Analysis

Netanyahu’s End: A Frightful Spectacle

For the sake of gaining a few more months in the Prime Minister’s Office, anything goes

Illustration.
Amos Biderman

Post-mortem reports on the twilight of the Netanyahu era will zero in on the week after he was formally indicted for criminal behavior. Ministers and MKs will solemnly recount how they trooped to the Prime Minister’s Office and found there an alarmed and gloomy figure. They will say he looked like a general who had led his troops to defeat after defeat. All his planes had been shot down, his warships sunk, and he stood brooding over a battle plan from which emanated a foreboding silence.

Like an obstinate commander who refuses to internalize his terminal condition, he manufactures in his feverish mind divisions and squadrons and sends them to the front. The force commanders surrounding him, whether for fear of his wrath or out of empathy and pity, play along with him. They come and go, pretending to be doing things, pretending that as long as he’s there, there’s hope. He looks at their faces and wonders what’s going through their heads. Who will defect, who will betray. Who will rise against him.

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He is haunted. Thirteen days remain to the end of the last extension to set up a government. On the one hand, it’s eternity. On the other hand, it’s a fraction of a second. Sixty-one signatures – that’s all it takes to stop the headlong slide toward the insanity of a third election.

The hysteria that gripped him before the expiration of Benny Gantz’s mandate to form a government is simmering. The scenario that terrifies him is that Avigdor Lieberman – a permanent fixture in his nightmares – will sign up for Gantz. The latter will receive a 14-day extension from the president. The signatures are merely a recommendation, not a commitment to sit with him in the government. Thus, Netanyahu is convinced, Lieberman will be able to tell his voters that he did everything to prevent another election and portray himself as blameless in the blame game accompanying the campaign.

Avigdor Lieberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, November 25, 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu responded to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s proposal to sponsor the negotiations and ask Kahol Lavan’s leaders to let him be prime minister for the first five to six months of the rotation government. “My kingdom for a horse,” yelled Shakespeare’s Richard III in the battlefield, after losing his horse and before losing his life. Netanyahu is willing to sell his party, to deny it half a term in power or more, for those few months that have now become his heart’s desire. Paralyzed with dread, Likudniks are watching him run a sort of political retail trade with what isn’t his private property. They keep their mouths shut, of course.

What are those few months supposed to give him, anyway? Several advantages.

1. A more powerful position in the negotiation for a plea bargain he should have made already two years ago. But, as his late lawyer Jacob Weinroth testified, the Netanyahu family vetoed it at the time.

2. A possibility to carry out a sting operation against Kahol Lavan: When the time comes Netanyahu will refuse to vacate his seat, offering some security-related lie. Kahol Lavan will have to topple the government and Israel will hold elections with Gantz and his partners having already served under Netanyahu.

3. Being prime minister when his trial opens. This means he will be tried by three judges, as the law stipulates for prime ministers brought to trial. These judges will not necessarily be experts in the gravest of his charges – the Bezeq-Walla corruption and bribery case – in contrast to a single judge who specializes in economic and regulation issues.

4. A horror scenario that will change the agenda completely, perhaps a war in the north creating political pressure not to rock the boat in the midst of the chaos.

5. Something else that nobody can yet imagine.

Netanyahu delivers a joint statement with Chief of Staff Kochavi in Tel Aviv, November 24, 2019.
CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

In his many conversations this week he tried to put on a confident front. This election will bring a better result, he said, we’ll wake up sectors of the public that were apathetic the previous time, we’ll create better connections. Bezalel Smotrich will go with Itamar Ben Gvir, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked will run alone. He is defense minister now, he’ll have support. We’ll bring more votes. This ridiculous indictment will bring people out.

They looked at him and wondered whether he was talking to them or to himself. Who was he trying to cheer up, them or himself? He lives in a dream, two people who heard him said. The detachment his words implied is troubling. Doesn’t the man realize the party is over? That his days are numbered? That in another few months at most he won’t be sitting in that chair anymore? Is this his rescue plan, a third election?

The more courageous among them said it to his face. They said there was no way Likud and the right-wing bloc can improve their situation from September. That not a single person who didn’t vote for Likud two and a half months ago would do so this time – not after two failures to form a government, not with a bribery indictment and not once people understand that he cannot form a government and suffers a double disability, both political and legal. The only thing we’ll get after the election is a left-center government with absolute public legitimacy, one Likud leader told me this week. The surveys indicating our stability around 33 Knesset seats are misleading. They reflect a denial of our situation. When the penny drops, the collapse will be swift.

This scenario isn’t inevitable, says MK Gideon Saar. It can easily be avoided. We just need to pull ourselves together and act rationally.

Six days ago he explained in his cold, measured way why Likud must hold a snap primary in which he will run against Netanyahu for the party leadership. The social networks attacked him with every curse, lie and invective in the book while inflamed Netanyahu worshippers called him a traitor, subverter, disloyal, leftist-lover and back-stabber wherever he went. The fingerprints from the house on Balfour Street and from Netanyahu’s blind loyalists were evident, as they were at the demonstration in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu’s layabout, good-for-nothing son Yair tweeted that Sa’ar’s daughter “is about to marry a Muslim Arab” (two mistakes in one short phrase: she’s not about to get married and the guy is Christian). But an alarmed Netanyahu and his son are one thing. Their distress is understandable. The walls are closing in on them. The Balfour residence is collapsing on their heads.

But what happened to the senior Likud minister, Foreign Minister Yaakov Katz, who announced that Saar’s request to hold a primary for Likud leadership – as required by the party constitution on the eve of an election – is a “deposal,” a “disloyal” and “illegitimate” move? Since when is a contest a deposal, what’s disloyal or illegitimate about it? How desperate and frightened must a would-be leader be to say such a thing and hope that when the time comes, Netanyahu’s supporters will remember his canine devotion to the boss.

Katz and Nir Barkat, or Miri Regev and Dudi Amsalem, could have settled for expressing support for Netanyahu. That would be legitimate. Clearly none of them wants Saar to be elected leader. They yearn for his fall. But to attack him because he wants to contend in a democratic election is another example of the moral depths this party has sunk to after a decade under a single ruler. It also exposes their fear and insecurity. Shreds of the chairman’s traits have stuck to them – the chairman who tried to “depose” a sitting prime minister from his own party in the Likud 2002 primary.

Gideon Sa'ar at a meeting at the Likud branch in Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019.
Meged Gozani

For Saar, taking part in the primary is a step toward breaking the mental block of fear. Since 2014 none of Likud’s senior figures has dared challenge the leader. There was no need to do so, either. He brought them to power time after time. But a few things have happened since then – the indictment, even before being served, turned the Likud chairman into a lame duck. Twice he tried to set up a government, twice he failed. Why should he succeed a third time, burdened now with charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust?

A movement that wants to stay alive, Saar says, would bid him farewell, with all due respect and thanks for past achievements, and choose someone who has a chance to succeed. His strategy is correct and adapted to the voting public. I don’t wish to replace Netanyahu because of the indictment, he says, aware that many voters’ sentiments are with the leader and against the investigation and its conclusions. I want to save you, save us, from the opposition, from the left-wing government that will be established here after the third election.

Saar doesn’t appeal to their hearts, but to their heads and their political instincts. He is the only one who openly blasted Netanyahu and his cronies’ blatant attacks on the justice system. He is the only one who explicitly renounced the demonstration in the Tel Aviv plaza. He is the only one in the ruling party who voices anything close to statesmanlike positions. The slippery Nir Barkat chose to call Kan reporter Yoav Krakowsky, who was physically assaulted at the demonstration, and issue a press statement. Barkat saw no reason to defend the attorney general and state prosecution chiefs, who were slandered and whom the crowd called open season on. There would be no personal gain in it for him.

Les Mis

The sane ones among Likudniks are freaking out over Netanyahu. They’re freaked out by his bullying attacks on the state prosecution and “the investigators,” by his horror show after the indictment announcement (a “coup against a sitting prime minister”) and by the organization of the ugly, violent demonstration in the museum plaza in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu tweeted “15,000 thanks,” perhaps as a down payment for the next demonstrations, while lying about the number of participants, which was of course much lower.

Likud members ask themselves: Does he want to burn the clubhouse down? Fine, but why do it while we’re still inside? They’re having difficulty understanding who is served by the incitement and rampaging behavior. Certainly not Likud. Maybe they’re meant to soothe the madness and inflamed emotions in the prime minister’s residence. Ultimately, everything begins and ends there. That house is the source of Netanyahu’s problems, the mother of all sins, Netanyahu’s ground zero.

Demonstration staged in protest of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit's decision to indict Netanyahu in three graft cases, November 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Considerable efforts were made to organize the demonstrations; large sums of money from an unknown source were invested in it. If we had a state comptroller rather than a clown, he would have opened an investigation immediately. One key conclusion from the demonstration is that the masses won’t storm the Justice Ministry and Supreme Court with flaming torches as Netanyahu wants them to do. They’ll curse, spit, and return home to their keyboards. This event, too, will have a dishonorable place in the post-mortem. In retrospect it will be seen as Netanyahu’s “they are A-F-R-A-I-D” speech on the eve of the 1999 elections. In real time it looks like defiance and inflaming the “base.” With the wisdom of hindsight, and in the post-defeat analysis, it will be seen as death throes.

The demonstration was the most reliable evidence of Netanyahu’s political last gasp. It failed in every possible way. The number of demonstrators was 7,000 at the very most, including Tel Aviv bypassers who have no business with Shai Nitzan, according to Globes’ count of the mobile phones in the area. The number was minimal, considering the huge investment in organization and transportation, and the total mobilization of the Prime Minister’s Office, leading rabbis and radical right-wing activists.

The politicians bailed out with excuses similar to schoolchildren claiming the alarm clock didn’t go off. When the idea to hold the demonstration first came up, Netanyahu’s aides asked all the right-wing bloc’s party leaders to take part. The aides planned to bring tens of thousands to the square. One by one, without hesitating, they party leaders refused. Even Bezalel Smotrich.

Knowing what kind of people would show up at the event, Likud ministers fled the scene as if it had been hit by nuclear radiation. Even Netanyahu’s deep-state conspiracy flogger Dudi Amsalem made himself scarce. As for those who did come, it would have been better for Netanyahu had they gotten stuck in traffic jams. Miri Regev and Miki Zohar are notorious vote repellents. Only the hardest core can digest them and that core is with Bibi through fire and water anyway. The concentrated nonsense that spewed out of their mouths – “the rule of law is not above the law” – will star in Kahol Lavan’s election videos. They were followed on the stage by a despicable collection of fringe figures, cheap provocateurs and professional Twitter warriors. They looked like characters in a Hanoch Levin play who were heading for the nearby theater and had lost their way. These were the people chosen to represent the prime minister of Israel in his struggle against his accusers. Even he, it would seem, fallen and now lying on his political deathbed, deserves something of a little higher quality.

Paradise

Naftali Bennett has been serving as defense minister for 16 days. Every day he pinches himself to make sure he’s not dreaming, that security guards aren’t about to enter, tell him there’s been a mistake and ask him to move out. Not only is he there, but look who isn’t: Avigdor Lieberman and Moshe Ya’alon, his two bitterest enemies. He’s longing to meet them at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, when they come to listen to his defense survey.

From the condition of a political corpse, he has been catapulted to the ultimate summit. A rare combination of circumstances – or, in the words of the Shin Bet chief in another context, “stars in alignment” – turned him from a loser into a winner. Every day on the job is a huge bonus. If he’s lucky and we go to election, he will remain there until the beginning of May 2020. And if God smiles on him and the new right-wing party he intends to lead again wins five or six Knesset seats, and if the right-wing bloc has a majority – who knows, he may be ensconced there for a long time.

Meanwhile he’s surprised anew every day to find that Netanyahu hasn’t (yet) meddled in his affairs and set up a channel bypassing him to IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. He had been warned of the prime minister’s incessant meddling in security matters, but so far no signs of hostile activity have been detected. It makes sense that when Netanyahu’s fate is (also) in Bennett’s hands, he’s careful not to step on his toes.

But it’s clear to all that it’s only a matter of time until discordant sounds are heard. All the defense ministers under Netanyahu in almost 14 years (except Moshe Arens, his political patron, who filled the post briefly) became his bitter enemies. Why should Bennett’s fate be different?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Naftali Bennett visit an army base in the Golan Heights overlooking Syrian territory, on November 24, 2019. 
Haim Zach / GPO

These have been two event-filled weeks. The assassination of the senior Islamic Jihad leader that ignited a two-day round of warfare in Gaza began on the day Bennett took office. The assault on Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria was the biggest of its kind in the recent year. In consultations ahead of the attack among Bennett, Kochavi and Netanyahu, the premier didn’t try to impose his opinion. He didn’t even come to the situation room.

The defense portfolio enhances Bennett’s self-confidence ahead of the next election. He announced this week that the New Right will run independently, like in April. We’ll be a national, liberal party, politically right-wing, religiously moderate, he says. State and religion issues, somewhat blurred in the April election, will be sharpened now, to the state’s advantage. The party’s platform will offer loads of compromises.

In the April election the political space between Bibi and Smotrich was very crowded (with the presence of Moshe Kahlon, Orli Levi-Abekasis, Moshe Feiglin and Bennett-Shaked). In the September election, that crowd thinned out. Now, Bennett believes, we’ve reached a balancing point that will bring him the national, liberal, moderate religious voters. Smotrich and Rafi Peretz will join up with Ben Gvir and attract the far-right national-Haredi voters. And on a good day, if all the stars are aligned, two Knesset lists that between them won seven seats in September, will be able to bring in at least 9-10 seats in the March election that’s now bearing down on us.