Analysis

Pathetic U-turn Proves Netanyahu's Rivals Are Not in His League

In a mortifying show of capitulation in the Knesset, dishrag Ministers Bennett and Shaked wound up with neither the defense portfolio nor early elections

Netanyahu at the Knesset, August 2011
Michal Fattal

There on the Knesset podium stood two young politicians, articulate and promising, who – despite their relative inexperience in politics – have managed to develop and cultivate ambitions of premiership. In a country where managing crises that roll into his office like the waves of the sea is part of the prime minister’s daily routine, the grade these two get for their management of this crisis, which they themselves created, is zero.

Naftali Bennett has been acting completely frenetically of late, behaving like a teenager at the far end of the hyperactivity spectrum. He spent his time from Thursday to Sunday running around and promising, or threatening: defense portfolio now – or elections now! He dragged Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, into all this mania: Out of loyalty to him, she had to cooperate.

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Every few hours the two would raise their bets. But finally, after declaring a personal ultimatum, they delivered the lamentable insight that this government isn’t a right-wing one at all and that toppling it would not constitute betrayal of the right-wing camp – it would be its salvation.

And come Monday morning, following a troubled night plagued by pressures and pleas from all sorts, Israel saw one of the most mortifying shows of capitulation ever staged in these parts. The two had threatened "the defense portfolio, or early elections" – but what they wound up with is not the one or the other: They were used to clean up the floor. The expression “dishrags” has never seemed more appropriate.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deliver statements to members of the media, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 19, 2018.
Amir Cohen/Reuters

The two delivered a lesson in cynical Zionism, like some war chieftain paired with a counsellor in the Bnei Akiva youth movement, each one confessing to suffering from traumas or crises in days of yore that led them to political life. For him it was the Second Lebanon War; for her the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. One was seized by an urge to hold them tight and whisper in their ears: We love you, Naftali and Ayelet.

This U-turn by Habayit Hayehudi's leaders just goes to show something we’d long known: that Benjamin Netanyahu is in a completely different league. He’s heads and shoulders above any other player on the political field. In his "war-is-coming" speech on Sunday night at the Kirya defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv, he trapped them, scattered bombshells around their feet and left them to sweat all night.

Netanyahu’s speech was a work of genius, cynicism and calculation, as focused and sharp as a scalpel. He made mincemeat not only of Bennett and Shaked but of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who until recently had been a key advocate of early elections during the merry month of March. When Kahlon realized which way the wind was blowing, however, he had the common sense to turn tail and disappear in time.

His two colleagues in the cabinet, the ministers of education (Bennett) and justice (Shaked), but mainly Bennett, did the exact opposite. They kept climbing the ladder, raising their threats rung by rung as though they wanted to make sure their fall would be as painful as possible. And then they clapped themselves on the back as they tumbled. Well, okay, nobody else is about to do that sort of service for them.

Other than their mortifying political flip-flop, the main event in the Knesset Monday was Bennett’s unbridled attack on the Israel Defense Forces military advocate general.

One can understand Bennett’s frustration, and one shouldn’t judge a person in his trying hour of turning tail, but to say that the MAG and the attorney general are responsible for the loss of Israel’s security because of their directives to commanders and soldiers – that crosses the line so radically that it too indicates that Bennett has lost his mind. Naturally, one might have hoped that the justice minister might issue a peep in favor of the jurists. But salvation was not to come from Shaked.

So the elections have been put off to some unknown time, or at least until Netanyahu decides he feels like visiting the voting station again. In principle the Bibi coalition, gripped in its fear, could hang on until the Knesset's Passover recess in late March.

Right now the political game has one winner, and only one: Netanyahu. Bennett and Shaked are on the ropes. Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister who resigned last week, thought his move would drive early elections and wound up looking silly. The presence of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Labor chairman Avi Gabbay hasn't even been felt.

Even the strongest card in terms of the upcoming elections, former IDF Gen. (res.) Benny Gantz with his potential bank of seats in the parliament, showed up in some forum on Sunday and delivered an ineffectual speech that did not move anyone, let alone smack of leadership, in which he actually said practically nothing other than some cliché about responsibility blah blah blah. A few more speeches like that and the Gantz option is also going to look irrelevant to the people who aspire to overturn the Netanyahu government.