon of Muslim countries normalizing relations with Israel.

Netanyahu is a politician with a rare talent: Over three decades, he has managed to make himself hated by half the nation, as well as by a magnificent gallery of senior leaders from his own party, who have abandoned him and become bitter rivals. But he’s also an admired statesman reaping significant achievements in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East.

After the normalization was publicized, Netanyahu, as required, thanked Donald Trump, the king of Morocco and the relevant personages in Israel: the heads of the Mossad and National Security Council. But a few others contributed, and their contribution was not noted.

Here's the backstory. By early 2018, it was two years since Yossi Cohen had received preference over Ram Ben Barak to become Mossad chief; Ben Barak had been deputy chief and was now a businessman. He announced he was joining Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Ben Barak has a close friend, a Jewish billionaire born in Morocco, who lives in a number of countries – including Israel. And he was close to the Moroccan government.

On one of his visits to Moshav Nahalal in the north, where Ben Barak lives, the two would often ride horses together. The Moroccan made a request: Could his host use his contacts in the United States to have the Trump administration recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region – and have that lead to a UN resolution in that spirit? The businessman said he was acting with the permission of Moroccan government officials.

Ben Barak took up the challenge. You’ll have to pay the Americans something, he said. Trump doesn’t hand out free gifts – maybe support for his Mideast peace plan, and later agree to reopen the Israeli liaison office in Rabat and establish full diplomatic relations. The billionaire flew to Morocco, checked with whoever he checked with and returned with the answer: yes.

In April 2018, Ben Barak went to Jerusalem accompanied by his friend from Morocco. They met with Dore Gold, the former director general of the Foreign Ministry and someone close to Netanyahu – and today the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs – and presented the "framework" to him. Gold checked with whoever he checked with (well, Netanyahu), and came back with a yes.

What then? Organize a meeting of the three with the Moroccan prime minister and minister for African affairs in a European capital, let’s say Berlin. The meeting went well. A month later another meeting was held with the same participants: Ben Barak, his friend from Morocco, Gold and the Moroccan ministers – this time in London.

Now it was necessary to bring in the Americans, and in June, everyone involved met at the White House. Israeli officials from the Foreign Ministry and National Security Council were there too. More progress was made, and then silence. The connection was cut off.

Ben Barak asked Gold what was going on. The answer: We have a problem. You’re in Yesh Atid. Bibi isn’t willing to continue when you’re in the picture. No problem, said Ben Barak, I’ll leave. No no, said the panicked Moroccan businessman, you can’t abandon ship; the people who sent me trust you.

Ben Barak stayed. On July 26, another meeting was held at the White House. Our gang attended, as did Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and senior administration officials who had helped weave the Trump plan. That’s where the clandestine meeting between Netanyahu and Bourita was set up; it was held two months later in what is known as the “sidelines of the UN General Assembly.”

Then the original contacts moved up a level. The National Security Council entered the picture, Ben Barak left, the Moroccan businessman remained, and Gold went back to his academic and research affairs. More than two years passed until Trump’s December 10 tweet in which he informed the world of the new diplomatic relations.

Ben Barak and Gold declined to comment.

The signing ceremony is supposed to take place at the White House, it seems even before Biden takes over on January 20. We don’t need to worry about the honors, but it would be proper to invite Ben Barak and Gold, even though this would more likely come from the Moroccan or American sides.

Netanyahu & Co. are stingy about sharing credit and handing out invitations to events that could – God forbid – shift the spotlight even a tiny bit from him.

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