Analysis

How Far Will Netanyahu Go to Torpedo His Biggest Political Rival?

While Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman kept the cabinet guessing about his position on Gaza, the army draft legislation once again pushed the government to the brink of an abyss

Illustration: Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz juggles the heads of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,Labor leader Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid.
Amos Biderman

The violence in the south having abated, the security cabinet met Sunday to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. The data that Israel Defense Forces officers showed the ministers was depressing and troubling. In the view of the defense establishment, it’s in Israel’s clear interest to undertake a series of measures to relieve the situation in the spheres of electric power, water supply, sewerage, commerce and other areas, even if Hamas is not required to contribute its share.

The officers concluded their presentation. All eyes turned to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu). In the past few weeks, he had expressed his vigorous objection several times to Israel’s providing humanitarian aid to Gaza without a quid pro quo from Hamas, including on the issue of the MIAs and the Israeli civilians being held in the Strip. The ministers looked to him as the final arbiter on the subject.

Lieberman delivered a political-security survey and then fell silent, without having addressed the question of humanitarian aid. The ministers exchanged surprised looks, according to two sources who were present at the meeting.

And what is your position, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud) asked. Lieberman replied that he supported the viewpoint of the army as it was presented to the security cabinet.

So we can take it that you are in favor of providing relief unconditionally, Elkin inferred.

No way, Lieberman shot back. We don’t give anything without getting something from Hamas.

Elkin persisted: Just now the army told us that it’s in favor of offering relief immediately, so what do you say?

I am 100 percent behind the IDF, Lieberman declared.

So you are in favor of all the relief that was proposed, Elkin said, not letting up.

No, the defense minister replied. I am against.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot visit the army's Gaza Division.
Ariel Hermony, Defense Ministry

Thereupon, according to the account, Elkin leaned back in his chair, vanquished and contemplative. Interior Minister Arye Dery tried his luck in cracking Lieberman’s (il)logic. The army, he said to the defense minister, is in favor of providing relief, you say you are behind the army but also that you are against relief. What are we supposed to make of that?

Lieberman offered no help in solving the riddle. He said nothing. The discussion went on and on without decisions being made. Why? What’s so difficult? The Gaza pressure cooker will continue to seethe until it blows up in our face, at which point the prime minister will whip out a list of dates of past security cabinet meetings, prepare a PowerPoint presentation, invite reporters to his bureau – as he did after the tunnels failure during Operation Protective Edge (2014) in Gaza, and explain to them that he behaved properly. By the book.

Elkin told me that he does not comment on the proceedings of security cabinet meetings. The defense minister’s bureau stated that the claims raised here are incorrect. “The defense minister and the chief of staff are coordinated in their positions and there are no discrepancies between them. It’s clear that whoever leaked this did so not in order to reflect the true picture, but in order to distort it and to vilify.”

The return of the draft

The leaders of the coalition parties have been walking around recently with big smiles on their faces. They see what a disaster was averted when their collective desire for survival led them, in their great wisdom, to thwart Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to call early elections back in March due to the crisis over a new draft law.

Had they not closed ranks and devised a formula that got them safely to the other side of the Knesset’s winter recess, elections would be taking place in another week or two, when the Likud party and its leader are at peak strength, thanks to a series of diplomatic and security successes. His partners would have emerged weakened or even collapsed completely.

They were saved from that apocalypse. But now, it seems the crisis has reemerged, with redoubled force. The conscription, or non-conscription, of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students has reemerged once more and is threatening to drag us into new elections.

The Agudat Yisrael party’s council of Hasidic Torah sages has decided to quit the coalition if a bill proposed by the Defense Ministry isn’t altered, and that decision is a clear and present danger to Netanyahu’s government. This time, we’re closer to the brink of the abyss.

There are only five weeks left until the end of the Knesset’s summer session. During this time, the Hasidic “council” wants to completely destroy the Defense Ministry’s plan by canceling or significantly easing a provision to impose economic sanctions on yeshivas that don’t supply the annual quota of goods to the army’s induction centers. This is a seemingly impossible task, for several reasons. The short time frame and Lieberman’s opposition to removing the sanctions, without which the law would become a joke (of which he doesn’t want to be the author) are just two of them.

The Hasidim have made their decision. The non-Hasidic Ashkenazim (the Degel Hatorah party) and the Sephardi Shas party are still deliberating. But both those parties will presumably be forced to fall in line with the most extreme link in the chain.

What this means is that the government is marching toward its end, unless its component parties agree to ask the High Court of Justice for a six-month extension of the September deadline the court set for the new legislation to be completed.

If none of the coalition parties has any interest in holding elections – and God only knows what the ultra-Orthodox would gain from it, since nobody can promise them a more compliant coalition after the vote – this could be a convenient out.

But the phrase “danger to the Netanyahu government” assumes a situation in which the prime minister isn’t interested in elections. And that is far from certain. Various political sources say he would actually like to go to the polls in October or November and get this annoying technicality, which he is expected to win again, behind him. If this requires postponing municipal elections from October 30 to early 2019, so be it, as far as he’s concerned.

His motives are well known. The attorney general won’t manage to make a decision in the three cases in which he is a suspect (known as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000) until autumn. He has emerged safely from Case 3000, which involves suspected graft in the purchase of naval vessels and was potentially the most lethal for him every standpoint – political, public and legal. The police questioned him this week as a witness, not a suspect. Had he been questioned as a suspect in a case involving a strategic national security issue, it could have had immediate and disastrous ramifications.

What’s happening in the rival camp – the spats between Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, and between Gabbay and his chief rival within Labor, MK Amir Peretz – are just a bonus from his perspective. Neither Lapid nor Gabbay threaten him.

Even in normal times, the opposition doesn’t exist. It’s inch-deep water. But today, it looks like a caricature of an opposition. Gabbay is deeply mired in the swamp that has drowned more experienced Labor leaders, and Lapid, who has been weakened significantly, is having recurring anxiety attacks.

Elections after September’s Jewish holidays would be good for Netanyahu and Likud. In August, the country is on vacation. In September, there are almost no work days; it’s just holiday after holiday after holiday. Thus there will be almost no time to campaign.

The agenda will be set entirely by the government. And Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, the active fronts in the north and the south, in Syria and Gaza, are an ideal base on which to run for reelection as far as Netanyahu’s concerned.

And then there’s also former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Yes, him too.

Avi Gabbay and Amir Peretz touring the Gaza border, 2017.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

All my yesterdays

There is probably no item that has been more recycled in local politics: the gloomy fate of Labor Party leaders during the past decade. The argument that broke out this week between its current leader, Avi Gabbay, and one of its former leaders, MK Amir Peretz, could have been reported here from a similar past event, word for word with only the names changed, and no one would have known the difference. The heroes change, the hair goes gray, the revulsion just rises.

Eleven months have passed since the Gabbay surprise. The man who came pretty much out of nowhere defeated Peretz and others to become party chairman, and for a moment it seemed as though he was just what the doctor ordered for the terminal patient: a leader of a new breed, an outsider, with no baggage, no bad blood, no shackles.

After a time the aura faded, the newness became tarnished, the curiosity disappeared. Gabbay evaporated completely from the public dialogue. He was like one of those products that penetrate the market overnight, stir huge enthusiasm, become a hysterical hit and sell by the truckload – and within a minute become boring and unnecessary. The sellers are left with a huge inventory in the storeroom. They feel what the MKs of Labor/Zionist Union feel today about their leader, Gabbay: frustration, despair and anguish.

Gabbay and Peretz clashed this week over the voting method for the party’s convention. The details are tiresome. The gist of it is that the chairman is trying to reduce the power of his rivals, notably Peretz, by means of the wholesale injection of thousands of new members into the party. From the perspective of many in the party, that constitutes a significant change in the rules – and in the middle of the game.

Peretz invited himself to a meeting of the party’s executive committee in order to express his displeasure with the move. The transcript of the quarrel was published by Channel 10 News. In response, Gabbay informed Peretz that he is invited to leave the party a third time and look for a new political home. In the bluntest possible words, and brutally, he showed Peretz the door with which the latter is very familiar, from both sides.

“He is not my master and I will not take orders from him,” Peretz told me this week. “He himself was in two parties, Likud and Kulanu, and now he’s in the Labor Party. I gave him total backing, like no one before him got. I said nothing when he arrogated to himself unprecedented powers. He needs to do some serious stocktaking instead of preaching to others.”

Peretz claimed that Gabbay is dragging the party into realms of machinations never before seen in Labor. When Peretz, with his record, speaks those words, irony blushes and bows its head. But Peretz doesn’t see it that way, not when he made the accusations, and not now. “I told him that the difference between dictatorship and democracy is that in a democracy there is discomfort – you have to take others into consideration,” Peretz said. “He didn’t do that. He has led the party to an unprecedented nadir.”

I reminded Peretz of his public promise last July to grant the elected leader a year’s grace. “I meant it,” he said. “I didn’t intend for there to be a blowup. I came to the meeting with clean hands. If Gabbay hadn’t leaked it, no one would have known about the argument. Until today I’ve made every effort to show restraint.”

Gabbay, however, accuses Peretz of leaking the story to TV reporter Sefi Ovadia. “Amir never respected the voters’ decision, he never acknowledged his defeat,” Gabbay told me this week. “Outwardly he supports me, but internally he spoke against me relentlessly. I saw his fingerprints in the social networks. He tried to create a situation of two camps in the party, like in the days of Rabin and Peres, so I’d have to consult with him on every issue.”

“I talked about him on social media?” Peretz guffaws. “Go into Facebook and you’ll see the sponsored posts and comments against me. They all come from 30, 40 of his people. What a pathetic level, what low language.”

I asked him whether the target date of one year after Gabbay’s election – on July 10, 2017 – was still in force or if winter had come early. “A year is definitely a proper amount of time in which to analyze things and to try to draw conclusions in accordance with the situation,” Peretz replied.

In this state of affairs, it’s not surprising that the former head of his former party, MK Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah/Zionist Union), has been working her pollsters overtime of late. The prevailing view is that she and Gabbay are on two parallel lines that will not meet in the next election campaign. There’s mutual resentment between them, no chemistry, no trust, no hope and no common future. If there’s a dream, it’s a bad dream.

Livni is conducting frequent surveys to monitor her electoral situation. Until now she examined her prospects if she were to run alone at the head of a party, as she did in 2013 with Hatnuah, which won six Knesset seats and joined Netanyahu’s coalition.

In the most recent survey, last week, she examined what would happen if she ran as head of Zionist Union. The forecast: 17 seats, which is three or four more than Gabbay’s average, but seven fewer seats than what the joint faction now has.

Running independently, Livni would win seven-eight seats, both her surveys and those conducted by others predict. By linking her fate to Labor, she loses half of her forecasted strength. The current version of Labor is a turnoff for voters. Which is not surprising.

I asked Livni’s office about the plethora of surveys. Livni, it was explained to me, is getting ready to decide on her future course. To that end she wants to create a database covering a lengthy period to help her make a reasoned decision.

There are quite a few Labor MKs to whom the phrase “Tzipi Livni, leader of Zionist Union” sounds like a pretty good solution in the circumstances. That is, if the latest savior, the deus ex machina, the tall and handsome knight on the motorcycle doesn’t suddenly come to a stop, brakes screeching, at the party’s doorstep and announce: Here I am.

Shopping list

Let’s compile an inventory of the parties to which the name of former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has been linked so far: Yesh Atid, the Labor Party and Likud. Either as defense minister, party chairman or candidate for prime minister. Gantz is turning out to be a sociable fellow with something of an amorphous ideology. He holds talks with all sides and rules out nothing. To Gabbay and other senior Labor figures who maintain contacts with him, he repeatedly explains that from his viewpoint there’s no real difference between Zionist Union and Likud. He’ll make his decisions once an election is called.

The problem is that he’s liable to get to that last stop, whatever it may be, with the label of a total opportunist attached to him. Perhaps not justly, but what counts in politics is image. When you’re shopping around endlessly between parties and other possibilities, you start to tire out people and give the impression of being indecisive at best and a cynic at worst, and you also leave behind a trail of memories and statements that will then be used against you.

In addition to the three parties mentioned, Gantz is considering another option: the establishment of a new political entity, one that he will head and that will encompass the usual mix of public figures, heads of local authorities, former senior army officers, social activists and the like. In this scenario, Gantz would announce that he is running for prime minister. His personal popularity would force the centrist parties, primarily Yesh Atid and Zionist Union, to back him and possible even to form a kind of alignment and support him as their candidate.

For the time being – and it’s a time that’s very elusive and deceptive, as we’ve learned from the past – Gantz is the only one who’s capable of increasing the size of the center-left bloc – if he’s given a place in its leadership and crowned as its candidate for the premiership. For that, he has to be elected to the Knesset (the prime minister must be an MK). His cooling-off period following his army service, however, ends only on February 15, 2019.

In recent private conversations, Gantz has said he’s concerned that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try to derail him by declaring a new election ahead of that date. That sounds plausible, both in terms of Netanyahu’s considerations – he’s always on the watch for new rivals – and in terms of the timetable that’s shaping up for the next election.

The Knesset will end its summer session at the end of July and reconvene at the beginning of October, and, according to a widespread working assumption, both in the coalition and the opposition, will dissolve itself shortly thereafter. The election would then be set for the end of January or early February of 2019. In that scenario, Gantz would not be able to run for the Knesset, ruling out his becoming prime minister, though he would be eligible for appointment as a cabinet minister.

This is Gantz’s glory time. He’s being courted, he’s in demand, he’s coveted. Likud hasn’t yet started to deal with him, but let no one have any doubts: The Gantz file is ready. At the right moment the filth will hit the fan. Netanyahu is the champion terminator. He has plenty to say about the chief of staff who served under him, about his performance in Operation Protective Edge, about how he prepared the army for war. He used to call him a “wet noodle.” Gantz, even with all the bullets that whistled past his head and with his splendid combat record, doesn’t give the impression of being built for the type of hell that Likud is so expert at unleashing.

If Likud lacks incriminating material, the party is invited to apply to a former colleague of Gantz’s, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yom Tov Samia, now a Labor Party figure, who says he “knows a thing or two about Gantz” and will reveal them when the time is right. Samia, who joined Labor about two-and-a-half years ago as its senior security honcho, isn’t getting the good treatment and prominence he’d hoped from Gabbay. He lost his cool following a report in the newspaper Maariv that Gantz might be Zionist Union’s candidate for prime minister, with Gabbay staying on as party chairman. (Gabbay vehemently denies this, saying this week that he “didn’t come to the party in order to be anyone’s No. 2.”)

If Samia had counted to 10 and not let passions rule him, he would have taken the opposite course: praising and hailing the potential arrival, whom most Labor Party members see as an elixir for their melancholy. They won’t forgive Samia for the welcome he gave Gantz. It’s possible that by railing at Gantz, he sealed his fate in the primary.