Analysis

Netanyahu's Week: Manipulating Rabbis, Pressuring Ministers and Castrating the Police

Likud has turned into something akin to a civil junta whose leaders are drowning in criminal probes, and spend their time plotting against their interrogators and prosecutors

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gil Eliahu

Two powerful images from this week constitute a perfect summary of national politics in 2017. What unites them is the motif of the degeneration and bestialization of the ruling party. Likud was once a model of liberal and enlightened values, but has morphed into something akin to a civil junta whose leaders and symbols are drowning in a sea of criminal investigations, and spend their time plotting against their interrogators and prosecutors.

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The first image is that of Likud’s MKs cheering outgoing coalition whip David Bitan, who was forced to resign from that post because of serious suspicions of corruption. The applause is long and rhythmic, as though his fellow Likud MKs have just learned that Bitan has been awarded the Israel Prize for his contributions to society. In the second image, we saw his successor as whip, MK David Amsalem, celebrating yet another phase of his vendetta against the Israel Police, after the unnecessary and corrupt “recommendations law” was passed thanks to the coalition’s votes.

Bitan, who fell from the pinnacle of success, and Amsalem, who replaced him there, are without a doubt the persons of the year in the political arena. It was particularly instructive to hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s farewell to the man who had served as his protective shield, who organized rallies for him, fought his battles and threatened his threats, under whose ample wing he took shelter: “I want to thank our friend David Bitan once more. Thank you, David.” Thirteen meager, stingy, unadorned words.

Bitan was hustled onto an ice floe that was pushed out to sea, to face his fate. Netanyahu spared Bitan of the opinion the premier had voiced with respect to Silvan Shalom, who resigned because of allegations of sexual harassment: “Silvan made the right decision.” When the MKs and ministers (apart from Avi Dichter, who looked around in disbelief) applauded the departing MK, Netanyahu tapped the table lightly with his hand, looking as though he wanted to bury himself. He knows that this scene will play big in any future election campaigns of Yesh Atid and Zionist Union.

MK David Amsalem celebrates with fellow lawmakers at the Knesset, December 27, 2017.
Olivier Fitouss

Everything has already been said about the so-called recommendations law, aimed at preventing the police from sending prosecutors – or making public – summaries of their investigations of public officials. Thanks to the Kulanu party, the legislation will not apply to investigations that are already under way.

Thus, the police will sum up Cases 1000 and 2000 (involving, respectively, suspicions that Netanyahu illicitly received luxury gifts and other personal benefits, and possible illegal conversations that he held with publisher Arnon Mozes in order to garner more favorable coverage) and announce whether an evidentiary basis exists for putting the prime minister on trial, and for which offenses. In addition, the findings and main testimonies will also be made public. In its revised form, the recommendations law could benefit elected officials and big-time criminals who are being subjected to investigation, in the event that the state prosecution assigns an attorney to join the police in that process. At present, however, that point is not altogether clear.

The opposition did the right thing in organizing a filibuster against the bill’s passage: That kept the subject at the top of the public agenda for three days that were otherwise void of headline news. At the conclusion of the 40-plus hours of deliberations in the Knesset, Amsalem, the law’s sponsor, took the podium to complain that the opposition had thus prevented lawmakers from attending to more important issues. Nor was he ashamed to accuse the opposition of wasting public funds by forcing the Knesset to continue working through the night. This is the same person who last week submitted for approval a bill under which the state would underwrite party primaries, a measure that would cost the public millions of shekels to fund his and his colleagues’ personal campaigns.

No lie is too outrageous for this man. The recommendations law, he argued, will put an end to the unacceptable procedure by which the police recommend to the state prosecution whom to indict and whom not to indict. But for the past 15 years the police haven’t made such “recommendations.” All they do is sum up the investigative file and state where they think solid evidence supporting indictment exists and where it doesn’t. That’s something only the police can do, because they’re the ones who interrogated the witnesses, staged confrontations between them, examined the evidence, probed the documents and determined what requires further examination in their laboratories.

To deprive the police of this ability constitutes a cold-blooded assassination of the law-enforcement system. And this abomination – which has deep, dark roots, whose progenitor is a person who has himself been entangled with the law – got the votes of 59 supporters in the Knesset.

Help me if you can

On Wednesday afternoon, Naftali Bennett, wearing his hat as minister of Diaspora affairs, boarded an El Al flight to London. He’d been invited to take part in a large conference of Jewish youth. The trip was organized half a year in advance. Its timing clashed with the Knesset vote on Amsalem’s police-castrating law.

The day before, Bennett had been inundated with calls from confidants of the prime minister, advisers and ministers urging him to cancel. Bennett insisted on going, even though the opposition refused to offset his absence by pairing his vote with that of one of its own MKs who was to miss the vote. In reality, the minister’s presence was not vital, as the results of the vote showed. A coalition majority was ensured. When the vote was held, Bennett was already sleeping soundly in a London hotel, blatantly unperturbed.

The reason for the steamroller tactics was not fear of losing the vote. Netanyahu wanted Bennett to be photographed in the chamber, voting time and again for each of the bill’s sections, and against the opposition. Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, Shas leader Arye Deri and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman are not MKs, each of them having resigned under the provisions of what is called the “downsized Norwegian law,” and were thus not present. But Netanyahu wanted the head of Habayit Hayehudi to be there, at least, and be seen pressing the voting button.

Bennett’s flagrant pooh-poohing of the premier may have been his justifiable revenge for the meeting the latter held on Tuesday with rabbis from the national-religious movement. Netanyahu called the rabbis in urgently and asked them not to abandon him when police recommendations in the cases involving him are made public in the near future. “They want to topple the right-wing government,” he threatened, just as he threatened these religious leaders and their flock on the eve of the 2015 election – a tactic that paid off in the voting booths. They were and remain useful idiots. In effect, what he told them was: If the leader of your party (Bennett) wants to leave the coalition, dissuade him, thwart him, stage a putsch against him. Bennett saw this maneuver by Netanyahu as trespassing, and rightly so. It was an invasion of his turf by a person who’s already made a bad habit of doing just that whenever he finds himself in political or personal distress.

Not all the rabbis who were invited appeared. They knew that they were being used. Not all who did attend kowtowed to the manipulator. But some were caught in the net. There’s no vermin they won’t make kosher, no corruption they won’t purify, as long as the words “Land of Israel” are dangled before them. Rabbi Eli Sadan, an Israel Prize laureate and head of an esteemed pre-army preparatory program, told Netanyahu, “To say that there’s a problem because you received a cigar, is scandalous.”

It was fascinating to hear some of these religious figures go on the airwaves to defend pathetic arguments that even Amsalem and his Likud cohorts would likely hesitate before uttering. With sweet talk, they spoke about “respect for the institution of the premiership.” Where was that respect when Yitzhak Rabin was premier and they wished him every ill in the world, issued rulings against him, and preached and incited against him in the yeshivas and the synagogues?

On the next day, Wednesday, totally by chance of course, without any connection to the meeting, the money arrived: Some 40 million shekels (about $11.5 million) was transferred to the settlements. The Prime Minister’s Bureau stated that the payment had been planned, but nothing will dispel the bad odor left behind.

Cases 1000 and 2000 will probably move on to the state prosecution in the coming weeks. Then, on January 18, the government is slated to approve the 2019 budget and send it on for the first of three readings in the Knesset.

Netanyahu enters this phase battered and weakened. He’s in a mess in the legal-criminal area – an entanglement whose scope will only become clear when the conclusions reached by the police are made public. And he has a problem at the public level, which is likely to get worse.

In opinion surveys, an absolute majority does not accept his claim that the police are persecuting him. An absolute majority also thinks that he should resign if he’s indicted. That majority encompasses about half of Likud’s voters.

Netanyahu does still have a hard core of supporters. Many of them are Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who despise the police but will not vote Likud.

His public standing is his own doing and nothing to revel in. Many Likudniks object to the style, the madness and the obsession being wielded to extricate the suspect from the crucible by any possible means. His contractor for dirty works and legislation, Amsalem, is the worst presenter imaginable: The politician whom any sane party with hopes to survive would hide on the back benches, has become the symbol of the ruling party and the long arm of the prime minister in parliament and in public affairs.

Illustration: Kahlon's head is pressed with c-clamp. Bennett flies away in a plane. Amsalem looks happy. Bitan lies on the ground.
Amos Biderman

Efforts to neutralize the effect of the investigations – first of all through the “French law,” which would have barred criminal investigations against a sitting prime minister, but found its worthy place in the garbage can, and later by means of a retroactive version of the recommendations law – were torpedoed by Kahlon and Bennett. Netanyahu failed, was humiliated and lost his deterrent capability. He still doesn’t have a viable challenger, not in his party nor in the opposition. But the police conclusions will reboot the system. Nothing will be as it was.

X factor

This isn’t an easy period for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and things aren’t likely to get any easier. When the police’s findings from the Netanyahu investigations become known, no other coalition party, including the party of the senior suspect, is likely to draw such powerful public wrath and such a burning demand to resign from the government as his party, Kulanu. Kahlon should be flattered to be the object of greater expectations than his coalition partners, but he’d be happy to forgo the compliment. It’s a weight on his shoulders.

Ironically, the legislation to muzzle the police, whose original version – which would have kept the public from knowing the bottom line in Cases 1000 and 2000 – Kahlon torpedoed, would have lifted that weight from him. The public would not have been apprised of the police’s viewpoint, and the hell that awaits him in the media, the public squares and streets would have been nullified. The decision Kahlon made three weeks ago under public pressure – to bury the original version of the bill – is liable to have a boomerang effect.

The situation is having a visible effect on him. The relaxed posture, the perpetual smile, the pleasure he seems to take in his job and from the good that he can do – all have given way to irascibility and impatience. He can’t make plans or forge strategies: Everything is liable to be washed away in the tsunami that’s about to batter the political arena, with him standing on the beach as it reaches land.

No social-economic move will save Kahlon. He’s caught between a rock and hard place, and he is both the rock and the hard place: the shining knight of the rule of law, on the one hand, and a political player who wants to see the coalition remain whole, on the other hand.

He’d like to believe that the situation won’t be totally dreadful. That is, for the bulk of the police’s narrative to revolve around the supply of cigars and champagne (disgusting and repulsive, but, hey, it’s the greedy Netanyahus we’re talking about), with the quid pro quo being an American visa for billionaire businessman Arnon Milchan. If that’s as far as it goes, the coalition will survive. In the end, Kahlon will likely say: This is the view of the police, let’s wait to see what the attorney general says.

But that’s more wishful thinking than it is a working assumption, and that uncertainty is compounded by a wave of conjectures about Kahlon’s own political future. In the Hebrew edition of this paper this week, Raviv Drucker set forth the scenario of a merger between Kahlon and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, in return for a rotation in the premiership between them. Kahlon was furious. “Kulanu will run alone in the election,” he reiterated this week.

Lapid would very much like to rope in Kahlon, just as he wanted to before the last elections. Kahlon refused – and was right to do so. If he’d acceded to Lapid’s ardent courting, he’d have found himself in the opposition, in the worst case, or, in the best case, as minister of energy or transportation or public security in the present government. When he ran as head of a party, he drew the votes of disappointed Likud or Netanyahu supporters, something it’s not clear would have happened had he joined forces with Lapid.

The same consideration may well guide him next time too. Better to be one’s own master, and head of an independent faction with seven or eight seats (two or three fewer than today), but still be the linchpin that ensures you the finance portfolio in any possible government, than to be one of the dwarfs – hunched over, transparent, slaves to the talking points – that surround Lapid. The leadership ploys that Netanyahu used on Kahlon during their years in Likud were enough for a few lifetimes.

Lapid, for his part, has a vision: He sees Kahlon to his right, a social-justice figure, a Mizrahi leader, a Likudnik by origin – and his salient candidate for finance minister. On his left is former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, affable and soft-spoken, as candidate for defense minister. Lapid is ready to commit himself publicly to both of them on those appointments.

Avi Gabbay.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Kahlon won’t be in a hurry to accept, however, for the reasons outlined above. But Gantz is a riddle. He’s known to be drawn to politics. In polls he scores higher in popularity than other members of the ex-chiefs-of-staff club, Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz. He’s less well known than they and less attenuated, and thus doesn’t draw fire. He stirs less antagonism than Ashkenazi, who was stigmatized by his part in the Harpaz affair, his poking into politics while still in uniform and his quarrel with Ehud Barak – and less than Ya’alon, who in 18 months of coerced civilian life has totally disappeared from the radar of opinion surveys. As of now, the retiring Gantz is the X factor of the center-left camp.

Nice guys

Prime Minister Golda Meir is credited with having uttered the legendary comment about the Black Panthers protest movement: “They’re not nice.” Avi Gabbay, one of her successors as leader of the Labor Party, recently discovered that a few of his party’s MKs are being too nice to their colleagues who belong to the coalition. He decided to do something about it.

Last week, as the atmosphere in the Knesset heated up ahead of the deliberations on the recommendations bill, primaries financing, the nation-state declaration, work on Shabbat and so forth, Gabbay decided that the affability being displayed by his fellow party members, as manifested primarily on Twitter, was out of place.

He located three empathetic tweets by three members of his party addressed to MKs from the other side, and summoned them for a dressing down. “Enough being nice to them,” he told them. “The public doesn’t want to read that. It wants us militant, aggressive, looking like we care.”

The three, who hadn’t known what was afoot, left cowed. One of them related that Gabbay left no room for doubt: The Knesset is not a social club, it’s a boxing ring. The public buddy-buddying would draw public sanctions.

I asked Gabbay if all this was true. “Of course,” he was happy to confirm. “The opposition today looks very different. We’re putting up a fight, there’s a new spirit. I told them what I expect from them, for the party and for them, too.”

And did it help? Do you see results? “Definitely,” he replied. “It stopped. They got the message.”