The war room was set up in the Prime Ministers Residence immediately after the broadcast of the smutty recording of Yair Netanyahu. The aides of Yairs not-so-proud father studied the battle lines and made panicky phone calls to the troops in the Knesset building. The latter were urged to report for media duty, physically and by phone, to appear on the next days morning talk shows, to defend the kid and to declaim the aggressive messages conveyed in the familys response, on which the prime minister and his advisers labored long and hard before the Israel Television News Company aired the tape.
For nought. The Likud MKs, whose threshold for shame is especially high when it comes to the exploits of the Leader and his wife, were unavailable. Even the backbenchers, who balk at (almost) nothing, switched their cellphones to flight mode.
The collective cold shoulder that the prime minister was given in his distress was received with astonishment, sorrow and profound grief at home on Balfour Street. Its residents were left without a defensive shield, abandoned to their fate. Only then, while the story of the tape – recorded during a drunken night on the town two years ago that included visits to strip joints by Yair and some buddies, and featured misogynistic and other vulgar utterances – was flooding the websites and social networks in Israel and worldwide, did the scale of the blow become clear to them.
The Netanyahus realized that their usual sort of whining (vilifying the left and the media for trying to topple Likud, employing whataboutism aimed at the offspring of other prime ministers and so forth) would not relieve the feeling of nausea that had gripped a whole country. The situation thus called for a rapid change in strategy, from an all-out offensive, with shots being fired in every direction, to a defensive posture, damage control and a modicum of head lowering.
Just before the newspapers went to press, and in order to sidetrack slightly the hell (as per the accurate description of one of the recordings protagonists) whose gates were about to open on them – Yair published a statement of apology. Thats never happened before. Not after he cursed the staff of the democracy-advocating institute Molad, not after he gave the finger to a woman on the street who made a remark to him for not cleaning up after his dog, and not after he shared anti-Semitic cartoons on his Facebook page, a post for which he received understandable praise from the Ku Klux Klan.
The new policy continued into the following day, making its way into a previously scheduled press conference with NATO-country ambassadors at the Prime Ministers Office. Netanyahu looked ashen gray and crushed, as if hed been run over the night before by a streetcar named desire.
He condemned his sons remarks and attributed them to the influence of alcohol, explaining what took place as an immature and tasteless conversation between some young guys who had returned from an innocent night out. He let himself off lightly, of course.
The premiers careful effort to express his dispproval related solely to what his son had said, not to his deeds, as though what happened was merely a slip of the tongue. And as though the one drink too many that Yair and his pals, Nir and Roman, imbibed came after theyd attended the opera and – their hearts surging from the experience – had gone on to a pub and toasted the orchestra and the conductor.
My wife and I raised our children to respect every human being and to honor every woman, Netanyahu said in an uncharacteristic tone of defeat and dispiritedness. It could be that dozens of people who have gone through the experience of being employed in the Prime Ministers Residence, from Meni Naftali to Shira Raban – Youre a lump of nothing, Sara Netanyahu shouted at the latter, according to Rabans testimony in her lawsuit – would dispute him on that point.
The text closely recalled the response by Donald Trump after a clip was made public in which hes heard boasting to an interviewer about his habit of grabbing women by the pussy. It was locker room talk, he said; thats just how guys talk. Millions of Americans declared that they had never said anything resembling that in locker rooms or anywhere else, just as parents in Israel protested the implicit message of Netanyahu familys statement – namely, that this is how young people hang out on Friday night: by going to strip clubs and exploiting women for prostitution to the tune of 400 shekels (about $115). The son of the millionaire from Caesarea and from the Rehavia neighborhood in Jerusalem asked his pal – the son of the billionaire from London and from Tel Avivs Rothschild Boulevard – to pay even that sum, in return for his fathers having worked to enable the pals dad to benefit from Israels natural gas deal.
Thats the education Yair Netanyahu received at home: grab them by the pocket, because whats ours is ours, and whats theirs is also ours.
Yellow is the color
The recording was like the box of chocolates in the Forrest Gump aphorism, with something in it that spoke to every normative person in the country, whether on the right or left: a whiff of corruption, testimony to big capital-government relations, exploitation and objectification of women, and plain old vulgarity, along with the debased use of public funds (Yair and his pals were transported on their outing in a government car and escorted by a bodyguard).
The passages that the news company chose not to broadcast, and rightly so, were far harder to digest. The young scapegrace should thank the news programs editors – not accuse them of yellow journalism. The yellowness is all his. Theyre only the messengers, who comported themselves professionally and even spared both him and viewers.
The elder prince of the House of Netanyahu, whose parents like to present him proudly to presidents, leaders and high rollers who visit the official residence, was revealed to be a real hazard, a vulgarian, a parasite and just plain revolting. The last guy someone would wish as a husband for his daughter, despite his exalted lineage.
Beyond these heartwarming character traits, what was heard on the tape touches a particularly raw nerve in Israeli society: the circumstances in which the natural gas deal was approved in the summer of 2015. It turns out that ahead of the approval, a close friendship – of a sort that includes joint visits to private rooms in strip clubs – existed between the son of the prime minister who threw himself on the fence to get the deal done, and the son of the tycoon who was going to reap the fruits of the deal. Daddy, of course, knew nothing. Once again, he knew nothing. When its convenient for him, hes always the last to spot what generally goes on under his nose.
The political arena was largely silent about the whole affair. MK Shelly Yacimovich (Zionist Union/Labor) was the first to comment publicly. She, who has never spoken against anyone in the family, despite the shameful deeds of Sara and Yair (the younger son, Avner, is apparently cut from different cloth; he eluded the education in values), lashed out sharply against what was heard in the recording.
In contrast, Culture Minister Miri Regev, a sycophant of the first order, took the opposite position at Thursdays cabinet meeting. Its not acceptable for us to be held hostage, she screamed. They threaten us, and then make a profit vis--vis the media. If thats how it is, I dont want any bodyguards.
Not a word on the content of the recording. Who if not Regev would reveal apathy to the suffering of the victims of prostitution, indifference to the waste of taxpayers money, and a lack of interest in depraved behavior? None of that should surprise when one recalls her statement that its not fair to compare former president and convicted rapist Moshe Katsav to the current resident of the office, Reuven Rivlin, who, she declared, is the most unstatesmanlike president of all time.
Her comments, which were likely ordered up by the prime minister, ignited a conversation that would not have embarrassed the government of Chechnya. Netanyahu offered his thanks, and asked Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to have her people look into the legality of the leaking of the recording to the press and of whether there might grounds for passing legislation against. That is, to prohibit the secret recording of conversations even if made by one of those involved in the conversation, something that is today completely legal.
Flashback to David Bitan: Three months ago, he announced his intention to introduce precisely such legislation. Just like that. He didnt say how, why, who. Now it all becomes clear. In Netanyahus office, they apparently knew about a recording that was making its way around different editorial offices. They knew, and they tried – fortunately, without success – to stop it.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) paid a condolence call this week on MK Yossi Yonah (Zionist Union/Labor), who was in mourning for his brother. Yonahs sister went over to him and asked: Moshe, how long are you going to stay in this corrupt government? Kahlon smiled and didnt reply. Another woman, also a relative, asked him something similar.
Kahlon got uptight. Listen carefully, and dont have any illusions, he asserted, the famous Kahlon smile never leaving his lips. Theres no chance in the world that Im going to leave the government because of police recommendations [i.e., a possible decision by the police to recommend the indictment of Prime Minister Netanyahu on bribery charges]. Got it? No chance!
They got it. Thats it – hes made the decision. The die is cast. All those who held great expectations can stuff them deep inside the drawer. Kahlon made similar remarks, albeit less explicit and without referring directly to the recommendations and with less agitation, in his address to the Israel Business Conference, sponsored by the Globes financial paper, on Wednesday evening.
The delay – its not clear for how long – in the publication of the conclusions reached by the police in Cases 1000 and 2000, made it possible for Kahlon and Netanyahu to submit on Thursday a state budget for 2019, which the government discussed late into the night. Its a budget lacking both sharp cuts and radical measures. Its main purpose is to preserve the coalition. The procedure, which will involve rounds of votes in the Knesset, and which will conclude before the Passover break, or immediately afterward, in the Houses summer session, presents obstacles, but they can be overcome. A mini-crisis here, an empty threat of one kind or another – and then the budget is anchored in law.
Nothing, then, would seem to stand in the way of Netanyahus fourth coalition getting through 2018 safely. Other than a decision by the attorney general to indict the prime minister. In a theoretical timetable, in which the police conclude their investigation in a few months, and the state prosecution and the attorney general do their work in seven or eight months, including a hearing, if theres a need for one – well get to the end of this year before the final decision on at least two of the cases under investigation is made.
If Netanyahu evades an indictment, he will complete a full term in November 2019 and become the prime minister who served more years than any other in the countrys history – more even than David Ben-Gurion.
The threat of an election this year has passed. MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), whos soaring in the polls, will have to mothball his dreams of gaining the premiership. Avi Gabbay, whos losing altitude fast, not least by continually shooting himself in the foot, will have to make a major recovery if the battle between him and Lapid for leadership of the center-left bloc is to be resumed. At the moment, Yesh Atid appears to have won the day.
Major pressure was released in the Knesset this week. The crisis between Likud and the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties, which erupted a couple of months ago because of Israel Railways repairs on Shabbat, and led to the resignation of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) and threatened to infect Shas, too, has been resolved.
The supermarkets law, which bans most stores from opening on Shabbat, passed by a majority of one. Before that, the Shabbat law was passed, which accords the minister of labor the power to weigh the question of the Sabbath when authorizing urgent work on that day. Also passed was a law that brought Litzman back to the Health Ministry as a deputy minister with full ministerial powers.
Three laws that will help preserve coalition stability, only one of which has any substance. The first two are a faade, a caprice engendered by violent Haredi-media pressure that makes life hard for ultra-Orthodox MKs, who in turn abuse the countrys secular majority and provoke a prime minister whos susceptible to pressure and extortion and whose supreme goal is political survival.
The danger of an early election was substantial, clear and even present. If the supermarkets law had been defeated, or, in the absence of a coalition majority, had not been put to a vote, the Litzman bill would not have been submitted, either. The former minister made it clear that he would not return to office until the supermarkets issue was dealt with properly. The result: UTJ would have remained outside the coalition, its members would have started to behave anarchically in the plenum, by not supporting certain bills, and so on. Interior Minister Arye Derys Shas party would have been dragged unhappily into the realms of rebelliousness and rejectionism. The coalition tower would have been buffeted time and again, until it imploded on its occupants, none of whom want or need elections now. But marches of folly have their own illogic.
The opposition in the Knesset is steered by two MKs: Ofer Shelah, chairman of the Yesh Atid faction in the house, and Yoel Hasson, his counterpart in Zionist Union. In that order. Hasson is the prattler of the two, smug and media-hungry, boasting of achievements that are not always his. Shelah operates more quietly. Credit for the vigorous opposition activity in recent weeks, which didnt bear fruit but shook up the coalition the way its supposed to, goes to Shelah.
This week, though, he and Hasson, in that order, screwed up big-time. Apparently the praise and applause went to their heads.
The Knesset plenum convened to consider the Litzman bill. The opposition submitted multiple objections, as part of a kind of mini-filibuster, which was supposed to gon on for a few hours. At midday, Shelah and Hasson looked at the board that shows which MKs are present, and saw that a large number of coalition MKs were not in the building. Some of them were attending the funeral of Rabbi Raziel Shelah, the settler who was shot to death Tuesday night near the outpost of Havat Gilad, where he lived.
The two decided to withdraw the objections forthwith, thus concluding the debate and necessitating an immediate vote. The essence of the maneuver was right. Thats what the opposition does. But the timing was atrocious. It was interpreted as an attempt to take advantage of the participation of right-wing MKs at the funeral of the slain settler. After the scandal recently generated by Arye Dery, when he tried to drag MK Yehuda Glick (Likud) from the shivah for his wife, a little more caution should have been called for in matters of life, death and mourning. (Hasson claimed that he didnt know that the funeral was taking place at the same time. The time had been announced repeatedly on the news broadcasts that morning, but he didnt know.)
The Knesset regulations stipulate that, in the absence of objections, the chairman of the committee that prepared a bill for a vote is not permitted to take the rostrum to sum up the debate and thus kill time until the missing MKs arrive. Fortunately for the coalition, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin was on duty at the government table in the Knesset. A former coalition whip, theres not a trick in the book that he doesnt know from experience.
Elkin took advantage of his right as a minister to take the rostrum at any time and talk about whatever he pleases. He did just that, talking while the MKs were summoned urgently back to their place of employment. If Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beiteinu), or Economy and Industry Minister Eli Cohen (Kulanu) had been on duty instead of Elkin, its possible the Litzman law would have been defeated, and Litzman would not have attended yesterdays special cabinet meeting in order to fight like a lion on behalf of the Health Ministrys budget.
The joy that seized the coalition after everything ended happily was noticeable on the other benches, too. The MKs of Zionist Union are just as scared of an election as Likud and Shas. They were also quite pleased to see Litzman resume his former post; hes considered a successful minister. On the eve of the budgets approval, its best if hes there, in the negotiations in the back rooms, to ensure his divinely ordained budget.
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