Analysis

Netanyahu's Menacing Pre-holiday Message to His Government

Netanyahu is setting his party's sights high ahead of the next election ■ Ex-tycoon's prison sentence doesn't bode well for the prime minister

Illustration: Netanyahu tries to catch up with Ariel Sharon on the race track.
Amos Biderman

The ambitious goal of 40 Knesset seats that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set for Likud in the next election has spawned quite a few reactions in the media. With nerves frayed and senses acutely tuned to a possible disintegration of the coalition after the upcoming Jewish holidays, every remark by the Boss that smacks of an election generates huge ripples in the swamp.

Netanyahu chose a meeting with Likud candidates in the October municipal elections as the venue for his remarks. The last thing that interested the audience was his declaration that the sky’s the limit when it comes to their party’s next Knesset faction. It was even a bit cruel to brandish the parliamentary arena in the faces of the stressed-out candidates.

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The prevailing view is that the premier was actually sending a deterrent message to his coalition partners, against the possibility of an election being held in the first quarter of 2019. After all, the extra 10 seats he was claiming for Likud can be stolen only from the right-wing parties, with Habayit Hayehudi, which Netanyhu abominates, being the main target from which to poach votes. Of course, neither Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas or Kulanu would be free of the threat of cannibalization.

In short, a week before Israel plunges into a month of holidays, extended long weekends, vacations and general suspended animation – the prime minister has given his coalition partners food for thought. His message to politicians who speak with him is that he has no intention of allowing the induction-law saga to be dragged out beyond the first week of the Knesset’s winter session, which begins October 14. Whatever isn’t concluded by then will be put on ice until after the election.

The fine round number that Netanyahu cited as his target has additional significance, of a symbolic nature. And here’s where cheap psychology enters the picture. The last Likud leader who brought 40 MKs into parliament was Ariel Sharon, in 2003. The party won 38 seats, then merged with Yisrael B’Aliyah (Natan Sharansky’s party), which had garnered two seats – and Sharon became head of a huge Knesset faction, the largest since the 1980s.

Netanyahu, who was prime minister before and since, has never approached those numbers. The 30 seats Likud won in 2015, however, made him hungry to reprise Sharon’s achievement. His four terms and many years in office – he will soon overtake David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – don’t satisfy him. At least not completely.

He’s always envied “Arik,” the man and the myth, though he knows he will never win the public outpouring of love that his predecessor got as party leader. Certainly he will not enjoy the rare consensus that Sharon had. Nonetheless, 40 seats will allow Netanyahu to say: I did it, too. That is the summit he has yet to conquer, and which he longs for with all his heart.

Tight collars

Netanyahu is huddled with his lawyers. They’re deliberating over the pile of suspicions against him in three cases. The offenses in question are serious: bribery, fraud, breach of trust. His friends, colleagues, predecessor as premier, ministers he worked with, tycoons, people of capital and captains of the economy – all are entering and leaving prison for white-collar crimes. Nochi Dankner is the latest of them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend a Holocaust commemoration ceremony at the Paneriai memorial near Vilnius, Lithuania, Aug. 24, 2018.
Mindaugas Kulbis,AP

They’re getting stiff sentences. No celeb reductions. What is Netanyahu thinking? Is he sorry he didn’t sign a plea bargain when Case 1000, the one involving the alleged receipt of gifts from Arnon Milchan, et al., was the only one on the table? Before the advent of Case 2000 (in which the premier is suspected of illicitly trying to get more favorable media coverage) and Case 4000 (a corruption scandal involving the Bezeq telecom company), and before his former aides Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz joined Ari Harow in turning state’s evidence? On Thursday, it was reported that the police, in the latter case, suspect Sara Netanyahu of having received a bribe. That’s something that can only make life in the Balfour St. residence more interesting.

The two couples, the Dankners and the Netanyahus, were friends once. Bibi and Sara were invited to dinners and parties at the magnificent mansion of Nochi and Orly in Herzliya Pituah – mostly in Bibi’s inactive opposition years, between 2006 and 2009.

Later reports spoke of a falling-out. People who know both couples related that Netanyahu and his wife looked askance at Dankner’s meteoric rise in the public domain: At a certain point, his popularity and vast clout apparently seemed threatening to them, particularly after Netanyahu was elected prime minister a second time.

Not everyone remembers, but there was once talk of “Prime Minister Dankner.” Channel 2 even examined his electoral potential in a public opinion survey. The occupants of the Balfour Street residence were delighted when Dankner bought the faltering newspaper Maariv, in 2011. Its editor, Nir Hefetz, was adept at serving the two masters. Seven years and two elections later, the world has turned upside down: Dankner is on the way to prison, Hefetz is a state witness and the third side of the triangle was questioned by police for the 11th time – and apparently the final one, prior to the decisions on indictments – two weeks ago. The prosecutor in the Bezeq-Walla case testified in court that the investigation is expected to continue for another half year. In other words, a preliminary decision by the attorney general on whether to indict, subsequent to a hearing, in the three cases, can be expected in the first half of 2019. Unless a plea bargain is signed prior to that. The Dankner effect.

Infrastructure emperor

The prevailing view these days in the political arena, and in large measure the media as well, is that Netanyahu will form the next government. Even with 35 to 40 seats, or less, he stands a far better chance than his rivals.

The leaders of the relevant parties are already looking toward the future. Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) is ruffling the feathers of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) in a promo to a battle for the defense portfolio. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) recently announced that his party will ask for the agriculture portfolio, which he’s earmarking for the secretary general of the Moshav Movement, Meir Tzur, an ex-Labor Party member who recently joined Kulanu.

Tzur represents tens of thousands of farmers on 254 moshavim, agricultural cooperative villages. That’s a pool of potential voters that Kahlon is eager to acquire. The bait of the agriculture portfolio for their representative is a juicy come-on. In the 2015 election, the person who brought Kahlon the largest number of votes was Kulanu MK Akram Hasoon, from the Druze community. More Druze voted for Kulanu than for any other party.

On the assumption that he will repeat his accomplishment in the last election and win 10 seats, again giving him the balance of power in the coalition negotiations, and again will be rewarded with three portfolios, as the party holds in the current government.

The portfolios currently held by Kulanu are finance (Kahlon’s ministry); economy and industry, headed by Eli Cohen; and housing and construction, under Yoav Galant. In 2015, Kahlon insisted on adding housing to the famous toolbox that was supposed to aid him in the struggle to lower housing costs. That struggle was largely successful. For 11 months, indeed until last month, the index reflected containment of the chronic price rises or even a slight decrease.

From Kahlon’s point of view, the breakthrough was achieved, the reform succeeded. All the projects to lower housing costs bore fruit, and they’ll continue into the next decade as well. You don’t change horses in midstream, and anyway, there are no more rabbits to be pulled out of the hat. He’ll declare “I won!” and move on.

In private conversations and public statements, Kahlon is signaling that in the next government, if things work out, he intends to switch direction. He’s done with housing and construction, and almost with housing costs. The treasury warship under his captaincy will sail into different waters: infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure, mainly in transportation and health. That is where the third portfolio will come from.

The vision is already being realized. With regard to transportation, the Finance Ministry has drawn up a plan valued at billions of shekels to build roads and interchanges, tunnels and bridges, which is called “Infrastructure 2030.” A project of similar scale would aim to improve, streamline and enlarge hospitals by selling available public land near them and using the revenues to build additional departments and purchase medical equipment.

If in the present government he’s the housing czar, in the next one Kahlon hopes to become emperor of infrastructure. All that remains is the mere formality of getting the public’s votes.

Galant goes for it

Minister Yoav Galant  at the site of Joseph’s tomb, outside Nablus.
From Yoav Galant's Facebook page

Two photos were disseminated this week on Likud’s WhatsApp groups. One shows Kulanu minister Yoav Galant performing a semi-prostration at the traditional site of Joseph’s tomb, outside Nablus. His hands embrace the cold stone, his back is bowed, his expression is one of infinite agony. He’s in deep mourning, as though the deceased were a buddy from the naval commandos. The whole burden of the Jewish people’s history seems to be resting on his hefty shoulders.

The second photo, from a Tel Aviv restaurant, shows Galant with key Likud activists in the city, smiling at the photographer, who was apparently the waiter. Five months before the earliest possible date for a Knesset election, and 14 months before the deadline for one, there’s no point hiding behind excuses such as “friendly meetings” or “discussions of ministerial issues.” No housing lottery is planned for Joseph’s tomb. With a little luck, it may be possible to win a few supporters from the hardali (Haredi nationalist) wing of the ruling party.

Galant will run in Likud. In fact, he already is. His whole agenda is that of a Likud primary contender. He’s proceeding in soldierly fashion: systematic, organized, orderly. So what if he’s a member of Kulanu and a minister on its behalf, who was made a member of the security cabinet under pressure from party leader Kahlon following Moshe Ya’alon’s resignation from the government?

I called one of the people in the restaurant photograph, attorney Sinai Kahat, a veteran Likudnik who will contest a slot on the slate in the party’s Tel Aviv district. “Galant is holding many meetings with our central activists,” he told me. “I’ve seen him a few times. Two months ago, we met in Petah Tikva, with the group of Michi Ratzon [Michael Ratzon, a former Likud deputy minister]. He’s very involved, attends events, bar mitzvahs, weddings [hosted by Likud figures]. He wants our help.”

“How’s he doing?” I asked with some concern. “He has support,” Kahat said reassuringly, “he’s popular with us. He wants to deal with security, to be defense minister. Economy Minister Eli Cohen is also continuing to work intensely with us.”

I was taken aback. Cohen? Kahlon’s Eli Cohen? “Yes, yes,” Kahat replied. “He shows up at all the events, visits all the branches. They’re both popular with us.”

Cohen’s presence at the endless round of happy occasions celebrated by Likud members, extending to fifth-removed family relatives, is well known. But according to Likud activist Kahat’s description, there is something more serious going on, at least on the surface.

Cohen can’t be suspected of working behind Kahlon’s back. Indeed, he’s not. They are close and coordinated. Cohen’s place as No. 2 is guaranteed. Maybe he really enjoys spending his spare time with joyful Likudniks? He used to belong to the party, and it was there that he made the acquaintance of Kahalon, before the latter set up Kulanu.

There’s no political or electoral logic in Kulanu hooking up with Likud, the way Avigdor Lieberman and his party did on the eve of the 2013 election. The synergy would be negative. It would morph into antagonism. Kahlon could lose half his voters.

This week a routine survey was conducted for the Labor Party. One of the questions was: Do you want Netanyahu to continue as prime minister?

Likud and Habayit Hayehudi voters gave a 90-percent affirmative response. The opposite picture prevails in Yesh Atid, Zionist Union and Meretz. Yisrael Beiteinu supporters are split 50-50 for and against another Netanyahu term at the helm. Among Kulanu voters, two-thirds replied that they don’t want Netanyahu to get four more years. The conclusion is clear: For Kahlon and even more so for Netanyahu, running separately and then hooking up in a coalition is preferable to a pre-election merger of their two parties.

The prime minister has a clear interest in Kulanu’s separate existence. So does the finance minister. The voters who will give Kahlon the six or seven seats he’s currently showing in the polls aren’t enthusiastic about Netanyahu, but can live with a situation in which their party leader will continue to hold a senior ministerial portfolio under Netanyahu.

By the way, in that poll more than 80 percent of the potential voters for MK Orli Levi-Abekasis (independent) also expressed opposition to another term for Netanyahu, which is not surprising: Her supporters come mainly from the center-left. Labor drew encouragement from the results of the survey. In the election campaign they’ll tell their voters: Vote Orli and you’ll get Bibi; vote Kahlon, you’ll get Netanyahu.

Rabin-rousing

On the desk of Yuli Edelstein there’s a ticking bomb, in the form of a festive invitation. The honorable Knesset Speaker has hereby been invited to address the annual memorial event for Yitzhak Rabin, in the Tel Aviv square named for the assassinated prime minister. The date: November 3. No few eyebrows were probably raised just now, and one can assume that the eyebrows of the invitee were raised as well.

Edelstein has for the last six years fulfilled a semi-symbolic role. He is a decent person, soft-spoken and pleasant. He has had the opportunity to serve as Knesset Speaker at a time when the parliament is rife with smart alecks, ignoramuses, populists, vulgarians and extremists of many shapes and kinds. He does his best to preserve the honor of the parliament.

Still, he is clearly the most rightist of rightists, until recently a settler, a supporter of annexation of the occupied territories and a fierce opponent of the idea of a Palestinian state being created next to the State of Israel. He is affiliated with the hawkish wing of his Likud party. So his appearance at Rabin Square in a few months’ time cannot be expected to go down well with those assembled there. Perhaps that’s why his office’s chillingly dry response to the invitation was that “the subject is under consideration.”

The memorial event is being organized this year by the Darkenu (Our Way) NGO, and the Pnima organization. Darkenu, an extra-parliamentary movement, bills itself as a civil-society organization that supports a two-state solution, and seeks “to amplify the voices of moderates” and to ensure that life in Israel is “grounded on a foundation of mutual respect and responsibility” – which doesn’t exist. It is chaired by the entrepreneur Kobi Richter. Pnima, which defines itself as a “community organization,” was founded by Rabbi Shai Piron, a former education minister from Yesh Atid. It too disperses empty, mixed-up slogans like “Hope, not fear” and “No to hatred, no to division,” and calls for “a joint Israeli identity.”The idea for this year was to hold a dignified event – a rally with politicians but without politics.

The original intention was to invite the heads of the major parties representing both the coalition and the opposition: Likud, Labor/Zionist Union – and, surprise, surprise: Yesh Atid. But how does Yesh Atid, a party with 11 Knesset seats that stands for nothing but a personality cult, fit in? The answer apparently lies with the event’s co-organizer, Piron. He doesn’t forget friends. (It’s a pity the Labor Party did not make the effort to claim the rally for itself. It has the right to do so: Yitzhak Rabin was its leader.)

So Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid has been invited to speak. So will Avi Gabbay. Since Netanyahu is out of the question, it was decided to recruit Edelstein. The organizers also intend to invite President Reuven Rivlin. It isn’t certain he’ll come.

The bottom line: In the name of fake stateliness, the rally will miss out on (and not for the first time) its original purpose: To remind us of what happened there in the square in November ‘95, who shot whom, who incited the gunman with religious justifications, and who fired up the public in the months before the murder, in the squares and from balconies.