Netanyahu No Longer Wants a Unity Government, He Wants to Crush the Supreme Court

It’s now clear that eradicating the coronavirus is out and preventing the judiciary from curbing Netanyahu's power is in

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Illustration of Netanyahu, Gantz and Yair Lapid as trapeze artists
Illustration of Netanyahu, Gantz and Yair Lapid as trapeze artistsCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The deeper we get into the coronavirus crisis, the more the phrase used in Benjamin Netanyahu’s earlier apocalyptic appearances, “emergency government,” becomes a bad joke – at our expense, of course.

For example, at the beginning of the crisis, the prime minister warned that Israel could have a million patients and 10,000 fatalities. And now? Now there’s a “study” concluding that Israel is the safest country in the world regarding the coronavirus.

Under the title “Forbes Magazine states,” Netanyahu gets out the message like those leaflets we drop over Gaza before an attack. Total fake, of course, but his base cheers and the hell with the facts. The health system, unemployment, a rehab program for the economy – those aren’t on the table for the coalition talks.

In the last 10 days one issue has preoccupied Likud and Kahol Lavan’s lawyers and politicians: Protecting Netanyahu from the Supreme Court. They’re not planning a “unity government” (there never was such a thing) but a government that will craft legislation to override the court.

Israel's High Court of Justice, sitting in Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. Credit: Amit Shabi

If in the previous round the two sides’ legal mechanism aimed to ensure a smooth rotation of the premiership between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, now all minds are laboring to pave overriding roads for the prime minister, and later the deputy prime minister, before and after the rotation.

Netanyahu is demanding – and shamefully dragging with him the leaders of the party allegedly formed to preserve the rule of law – a complicated bulwark. The higher the wall the defendant indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust builds around himself, the greater his fears and appetite. Not Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran.

Not even the rage of his wife and son, who are running the show, alarm him like the justices on the hill. You have to read the sickening tweets of his son against the Supreme Court and its justices to understand where Netanyahu is coming from. The son writes what his father thinks.

On the prime minister’s patio, where Netanyahu sits with Gantz, they come to understandings, everything is concluded in good spirits (“cordial,” Likud’s Yariv Levin told someone), and then the negotiating teams meet. Then they realize that nothing has been agreed, nothing has been concluded. Bibi is making trouble again, the talks explode, he invites over Gantz for a another conversation and everything repeats.

This is reminiscent of another party leader and former military chief, Shaul Mofaz. In 2012 he entered Netanyahu’s coalition one night, smeared from shining bald head to toe with promises about “equal military service” regarding the ultra-Orthodox and “changing the government system.” After 80 days of empty dialogue and smears of another kind, he left the room embittered and heading straight for his political demise.

This is how the talks are being conducted now. Even after agreements were reached and clauses were drafted, Netanyahu’s representatives, Levin and attorney Jacob Atrakchi, return to their counterparts and, ashamed, admit that the agreement is worth nothing. It has happened many times. Levin summarizes the agreement, the documents go to a higher floor and return with angry scribbles and scratches.

Gantz at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony, Jerusalem, March 17, 2020Credit: Gideon Sharon

The dragging strategy

Take the committee for appointing judges. Netanyahu always sees a few steps ahead. It’s clear to him that his trial will take place, and he’s guessing that it will end with a conviction. His next – and last – resort will be the Supreme Court to hear his appeal. He wants to tilt the balance as much as possible toward right-wing justices who will see things his way and have mercy on him.

His family believes that if they don’t give a swift kick to this committee, the Great Satan, former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, will return from a long vacation in a Supreme Court justice’s robe. They deliberated on this for days. (What does this have to do with the coronavirus? No point in asking). Every time they reached an agreement, Levin & Co. went to the boss and returned with another demand.

The bottom line: Likud is demanding a veto on the appointments to the Supreme Court. The existing procedure that requires approval by seven out of nine committee members doesn’t satisfy Likudniks. With a Kahol Lavan representative (the justice minister) and another member of the opposition, there will be a majority of liberal justices, or of justices tough on corruption.

This is all the more the case after the bar association, under new leadership, expunged the disgrace inflicted on it by its former chairman, Efraim Nave. It has also encouraged its members to fight against a weakening of the justice system and the spreading of corruption. The bar association has two members on the committee.

The solution? To kick the member of the opposition off the committee. Some will see this as a reasonable demand; in a unity government, you have to compromise about everything. Surely this is a less scandalous demand than one already agreed on – legislation to exclude Netanyahu (as deputy prime minister) from the ruling forcing a minister to resign if indicted.

But both demands are wrong – both turning part of the committee into a tool at the defendant’s service and purely personal legislation that legitimizes government corruption. A terrible stench is wafting from these negotiations and has already stuck to the collaborators, not just the initiator.

For Netanyahu it’s critical. While the various teams are discussing the “exit strategy,” the judicial branch is independent in scheduling its moves. That means the opening of Netanyahu’s trial, which has been postponed by two months. He dragged out the investigations, using the pretext that he was prime minister, so now he’ll be able to drag out the trial; after all, he’ll be “responsible for the strategic ties with the superpowers.”

The justices will be vilified every day. Netanyahu is preparing for a long trial. He wants exhausted witnesses and a bored public – albeit one incited and inflamed. Mainly he wants the whole thing to drag out as long as possible. At the end of this theoretical government’s days he’ll be 74 years old, and if his plans go right, the trial will only be half over. This is his legal exit plan. Sometimes playing for time is the best weapon.

A man who once worked closely with Netanyahu analyzes the fears scrambling around in his head. Bibi suffers from three kinds of paranoia: One is real, when he’s really being persecuted. The second is totally fake, and he realizes this, but it still bothers him. The third is the funniest and yet most troubling: It began as fake and over time he started believing it.

Add to that a heavy indictment and a strict court, and this brew of paranoia will explode in the laboratory called the prime minister’s head.

A protester against Gantz's decision to join a Netanyahu-led government, April 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The last weapon

Lending a hand to this carnage against the justice system are the two former military chiefs at the top of Kahol Lavan, Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. Toward the end of the week they switched roles: Ashkenazi, usually the one pushing Gantz into political marriages, decided that it was time to disengage and move on to the stage of arm-wrestling in the Knesset.

That is, they would strive to pass the so-called Netanyahu bills that would prohibit a criminal defendant from seeking or receiving the mandate to form a government. Maybe cracking that whip over Netanyahu’s head would prod him to sign.

“At home, Bibi has to prove that he’s losing. Only then will Sara and Yair give him the green light to go the last yard,” a source familiar with the situation said, referring to the prime minister’s wife and elder son.

“As long as they think he’s winning, they won’t let him move forward. That’s what happened in 2015 in the last two days of the coalition talks, after [Avigdor] Lieberman pulled out. As long as it looked as if he’d have a government with Yisrael Beiteinu, Sara wouldn’t hear about Ayelet Shaked making the cabinet. When the ground shook under his feet, Shaked became the justice member, a statutory member of the inner cabinet.”

Kahol Lavan's Gabi Ashkenazi, left, and Benny Gantz in Sderot, February 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Now as well, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, Sara and Yair support a “national unity government” as long as its terms are favorable to them. First, neither of them believed they’d get another year and a half at the prime minister’s residence, and an alternative to that after the rotation, with all the motorcades, security and drivers (for both sons as well, of course, a topic that was discussed during the negotiations).

Second, they see this as a one-time chance to destroy Netanyahu’s rivals to the right, Nafali Bennett and Shaked, by throwing them into the opposition with the left and the Arabs. For Sara it’s her life’s goal, a mission. The revenge of a bitter wife against her husband’s former chief of staff, Bennett, and his former office manager, Shaked, would impress Satan himself.

As these lines were written, it appeared that Gantz had finally recognized – partially – his mistakes throughout his negotiations with Netanyahu. At first he didn’t realize that this was no cuddly partner in bed but rather a battlefield strewn with explosives. And here he’s no lieutenant general but rather a green recruit. Unarmed, he strode into Netanyahu’s heart of darkness.

Now, when he has fewer options than Health Ministry bigwig Moshe Bar Siman Tov has facial expressions, he pulls out the only weapons he has left. If Netanyahu keeps playing him, the legislation that Bibi wants will make it onto the Knesset agenda.

Likud ministers are talking about the lack of shame in these negotiations, the systematic violation of trust and foot-dragging by their leader. They’re complaining that even they will have a hard time defending Netanyahu. How can we do it if we descend into another election because of his legal and personal insanity? Gantz and Ashkenazi can show that their hands are clean; they even agreed to an annexation of part of the West Bank. And what will we say?

Even Shimon Riklin, the human megaphone, spewing the poison coming out of the prime minister’s residence, has tweeted his dismay about Netanyahu’s actions.

In such a situation, it will be easy for Gantz to look directly into the nation’s eyes and say, as Ehud Barak said when he came home disappointed from Camp David: “We turned every stone, but we didn’t find a partner on the other side.” Maybe Gantz will be believed more. Maybe.

The end of innocence

At 9:30 P.M. Wednesday, just after Passover week had ended, the legal advisers arrived at the prime minister’s residence for another evening of treading water that ended in zero progress and the end of Gantz’s mandate to form a government. Levin and Jacob Atrakchi for Likud, and Yoram Turbowicz and Avi Licht for Kahol Lavan were surprised to discover Justice Minister Amir Ohana there too.

Even after they left at around 2 A.M., they still didn’t understand what Ohana was doing there. Ohana didn’t offer any proposals, didn’t shower them with his wisdom. He simply was there, apparently with nothing to do – like his job at the justice ministry most of the time.

The lawyers could only guess who invited him – the person behind his appointment? And I don’t mean the prime minister. What was the purpose? To confront, protest and stick a finger in someone’s eye?

On Thursday the negotiating teams met again at 5 P.M. Earlier, in the middle of the day, Netanyahu called Gantz and invited him for 7 P.M. If there is something to come for, I’ll come, he said.

A person close to Gantz suggested examining his actions through a prism different from the accepted view: Gantz isn’t as much of an idiot as you’re making him out to be. He boasts a more-than-reasonable learning curve.

Israeli Justice Minister Amir Ohana at a Likud campaign event, Ramat Gan, Israel, February 29, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Since September, the month of the second of the three elections, Gantz has accumulated dozens of hours with Netanyahu – with their various ups and downs. He has seen how the man behaves and learned to spot his tricks and lies. He knows the “possible courses of action” under which Netanyahu operates.

It’s clear to Gantz that the previous time it was all garbage – never for a moment did Netanyahu intend to sign. It wasn’t even a possibility. So it was all flow regarding President Reuven Rivlin’s framework and the legislation intended to guarantee that Netanyahu would abide by the rotation, the same agreement he’s now trying to unravel even before it has been all sewn up. Netanyahu didn’t have a shred of good faith or honest intentions.

Now Gantz is fighting for the next objective, actually the original one: legislation that will bind Netanyahu’s arms and legs, and maybe even the formation of a minority government, an associate of Gantz said. MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, the Beavis and Butt-Head of Israeli politics, have learned this too. The guilty party isn’t Benny, it’s Bibi, and the two of them had enough of Netanyahu’s tricks long before Gantz ever dreamed about entering politics.

According to another person close to Gantz: We have an exit plan from this story, we’ll just wait a bit longer with it. It doesn’t bother us to suffer more ridicule in the media, but when it happens no one will have a doubt about who’s decent and who’s the swindler.

A third confidant added: If nothing is signed by Saturday night, we’ll break off all contacts. On Monday morning we’ll convene the Knesset Arrangements Committee, pass these laws quickly and then on to the full Knesset for the preliminary vote.

If we’re talking about the negotiations being stuck, it turns out that despite all the reports, the question of who gets which ministry isn’t a done deal yet. During the talks at the prime minister’s residence last week, Netanyahu tried to convince Kahol Lavan to give up the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu needs it to compensate former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who sacrificed himself on the altar of the negotiations in his shameful act of defying the Supreme Court, and who will soon see Yariv Levin take his job.

Kahol Lavan played the game. You want the Foreign Ministry? Give us the health portfolio. Netanyahu couldn’t agree to that; satisfying Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is more important than Edelstein.

Here they began talking about the education portfolio, but the person who will decide this time is the person in question: Gabi Ashkenazi. And his opinion is firm: only the Foreign Ministry. Not because of the diplomatic cocktail parties, which won’t be taking place for a very long time, but mostly to be a key player in the debates on annexation, when they happen.

Doing a mitzvah

The eve of the last day of Passover is the anniversary of the death of President Reuven Rivlin’s father, Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin. Every year, his son “Ruvi” goes to the Mount of Olives cemetery and says Kaddish over his father’s grave. He achieves the necessary minyan of 10 men using people present in the cemetery, his security guards and aides. This time it didn’t work out. Rivlin was alone in the President’s Residence, and sneaking off to the Mount of Olives was out of the question.

Rivlin mulled what he could do instead. He put on a kippa and looked out the window overlooking the courtyard in the hope of finding the nine men necessary below. Nothing, no one around. The security guards were hidden away in their posts at the gates.

But a demonstration was being held on the sidewalk outside. Some 20 Netanyahu supporters had gathered there, carrying signs, screaming and swearing in the spirit of the holiday: “Rivlin, you maniac, give the mandate to Netanyahu.” And so on in the spirit of freedom of expression and good taste.

Rivlin checked to make sure that there were at least nine men among the protesters. He closed his eyes, imagined they were a minyan, and in his heart thanked them and whoever had sent them to help him carry out the mitzvah of saying Kaddish. He shut his ears to what they were saying and prayed.

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