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Netanyahu Is Already Campaigning Hard. Here's How He Hopes to Win

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Gif: Netanyahu is thrown off a mechanical bull as Rivlin, Gantz and other politicians watch.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It’s been 11 years and five elections since the last time someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu was asked to form a government. Presidents, army chiefs of staff, judges and central bank governors have come and gone. Babies were born, smartphones upgraded and satellites launched. But the man who walked out of the President’s Residence with the job of forming the government was always the same.

This pattern was cut short Wednesday night by someone who didn’t arouse great hopes when he first entered politics, less than a year ago. He did so in the same dignified, conciliatory manner that he has maintained throughout his new career.

Even people who can’t imagine the state without Netanyahu have to admit that Benny Gantz looked prime ministerial (or, in American terms, presidential) Wednesday night. He paid due respect to every segment of Israeli society – the ultra-Orthodox, whom he promised to treat like brothers, Arabs, Druze, gays and rightists. After years of incitement, divisiveness and a systematic fanning of hatred by the man who, just two days ago, racked up his second failure to form a government – the difference in both language and vision was refreshing.

“He gave a perfect speech,” one of the party heads in Netanyahu’s bloc told me the following morning. “His task in the coming month will be to be the Benny from that speech: sympathetic, an advocate of the good, a man of the consensus. So the Likudniks can get used to him, the Haredim can stop fearing him, and all of us can see that the devil isn’t so terrible. Apparently it won’t bring him a government, but it will bring him to an excellent point of departure in advance of the third election, in March.”

That’s just the point. Netanyahu is already in the thick of an election campaign. His narrative – I wanted to establish a Zionist unity government, Gantz wants to establish a minority government based on the support of the Arabs – is already directed at polling stations of the next round. The first course has already been served up, when MKs from the Joint List were seen striding on the red carpet at the President’s Residence on their way to recommending Gantz for the prime ministership. The second course is coming soon, when the head of Kahol Lavan meets with leaders of the factions making up the Joint List – minus Balad. The third course, the winning one from Netanyahu’s point of view, will be served if an attempt is made, whether successful or not, to convene such a minority government, whose days will be short, stormy and bitter.

It can be assumed that such an attempt, if it takes place, will not succeed. But for Netanyahu and his Likud party it will be the silver platter on which, he hopes, he will have victory served up in the next election. In the preceding round they tried, he will tell his voters; the next time, if they get support from a majority of voters, they will succeed.

It’s a difficult predicament for the Kahol Lavan leadership. In the past two elections, Gantz and his colleagues avoided the Arab elephant like the plague. Netanyahu tried with all his might to associate “Lapid-Gantz” with “Odeh-Tibi” – but without success. During the weeks that Gantz now has to forge a government, Bibi sees an opportunity to revive that thesis, the organizing principle around which he will build his next election campaign.

Benny Gantz in September 2019.Credit: \ Amir Cohen/ REUTERS

Rivlin’s block

Of the four members of the so-called Kahol Lavan cockpit, Gantz is embarking on the flight to form a government with the most optimism. That’s the way he is. Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi are skeptics. Lapid and Ya’alon are familiar with the political system from inside. They believe there is only a slim chance of some kind of breakthrough in the four weeks (minus two days) until the end of the designated coalition-cobbling period. The same goes for Ashkenazi.

Gantz was willing to consider, under very specific conditions, being No. 2 in a prime ministerial rotation after Netanyahu – if it could be anchored in law, and buried in 100 tons of concrete, that the prime minister would leave office if he is indicted. But the other three Kahol Lavan leaders don’t want to hear about it. Their motto is: We’re-not-serving-under-Bibi. They believe – each in his own style and for his own reasons – that any concession on this point is likely to destroy their party. That it will become a laughingstock.

On what points might the trio compromise, nevertheless, on the road ahead? On their rejection of the bloc of 55 (composed of Likud and the religious and right-wing parties) and their demand to talk only to Likud, as a large party talking to its smaller partner.

In the end, there are those who are saying, what difference does it really make if we can agree on an equal number of ministers, and Likud, at its own expense, brings in five or six ministers from other parties. As long as they agree with the joint basic guidelines drawn up by Kahol Lavan and Likud – we can live with that.

Some of Kahol Lavan’s leaders are angry at President Reuven Rivlin. His plan bogged everything down, they’re saying. He submitted it to the two sides too early, immediately following the election, instead of waiting for the final stretch of 21 days. He should have let everyone stew in their own juices and come to him exhausted, threatened by the dangling sword of another election.

In Kahol Lavan, they’re saying that Netanyahu’s agreement to the clause requiring him to declare incapacity if he is indicted, but on the condition that he will be the first to serve as prime minister in a rotation agreement, is being presented by Likud as a dramatic concession, although they’ll be able to ignore it, should they so choose. They’ll have enough reasons to do so: the Trump peace plan, escalation of tensions in the south or the north, the Iranian threat.

Meanwhile, Likudniks are clinging to their gallant acquiescence to the incapacity clause, and are not willing to hear of additional concessions – neither on the subject of the right-wing bloc or on the order of the rotation. That’s why nothing is moving. Rivlin, undoubtedly with good intentions, has blocked the possibility of making progress.

There are also some among the Kahol Lavan leadership who claim the president received Netanyahu’s agreement to the incapacity stipulation in advance. We were surprised, they say, when we first heard about the plan in the second, three-way meeting in the President’s Residence – but Bibi didn’t seem surprised. It’s also logical that Rivlin approached him earlier: Current law enables a prime minister to serve under indictment, until the final ruling is handed down.

I made inquiries about this at the President’s Residence. Rivlin’s associates rejected the claims and called them “baseless”: “The plan was presented to Gantz and Netanyahu together at the same time. There was no coordination with anyone regarding its details.”

Who knows 25

The most significant political declaration this week was blurted out, almost inadvertently, by our friend David Bitan, the Likud MK. On Tuesday evening, in the Channel 12 News studio, he was asked whether there was any way to avert a third election. Bitan replied: “A government will be formed in the last 21 days,” he said. “Not in the 28 [given to Gantz]. Then everyone will be under pressure. There won’t be any more blocs. Everyone will be willing do to something in order to avoid an election.”

MK David Bitan.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Watching him, an observer got the feeling that the man was conducting a kind of penetrating discussion with himself, oblivious to the cameras focused on him. Or, alternately, that he was using the platform to convey messages to his fellow legislators. Minutes after the end of the interview, the cell phones of other members of the Likud faction began vibrating. It was the Likud spokesman, announcing an end to interviews by party members until further notice.

The automatic interpretation of the panicked directive issuing from the Prime Minister’s Resident on Balfour Street was that Bitan had unintentionally disclosed things he had heard from Netanyahu. But that’s a mistake; that’s not where we are any more. The very close relationship between Bitan and Bibi has long ceased to exist. When the former coalition chairman speaks, he is giving voice to his own thoughts – not necessarily to what’s written on the daily page (or, sometimes, pages) of messages he receives.

Bitan has often also gotten on Netanyahu’s nerves. For example, when he suggested to him as early as a week ago, in an interview, that Bibi should return the mandate to form a government to Rivlin. Or when, also in an interview, he described the announcement by Gideon Sa’ar that he would run in the Likud leadership primary “natural” and “not impossible.” (Miri Regev, on a mission on behalf of her masters, described Sa’ar’s announcement as “an attempted coup”).

Bitan’s seemingly innocent words, “Everyone will be willing to do something,” were not accepted as such by Netanyahu and Co. They sowed panic. Bitan had hinted precisely at the nightmare scenario of the residents of Balfour Street: that during those [final] 21 days, when the Knesset is at the edge of the abyss, the indictment will be filed against the prime minister, the last 10 people on the party slate will try to save themselves from extinction, and there will be a split in Likud.

A legal split requires a minimum of 11 MKs, one-third of the faction, to leave. Of course, there would also be the need for a leader of such a group to bring it into a Gantz-led government. That leader, if he or she is found, would come to Gantz as head of a medium-sized faction that could even number as many as 15 MKs. Labor-Gesher (6) and Yisrael Beiteinu (8) could round up the bloc to 61 – and voila! We would have a government. The ultra-Orthodox and Hayamin Hehadash won’t be long in showing up, as they trample each other in a desperate rush to Rosh Ha’ayin, to the home of the prime minister-designate.

There is nobody in Likud, whether senior nor junior, who believes that a third election will help their brand. Not after a series of three failures by Netanyahu to form a government. And certainly not if there’s an indictment against him, something that would dog him through the next campaign. The talk in the party is that anyone south of the slate’s 20th place would be under threat.

“In 2006 we went down to 12 Knesset seats,” one Likudnik said, by way of an example. “Not because the nation suddenly became leftist, but because there was a normal centrist party [Kadima], and mainly because our public didn’t want to vote for us. That’s what we’re all hearing from the people we meet: ‘Next time we won’t vote for you.’”

Bitan is No. 25 on his part’s ticket. One more election is likely to leave him out. That’s why, when he predicts a total meltdown of existing frameworks, a collapse of the blocs and every man for himself – the hearts of Netanyahu associates skip a beat and they order the MKs to keep their mouths shut. A stone thrown by one Bitan in the studio can’t be removed even by 30 MKs.

All for one

Several hours before Rivlin handed the mandate for forming a government to Gantz, the heads of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc arrived at the Prime Minister’s Bureau. They met a somewhat different Bibi. I was really fair to you during the last month, he said (or something like that). Now, you be fair to me. When they asked me to get rid of you, I stood at your side like a fortified wall. Now, you stand by my side.

The party leaders were surprised at the defensive tone. All they wanted was to conduct a discussion about a tactical question: whether to go to meet the Kahol Lavan negotiating team, out of politeness, and to tell them that the “address” for talks is the Likud team, headed by ministers Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin.

Said Ariel Attias, of Shas: Yes, we should go. Yaakov Litzman, of United Torah Judaism said: We shouldn’t go. Ayelet Shaked of Hayamin Hehadash declared that they should go, while her colleague, Naftali Bennett, said: We should go, only to tell them that we take issue with their rejection of Netanyahu as the next prime minister. Shas’ Arye Dery was clever, as usual: Let’s say we’re not going to go to them as long as they reject the prime minister.

Netanyahu demurred: No, no, there’s no need. It has nothing to do with me.

Netanyahu in September 2019.Credit: \ Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS

Dery insisted: Yes, there is a need. We’ll tell them that we don’t accept their rejection of you.

Netanyahu thought it would be a mistake. At such times, his paranoia and suspicion know no bounds. Who knows what evil is likely to emerge in a situation where leaders of the bloc’s parties sit in a room and the charming, likeable and good-hearted Gantz enters, and sits with them for a while. Hearts open, chemistry is created, another meeting or meetings are set, perhaps clandestinely, promises are made, relationships are formed – and God save us!

If Bibi could only fly this entire group to the North Pole and imprison them in an igloo for the 26 remaining days, he would do it.

Once again, he demanded total loyalty from them. Mutuality. We must show that we’re unified, he declared.

We’re fine, remarked Dery. First of all, make sure that Likud is unified. We all heard Bitan, we’re also hearing about a certain senior Likudnik who might lead a split in the faction.

Yes, hissed Netanyahu, his face clouding over – and we all know who that person is.

After Bennett

In April, after Hayamin Hehadash, under his leadership, was left outside the Knesset in that month’s election, Naftali Bennett sunk into deep thoughts. He did some soul-searching, examined his path, analyzed the campaign he had conducted and drew the proper conclusions: From now on, he would be statesmanlike and moderate. In the next round, which wasn’t long in coming, he tried to take over Moshe Kahlon’s voters, who had been left with nowhere to go, as well as “mainstream” Likud voters who had problem’s accepting Netanyahu’s trampling of norms and values, and the domination of their party by the spirit of David Amsalem. Bennett announced that he had been born again: “I’m the sane right,” he stated.

Eventually his party merged with the gang of messianists and Hardalim (ultra-Orthodox Zionists) of Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union, into one “technical bloc,” before splitting again about two weeks ago into two separate factions. In the meantime, Netanyahu established his bloc of 55. Bennett is considered a central link there, and has gotten a great deal of attention from the chairman of the bloc. Netanyahu does know how to maintain and handle those on whom he depends; he bewitches them.

And so, while we were enjoying our holidays, Bennett’s soul-searching efforts came to an end, his enlightenment evaporated, and early this week it was not the old Bennett who burst back into our lives, but a far more belligerent and extreme version. In a long post, he attacked the legal system as though he were one of the most despicable mouthpieces for the resident of Balfour Street and his family.

“My friends in the right-wing camp: Let this be clear to you,” he warned. “If the legal system is successful in bringing down Netanyahu because of cigars and articles on the Walla website, it would be a mortal blow to the entire nationalist camp. Every leader of the right who follows him will be emasculated and afraid of the media and the justice system… It’s not Netanyahu they’re persecuting, but the right-wing camp and our opinions … “

What happened during these few months? What did Bennett discover that he didn’t know or see before? The answer was provided earlier: his relationship with Netanyahu, and the realization that if he didn’t find his way to Likud in the near future, he would be finished. History. The time is past when Bennett stood at the head of a medium-sized party (12 seats in 2013, eight in 2015), on which the coalition depended. Today he is barely the leader of Matan Kahana, the third and last MK on Hayamin Hehadash’s slate. His days as a relevant, influential and powerful politician are behind him. Ayelet Shaked is an independent entity. She will do what suits her, when it suits her. (Bennett apparently didn’t give her advance notice of the content of his toadying post with her). With all her desire to transform Israel’s judiciary, it would not have entered Shaked’s mind to badmouth the legal system that she headed as a minister for four years or attribute to it efforts to persecute Netanyahu.

Bennett declares that he is a man of principle. Great, but which principles? Occasionally, he evidences flashes of statesmanship, but they are mingled with rambunctiousness and a built-in lack of consistency. He has been part of the political system for seven years, and it’s as if he hasn’t learned anything from his experience. A few days ago I told him that if the post had been less well written, I would have thought Miki Zohar wrote it.

“I believe in what I wrote,” he asserted. “Netanyahu is having a hard time. While the Likudniks are disappearing, I’m coming to defend him and the camp.”

Bennett reiterated that anyone who takes Netanyahu’s place will be “tamed” by the media and the legal establishment, and won’t be able to carry out “reforms.”

It would be enough for him to be honest and not commit crimes during his tenure, I told him. Then he could introduce as many reforms as he likes.

“Receiving gifts is not my way of doing things,” said Bennett. “I’ve never received gifts from anyone, but favorable coverage is not bribery. [Former Labor Party minister and MK] Haim Ramon said that.”

Ayelet Shaked carried out reforms and not a hair on her head was harmed, I told him. He mumbled something.

Did you “convert” because you identify a crack through which you can join Likud? I asked.

“No,” he replied. “There’s no such talk between me and Netanyahu.”

Netanyahu and Rivlin at the funeral service for former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar.Credit: Emil Salman

The man who wasn’t

The funeral service for former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar was long. Eight people eulogized him: His two sons and his granddaughter, the president, the prime minister, former Justices Aharon Barak and Edna Arbel, who were close friends of his, and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut. At first only seven were supposed to speak; his granddaughter was added at the last moment.

Two people attracted attention. The first, Netanyahu, was seated in the middle of the first row and looked as though he didn’t belong: gray, tense, lips pursed. He felt cold winds blowing on his neck. Not his milieu, to put it mildly.

Surrounding him were dozens of veteran jurists, and Supreme Court justices past and present. Many of the latter are interviewed from time to time and don’t spare their opinion of the prime minister, regarding his personal corruption, his racist legislation, his insulting statements. Shamgar himself said in one interview that had he been in Netanyahu’s shoes, he would have resigned already.

The second person was Justice Minister Amir Ohana. The Supreme Court, which organized the ceremony, seated him at the end of the second row. Nor was he included on the list of speakers. Can anyone imagine previous justice ministers not eulogizing a former Supreme Court president who died on their watch? That David Libai, Dan Meridor, Yaakov Neeman, Daniel Friedman, Yossi Beilin, Tommy Lapid, Tzipi Livni and even Ayelet Shaked would have been exiled from the first row where over 20 people were crowded together?

I asked the court spokesman’s office about this, and received this answer: “The list of speakers was determined according to the family’s request. In light of the time constraints, it was impossible to accede to all those who wanted to offer a eulogy. No such request was received from the justice minister. His office sent a request to lay a wreath, and it was accepted.”

Three comments: 1. The Shamgar family did not want Ohana to be among the speakers, and that’s a good thing. What does he have in common with the deceased? 2. He himself didn’t ask to speak, and he did the right thing. In his case, the modesty was appropriate. 3. Finally, there was that particularly interesting response – some would say sarcastic: The request from his office to lay a wreath “was accepted.”

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