Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently resumed his visits to the homes of Likud party activists. At least once a week a street is closed, a lane is blocked, the tarpaulins are unfurled, the security guards are positioned, the snipers are at the ready and the tent that conceals the prime minister from public view is erected.
The watchdogs bark, the convoy stops in front of the house of the mayor or Likud branch head. From the prime minister’s vehicle the prime minister emerges.
Waiting inside are “our guys,” who have been invited after a filtering process. These encounters usually last about two hours. No recordings have leaked from them yet. Last week, Netanyahu visited the home of the head of Likud’s Be’er Sheva branch, Shimon Boker, and a few days later showed up at the residence of the head of the Likud faction in the Ra’anana city council, Ilan Cohen.
On Wednesday he was hosted in the home of Acre Mayor Shimon Lankry. The reception he received, according to one participant, rivaled that of a rock star. And it wasn’t very different from the others.
Toward the conclusion of the corruption investigations against him and the attorney general’s decision in each case, and ahead of the next Knesset election – events likely to occur in early 2019 – Netanyahu is hooking up with the bedrock, his troops, the party’s beating heart. For a few months he neglected them. He had more pressing business: Iran, the U.S. Embassy, Syria, the Gaza Strip, the deployment of the Israel Defense Forces during the volatile month of May (which passed quietly). Now, before the summer vacation and Jewish holidays kick in, he’s stumping the country, taking a roots journey to solidify his position in the party ahead of the looming dramas.
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He has no reason for concern. The party faithful love him, admire him, identify with him. They’re ready to take a bullet for him. The victim effect serves him very well. His popularity transcends the party, let alone its base. The polls look good. In every foreseeable constellation he’ll be Israel’s next prime minister.
The temptation of moving up the general election exists, all the time. In March he toyed with the idea of holding it in June, because of the furor around legislation involving the draft of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim. In May, with the tempest over the bill that would allow the Knesset to override the Supreme Court, it was reported that he was considering dissolving the Knesset and holding an election on September 4 (the only Tuesday of that month that doesn’t coincide with a Jewish holiday). Now it turns out that those considerations assumed a practical turn. About a month ago, an envoy of the prime minister told a certain interlocutor that Netanyahu indeed wanted to hold the general election in September, which would mean postponing the municipal elections from the end of October until early next year.
At Netanyahu’s request, an expert opinion was drawn up elaborating the legal, economic, political and intraparty implications of putting off the municipal elections. With or without connection to that document, the premier again changed his mind. The change in dates, and the expert opinion, were shelved.
Possibly the reservations of his coalition allies deterred him, or perhaps the security tensions in the south and the north imbued him with a greater sense of responsibility. Or maybe there was a different reason, something mysterious that transcends rationality and slides into the realm of conspiracy, malice and intrigue. With Netanyahu, that’s what usually tips the balance.
Inevitably, the options for the general election date are dwindling. In two weeks the Knesset will break for two and a half months, reconvening in mid-October. The assessment of all the coalition partners is that the next election will be held no later than next February or March, three-quarters of a year before the official end of the current Knesset’s term and four years after the 2015 election. Not bad at all.
Sources close to the prime minister are already imagining the next government, which will likely be Netanyahu’s fifth. This time, they say, he’ll opt for a cabinet based on the broadest possible coalition. The current coalition has 66 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs; in its first year it consisted of 61 MKs. Nightmare on Balfour Street. Every party has the prime minister by the throat and by more painful parts. He’s permanently susceptible to pressure, to extortion – squeezable. They do with him as they wish, tyrannize him, dictate to him, threaten him.
After the next election, assuming that the numbers more or less match the opinion polls, it will be clear already from the exit polls that he and he alone will be the next prime minister. In addition to his natural allies in the current coalition, Yesh Atid and Labor/Zionist Union will be frothing at the mouth to grab a slice of the new government.
Yesh Atid leader Yapir Lapid doesn’t have the energy for another stint in the opposition. That’s so obvious as to be pitiable. He’s tired of his three-year fantasy of “being foreign minister.” He craves the real thing. His youthful dream of succeeding Netanyahu vanished in the smoke of the recent security events, including tensions in Syria, the Gaza Strip, etc. Lapid has returned to his natural proportions and is preparing for life itself: the foreign affairs portfolio in Netanyahu’s fifth government.
When the polling stations close on Election Day, Lapid will plop a sleeping bag outside the Prime Minister’s Residence like the groupies outside Apple stores before the next iPhone model is unveiled. There he’ll wait for the gates of heaven to open. The love affair he’s conducting with Defense Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman, his enthusiastic support for the bill on drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the army, and their exchanges of compliments are concealing a plan for a joint future. Lieberman could become the best man at the second wedding between Yesh Atid and Likud – both because he likes Lapid and loathes Labor leader Avi Gabbay, who resigned his ministerial post two years ago (during his stint with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party) after the coopting of Lieberman and his party into the government. The second reason more than the first.
And if Lapid can’t wait, what shall we say about our Labor Party? It’s been almost a decade since it tasted power. Ten years of bone-dry solitude. There’s nothing to prevent Gabbay, who already served in a Netanyahu government, from returning to the scene of the crime, this time as a party leader. But unlike Lapid, who will be welcomed with open arms (the Haredim will lift their veto after he volunteered to be their Shabbes goy in the draft-law issue), Gabbay will encounter two tough obstacles: Lieberman, as noted, and Kahlon, whom he betrayed.
The advantage Netanyahu will reap from a broad coalition is obvious: No party will be able to dislodge him. Anyone who’s not happy can pack up and leave. Second, his hated rivals on the right from Habayit Hayehudi – Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – will be dwarfed or liquidated altogether. Bennett is eyeing the Defense Ministry in the next government? What does he think about the Environmental Protection Ministry?
Third, bringing Yesh Atid and Labor, or one of them, into the government will give the premier more maneuver room regarding the “deal of the century” that the Trump administration intends to put on the regional agenda in the coming months. Netanyahu would like to see the plan submitted after the election in Israel to avoid mixing diplomatic-political issues into a campaign that, as far as he’s concerned, will focus on three themes: security, security and security.
But in terms of the broad coalition he’s said to be planning, what Netanyahu mainly has in mind is the day the attorney general decides, if he does, to put him on trial after a prior hearing. The minimalist assessment is that the process won’t end before late 2019. We saw how the decision in Sara Netanyahu’s simple fraud case was dragged out.
A prime minister isn’t obliged by law to resign if indicted. Petitions will be filed with the High Court of Justice requesting that the precedents of Arye Dery and Rafael Pinhasi, two ministers who were forced to resign after being indicted, be applied to Netanyahu as well. He will likely want to wait until the judges decide. He’ll need the agreement of his coalition partners. It’ll be more convenient if one of them is from the left – a “kosher certificate” for the High Court and a shield with respect to the public.
That’s one more reason why Netanyahu will prefer Lapid – with however many obedient, submissive MKs he’ll bring along (18, according to the latest polls) – over Labor, not all of whose MKs will agree to enter the coalition. There will always be a core who will safeguard their independence and decline to be allied with corruption suspicions.
To prepare the ground, Netanyahu is out to remove obstacles and land mines. He’s urging his coalition partners to hurry and enact the conscription legislation and the nation-state bill already in this Knesset session, which is rapidly drawing to a close – and if not in the next two weeks, then at the beginning of the winter session in October-November.
That will guarantee that in the next coalition negotiations, both laws will already be on the books and won’t make it difficult for parties from the “less obvious” camp to join the government. To that end, he sent his discreet problem solver, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, to speak to the leaders of the coalition parties and reach agreements on a more moderate version of the nation-state legislation.
With the draft law things are more complicated. Netanyahu, Shas leader Dery, MK Moshe Gafni from the Degel Hatorah faction of United Torah Judaism, Lieberman and Kahlon all want to be rid of this nuisance – fast. But Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, from the Agudat Yisrael faction of UTJ, aims to postpone it for as long as possible. He’s concerned that if the legislation reaches its final stages, his extremist rabbis, whose connection with reality isn’t clear, will force him and the other UTJ MKs to vote against it and resign. He’d rather the Knesset dissolved itself on its own.
One’s heart goes out to Litzman. He’s a pragmatic politician who’s usually able to walk between the raindrops when he has to. It disturbs him to be the troublemaker, a role that certainly won’t serve him well in the long term. But who’s asking him, anyway? Some elderly yeshiva head makes a ruling somewhere, and he, disheartened, obeys. Litzman has recently been seen by his fellow cabinet ministers as if he were fated to attend his own funeral.
Advice and consent
In their weekly meeting Sunday at the Prime Minister’s Office, the leaders of the coalition parties talked about the bill to draft the Haredim, which came up in the Knesset the next day, and the no-confidence vote that Zionist Union had requested.
“It’s a constructive vote,” coalition whip David Amsalem reminded the ministers. “The proposed candidate for prime minister would be Bougie” – opposition leader Isaac Herzog (who was in Australia at the time).
Amsalem was bitter. He had a hard time accepting that the Jewish Agency’s board of governors had unanimously chosen Herzog as the organization’s new chairman. The coalition-party leaders, for their part, thought it was an excellent choice.
Netanyahu, who had calmed down after the blow he took from leaders of Diaspora groups in that affair, was reminded of a story. “In 1988, when I had just arrived from the United States and announced that I would run for the Knesset, the Likud ‘princes’ sent envoys to me to persuade me to run for head of the Jewish Agency,” he recalled. “It’s a very important position, you’ll be prime minister of the Jewish people, they told me. I thought it over and rejected the idea. There were other volunteers.”
To which Arye Dery remarked, “You forgot that you consulted with someone who told you to forget it, who said they don’t have your best interests at heart.”
“That’s true,” Netanyahu admitted. “I heard that Dery [interior minister at the time] was a smart guy and I asked him for advice. Since then I’ve asked for Reb Arye’s advice quite a bit.”
Some of the people around the table grew thoughtful. They couldn’t help imagining a different scenario: Dery advising Netanyahu to go for the Agency, Netanyahu accepting the advice ... who knows where each of them would be today. That didn’t happen, and look where Bibi is and where those who wanted to be rid of him are.
After Gabbay recovered from his shock at Herzog’s election as Jewish Agency chairman, he realized he faced a serious problem: whom to appoint opposition leader.
People in his circle came up with an idea: Gabbay himself would get the post. That would require an amendment to the law stipulating that the opposition leader, like the prime minister, must be an MK. An approach was made to the prime minister’s people – it was clear that without Netanyahu’s support, the required majority would never be mustered. Netanyahu didn’t throw the delegation out the window. Maybe he thought Gabbay’s appointment would serve his interests.
Messages went back and forth between the offices of Netanyahu and Gabbay, a kind of negotiation about terms. For one thing, Gabbay was asked to allow members of Zionist Union – of which Labor is the senior partner along with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah – to vote for the legislation on drafting Haredim as a condition for passing the new, proposed amendment. He refused, as is known.
At the same time, about a week ago, while Netanyahu was waiting for Gabbay’s reply, he sent a senior figure to sound out Kahlon on the idea on “upgrading” Gabbay. Would he veto the plan? In the end, he raised no special objections. Since then, nothing much has happened. Gabbay’s office is still waiting for a reply.
At about midnight Wednesday the earth shook. No damage was caused, but one woman was hurt – critically, to the depths of her soul. Harsh photos from the event appeared on social media. The place: the aforementioned meeting with Likud activists at the home of Acre Mayor Lankry. To Netanyahu’s left is Sara, to her left is Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, to his left is Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel. And Culture Minister Miri Regev, our Miri, their Miri, is at the end of the table, to the right of the mayor’s wife. Her head is bent, she’s looking intently at her phone as Netanyahu speaks.
Likud was aghast. They associated the image of Regev with previous evidence of a falling-out between her and Netanyahu – because of the Israeli soccer team’s canceled exhibition match against Argentina, and because of the issue of Reform prayer at the Western Wall.
At the same time, we heard and saw Gamliel defending Sara vehemently after she was indicted. The same Gamliel who was publicly reprimanded by the prime minister’s wife for daring to cooperate with President Reuven Rivlin in a social-welfare project.
What happened after that, through Thursday, wouldn’t shame a second-rate soap opera. Regev’s supporters sent photos via the party’s WhatsApp groups of Sara and Miri smiling, in Acre. Regev’s office made tremendous efforts to refute the narrative according to which she’s no longer “in” and someone else (whom she hates) is.
If that weren’t enough, the public reconciliation between Netanyahu and Edelstein was like a stab in the nation’s back. It’s not enough that the prime minister and his wife are making peace with Regev’s bitter rivals, they’re doing it in full view.
The height of the ridiculousness, even by Likud politics’ low standards, came when the two big guns, Topaz Luk and Yonatan Orich, Netanyahu’s new-media advisers, were sent into the fray.
In panicky tweets they reported to the worried citizenry that everything is hunky-dory between Sara and Miri – they went sightseeing in Acre, they enjoyed the “magical” city and also, manifestly, each other. And “in order to remove all doubt, the relations between the prime minister and Minister Regev are closer than ever.” Well, the doubt remains, and it’s piercing.