Netanyahu Is Crafting a Balance of Terror Within His Bloc

The illegal performance by Justice Minister Ohana this week has shown Netanyahu who's really calling the shots

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustrated Gif: A statue shaped like Amir Ohana pees off the Knesset podium while a photo of Herzl sheds a tear.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t take kindly to the gesture that the doormat who now inhabits the justice minister’s office thought he was doing for his boss, in the Knesset – as became abundantly clear to people who ran into Netanyahu after Amir Ohana made his remarks. The prime minister also quickly released a statement dissociating himself from the gross breach of a court-imposed gag order – in exactly the same way, incidentally, that he took issue with Ohana’s recommendation, on his first day on the job, that not every court ruling must be obeyed.

Ohana, the epitome of the biblical phrase “a servant when he reigneth,” desires only to please and kowtow to his master. Those feelings flood his very being and wash away any and all judiciousness. When he called out state witness Nir Hefetz and revealed the very detail for which the state prosecution requested – and received – a gag order, he wasn’t helping Bibi. He was shooting him between the eyes, as Netanyahu nemesis Naftali Bennett said in different circumstances.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 47

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The premier was quick to grasp the scale of the damage, and thus didn’t delay his response. The own goal had already been scored – which not for the first time raises the question: Is Ohana working for the prime minister or for the prime minister’s elder son, who pushed for his father to appoint Ohana against his will?

In the current instance, the answer is unequivocal. The repulsive, ostensibly criminal performance by Ohana in the Knesset came at the behest of the son. The text, it can be assumed, was dictated from above. Evidence: Minutes after the justice minister left the podium, Yair Netanyahu tweeted the details of the story whose publication the court had prohibited (moreover, when he realized the mistake, he immediately deleted the tweet). The coordination and cooperation between the two can be nosed from afar like a rotting carcass.

By the way, Ohana is also working for himself, as Bibi’s associates are beginning to grasp. Likud’s leadership primary could happen in six to eight weeks. The party’s base loathes the state prosecution and the top people in the justice system. Ohana is aiming at a constituency. Every such appearance by him, every headline he generates and every furor he stirs get him more votes, should there be a primary.

Ohana’s despicable act has had an immediate effect: Journalists stopped addressing the controversial – and apparently wicked and borderline – investigative tactic. The coverage focused instead on the phenomenon of a justice minister who apparently knowingly broke the law – a string of words we never thought we’d write or utter. The second effect, more critical for the prime minister’s vested interests, will be felt in the future. Hefetz will show up in court (on the likely assumption of an indictment in the Bezeq-Walla news-for-favors case) worked up, angry and hurt. What Ohana inflicted on him this week he will not have forgotten a year from now.

Ohana is just one cog in a complex machine that consists of politicians, civil servants, government officials and journalists (or people posing as journalists). It’s like a crime organization with a hierarchy and division of roles. Their “life’s mission” – to use Bibi’s language during his horse-trading conversation with newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes – is to extricate the prime minister from an indictment. And, along the way, to pick off the gatekeepers, gnaw at them and snipe at them, with the aim of undermining the legitimacy of the approaching decision by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

Balance of terror

Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi once told an associate from a Central European country that whenever he went abroad, he would take the children of the opposition leaders with him. That ensured that there wouldn’t be a coup while he was away. If the kids had nowhere to return to, they’d spend the rest of their days abroad, far from Mom and Dad.

Netanyahu – with all the obvious differences – has found his own way to keep possible threats close by. In fact, that’s what the right-wing/religious bloc of 55 legislators is for: It creates a balance of terror and mutual dependence. Together we rise, together we fall. So far this project, conceived by Shas leader Arye Dery, is showing resilience and durability.

Bennett of Hayamin Hehadash is a key element of the bloc. Netanyahu’s need for him and his party became clear on the night of September 17 after the polls closed. As long as Bennett showed loyalty to the bloc, the outgoing prime minister didn’t see fit to offer him a cabinet post. But the moment it was reported that Bennett had met with Benny Gantz and that Gantz’s Kahol Lavan was plotting to entice the three Hayamin Hehadash MKs to cross over, all the paranoia of Balfour Street erupted. Bennett, perhaps deliberately, poured fuel on the fire when he announced that he was “releasing” the prime minister from his commitment to him.

Just as it was urgent for Netanyahu to (humiliatingly) fire Bennett from the Education Ministry and his colleague Ayelet Shaked from the Justice Ministry after the April election – clearly due to pressure at home – it now became urgent for Netanyahu to offer Bennett the Diaspora affairs portfolio and a seat in the security cabinet.

Bennett did the right thing by saying thanks but no thanks. To return to the cabinet as a junior minister with a fictitious portfolio in November, after being booted out of the Education Ministry in June, would be insulting. And who better than Bennett knows that the security cabinet, certainly in its current makeup, is a joke?

Back to the bloc: On Monday afternoon, the leaders of its various parties met in the prime minister’s office at the Knesset. Netanyahu wanted to ensure that none of the chicks were thinking about fleeing the nest. He opened by mentioning media reports about Kahol Lavan’s attempts to infiltrate and lure someone over.

“At first they thought Likud would depose me. When that didn’t happen, they tried to take us apart and get two or three of us to cross the lines,” Netanyahu said, referring to Hayamin Hehadash. “Now I hear that the names Naftali and Ayelet are coming up again.”

Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: \ POOL/ REUTERS

“That’s true,” Bennett confirmed. “Approaches have been made to us.”

“To us, too – and to Litzman,” Dery said, referring to United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman. “What matters isn’t the approach but what you said in response. We referred them to Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin,” Likud’s negotiators in the coalition talks.

“Yes, yes,” Bennett said, as Netanyahu fixed his gaze on him. “We also kicked them out.” “So make it public,” Netanyahu and Dery cried out, almost in unison.

At the end of the meeting they did just that – not in the form of an official statement by Bennett and Shaked, but as a quote by the former.

Afterward, the party leaders in attendance talked about Kahol Lavan’s stalemated negotiations. Levin and Elkin were asked to assess the prospects for a unity government. Poor, Levin replied. Poor, Elkin replied, adding that with each day the prospect gets worse because the clock is ticking regarding the draft corruption indictments against the prime minister.

If there’s no unity, Shaked asked Netanyahu, what’s your alternative plan – what’s Plan B? He didn’t reply. After a few more ruminations, she asked again: If there’s no unity government, what’s the plan? Again she was met with silence.

Later, Dery proposed a direct election of the prime minister as an alternative to a general election: The Knesset wouldn’t have to dissolve itself for the third time in a year, Gantz and Netanyahu would run head to head, and the winner would become prime minister.

“You’re putting up a wedding canopy without checking with the bride,” Netanyahu chided him gently. “Maybe the leaders of the third- and fourth-largest parties in the Knesset will run against each other?”

Dery didn’t get it, so Bennett volunteered to explain: “He’s suggesting that you and Ayman Odeh run in a direct election,” Bennett said, referring to the head of the Joint List of Arab parties. And he added a further note of sarcasm, “I’m sure you’ll beat him even among the Arabs.”

After Dery had missed a few meetings of the bloc’s leaders – he met with Netanyahu privately – he was on a high this time. The next person in his sights was Shaked.

“Why are you telling people that the ultra-Orthodox will have to compromise so that Lieberman will return to the bloc?” he griped, referring to Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman. “Why is it your business? The impression is that we’re putting up obstacles and he’s in the right. Don’t do us any favors – tend to your own affairs, not ours.”

Shaked was silent, shamed, according to some of the people present. Netanyahu probably said nothing, enjoying every minute. When Dery finished dressing Shaked down, he paused and then twisted the knife: “I was going to tell you this in private, but it was important for me that everyone here hear it.”

Mirror, mirror on the wall

In the event of a genuine alarm – a third election – Shaked is the most vulnerable. Her situation is gloomy at best. She didn’t deliver the goods as head of the far-right Yamina electoral alliance. The vote magnet was dulled. She’s a member of a three-person party whose future isn’t clear. Once again she’s at a crossroads.

In the big picture she has two options. The first is to return to Habayit Hayehudi, which she abandoned with Bennett before the April election. No one would lay down a red carpet for her there. From a position of heading a slate and being mooted as a future candidate for prime minister, she’d have to compete with Moti Yogev for the leadership role. The second option is to take a time-out from politics, go into business (there was once talk of her being appointed CEO of Israel-Cannabis), join Likud and wait for better days.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. Credit: David Bachar

This week she met with Avigdor Lieberman, with whom she has always had good relations, even when he and Bennett were flashing knives at each other (in other words, always). She’s eager to bring Lieberman back home, to the bloc that was created in his absence. If he agrees, he’ll chalk up great achievements, she has promised him several times – thus riling Dery. I asked Lieberman whether the achievements she was talking about were clear to him. “Nonsense,” he snapped.

I asked him about the direct-election idea. “It has to be clarified, but in principle I’m for it,” he said. “That has always been my position. Back when I was Bibi’s aide, I urged him to vote for the direct-election law against the position of the party and the Knesset caucus. He was the decisive vote in the Knesset vote. That’s how he won.”

Next week on Sunday, or Monday at the latest, when his party’s legislators meet, Lieberman will announce his intentions. To that end he launched what he termed “a series of consultations with all the groups in [my] party.” When Lieberman, the sole ruler of his domain and a dictator by his behavior, talks about consultation, the picture that comes to mind is him in front of a mirror.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I meet with everyone, listen to everyone. Right now I’m on my way to Kfar Maccabiah to meet with three more groups. I’ll complete the round by noon Friday.”

I asked him what we’d learn from the expected announcement. “We’ll be very clear about what we’ll do, how we’ll do it. To me it’s already clear. The people [in the party], most of them, take the same approach.”

So, actually, you tell them what you intend to do and they offer an opinion, I said.

He didn’t contradict me. “It’s important to respect everyone, to listen to everyone, not to hurt anyone,” he said. “I also like doing it.”

I was reminded of something that Yariv Levin, the head of Likud’s coalition-talks team, said to the Kahol Lavan team: “We in Likud have a magnificent democracy but in the end only one person decides. You people have a dictatorship but no one to make decisions.”

Warning vote

Something eluded the radar but doesn’t lack importance: On Monday, Likud’s Knesset caucus chose a new chairman and, unusually, it was done by secret vote. Of the 29 MKs who took part, 18 backed Miki Zohar and 11 were for Yoav Kish. Minus the votes of the two candidates themselves and of the party chairman, Bibi, the final result was 16-10.

Usually the party leader asks the MKs to vote for his candidate, the hands shoot up and it’s over. But this time Kish insisted on running, got the required number of signatures (four) and the race was on.

We need to go back in time a bit here: After the September election, Kish informed Netanyahu that he intended to run. If a coalition is formed by Likud, the party’s floor leader also becomes coalition whip, a springboard to the cabinet. I know that Miki wants it, too, Kish told Bibi, but please promise me you won’t do anything before you talk to me. Netanyahu promised. Kish is a nice guy, after all.

But it later emerged that over the weekend Bibi had pledged Zohar his support. Kish was taken by surprise, and he confronted the party chairman. Oops, I forgot about our conversation, Netanyahu told him. My mistake, sorry.

Never mind, Kish said. I’ll run anyway, but it shouldn’t be seen as if I’m running against you. I’m your man.

Such competition isn’t good, Netanyahu said. Apparently his fine-tuned senses had picked up something: He asked Kish not to run, but Kish wouldn’t back down. As compensation for the “forgotten” promise, the prime minister pledged not to intervene: He wouldn’t help Zohar and he wouldn’t show up to vote.

Personally, he didn’t take part in the campaign, but his staff – especially the chief of staff of the Prime Minister’s Office, Asher Hayoun, and an aide named Hanni Bleiweiss – worked the phones. Bibi wants you to vote for Miki with all your might, they told the Likud MKs. Kish also picked up the phone and called them. The prime minister promised me that he’d remain neutral, Kish told the MKs. That’s what Bibi wants, they replied.

On the day of the vote, as the MKs filed slowly into Likud’s room in the Knesset, a memorial ceremony for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the founder of Shas, was being held 50 meters away. The leaders of almost all the parties attended and spoke – Netanyahu as well. Afterward, he went upstairs to the second floor, heading for his office. It was clear that he intended to keep his promise to Kish not to vote.

But at this point, Hayoun and Bleiweiss rushed up to Bibi and whispered something in his ear. He stopped, paused for a moment, listened to them and did an about-face – followed by the battalion of bodyguards that surrounds him. With his two staffers flanking him as if he were a prisoner under escort, the prime minister was led to the Likud room and voted. Oh no, another promise violated.

Zohar was afraid he’d lose, and had shared his concern with Hayoun and Bleiweiss. After all, his loss would be read as a defeat for their employer. They briefed Netanyahu about the gravity of the situation, and he, someone who never breaks a promise, as everyone knows, and whose word is cast in iron, hurried to save the day. No – to save Zohar, who’s as important to him as last year’s snow.

After all the efforts of the Prime Minister’s Office, 40 percent of the MKs voted for the other candidate. Netanyahu knew that nothing good would come of this race. His hold on Likud’s MKs isn’t what it was. And indeed, on Monday, in a secret vote, a large percentage of the MKs let him know that his will is no longer sacred or tantamount to an imperial edict. At most, it’s a recommendation.

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