Analysis

Netanyahu Is Making Sure That if He Sinks, His Party Goes Down With Him

The bill that reveals the extent of Netanyahu's paranoia ■ A darling of Israel's right-wing is shunned after attacking an anti-democratic law

Benjamin Netanyahu climbs out after a visit inside the Rahav, the fifth submarine in the fleet, after it arrived in Haifa port January 12, 2016
\ REUTERS

In September 2012 the government was asked to approve the appointment of two deputies for Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. Attorney Shai Nitzan was appointed to deal with “special cases,” attorney Dina Zilber to proffer “advice.” The right didn’t want Nitzan. He was considered an enemy of the settlement enterprise. A leftist. Justice Minister Yaacov Neeman offered Zilber as a consolation prize for the settlers. Something to sweeten the bitter pill.

Who is Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, whom the right wing lauded six years ago and whom the conservative Neeman appointed? She’s the daughter of parents who immigrated to Israel from Latvia, was a member of the national chapter of students at Tel Aviv University when she studied law, and served as a parliamentary assistant to MK Eliezer Zandberg when he was in Rafael Eitan’s ultranationalist Tzomet party. She was considered a right-winger with liberal views. During her stint in the unit of the state prosecution that deals with High Court of Justice petitions, she had no difficulty defending the state’s position against petitioners. She even identified with her masters.

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Following several hard-core, left-wing deputy attorneys general – such as Joshua Schoffman, Yehudit Karp, Mike Blass and others – Zilber’s appointment to a powerful position in the attorney general’s office was greeted with a sigh of relief in rightist circles. Six years later, thanks to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the settlers’ lobby and journalists who are pursuing her like a pack of hunting dogs, Zilber is the new demon. The latest target. Forget about Talia Sasson, of the New Israel Fund.

You won’t find anyone in the Justice Ministry or in the political arena who will say that Zilber isn’t straight as an arrow, a moralist, an old-fashioned Zionist, a lover of Israel who is concerned about the country’s democratic character. She has served most of her term under Minister Shaked, and that explains a lot. Zilber hasn’t changed her ways or her views. Overall, they are the same as they were.

What has changed is the wind blowing from the justice minister’s office, from the government and from the prime minister. When the governmental bon ton involves silencing people, persecuting the elites and anyone tainted with leftism, neutralizing the gatekeepers, and spouting racism and nationalism – any other opinion is considered treasonous.

What Zilber said during her appearance this week before the Knesset House Committee when she attacked the “cultural loyalty” bill, sponsored by Culture Minister Miri Regev, can be seen as a political manifesto. A departure from the formalistic legal line to which representatives of the attorney general are bound when dealing with cabinet ministers and MKs. Her remarks can also been seen as a declaration of ethics and conscience. It happens occasionally that pedantic attorneys loosen up a little and speak from the heart.

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud), one of the very few ministers who can be said to personify statesmanlike behavior, said that Zilber should run for the Knesset on behalf of Meretz or the Joint List. During the party primaries season, which we are in now, even moderate, judicious people from the political mainstream turn savage.

There’s no question that Zilber went very far in her remarks. She stretched the rope to the extreme. The political left, which rushed to protect her bodily, would have responded very differently if a senior prosecutor had appeared before a Knesset committee during the era of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and delivered a rabble-rousing, religiously oriented speech against evacuation of Jewish settlements from the Strip and northern Samaria.

There’s also no doubt that Zilber knew exactly how much of a brouhaha her words would foment. The question is whether she expected the violent reaction from Shaked, who waylaid her, after she had already had Zilber in her sights, almost from the beginning of her tenure in the attorney general’s office. Zilber made Shaked do something uncharacteristic: She acted from the gut and not from the head. Her letter to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, spelling out the prohibitions that will henceforth apply to her – i.e., no appearances in the Knesset or government forums – was emotional and militant, as if it was lying around in a drawer ready to be whipped out. But that turned out to be a mistake that exposed the limits of Shaked’s power: Mendelblit, in his reaction, made it clear that she does not have the authority to tell Zilber which forums she can address. Attorney Zilber works for him, not for the justice minister. At the same time, Mendelblit did agree to suspend her appearances until the matter is clarified.

Illustration: Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is caught between his deputy, Dina Zilber, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Amos Biderman

It’s no secret that relations between Mendelblit and Shaked are not good – and certainly not of the kind she had with his predecessor, Weinstein. Mendelblit is in a tricky position.

In Shaked’s circles, the word this week was that Zilber had overdone it. Time and again, it was said, she had overstepped her authority, crossed red lines and taken liberties that don’t accrue to her. Shaked took it all in, gritted her teeth and was silent. There are clear directives for legal advisers, there are Civil Service regulations, there are rules of conduct that oblige deputies to declaim the position of the attorney general without deviations and without getting overly creative. Zilber, in this view, did what she pleased, and the minister had had enough.

On Thursday, Shaked took a victory lap between TV studios and radio stations. She is determined to squeeze this lemon dry. She told me on Wednesday that Zilber’s behavior was contrary to all the rules.

“It’s unacceptable for a public employee to arrive at the Knesset and make a political speech,” she said. “I’m in favor of criticism in a democratic state, but not by a public employee, in front of a committee where they were sent to represent the government’s position. If Zilber has done any damage to anything, it’s to the institution of the attorney general. This kind of behavior weakens elected officials’ trust in the advisers.”

People close to the justice minister said that Zilber also offended some of the people who work with her, who are angry at her. But that doesn’t jibe with what was said in support and in defense of Zilber by colleagues at an emergency meeting held Wednesday evening at the Justice Ministry.

Shaked rejects the attorney general’s argument that she has no authority in the matter concerning Zilber. In regard to appearances of attorneys before the cabinet and the Knesset in matters concerning Justice Ministry legislation, the minister says she has the last word. She decides who will represent the ministry. In regard to other legislation (such as the Regev-sponsored bill), the situation isn’t quite as clear.

What will Zilber’s fate be? Sources in the Justice Ministry say the minister and attorney general will decide on it. In the meantime, Shaked can put a check in the “political activity” rubric. In the ongoing but covert struggle for the hearts and minds of the electorate that she wages with Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of her party, Habayit Hayehudi, Shaked has chalked up a major victory. She’s decapitating leftist lawyers in the attorney general’s office, while he’s engaged in another of his endless spats with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. No wonder Bennett upped the ante by threatening that the three ministers from Habayit Hayehudi will walk out of every cabinet meeting in which Zilber appears. Shaked, by the way, didn’t reiterate that threat when I asked her about it.

It’s the investigations, stupid

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will discuss an amendment to the Basic Law on the Government, which has been dubbed the “Gideon Sa’ar law.” Under the amendment, after a Knesset election the president will entrust the formation of a new government not to “any MK who agrees” to do that, as the law now stipulates, but to the head of a party who agrees to undertake that mission and has been approved by the majority of other elected factions.

This of course is not a Sa’ar or a Gilad Erdan or Yisrael Katz or Yuli Edelstein law. It’s a Benjamin Netanyahu law, and in more than one sense. The idea that President Reuven Rivlin will ignore the will of the people, summon Sa’ar, let’s say, and ask him to form a government, tells us something not about Rivlin, but about Netanyahu’s paranoia. We’ve had suspicious leaders who felt they were being persecuted, but we’ve never had anything like this.

It’s now clear that the new legislation, initiated by coalition whip MK David Amsalem (Likud), was born in sin. Netanyahu made up a fantastical story about a putsch attempt devised by Sa’ar and Rivlin, solely to justify legislation that will reduce the powers of the president and taint him with stain of being a potential conspirator. Given the two options – to act with transparency and integrity, or to behave deviously and misleadingly – Netanyahu will always choose the second.

The spin worked quite well. The media for the most part swallowed the story that “a lacuna was discovered in the law and needs to be amended.” It’s worth reading the explanation that Amsalem concocted for promoting the amendment. It shows that he’s a distinguished democrat, the James Madison of our time, who wants to save the president from himself and spare him embarrassment and a “serious public controversy,” which would be fomented by a mistaken decision on his part. We’re so lucky to have this guy Amsalem around.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Christian Media Summit in Jerusalem October 14, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The implication of the law, which is expected to make its way speedily through the byways of the legislative process, is that Netanyahu is handcuffing Likud to him – a person suspected of criminal wrongdoing. If legal circumstances end up preventing Netanyahu, as the head of the largest party following the next election (according to current polls), from getting the presidential nod to create the next government, then none of the other pretenders to the crown in his party will be able to get it either. If he sinks, they will go down with him. Because the right to form a government will accrue only to party leaders, if the new legislation is passed, Netanyahu is, in principle, effectively paving the way for the head of a rival party to take up residence on Balfour Street.

Which is why all the premier’s coalition partners support the legislation. He’s giving them membership in the exclusive club of potential prime ministers. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of Kulanu, who asserted a week ago that he doesn’t support legislation of a personal nature, has changed his tune. If personal benefit will go to him, then the legislation is terrific.

“Party leaders work very hard to get elected. They bear the responsibility and the Knesset seats are theirs. It’s good that the law recognizes this,” Kahlon said this week.

And more food for thought: because the only motivation for the amendment resides in the investigations of Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 and their possible implications, we need to take into account a scenario in which Netanyahu resigns the premiership in the wake of being indicted. That’s the prevailing assumption in the coalition.

But he won’t have to resign as leader of Likud. And why should he? He will remain party leader, no one will replace him, and thus he can continue, even in the capacity of being actively accused, to thwart the ambitions of his self-styled successors for who knows how many years. Something to be considered by the Likud ministers who will vote for the amendment next week.

Thursday, the hole being dug for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the law enforcement agencies got even deeper, with publication of the police recommendations to prosecute most of the suspects in Case 3000, aka the submarine affair, involving alleged fraud, money laundering and other charges related to Israel’s purchase of submarines from the German firm Thyssenkrupp. Those on the police’s list include Netanyahu’s former bureau chief, David Sharan, and Netanyahu’s cousin and his former attorney, David Shimron. Police say there was not enough evidence to charge former Netanyahu adviser, envoy and confidant Isaac Molho.

These are just police recommendations, which could be overturned down the road. But adding to the troubles at Balfour Street there’s a new fear now: that – heaven forbid – Sharan or Shimron might turn state’s evidence against the prime minister.

Cultural prevarication

Miri Regev has been lying for more than six years. The culture and sports minister is lying to the public, to her voters, to the media. Possibly also to herself. As the years pass and the collective memory grows dimmer, the prevarication intensifies. There’s a saying that a lie has no legs. Well, Regev’s lie has a big mouth, a snarling throat and a brazen posture.

Regev’s long-running show of mendacity played the Knesset this week. The plenum debated an amendment to the so-called cultural loyalty bill. MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor/Zionist Union) delivered an aggressive opposition speech in which she proposed alternative legislation that would stipulate, among other clauses, that the culture minister is forbidden to call refugees “a cancer” (a reminder of Regev’s notorious speech in south Tel Aviv).

Regev leaped to her feet and shouted to Yacimovich that she never said that. “I didn’t say ‘cancer’ about the Sundanese. I said that the phenomenon [of refugees and labor migrants] is a cancer,” she declared. That’s her standard formulation – a “phenomenon,” not people, heaven forbid. She’s claimed hundreds of times that people have done her wrong by attributing the racist and inflammatory quote to her.

A statue of Culture Minister Miri Regev placed in central Tel Aviv by artist Itay Zalait, November 8, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum תומר אפלבאום

The only problem is that the speech was filmed and is readily accessible on the internet. “Friends, I said today in the [Knesset] plenum, the Sudanese are a cancer in our body. We will do everything to return them to their place of origin,” Regev screams at the fired-up crowd in a violent demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood on May 20, 2012.

We wouldn’t have mentioned this if Regev hadn’t intertwined two lies in one sentence in the Knesset, and if last weekend hadn’t marked the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing activist who was incited by politicians, rabbis and leaders of the settlements.

Rabin said that the settlers are a cancer,” Regev said, waving a finger at Yacimovich, “and all of you said nothing. Rabin said the settlers are a cancer!”

Let’s check what Rabin said. He made two relevant statements. In a 1979 biography (in Hebrew), he’s quoted as saying, “I saw in Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful] a very grave phenomenon – a cancer in the body of Israeli democracy.”

Years later, a recorded interview with Rabin was made public, part of which was marked “off the record.” He said, “[Gush Emunim] is a settlement movement that is like a cancer in Israel’s social and democratic fabric… The phenomenon of a group that takes the law into its hands… There were few cases in Jewish history in which such a wild group assumed a mandate in the name of heaven.”

Rabin referred to a phenomenon, to an extremist messianic political movement for which breaking the law was a beacon. Regev laid into the most wretched of human beings. She incites against the helpless, libels the dead and lies shamelessly. And she will go on lying, because that’s all she knows.

Master Leon and Mr. Barkat

Nine days have elapsed since announcement of the results of the first round of voting in the municipal elections. Next Tuesday, runoff votes will take place between the two leading candidates in some 20 locales. The most important one is Jerusalem.

In the capital, Moshe Leon, formerly one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants, a member of the national-religious camp, and the candidate favored by Shas leader Arye Dery, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman and MK Moshe Gafni of Degel Hatorah, is running against Ofer Berkovitch, who has the backing of most of the city’s secular population. Netanyahu hasn’t yet taken a stand on this race. Logic says he would support Leon: The entire “national camp” is behind him – the city’s Likud branch and most of the party’s senior figures, plus the three aforementioned parties. Leon is also considered to be the favorite, so it’s not an excessively dangerous gamble to support him.

Netanyahu’s silence is peculiar; it’s not clear what’s behind it. Maybe he will announce his support before Tuesday, but it will look like he’s just following the trend. A prime minister is expected to lead. Indeed, “leading from behind” is what Netanyahu said disparagingly about the policy of U.S. President Barack Obama, when France and Britain launched attacks in Syria. And that’s what he’s doing – or not doing – now.

Well, Bibi is silent, but Nir Barkat, the outgoing mayor of Jerusalem, isn’t, and that looks even worse. Throughout the campaign, Barkat, who backed Likud minister Zeev Elkin for the top job in the city, was in the forefront of those hurling abuse at Leon. “Puppet on a string,” he called him. The anti-Leon stridency was strategic and self-interested: Barkat hoped Elkin would win and would then help him in the Likud primary ahead of the next general election.

That having failed, Barkat recalculated quickly. The Likud branch under the unofficial leadership of MK David Amsalem is touting Leon? Check. Most senior Likud figures support him? Check. And the whole so-called national camp, too? Check. So, there’s no reason to wait – he too will jump on the crowded bandwagon.

In a nauseating announcement, Barkat praised the candidate whom just a moment earlier he had called a manipulator, a functionary, the emissary of dark forces and a sure recipe for Jerusalem’s disaster. Under the pressure of the primary, that same fellow suddenly became the fulfillment of the dream of generations.

Barkat’s dishonorable behavior is giving opportunism a bad name. Elected twice with the votes of the general and secular public (which is how he trounced Leon in 2013), he is spitting in the faces of his voters in the city. But they already know who Barkat is. Soon he’ll be in the Knesset, maybe in the government, and the general public will get to know him, too.