Netanyahu's Relentless Juggling Act Leaves Many Wondering: Is a Diplomatic Initiative in the Works?

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Netanyahu's juggling act
Netanyahu's juggling actCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Even the dog days of August didn’t put a dent in the convoys of journalists streaming to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, where the Netanyahu show continues. The prime minister is showing no signs of fatigue, even when called upon to give the same presentation for the eighth or ninth time, pull out all the same rhetorical stops and bang his fist on the rectangular mahogany table yet again, inflicting yet more scrapes on it with his wedding ring, as the reports say.

Like a professional actor or gifted salesman, his batteries are continually recharged by the big impression he leaves on his listeners. Even major figures from the national-religious media, from Naftali Bennett’s home court, reportedly left the cabinet-meeting room at the Prime Minister’s Office awestruck this week. Netanyahu won them over completely. They came away convinced that, in terms of the assessments of the government and the army concerning the Gaza tunnel threat prior to Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – an issue to which Netanyahu attaches the utmost importance, in anticipation of the state comptroller’s report on the subject, and over which he and Bennett have been fiercely squabbling – the prime minister is in the right.

Between one briefing and another, amid all the bleakness and the uncertainty, apparently there is still hope. Yes, Netanyahu also found time to meet secretly with his most loyal and devoted groupie, Isaac (“That door has been slammed shut”) Herzog, otherwise known as the head of the opposition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, Israel, July 17, 2016.Credit: Abir Sultan, AP

As Dafna Liel reported on Channel 2 news, the two met twice, last Monday and Thursday, in Caesarea, at the home of the Netanyahus’ neighbor, movie producer Leon Edri. Each meeting reportedly lasted about two hours. The topic: Zionist Union, or part of it, joining the coalition. Nearly a year and a half since the election, and this same moldy dish – frozen and thawed and reheated and cooled and put away and taken out again, but never removed from the menu – is on the table once again.

What do these two really have to talk about, when you get right down to it? Netanyahu is easy to understand: He has nothing to lose. He would genuinely like to get Herzog in the government and appoint him foreign minister ahead of the presidential election in the U.S. Aside from that, he is focused on one main goal: preventing the cocoon from hatching into a butterfly – i.e., thwarting the inquiry regarding his activities from transitioning into an open, official investigation. The liveliness and energy he is showing in both the political and media arenas project vitality and strength. He’s got lots of balls in the air and has no trouble juggling them – and people want to buy what he’s selling.

But what in the world is the head of the opposition doing in Caesarea? Hasn’t he had his fill of humiliation by now? The dowry isn’t even the same dowry by now. Doesn’t 'Bougie' Herzog realize it has shrunk? The defense portfolio has gone to Avigdor Lieberman. The juicy economics portfolio is a shadow of its former self – the Labor Ministry was re-merged with the Welfare Ministry under Haim Katz (Likud), and what remained was handed to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of Kulanu. The environmental portfolio was given to Minister Ze’ev Elkin as a booby prize after he lost the Immigration Ministry to Sofa Landwer of Yisrael Beiteinu.

All that remains is the foreign affairs portfolio, perhaps the skinny economics portfolio (if Kahlon agreed to let it go) and a few more fictitious quasi-ministries, like “intelligence” and “strategic affairs,” with inflated titles and zero authority. Prizing them away from senior Likud ministers Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan would be painful and difficult. As it is, they are about to burst with resentment and frustration. They won’t easily relinquish their measly prized possessions for the benefit of some opportunistic Zionist Union back-bencher.

Granted, the threat of a primary no longer hovers over Herzog; the Labor Party won’t be holding one for another year. There’s some basis for the theory that his “upgrade” to the national level, and the dedication that Herzog would pour into the dream job of foreign minister he’s had his eye on forever, would lift him out of the depths to which he’s fallen and improve his chances of reelection. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Credit: Motti Milrod

But it’s abundantly clear to all the parties in this weird courtship that, in the absence of a genuinely impressive diplomatic package that involves more than a trip to Cairo by the prime minister and foreign minister to meet with Egyptian President Sissi, it would be utterly pointless for Herzog to bring the move into the coalition before Labor leaders for their requisite approval.

So, is there a diplomatic move brewing? For some reason, there’s no longer any talk about a regional summit. And anyone who’s heard the unvarnished version of Netanyahu’s views on a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians (a demilitarized Palestinian state in which Israel would be able to operate freely with respect to whatever it deems to be a security concern) understands that no accord is going to materialize. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot be a partner either. He does not have the ability to make the necessary concessions, from his side. As long as this pair, Netanyahu and Abbas, are in power, the situation is not likely to improve, and it could possibly worsen.

So what are Bibi and Bougie talking about? About Herzog doing something like Ehud Barak did with the Atzmaut movement: He will split Zionist Union and cry, “All those who want to be in the coalition, join with me!” – and thus make his way into the premier’s warm embrace? That scenario certainly cannot be ruled out. At the moment, though, it’s doubtful whether Herzog could cobble together seven deserters to join him in abandoning all integrity to grovel their way into a right-wing coalition, in return for the title of minister or deputy minister. But who knows? Perhaps at some point, Herzog will find the Fab Seven who will make the following calculation: We’re not going to make it into the next Knesset anyway, so we might as well enjoy some ministerial perks for the next two years.

There’s no way Herzog could bring Labor in its entirety into the government under the present conditions. His rival, Shelly Yacimovich, is opposed. His partner from Hatnuah, Tzipi Livni, is opposed. His main ally, Eitan Cabel, who in the previous round handled the contacts with Netanyahu on his behalf and was set to serve as economics minister in the unity government, didn’t go along for the ride this time. He’s had it.

Herzog vehemently denied the reports of his most recent conversations with Netanyahu. His denials were so impassioned that at least two people in his faction went on the air to defend him: Labor Party secretary Hilik Bar and MK Amir Peretz. Others didn’t even bother going through the ritual of asking him about it. They don’t believe him anyway. They’re exasperated. They’re cognizant of the ongoing damage being done to their party every time there’s a report of yet another heroic attempt by Isaac (“This chapter is behind me”) Herzog to wend his way into the coalition. But it’s still possible that, in their heart of hearts, some of them are hoping that this desperate flailing to reach safe coalition shores will ultimately succeed and that they’ll benefit from it.

A common theory in political circles these days is that, Netanyahu has told Herzog that he is ready to part ways with Habayit Hayehudi. The education, justice and agriculture portfolios would definitely be game-changers. Now that’s what you call spoils! (Although the general assessment is that in the above scenario, the justice portfolio would go to a Likud minister rather than to Labor, perhaps to faithful Yuval Steinitz, who in turn would hand over the energy and water portfolio to the new coalition members.)

If indeed the premier has reached this point, what probably concerns him most is his parliamentary majority: Parting ways with Habayit Hayehudi would reduce it from 66 to 58. That’s life-threatening surgery. He can’t count on Labor approving a move by Herzog to join the coalition. The only alternative would be for Herzog to split his faction, create an “Atzmaut 2” and present Netanyahu with the signatures of eight MKs who pledge not to bring down the government during the twilight period.

Herzog and Bennett at a conference in Tel Aviv, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Otherwise, the premier could end up caught with his pants down: stuck with a minority coalition and facing early elections before year’s end.

Flea circus

A Likud official privately warned this week that his party is becoming more and more like the Republican Party in America – or to be more precise, like its radical and eccentric Tea Party wing. An intriguing comparison that warrants further exploration, though Tea Party leaders would surely find it deeply insulting.

Bizarre and silly legislative proposals, and block-headed, almost surreal initiatives have become normal fare for Israel’s ruling party. As a result of Netanyahu’s big personal victory in the 2015 election, a bunch of punks – particularly those listed in the infamous final third of the party slate – found their way into the Knesset.

Each week brings a whole new display of boorishness, thuggishness and racism from the Likud benches. This week it was the turn of MKs Oren Hazan and Nava Boker – not for the first time for either of them – to give the public a taste of their democratic worldview. Hazan sponsored a bill, which Boker signed on to, along with Likud faction and coalition chairman David Bitan and other right-wing MKs, that would require every venue at which an elected official appears to place an Israeli flag on stage or face a significant fine.

Oren Hazan at a party from time before he was a politician. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Every child understands that this bill is designed to hurt the Arab MKs and those who run event halls in their sector. It would also make life more difficult for MKs from the ultra-Orthodox parties, especially the Ashkenazi ones. One person who didn’t get this at first, but later caught on, was Bitan, who announced that he would withdraw his signature from the bill so as not to make criminals out of Arab owners of catering halls where political gatherings are held. Bitan at least retreated, but not before revealing yet another disheartening thing about our parliament: The coalition chairman signs bills whose content he is wholly unfamiliar with. He obviously put the same amount of thought into his private bill to cancel the public broadcasting corporation.

Boker struck again when she said in an interview with the Knesset TV channel that commemoration of the Nakba should be outlawed, and Hazan promised to follow up with another bill that would require all MKs to affix an Israeli flag to the vehicle that they receive from the Knesset. And there is plenty more where that came from.

This flea circus continues unabated. But perhaps there is some consolation: The last time the Likud faction was populated by such a vacuous lot was after the election of the 16th Knesset, in 2003, when the party, under Ariel Sharon, won 38 seats. In the next election, in 2006, it plummeted to just 12 seats.

Taken for a ride

If there’s any national issue that requires urgent attention and comprehensive governmental action, it’s road accidents. The figures cry out to the heavens: Since 2013, there has been a steady rise in the number of car-accident fatalities. In 2015, 356 people were killed on the roads – a frightening 23-percent rise over the total in 2012 (290). This year is shaping up to be just as bad, if not worse. And besides all those killed, of course, hundreds are seriously injured, suffering a permanent and devastating impact on all aspects of their lives.

Likud MK David Bitan, May 2015.Credit: Knesset

Road accidents have always been around and always will be. They are a part of modern life. The government’s job is to do as much as possible to reduce them and prevent the number of casualties from growing. But carnage on the roads doesn’t bring down governments. It’s looked upon as a matter of fate, as the province of a higher power. So this burning problem is not given its due, and at times is even exploited for cynical political ends.

The tale of the peculiar birth and premature death of the “Ministerial Committee for the War on Road Accidents, Led by the Prime Minister” is quite illuminating as to decision makers’ attitudes toward the so-called car accident plague.

Last week, Eitan Cabel (Labor-Zionist Union), chairman of the Knesset Economics Committee, called for establishment of a ministerial committee led by Netanyahu, and a declaration of an emergency situation on the nation’s roadways that would necessitate drastic changes in current policy. The eyes if Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz’s (Likud) lit up at the proposal. Katz isn’t usually keen on ceding authority, but in this case, he couldn’t resist. If it’s possible to share responsibility for the failure to deal effectively with road accidents, or to pass the buck to Netanyahu, who just last week taught Katz an unforgettable lesson following the defiant decisions of the Likud secretariat that Katz heads – then so much the better!

Katz gleefully snatched up the life preserver Cabel tossed him, coordinated with whomever he needed to in the Prime Minister’s Office and hastened to issue a statement to the press announcing establishment of the ministerial committee, to be headed by Netanyahu. The statement said, in part: “In the current situation, the transportation minister is responsible for road safety, but he has no influence over the other areas or an ability to instruct other ministries. Therefore, a body is needed that will integrate the fight against road accidents” (as if to imply that if Katz also headed the internal security and justice ministries, things would look different).

Interestingly, when the number of people killed in road accidents was going down, in the years 2009-2012, Katz never complained about having a lack of adequate tools. He didn’t protest that his hands were tied or that he had no ability “to instruct other ministries.” Back then he rightly celebrated, and publicly, the encouraging trend.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Credit: Yoav Davidovich

Within a hours of Katz’s announcement, alarm bells went off in the PMO that could be heard from afar. Netanyahu wasn’t born yesterday. He understood that the transportation minister was out to take him for a ride, and that his chances of emerging from it unscathed were about the same as the chances of an accord being signed with the Palestinians or of housing prices going down by the end of his term.

An “integrative body,” huh? He’ll show Katz what happens when you try to pull one over on the prime minister. In a flash, Netanyahu’s people informed the transportation minister’s people that Katz would have to make do with a committee composed of directors-general of various ministries, headed by the director of the PMO, Eli Groner, whose job description already entails heading up a good number of these types of panels.

Not a single accident will be prevented, not a single life will be saved thanks to this committee – or to the ministerial one, if it had actually been established. The solution must be something completely different: a change of policy encouraging major investment in education, infrastructure, enforcement and punishment. At a minimum.

Meanwhile, Katz’s office had to do a U-turn and issue a corrective statement just a week after the minister had endured the painful episode of the Likud secretariat. Twice he tried to pick his head up and twice he was knocked down by the same guy who likes to tell journalists who criticize him that he is totally averse to engaging in petty politics. Averse perhaps, but surely enjoying himself a bit all the same.