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Netanyahu's Strategy at Play: Go Into an Election With the Whole World Against Him

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Benjamin Netanyahu
Credit: Amos Biderman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made two big commitments: He signed the agreement concerning conflicts of interests that the attorney general put before him, and he established a reconciliation cabinet. There may not seem to be a connection between the two, but there is, in a big way. In the midst of his glaring conflict of interests, Netanyahu the defendant will keep using all his governmental and political might against the judiciary.

He has never had any intention of fostering “reconciliation” or falling into line with expectations of the top elected official. He only knows how to look out for himself, to corrupt and destroy, divide and subvert. He’s trampling the law and scorning the norms. “It’s not done” doesn’t exist for him, only targets on the foreheads of public servants, journalists and political rivals.

Netanyahu's nosedive in public opinion is dramatic. He receives a failing grade in managing the coronavirus crisis. His nakedness as a leader is visible to every eye.

For nearly a generation now he has been feeding us Ali Bibi tales about his greatness and superior abilities. If Finance Minister Yisrael Katz has compared himself to Herod, Netanyahu is Moses mixed with King David – the person who pulled a failed state out of the depths of the developing world and transformed it from a malaria-infested swamp into a major power in the economy, information technology and high-tech. Israel’s long arm reaches every corner of the global. It’s only the domestic crisis it can’t beat.

Four thousand confirmed cases a day, tottering between first and second in the world in infection rates. Confused, the public is paying the price of the defendant’s failure to act, his submission to political considerations, his personal interests. The coordination among the  ministries is like a swarm of ants sprayed with Raid. The national budget, the heart of the government’s efforts, is a hostage, like this whole country, in the hands of a man devoid of morality or integrity.

The Israeli absurdity is that an election campaign that will swivel around his criminal affairs will serve him. Large segments of the public, whose brains have long undergone a thorough washing, believe that the man is being persecuted and the charges fabricated.

The law enforcement system has decided to topple “a prime minister from the right. Me. Us,” he told a grim bunch of Likud lawmakers and ministers Tuesday. The cardboard marionettes nodded and nodded, a base of enthusiasts, then each fulminated in his or her turn, competing over who could go lower and more violent. Quite a few made it into the finals.

The alchemist of lying propaganda melds one story into another, one affair into another, knowing that 99 percent of his audience hasn’t the slightest idea. Former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, former State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, media heiress Judy Nir-Mozes and her former romantic partner, former police investigator Avi Rotenberg – all of them are woven into a murky plot to depose him.

“A whitewash!” he shouts. Channel 12 News did him a great service when it smeared across the screen a caption about the “whitewashing” of certain aspects of the Netanyahu cases, even though in Amit Segal’s scoop there was no whitewashing, which didn’t stop Netanyahu from calling channel “Al Jazeera” and wildly inciting against top journalists.

The specifics of the indictments hardly interest anyone anymore. In the Knesset this week, Likud’s David Amsalem, a key cog in the Bibi-ist propaganda who will live in infamy, scoffed about a mere cigar, referring to one kind of gift Netanyahu received from billionaires. The balance has been reassigned to the judicial system. That’s where the corrupt people and the criminals are. And Netanyahu, he’s just an innocent and decent person who has been caught up in a Kafkaesque horror story. Citizen N.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Ramle, September 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Obstruction or incapacitation

On Thursday last week, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit appeared at the Israel Bar Association Law Conference. There’s no reason to disqualify the prime minister because of his court appearances, Mendelblit said.

Then came Chaim Levinson’s report in Haaretz that Mendelblit was considering whether Netanyahu should be disqualified from serving as prime minister for allegedly using his office to help defend him in the three corruption cases against him. Netanyahu says he wants a commission to investigate the judiciary.

In discussions in recent months in Mendelblit’s office, most of the attention has been on two levels. There’s the technical level – the prime minister’s ability to do his job while defending himself in court. On that level there is no reason for incapacitation.

The second level, however, provides possible justification for incapacitation: A defendant in a criminal case, the most powerful politician in the country, will use his power to thwart the proceedings against him.

Actually, this has been happening for some time now. Likud’s loathsome and mendacious campaigns that are undermining trust in the judiciary are being funded by all of us out of our own pockets.

Never mind the mysterious elements, with equally mysterious funding, that have been operating against the law enforcers since the investigation stage in order to gratify the prime minister. (And if we’re talking about someone to star in a Kafkaesque tale, it’s not Netanyahu but prosecutor Liat Ben Ari, who’s going through hell on earth). Blatant intentions to draw up preventive legislation have flashed across the stage and exited – only because of Netanyahu’s inability to make his efforts happen. These too are conflicts of interests.

But now we’re talking about an especially discordant crescendo in his bombastic symphony against the law enforcement authorities. That's exactly what happened last week in Beit Shemesh, and then in Likud. Netanyahu flipped out. He didn’t even pretend to care about the distress of 9 million Israelis about to go into lockdown because of his failures. He stood there and mourned his bitter fate.

It’s said Netanyahu is very intelligent. He makes sure to spread a baseless myth that he’s one of the 20 smartest people in the world (there has never been any such measure). True, he has IQ in spades, more than most Likud legislators put together.

Fundamentally, though, he’s stupid. In the wake of the attorney general’s statement, he should have opened a bottle of cheap Champagne at home, with the spouse and junior, and kept his mouth shut.

He should have left the initiative to establish a commission of inquiry to far-rightist Bezalel Smotrich, for example, and delegated the spewing of filth against the state prosecutors to lower-ranking Likud mudslingers like Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and Transportation Minister Miri Regev. His mobilization of this attack might cost him dearly down the road.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at a legal conference in Herzliya, September 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Bennett’s road to Balfour

This week, a Channel 13 News opinion poll gave Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party 21 Knesset seats versus 31 for Likud. Had it not been for the treaty with the United Arab Emirates that braked Likud’s free fall, Bibi’s party might have kept plummeting and the digit in the tens column for both outfits would have been 2; maybe 29 to 21. (Remember that in the current Knesset the power relation is 36 to five.)

Let’s say that’s the outcome of the next election. Netanyahu and Bennett will try to form a coalition. Bibi, well aware of his grave situation, will propose a rotation with everyone, from Bennett to the as-yet unknown leader of an unknown party that wins maybe four  seats.

The proposals will include 90 percent of the kingdom. He will speak publicly and commit, for example, to a rotation government in which he’s prime minister one year and the other guy three.

His interlocutors will include Netanyahu’s current partner in the unity government, Benny Gantz, opposition leader Yair Lapid, Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman and of course Bennett. All of them will receive every conceivable promise.

On the other end of the line, Netanyahu will hear snorts of contempt. They’d rather put their money with Bernie Madoff than buy a rotation government from Israel’s certified crook.

Bennett, too, will put in a lot of work. He’ll propose a rotation in which he goes first; he’ll share with Gantz, he’ll share with Lapid, though he’ll make an offer to Likud before the rest, of course. He’ll give all the bounty in the world to the ultra-Orthodox, except for the premiership and the foreign and defense ministries, which they aren’t interested in anyway.

The link that binds will be that the time has come. Let’s get rid of him. We’ll form a government focusing on socioeconomic issues, led by the center-right, that will build on the ruins. The diplomatic stuff isn’t relevant. The controversial issues will be suspended until times get better. We’ll only deal with earning a living and reviving the economy. 

Let there be no doubt: Bennett 2020 isn’t what we knew back in the previous decade. He wants to be prime minister, even if only for one year. And equally, with a fiercely burning internal flame, he wants to haul Netanyahu over the coals.

On the other side of the telephone line, Bennett will hear people who share a similar desire and are willing to discuss matters. He, unlike his past patron, hasn’t yet been caught lying to and deceiving any partner.

Such a government will be short-lived. The only good it will do is to push Netanyahu to the opposition benches. There, as a mere Knesset member, he’ll be busy with his trial, and best of luck to him. “The loyalty bloc” he rode in on during two sets of coalition talks will only be two-thirds as large.

Naftali Bennett speaking at the Knesset, August 2020. Credit: Oren Ben Hakon

This week, after the report on Channel 12, Bennett tweeted a standard reaction: “The revelation sheds a harsh light on Israel’s law enforcement system. We must investigate the events that have been described in a profound and unbiased way and address failures firmly.” And that’s it.

The next day, he quickly returned to his profitable comfort zone. He reserved the aggressive terminology for Netanyahu. “Criminal negligence,” he charged. “You refused to implement a good plan only because of the identity of the person who proposed it .... Rwanda, Malaysia and Georgia are conducting themselves professionally compared to you. Wake up!” Bennett also mocked the letter in which the prime minister demanded that the opposition chiefs “act responsibly.”

Bennett is walking on a cloud in the opinion polls, but also a tightrope. He has five or six Knesset members from the very far right. All told, he’s drawing voters from a wide range: Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Gantz’s Lahol Lavan and Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and young voters who like his energy.

To keep them in his camp, while maintaining eye contact with his base, he needs supreme acrobatic abilities. Now he’s flourishing, but he’ll still have to go through an election campaign. He’ll have to come out of the closet and declare that he aims to be prime minister and definitely won’t recommend Netanyahu to the president. Many public opinion polls haven’t yet assessed the implications of such a move.

After that, he’ll have to keep Smotrich away form center stage and present an all-Israel team, an improved Likud B. He’ll no longer be alone in the coronavirus trenches, which are yielding him wonderful public relations. Everything is playing into his hands – from Netanyahu’s failures to spats in Yesh Atid, from which Gantz also hopes to benefit.

The performer and the minister

In the April 2019 election, Kahol Lavan won 35 Knesset seats while Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s party didn’t even make it into the Knesset. Today Bennett is averaging nearly 20 seats, while Kahol Lavon leaders celebrate whenever they make it into the double digits. Bennett is also leaving Gantz in the dust regarding suitability as prime minister.

It’s a strange world. Gantz is defense minister, with such a great role in the war against the pandemic. All the weapons are in his hands: a huge budget, endless personnel, command centers, the Home Front Command, hotels, soldiers. He’s sparing no efforts, rushing from Kafr Qasem to Beit Shemesh, allocating resources, solving problems.

His predecessor at the ministry, Bennett, has zero authority and zero responsibility. His power is in his words, his publicized visits, his interviews. He’s the performer in the fight against the pandemic, without taking part in it.

In a different setting, Gantz could have been Bennett. Kahol Lavan’s entry into the government before the waning of the first wave was a political suicide that will be remembered for many years. This isn’t wisdom after the fact; Gantz was warned that the stretcher he was so eager to help carry would be the one to bear his corpse to the political graveyard. That’s what happened to other former chiefs of the Israel Defense Forces like Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon.

The coronavirus is turning out to be the golden age of the opposition, boosting those who have no authority and consuming those who do. Anyone who spoke with Gantz this week could note a certain frustration: Bennett talks, I do things.

From Gantz’s perspective, time should be on his side. The next election apparently won’t be held before March. Until then he’s hoping his actions will yield results, with the enthusiasm for Bennett fading and the battered and frightened public returning to its senses and realizing who merely talks.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Bnei Brak, September 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Benny wants us not to hate him, said someone who knows. Bibi they hate, and also Lapid. From Gantz’s perspective, going into the election as a person who is liked, who has done good, is the recipe for a comeback.

On the eve of Netanyahu’s trip to Washington for the ceremonial signing of the normalization treaty with the Emirates, Gantz said in a phone call he would expect the prime minister to take along Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on his plane. This isn’t just protocol (the head of the Emirati delegation is UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed) – it’s basic fairness. Netanyahu later succumbed, but Ashkenazi wasn’t holding his breath. He knows the client. With others, Bibi only shares the failures.

Gantz called Netanyahu’s display of unholy wrath against the prosecution “insane.” According to him, “If there was an improper act, it has to be investigated. But there’s no need to attack them like lunatics. [Netanyahu] will show up with a new story every week, like we have to investigate the justice system.”

He then diagnosed the obvious: “It’s a simple strategy: to enter an election when the whole world is against him and the camp will rally around him.”

How true, how simple. Netanyahu will go into the next election like a ballistic missile spewing flames of hatred, incitement, lies and wicked stories. He’ll build on identity-based voting, angry and incited.

The problem is that this will be an effective rival for Gantz. Pamphlets with collections of Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn’s tweets in defense of the attorney general won’t be enough.

A battle of inquiry commissions

And another word about Gantz. Or rather, to Gantz. Let’s call it a tip from people wise to the intricacies of diplomacy and defense.

You might think Gantz had a nuclear bomb at his disposal. No, not one of those that foreign media reports like to talk about. It’s lurking in the intricacies of the Military Justice Law, Section 537: “The defense minister is entitled to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate any matter touching on the military, and it is authorized to summon witnesses under oath or not under oath.”

This provision was put to use once: In 2000, IDF chief Shaul Mofaz appointed a commission headed by a former chief justice, Meir Shamgar, to investigate the relationship between veterans’ cancer cases and service in the Kishon River near Haifa.

This brings us to the current corruption affair concerning Israel’s acquisition of submarines and other naval vessels. Legal work is underway in the run-up to a High Court petition to obligate the defense minister to use Section 537 to establish a commission to investigate the affair, which stinks as bad as the Kishon did back then.

A protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the so-called submarine affair, Tel Aviv, August 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

The preparations are being done by attorney Dafna Holz-Lechner. A number of people unwilling to let the vile stench dissipate have asked her to represent them.

First, they will ask the defense minister to exercise his authority. In the archives, there is a wealth of his comments calling for an investigation into what is rightly called the worst military scandal in Israel’s history. If he refuses, a petition to the court will be filed.

There are cases, Holz-Lechner told me, in which the word “entitled” actually means “is obligated.” There are plenty of examples where the court has ruled that this is so.

Gantz, as we know, is an easygoing fellow who doesn’t rush into conflicts. Maybe he’d actually prefer that the High Court did the work for him and obligated him.

But let’s imagine for a moment that Netanyahu were in his situation in which the senior partner is humiliating the junior partner while systematically violating the agreement between the two sides. What would Netanyahu do? He’d establish a commission in the name of sacred national security and integrity.

If Likud does indeed initiate – or support – a commission of inquiry into the prosecution and the police, maybe this is the time for Gantz to riposte with a commission of his own.

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