Analysis

Netanyahu Has All the Ingredients for an Early Election. All He Needs Now Is to Turn Up the Flame

Bennett calls Netanyahu's bluff by standing behind a measure that would tie the hands of the High Court

Bennet, Netanyahu and upreme Court President Esther Hayut.
Amos Biderman

People who have been entering and leaving the Prime Minister’s Bureau in recent weeks believe that the man sitting at the far end of the aquarium is having serious regrets. He believes he should have shown some gumption and acted to move up the next election to this coming June, in response to the crisis over the ultra-Orthodox army-service bill last month. That intention was curbed by his partners. Now Benjamin Netanyahu once again is interested in an early election, according to people who have talked with him. The new date: early September. For that purpose he has to get the Knesset dissolved no later than the end of May, about three weeks after its return from its current recess.

Logic dictates that it will be worth his while. The polls predict a strengthening of Likud under Netanyahu, despite the corruption investigations against him, and perhaps because of them. The attorney general will not have had time to decide on whether to indict him in any of the cases, and during the summer there won’t be a real election campaign. Only the government will dictate the agenda.

Beyond that, politicians who can’t be suspected of harboring affection for Netanyahu have seen that support for him goes beyond his base on the right to the center of the political map. They’re venturing out into the field, meeting with non-Likudniks and hearing statements like “what they’re doing to Bibi is too much; yalla, let them make up their minds already; enough with this dragging out, it’s been going on for years; they’re killing him.”

Netanyahu, a very avid consumer of election polls, is certainly very familiar with these trends. May, when the Knesset returns from the spring break, could turn out to be a month full of crises, legitimate and contrived – unless the fluid security situation on the borders, in the north and/or the south, sidelines the political passions.

The override clause, the clause in the proposed Basic Law on Legislation that would allow the Knesset to reinstate laws that have been overturned by the High Court (in Hebrew, it’s called the “overcoming” clause), returned to the agenda this week. It’s likely to serve as a good excuse to disband the governing coalition. Kulanu, headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, doesn’t want the clause included in its broad format. Kahlon is willing to agree to advancing it only regarding changes to the Prevention of Infiltration Law that were overturned by the Supreme Court. He prefers to think small. Netanyahu, as of now, prefers to think big.

So far we’ve had the “French law,” designed to keep a prime minister from being prosecuted, the “Cyprus model,” which was supposed to legalize thousands of illegal homes in the territories, and some arcane legislation called the “mini-Norwegian law,” something tailored to Knesset members’ measurements. Now the government will discuss adopting the “British model,” adding to our Eurovision of legislative proposals.

The model practiced in Britain forbids the Supreme Court from overruling laws passed by Parliament. At most, the court can send them back to the legislature for further discussion, tacking on a recommendation. That’s the override clause in its most far-reaching version. It’s the constitutional version of the D9 armored bulldozer with which Moti Yogev, the sharp-tongued MK from Habayit Hayehudi, suggested that the Supreme Court be demolished. In Britain the system works because Parliament doesn’t have a critical mass of characters like Yogev and MKs Bezalel Smotrich of Habayit Hayehudi; Oren Hazan, Miki Zohar and David Amsalem of Likud; and the rest of the evil and all-too-familiar gang.

The prime minister announced the plan on Wednesday to the heads of the coalition parties, who were discussing – in Kahlon’s absence – how they could tie the hands of the High Court of Justice. The government is attempting to adopt a slew of laws, models, plans and tricks from Western countries. The only thing it doesn’t dream of imitating is the political culture in those countries – not the norms, not the values, not the rules of the game, not the statement “such a thing isn’t done.” That we can leave for the Gentiles.

Derby on the right

Netanyahu, who has always boasted about protecting the court and has always stressed his basic belief that the judicial system must be “independent and strong,” is now supporting its neutralization. Or at least that’s what he wants his voters to believe; the issue has become another quarrel between him and his rival for votes on the right, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the Habayit Hayehudi chief.

The two recently conducted a strange and childish dialogue, even under this government’s low standards. Already at the start of the meeting of coalition heads at the Prime Minister’s Office, the participants realized they were attending a political event. In the room sat the premier’s entire new-media team, plus reinforcements, and the people present, according to some of them, awaited the ambush prepared by the boss.

Netanyahu immediately began talking about the override clause. He expressed support for the measure before turning over the floor to his associate, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who considers the High Court the locus of Israel’s problems, so that Levin could explain the advantages of the British model. So Levin explained, while at the same time talking down to Bennett, who in the past has spoken in favor of the narrow clause that would solve the asylum-seeker problem that the Supreme Court unraveled about a week ago.

Bennett realized what was happening, and decided to pull the carpet out from under his nemesis. “Excellent!” he said, “let’s decide already today. The justice minister is in the building; she’ll convene the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and we’ll pass the decision. That will send an important message to the infiltrators.”

Ministers Bennett and Steinitz a the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

Netanyahu and Levin exchanged glances. “No, no,” said the prime minister. “It’s an important bill, we have to discuss it. Yariv, explain.” So Levin explained and once again insulted Bennett by talking as if Habayit Hayehudi chairman was the limp leftist and Netanyahu the he-man.

Bennett: “Prime Minister, I’m telling you once again that you have no problem with me. We’ll support whatever you bring, just let’s pass it today. If you decide on the British model, I’ll be in favor.”

Netanyahu squirmed. “But Kahlon isn’t here,” he said as an excuse. (A political source said the finance minister didn’t deliberately boycott the meeting, as was claimed in the media. He was asked by someone in the Prime Minister’s Office not to come. Netanyahu had planned that the debate on the legislation’s wording be a right-wing derby, only him versus Bennett.)

Bennett: “No problem. We’ll pass it. If the finance minister wants, he can appeal and we’ll discuss it in the cabinet.”

Netanyahu looked at Levin helplessly; Bennett’s open arms had confused him. “But you’re in favor of the narrow clause,” Levin hissed at the education minister.

Netanyahu: “Yes, you wanted the narrow clause. I want the British model!”

Bennett: “Prime Minister, you’ve always been opposed to the [wider] override clause, and look what happened with the infiltrators at the Supreme Court.”

Netanyahu was angry: “But I built the fence in the south!”

Bennett, sarcastically: “And well done, sir, well done!”

It continued for quite a while. At one point, Netanyahu blurted out a threat about calling an election if Habayit Hayehudi made problems. Bennett feigned surprise. “Why would we need an election? I’ll support whatever you bring, just bring it. Any postponement is superfluous, it will only lower the chances that anything will pass.”

Netanyahu: “It’s impossible today. We have to discuss it. We’ll meet on Sunday, we’ll invite the attorney general [who is opposed to any version of the override clause, even the mildest], and we’ll hear.”

Netanyahu’s attempt to bypass Bennett on the right, to hit him with a “suitable Zionist response,” was so clumsy that the party leaders couldn’t help but suspect his hidden agenda. Is he once again aiming for an early election, with the excuse this time the override clause and Kahlon’s vehement opposition to the broad, not to say destructive, version?

Now, following the meeting, the ministers still believe that Netanyahu hasn’t decided whether to try for an early election in September, before Rosh Hashanah. In the meantime, he’s putting the ingredients into the pot and will decide later if and when to turn on the flame, and how high.

Meanwhile, you can’t help but admire the prime minister’s judgment, stability and meticulous policy. In a little more than a week he announced his acceptance of the UN plan for solving the asylum-seeker problem, before suspending it a few hours later. The next day he canceled it outright, after which he dispatched an envoy to Uganda to check out the possibility of deporting the refugees to there. Now he’s presumably promoting the override clause, to which he has always objected – and in its most extreme version no less – and all this is coming from someone whose legal future is currently under consideration by the attorney general and will probably also reach the Supreme Court, in the form of appeals.

Yuli’s future

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is convinced that it was his strong stand against Netanyahu that prevented the prime minister from carrying out his plan to deliver a political speech, perhaps a pre-election speech, at the country’s most dignified national event, the one that enjoys the greatest public consensus and the highest television ratings – about 40 percent.

That indeed was Netanyahu’s opening position, but the bottom line is that he remains with most of what he wanted. He’ll appear at the torchlight ceremony that serves as a bridge between Memorial Day and Independence Day. He’ll carry a torch and deliver a speech.

Edelstein may in fact have done him a favor. In public opinion, Netanyahu could come out ahead due to precisely this kind of appearance – unifying and respectable. He’ll light a torch “on behalf of Israel’s governments,” even though many people probably don’t remember that there were some governments he didn’t head.

In the end, the visual is what’s important. That’s what will be broadcast on the news programs. That’s the picture that will run in the newspapers. In the era of Twitter and WhatsApp, who has the patience for arcane speeches? The people want sound bites, not speechifying.

Yes, on second thought, the result that the prime minister was supposedly forced into actually benefits him. Edelstein will remain the main speaker; he would do well to think up a few hard-hitting lines.

Edelstein doesn’t think he gave in; he prefers the term “compromised.” It was a double compromise. The first was already in Netanyahu’s pocket in the guise of a film he stars in, a propaganda piece for all intents and purposes that was supposed to be screened during the ceremony. That’s what took place last year too.

But the people at the prime minister’s official residence demanded more. Israel’s 70th-birthday celebrations are only an excuse. Netanyahu and his wife Sara, who has always disapproved of her seat in the bleachers at Mount Herzl, will no longer consider passing up an event as big as the torchlight ceremony without demonstrating their presence. As far as they’re concerned, there’s no ceremony they won’t appropriate, no symbol they won’t privatize.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein attend a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, April 12, 2018.
נועם מושקוביץ

Edelstein refused to hear of it when the Kan public broadcaster suddenly discovered a precedent for Netanyahu’s plan, thanks to the archive of the late Israel Broadcasting Authority. In 1998, on Israel’s 50th birthday, Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared at the ceremony alongside Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon; he carried a torch and cited passages from the Declaration of Independence. (In the clip Netanyahu looks upset and sweaty, his eyes darting in all directions. He was still far from exuding the imperial, messianic sense that characterizes him today.)

That was the turning point in the drama between the speaker and the prime minister. Netanyahu had two precedents in his corner: the one from 1998 and the one from 2008, the 60th birthday, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sent a video greeting to the ceremony on the hill. The Knesset speaker found himself without ammunition. In addition, the public got tired of the quarrel. The war of attrition got on everyone’s nerves. “Come on, let Bibi speak already” was the prevailing opinion.

The more the story dragged on, the more the Knesset speaker lost support among both the public and his party. Netanyahu managed to hover above the battlefield, as if the issue had nothing to do with him. Not a word was heard from him. He wasn’t preoccupied with it. Culture Minister Miri Regev, who likes a fight, fought for him in her typical vulgar manner.

And who mobilized for Edelstein? Carmi Gilon, the former Shin Bet security service chief – who suggested that people turn off their televisions during the prime minister’s speech – social activist Eldad Yaniv on the social networks, and the parliamentary opposition on the left. With such soldiers in his camp, Edelstein preferred to cut his losses before he was cut to pieces.

He has no illusions as to what to expect during the next term; Knesset speaker is out. A top portfolio if Netanyahu is the one who forms the cabinet? – no way. He knows where these decisions are made: in the family section of the prime minister’s residence. There he’s a nonentity. His end has come. In this way, Reuven Rivlin lost out on becoming Knesset Speaker in 2013, after he fell out of favor with the Lady of Balfour Street. He didn’t do so bad in the end.

Senior statesmen

The Edelstein case is only one example of Likud’s current leadership. No so-called senior Likudnik in the Knesset is willing to go all the way when he finds himself in conflict with Netanyahu. Nobody dares to put his (political) money where his mouth is. At the moment of truth, they always give in, declare some kind of compromise – which is really little more than a total or near-total surrender – and return to the ranks with bowed heads and mumbled excuses.

Erdan, the public security minister, was humiliated by Netanyahu back when the government was formed. Though he had come in first in the Likud primary, all his requests for cabinet positions were turned down. He was relegated to the end of the food chain. Erdan protested, remained outside the cabinet for a few days, and then hobbled in.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz was involved in two major battles against Netanyahu. He ended both with total surrender. One concerned the decisions of the Likud Secretariat that he heads – decisions that challenged the party’s chairman but were reversed after Netanyahu threatened Katz with dismissal.

The second was in December 2015, about six months after the formation of the current government, when Netanyahu announced his intention to hold a primary for the Likud leadership, over three years before the date set in the party constitution. Katz declared: Absolutely not! Netanyahu snickered. The early primary took place on the date he had requested.

Edelstein, Katz and Erdan are the top people in Likud. They’re the “senior” party members by dint of their position or seniority. But how is genuine senior status reflected if not in leadership, in the courage to draw a line and insist on what you want? Sometimes it’s better to lose while standing tall than to survive on your knees.

The young Netanyahu himself did so in the ‘90s in the Knesset when he violated party discipline and voted for the direct election of the prime minister. He withstood tremendous pressure from all Likud’s leaders and didn’t give in. Labor’s Haim Ramon sent him an admiring note in which he referred favorably to one of the rebel’s private parts. Such a note couldn’t be sent today. There’s no one to send it to.