Analysis

Netanyahu's Partners Are Blackmailing Him – and a New Election Won't Save Him

The looming indictments have made Netanyahu more amenable to pressure than ever

Netanyahu serves food to his coalition partners as his party members drool.
Amos Biderman

In the 2003 election, Likud under Ariel Sharon won 38 seats in the Knesset, which grew to 40 following a merger with Natan Sharansky’s party. Sharon made a point of meeting with the leaders of all the parties, including the Arab ones, while he was forming his coalition. That was his way of sending the message that the election campaign was over, the mudslinging was a thing of the past and he was now the prime minister of all Israelis. My door will always be open, he promised the party leaders, I’ll always be happy to meet and talk. And he was as good as his word, until the day he collapsed, in 2006.

Three-and-a-half weeks after the 2019 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t invited the opposition leader-designate, Benny Gantz (Kahol Lavan) for a talk. He’s talking exclusively to his so-called natural partners. The other camp is simply nonexistent. He’s also not even demonstrating a pretense of conciliatory statesmanship or of signaling that he’s turning over a new leaf – both things that President Reuven Rivlin urged the premier to do in his traditional address at the inaugural session of the new Knesset this week, knowing that he was wasting his breath.

For a long time Netanyahu has not been the prime minister of all the citizens of Israel. He’s the prime minister of the tribe that voted for him. The coveted, sacrosanct base that he can count on to rescue him from standing trial.

Returning for a moment to Sharon in 2003: He kept for Likud the three senior ministerial portfolios of foreign affairs, defense and finance, along with education. They weren’t negotiable. The justice portfolio went to Tommy Lapid, head of the Shinui party, which had won 15 seats.

Netanyahu, however, is always in a hurry to give away the senior portfolios that rightly belong to the ruling party as though they were tainted with the plague. He’s earmarking defense for Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party (five seats); either finance or foreign affairs for Moshe Kahlon, head of Kulanu (four seats); and education for the Union of Right-Wing Parties (six seats, including Eli Ben Dahan, who went over to the Likud slate in order to make room for the Kahanists).

If it were up to Netanyahu, he would appoint Kahlon foreign minister and leave the treasury in the hands of Likud, maybe even in his own hands. The Foreign Ministry brings loads of honor and zero influence. Compared to finance, it’s like early retirement in luxurious conditions. Or, in the spirit of the season, like emerging from bondage to freedom.

At the moment, Kahlon is talking exclusively about the treasury. But he too understands that the empire he built there after the last election – after all the talk about the famous “toolbox” that helped make him czar of the economy and emperor of housing – isn’t going to be reprised. Not with a modest four seats. He is the first to acknowledge the limits of his power and the fact that his influence has become diminished.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu attend the 21st Knesset's first session.
Haim Tzach / GPO

Kahlon’s moods fluctuate. One minute he’s relieved to have survived the election and not ended up like Naftali Bennett; the next minute he’s overcome by gloom because the public didn’t show him its gratitude. In the past he declared, “Either the treasury or I go home.” Under the present stressful situation, that vow might well become, “Treasury – or I go to foreign.”

His absence from the traditional festive photograph of party leaders in the Knesset after the swearing-in ceremony is testimony to the brooding melancholy that has taken hold of Kahlon. He left the Chagall State Hall in the Knesset just before being called to take his place in the upper row, where the leaders of the small parties stand, next to Labor leader Avi Gabbay, whom he loathes with a passion. A spokesperson for Kahlon said he had a cold.

By the way, before Netanyahu reached an agreement with Yuli Edelstein (Likud) to have the latter serve another term as Knesset Speaker, he checked to see whether Edelstein might consider the Foreign Ministry in a situation where Kahlon utters a final nyet. Despite the temptation, Edelstein preferred the independence afforded by the statesman-like and consensual post of speaker, which leaves him in the close company of the 119 other MKs – whose votes he will likely seek in two years’ time, in the election for the next president of Israel.

Bulimia and boomerangs

The weakness of the person cobbling the government together has unleashed a feeding frenzy among his coalition partners. In a fit of bulimia, they are pouncing on the booty without even stopping to wipe away the cascades of foaming saliva from their mouths.

Netanyahu’s personal achievement – the 35 seats garnered by Likud, more than four times as many as either of the two next-largest coalition parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas (eight seats each) – is not being translated into the political clout one would expect. On the contrary: It’s a “cursed blessing,” as Shabtai Teveth titled his 1982 book about the Israel Defense Force’s occupation of the territories in the Six-Day War, 15 years earlier.

The looming indictments have made Netanyahu more amenable to pressure and extortion than ever. His future partners wouldn’t dare run wild with insane and groundless demands if they didn’t think he’s a captive customer.

How can he counter their assault? A unity government isn’t an option. It has zero feasibility. The threat of a new election is hollow. It’s a boomerang that would hurt him before anyone else. He must ram though his scheme to scuttle the ability of the attorney general to indict him, by the time the Knesset breaks for the summer vacation, in the first half of August. The strategy he’s chosen is pushing for passage of the amended immunity law, which would enable him to escape trial. Result: He has no weapons to use against his potential partners. He’s totally exposed.

Take Bezalel Smotrich, for example: He’s No. 2 in the Union of Right-Wing Parties and the leader of Ihud Leumi, a faction with two seats. He’s demanding the justice portfolio for himself and education for Rafi Peretz, leader of Habayit Hayehudi and No. 1 on the Union slate. His reasoning? The two portfolios belong by right to Habayit Hayehudi (which held them in the last government). Patrimony.

For those who may have forgotten: Netanyahu was forced to give the justice portfolio to Ayelet Shaked at the bitter end of the coalition negotiations in 2015, when Avigdor Lieberman announced that he was remaining in the opposition and the future coalition shrank to a meager 61 MKs. It was only then, a day and a half before the deadline for forming the government, that Naftali Bennett issued the demand as an ultimatum. Shaked, then slated to become environmental quality minister, objected. She thought that such a demand was chutzpah, totally off the wall. That Bibi would never agree. But Bennett’s instincts were sound.

For his part, Smotrich has been demanding the justice portfolio from Day 1. In a previous era, someone like Yitzhak Shamir would have given him the heave-ho back to the rock-strewn hills of Samaria, whence he came. Sharon, whose abhorrence of messianic types was second only to Shamir’s, would have sicced the guards of the Prime Minister’s Office on Smotrich and ordered them prevent him from entering.

Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich.
Ilan Assayag

The current prime minister is no stickler for propriety. He went out of his way to serve as matchmaker between the Kahanists from Otzma Yehudit to their bros in Habayit Hayehudi, and he can be expected to do the same in order to please the future in-laws. Smotrich became a hero of the Balfour Street residence when he promised in the election campaign, and also afterward, that he would act indefatigably to extricate the resident criminal suspect from the jaws of the law. But Netanyahu doesn’t want to give him the justice portfolio: Even he is appalled by the thought that a person who takes pleasure in his racism and brags about his homophobia, who evaded full army service, who was detained on suspicion of planning terror attacks during the period of the Gaza disengagement – that someone like that could be in charge of the judicial system or, just as bad, of the school system.

Netanyahu’s sole candidate for justice is Likud’s Yariv Levin. It’s even possible that this appointment has already been settled between them, without being made public, so that Levin can manage the coalition negotiations quietly and calmly.

So where, Netanyahu is grumbling in private forums, does Smotrich get the nerve? What makes the justice portfolio his? Let’s keep things in proportion, for heaven’s sake. The man heads a minuscule party that won two seats (him and Ophir Sofer), just like his predecessor in Ihud Leumi, Uri Ariel. Ariel is the outgoing agriculture minister, a job that befits his pint-size party. In the previous government, when Habayit Hayehudi won 12 seats, of which four belonged to Ariel, he was housing and construction minister. Logical. Accordingly, his successor’s place is also in agriculture. Copy-paste. At most, we’ll spoil him with the Housing Ministry, for which he’d better be grateful, Netanyahu is fantasizing in conversations with confidants.

All the whining is ridiculous. It’s Netanyahu who created the (metaphorical) monster. He raised him, cultivated him and made him larger than life in the campaign. Why is he now complaining that Smotrich also believes everything that was said about him? From Smotrich’s viewpoint, it’s Netanyahu who should be thanking him. Evidence of that is the wacky list of demands from the Union of Right-Wing Parties, which sent Likud’s negotiating team into life-threatening spasms of laughter.

Getting an earful

The intelligence, abilities and talents of Gil Messing, 36, are well-known in Israel’s political and business milieus. His human relations skills are also rare. He formed an almost familial relationship with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a cold, closed type of person, when he worked with her. It was said that he was like a son to her.

His devotion became legendary. From the moment he subordinated his personal life to her service, he never left Livni’s side. He worked with her for years in the government and in the Knesset. No one has a better grasp of the political, parliamentary and governmental systems. He’s acquainted firsthand with the interrelationships at the top, with the work of the security cabinet and with the complex mechanisms that governing entails.

In everything that’s been written so far about Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s choice of Messing to be the next head of the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, one detail seems to have escaped everyone’s notice – and maybe it’s the most important one of all: There’s no one better suited than Messing to prepare the new chief of staff for his next position. There’s also no need to specify what that post may be.

The word about Kochavi in the army is that he most resembles Ehud Barak. From the first day at every job he’s held, Kochavi is always focused on the next rung of the ladder. Apart from speaking on behalf of the army and its chief, Messing comes to the job with broad knowledge and deep familiarity with the political arena. In the thousands of hours they will spend together – if the appointment goes through – Messing will be able to educate and teach Israel’s No. 1 soldier about fateful matters that are not necessarily military in nature. As Kochavi watches from the sidelines as one of his predecessors, Benny Gantz, takes his first steps in politics, it won’t hurt him to have someone like Messing near his ear.

Party leaders take a picture with Knesser Speaker Yuli Edelstein, President Rivlin and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 29, 2019.
Emil Salman

Photo flop

Swearing-in day at the Knesset is always a time of protocols. Every event, from the entrance of the president to the social gathering in the Speaker’s bureau, the order of things in the plenum, the group photograph and the speeches that follow – all is known and planned.

The past decade has seen a new lineup in the powers-that-be at these events: The country’s president, the president of the Supreme Court, the leader of the opposition and the Speaker of the Knesset – all have changed. Everyone, that is, except the prime minister and his wife.

On Tuesday, those considered to be the main symbols of Israeli governance gathered in the bureau of Knesset Speaker Edelstein for coffee and cookies ahead of the oath-taking. The protocol calls for the pleasant mingling to be photographed from every possible angle. The symbols – Rivlin (his wife is still hospitalized), Netanyahu, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and her husband, David, Edelstein and his wife, Irina – stepped out onto the terrace that offers spectacular views of Jerusalem and had their pictures taken from head to foot.

Sara Netanyahu, however, was absent – a rare and surprising occurrence, given her well-known penchant for photo-ops. She had shown up in the VIP gallery in the Knesset plenum only two minutes after President Rivlin concluded his speech. Everyone got it. Rivlin, too.

Afterward, the symbols and their partners returned to the Speaker’s bureau for a few additional minutes, before going up to the Chagall State Hall for the group photo with party leaders. The prime minister’s wife demanded that the photographers come back into the bureau. The chief of protocol, Liat Kunitsky, refused. That’s not part of the protocol. The Lady’s people panicked. The Speaker’s bureau stood up heroically to the pressure.

On a not-for-attribution basis, sources in the Knesset said that it was Rivlin who vetoed the request. He’s known to be allergic to having his picture taken together with Sara Netanyahu. He will do everything to ensure it doesn’t happen. The president’s bureau stated in response that this time again, as usual, the rules of the ceremony and the protocol were followed.

There was more to come: When the large group of family members and other guests took their places on the chairs in the hall, the symbolic dignitaries were invited to join the gathering via the broad staircase that leads from the Speaker’s bureau to the Chagall Hall on the third floor.

And here, the following charming scene unfolded: Netanyahu and Edelstein waited in line at the foot of the stairs for Rivlin, as planned beforehand. The official photographers also waited, at the top of the stairs, to get the triple-whammy shot. The prime minister and the Speaker started up the stairs and then noticed that the third party was missing. They looked around for him. Rivlin remained below, chatting with aides. Mr. President, aren’t you coming, he was asked. Go on up, go on up, he replied, I’ll be right there. Everyone understood. Netanyahu and Edelstein, too. They continued up the stairs and he followed.

Then came the photograph of the party heads (the one Kahlon absented himself from), immediately after which Rivlin stalked out. He didn’t stay to hear Netanyahu’s speech. The reason given was that he hurried to Beilinson Hospital, in Petah Tikva, to visit his wife. Everyone understood.