Analysis

Netanyahu Is Sabotaging Unity Government Talks. His Scorched-earth Tactics May Backfire

Netanyahu is gunning for a third election. Helping lead the charge is the justice minister, who dumped a pail of sewage on state prosecutors

Illustration: Amos Biderman

The preparations for a third election, aka the “coalition negotiations,” are continuing apace. This week, a senior Likud figure who is close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a friend of his, a central figure in the Israeli left. Tell me, the Likudnik said, how are you going to run in the next election? What will the format be this time? Is there any chance that Kahol Lavan, Meretz and Labor will run together? Or maybe that just the first two will?

What the left-winger replied is of no importance; he had no intelligent responses. What was interesting was the reason for the call in the first place. In light of the close ties between the caller and the outgoing prime minister, the conclusion to be drawn is that the Balfour Street residence and the Likud party are dusting off contingency plans for another election. The option of additional mergers between the two blocs of parties, a scenario that came to partial fruition in September, could surface again, this time more potently.

It’s too soon to consider the various scenarios. In a normal state of affairs, Likud would have long since swallowed up Hayamin Hehadash, the National Union and Habayit Hayehudi – as well as Yisrael Beiteinu, for that matter – to create the Republican Party of Israel. On the other side of the divide, there is no future for Labor and Meretz, two exhausted brands that barely survived the previous grinding campaigns. Their time has passed. Their place is in Kahol Lavan. Together, they constitute the Democratic Party that needs to be established here. Each of the small planets in the two camps has a place under a big sun, according to their relative size.

The feeling that the dark clouds of a third election are gathering before our eyes looms even larger when we examine Netanyahu’s behavior this week. If his aim was to forge a unity government, he would not have sicced his gofer from the Justice Ministry on the state prosecution; remained silent for hours before dissociating himself laconically from the idiotic rant of conspiracy theorist Mordechai Kedar (who claimed at a demonstration of Bibi’s supporters that it was not Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995); or termed the investigation of his aides in the case of the harassment of state’s witness Shlomo Filber a “terrorist attack on democracy.” Rather, the premier would have expressed some sort of reservations about the gutter language his son Yair used when describing police investigators (“Gestapo,” “Stasi”) and Gideon Sa’ar (“rapist”), and would even perhaps have sent him to anger-management therapy and to a course in good manners.

To weaken Kahol Lavan’s entrenchment in its two basic conditions for a unity government – Benny Gantz coming first in any rotation, and Netanyahu separating from the right-wing bloc – the prime minister should have done the opposite: demonstrate statesmanship and moderation, calming things down in the judicial system, and at least pretending that his two consecutive failures – the political one after the April election and the electoral one in September – had taught him a little humility.

He should have killed them softly, set a honey trap. He has plenty of shticks up his sleeve. For example, arranging a dinner for the two couples: Revital and Benny, Sara and himself. Or, with Gantz’s okay, holding a conversation with Gabi Ashkenazi, the person in the Kahol Lavan “cockpit” who’s most opposed to any compromise on the order of the rotation.

But when Netanyahu continues to fulminate and inflame passions, personally or through envoys, when he chooses to target Yair Lapid, accusing him of being the principal obstacle to unity and of leading Gantz by the nose – he is deliberately and consciously torpedoing the coalition talks and hastening the coming of an election in 2020.

Even the most flexible of unity government advocates understand the message Bibi is disseminating: He will not stop being who he is. There will be no restart. He will not change his perverse ways. Even as the head of a unity government he will continue to spark discord and strife, to incite, to instigate and to assault the gatekeepers of the state.

Gantz and his colleagues will be trapped. Netanyahu will likely continue to play havoc with the judicial system, will encourage his supporters to hold demonstrations, will post inflammatory clips and tweets. And what will Gantz and his team do? Sit quietly and do busywork? If so, they will betray the trust of their voters; they will become dishrags. Will they bicker with Bibi from morn ‘til night? If so, why are we here in the first place? It was all so predictable. Will they resign? See: the previous question.

Yair Netanyahu.
Ofer Vaknin

Just deserts

At 2 A.M. on Wednesday, Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, tweeted, “A tip for the senior Likud folks who want to capture the [party] chairmanship after the Netanyahu era (there’s lots of time yet, not to worry). Take a lesson from Ohana! That’s how you capture the heart of the hundreds of thousands of Likud party members. Strange thing, uh, that justice interests them.” Thus, with infantile, inarticulate phrasing, he nevertheless painted an accurate picture.

The day after his press conference, at which he scathingly castigated the state prosecution, Justice Minister Amir Ohana was a hero of Likudniks’ WhatsApp groups. King of the mountain. Activists and those who set the tone among the party’s grass roots lapped it up. For years they have yearned for a justice minister who is one of them and would crash at 200 kilometers an hour into the despised state prosecution, where representatives of the judicial elite are ensconced.

On Tuesday evening, on live TV, they got more than they had hoped for. In simple, low language, not flowery or sanctimonious, Ohana emptied a pail of sewage onto the prosecutors who are now embroiled in considering the disposition of the Netanyahu cases. He hurled empty slogans, quoted remarks made 20 years ago that no longer have relevance, and fanned the flames of a conspiracy theory positing a “prosecution within the prosecution,” which, like the Elders of Zion, meets secretly and decides which politician’s career to eradicate by framing said politician with carefully tailored charges.

The activists cheered wildly when Ohana mocked Liat Ben Ari, the lead prosecutor in the Netanyahu investigations for the past three years. He simply shot her in the back and threw her body to the ecstatic masses. Ben Ari, the right wing’s favorite target of incitement, needed security guards even before the honorable minister’s performance this week, and now the danger level is likely to rise further. That, too, will be remembered eternally as part of the legacy of shame and disgrace that the “minister of justice” will leave behind.

Thanks to the police force’s amateurish, sloppy work, the case of the harassment of state’s witness Shlomo Filber by leaders from Likud’s campaign headquarters, quickly morphed into the episode of the police poking around in the advisers’ phones. Likud people freaked out big-time. All the sleeping demons were awakened, all the allegations about the hounding of the right, “targeted assassinations” and a prolonged witch hunt came into play. The Likud street demanded blood.

Ministers Gilad Erdan, Yoav Gallant, Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin – each according to his own ability and style – danced to Ohana’s tune. In interviews they gave Wednesday to media outlets, they stuck to the same message that was imposed upon Ohana – as everyone knows – by those in the Balfour Street war room.

Erdan, the public security minister, the ostensibly sane and representative face in Likud’s top ranks, who is desperate for amnesty from the Balfour residents, came closest to Ohana in his remarks. In a thunderous baritone, he lambasted the investigators and asserted that the offense in question (the alleged intimidation of Filber) was “marginal.” Since when does he decide which offenses to investigate and which not? That’s not his job; indeed, it’s a violation of his job.

Anyone who heard Erdan (in an interview with Arye Golan on Kan radio) refusing obstinately and repeatedly to utter even the tiniest word of disapproval at the crude curses and insults Crown Prince Yair unloaded on his interrogators, understood how paralyzed the minister is by fear of the Family. Only one person among the so-called “senior figures” in Likud, namely Gideon Sa’ar, wasn’t afraid to call out Yair Netanyahu for remarks that were “contemptible and wacky.” Sa’ar also keeps repeating that he will run against Netanyahu in the next Likud leadership primary. And that day is fast approaching.

Eve of destruction

What we saw this week on the part of the outgoing prime minister and his staff was a full-fledged campaign – sophisticated, systematic and focused. Netanyahu is out to implant in the collective consciousness the idea that the judicial system targeted him, tracked him down, and is now carrying out a confirmed kill in the form of an attack on his advisers.

The truth is that it’s the public that brought Bibi down, on September 17. The voters abandoned him in the wake of the unhinged, thuggish and inflammatory election campaign he conducted. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Likud lost seven-eight seats. The right-wing bloc dropped from 60 seats to 55 in the Knesset. That is the work of Benjamin Netanyahu. Not of Shai Nitzan (the state prosecutor), not of Avichai Mendelblit (the attorney general, who let the premier off extremely easy really easily by drawing up a diminished list of suspicions against him) and not of Liat Ben Ari.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana.
Emil Salman

The mendacious narrative being disseminated is a hostile takeover of common sense. Ahead of the attorney general’s decision about whether to indict him, Netanyahu is flooding the media with alternative facts that have no relation to reality, but serve the impression he is laboring to create.

The point of all this is not only to bolster him in the battle for the hearts and minds of voters in 2020, but also to preempt any future threats within the party. Anyone who runs against Bibi in a Likud primary will be denounced and accused of membership in the stormtroops of evil jurists who are determined to liquidate him along with “the rule of the right wing” (as Naftali Bennett put it in a post).

But Ohanaism is a two-edged sword. The fired-up right will lay down their lives for Netanyahu in an election. But moderate voters who belong to Likud’s center and for whom the character of the country is important, are recoiling in disgust. Revulsion kept many of them at home on September 17, and many more are likely to stay home next March or April, when the next election will probably be held.

“Every day Ohana’s agenda is in the headlines, our bloc loses one-10th of a Knesset seat,” a senior figure in a right-wing party told me. This was one of several leaders and a number of members of the bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties I spoke with this week. All of them put forward the same assessment.

“In the next election, the right will suffer nothing less than a historic defeat,” one predicted.

“It will be a crash,” another said.

“In April it ended in a stalemate, in September we lost seven-eight seats, and next spring, in an exponential way, we will simply be annihilated,” a third observed. I asked him what he and his colleagues were doing to avert the catastrophe. My interlocutor responded with a fraught silence. Then he repeated, “We will simply be annihilated.”

Kahol Lavan is aware of this frame of mind. They hear it directly, unmediated. Gantz, who this week wrote that what appears to be happening from the outside is not what is happening on the inside (there’s a “deep state” in the coalition talks, too, it turns out), gave truthful reports to the public. He personally, and the party’s three other leaders – Ashkenazi, Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon – meet frequently with people from the right-Haredi bloc. They are bringing huge pressure to bear on them, whether reasonable or not. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.

What Kahol Lavan needs is two MKs to shift from one side of the aisle to the other. That’s it. Gantz will then be able to inform the president that he has put together a coalition – a minority government with the support of the Arabs and with the participation of Avigdor Lieberman. Likud will then move to the opposition benches, and we’ll see what happens next.

Israel’s finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, right, and his visiting American counterpart, Steven Mnuchin, in Jerusalem this week.
Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy Jerus

It’s all relative

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin visited Israel this week together with President Donald Trump’s advisers Jared Kushner (the president’s son-in-law) and Avi Berkowitz. Mnuchin has been in the administration since Trump entered the White House: He’s one of the few senior members of the cabinet who hasn’t been replaced by the president. That probably says something about him – the question is, what.

Mnuchin is friendly with his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Kahlon, with whom he met privately this week. The American Jew, who looks like someone out of an early Woody Allen movie, asked about the political situation here. Kahlon explained that things were stuck and elaborated on what he sees as the only two possible scenarios: a unity government or another election. The guest couldn’t fathom how a third election within a single year could even be on the table. What’s happening to the Israelis? The host shrugged his shoulders.

“Believe me,” Mnuchin summed up, “when I see what’s going on here and in Britain, my impression is that our politics are pretty sane.”