In a closed forum that is actually open – the weekly meeting of Likud party ministers – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday confirmed once again the most open secret in the political arena: that he and Zionist Union/Labor leader MK Isaac Herzog held talks on Zionist Union’s co-option to the coalition. The talks were halted three weeks ago after the police launched an investigation of Herzog, on suspicion that he accepted an illegal donation for his campaign against MK Shelly Yacimovich in the 2013 Labor primary.
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What the bride had denied any number of times, claiming that at most there had been feelers and private initiatives, was trumpeted by the groom: It did indeed happen. Moreover, Netanyahu even noted that Herzog “wants to but can’t,” as opposed to Yisrael Beiteinu leader MK Avigdor Lieberman who can but doesn’t want to. Which, by the way, is an accurate summation of the positions of the latter two gentlemen.
There’s no need to dwell at length on the political significance of Netanyahu’s outing of Herzog. Of all the possible accounts the master of the well-polished formula could have devised, he chose the cruelest of all regarding his potential coalition partner. With a few words, he wiped out what little remains of the tattered status of the leader of the parliamentary opposition: He portrayed him as a supplicant and made all his militant declarations look hollow. Until the investigation against Herzog is closed, and while the agreement with Netanyahu remains unsigned, the opposition leader is effectively emasculated. How will he be able to savage the prime minister in the Knesset when drafts of a coalition agreement exist?
An even more problematic situation will arise if the talks, which are expected to resume after the upcoming holidays / closure of the case / Labor Party convention / all of the above, founder, and no agreement is reached. In that event, Herzog would be well advised to seriously consider stepping down and passing the spluttering torch to Yacimovich. Nothing will remain of his leadership and credibility.
Still, there are some who think that Netanyahu’s comment was not intended to destroy Herzog but to get him fired up, so as to expedite the negotiations and bring them to a successful conclusion, at which point Zionist Union would crawl into the coalition.
Be that as it may, Herzog is in a fighting mood, according to knowledgeable sources. They add that he is determined to complete the process with Netanyahu. He knows there will be no “unity,” that his influence will be marginal at best, that the Labor Party will be torn apart. He understands that Netanyahu is assigning him the traditional role reserved for Labor leaders whose appetite to join the government has overcome them: a lightning rod, a spare tire, a PR man in the service of a prime minister who, two years ago, chose the rightward path and hasn’t looked back since. What is there for Herzog in the government other than a fun foreign affairs portfolio or maybe the title of deputy PM?
Three weeks ago, this column reported that not long before the investigation began, the contacts between Netanyahu and Herzog had intensified. At one point, Netanyahu sent his lawyer-confidant, David Shimron, to Herzog with a detailed offer, which the latter took very seriously. Also involved as mediators were Yossi Kucik, a former director general, under Ehud Barak, of the Prime Minister’s Office; Herzog’s confidant, Histadrut labor federation chief Avi Nissenkorn; and Likud cabinet minister Yariv Levin. The agreement that Kucik and Shimron worked on was supposed to have been concluded during the current break in the Knesset. Now, in the shadow of the investigation, the target date has been put off.
In contrast to recent reports, Netanyahu clarified to Herzog that not only has he no intention of acceding to the latter’s request to kick Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi out of the government, he also would not force it to give up the justice portfolio, held by Ayelet Shaked. In fact, even if the Justice Ministry were to be taken from Shaked, it probably wouldn’t go to Labor. Indeed, Netanyahu still remembers the ordeal suffered by the previous government, when the Justice Ministry, along with chairmanship of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, was held by Tzipi Livni. In the event of a coalition reshuffle, the justice portfolio will go to a loyalist such as Yuval Steinitz, with the energy portfolio he now holds going to Zionist Union/Labor.
Ironically, the Netanyahu-Herzog contacts hit a certain peak on the day it became known in late March that Herzog was the “second politician” – along with Shas leader Arye Dery – who was the subject of a police investigation. No progress has been made since, as far as is known. Everyone is waiting for the decision of the attorney general.
“The maximum Bibi is willing to pay [Zionist Union, should it enter the coalition,] is less than the minimum that’s required, even for someone who wants it very much,” says Tzipi Livni, referring to Herzog.
This week she took a stance, along with Yacimovich and, to a slightly lesser extent, MK Eitan Cabel, against her faction’s joining the government. Like Yacimovich, Livni is talking about the need for open-heart surgery – a substantive change of government policy – before Zionist Union even considers entering the coalition. And that change, she says, rightly, won’t happen – not because of Bennett & Co., but because of Netanyahu and his cohorts in Likud.
I asked her whether she’s been updated about the talks. “That’s a trick question,” she replied. Then, after a brief pause, she admitted that she’s been briefed, by Herzog, which is how “I know what’s being offered us, and it’s clear to me that our place is not there, in the coalition.”
Herzog, for his part, is mentally prepared to confront opponents of a unity government at his party’s convention. He’s convinced that he will have a majority for the move, with the aid of the Histadrut’s Nissenkorn, who has clout in the Labor Party establishment. Herzog is preparing for a decisive battle, but will have a hard time getting a pro-coalition decision when he’s up against the opposition – in the convention, in the Knesset faction, and above all in the media – of Yacimovich, Cabel and Livni. Herzog would have to win over at least one if not two members of that trio, or at least ensure that their opposition remains verbal and that the party’s decision will be binding on them.
If what she says is credible, Livni will not join him. So, a decision to enter the coalition would spell the demise of the Zionist Union idea, which in any event exists only in Knesset records and in the media. (As collateral damage, it would also mean the end of Livni’s political career).
Cognizant of this scenario, Livni is now talking about an opposite move: intensifying the messages underlying the creation of Zionist Union, in an attempt to recoup the seats that, according to the polls, the faction has lost to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Above all, she says, Zionist Union has to stop winking at the right or saying that some figure from the right has to be brought in for the party to rise to power.
“We have a historic role: to present an alternative,” Livni declares, “to stand in the face of the trends and processes that the government is spearheading.”
I reminded her of what Herzog told me two weeks ago: “In the last election, we got 800,000 votes. To win, you need 1.2 million. I have to recruit those 400,000 others from circles that don’t ‘connect’ with us.” To this Livni responded acidly, “I suggest that we start representing our positions and not think about where to get votes from. We have a great deal to offer, we have nothing to be ashamed of.”
The new iconoclasts
The Pavlovian assault on Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan for his trenchant remarks on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day reflects panic and, even more, hypocrisy. Our prime minister always makes use of the memory of the Holocaust, as he did this week, as a political-diplomatic tool to promote his agendas. According to Netanyahu, sovereign Israel, with its powerful army, is always just one step away from a second Holocaust. The right has never been bothered by the victimization scenario and the Diaspora mentality that he broadcasts to the world, not to mention the existential fear he implants in the hearts of Israelis. But when someone, a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces in this case, dares to speak in a different voice, to warn against appalling, inhuman and non-“Jewish” phenomena – racism, hatred of minorities and persecution of “the stranger” – he gets battered by the regular militants and gets compared, in the Twitter jungle, to the “deputy chief of staff of the Wehrmacht.”
Golan did not so much as hint that Israel was on the way to becoming Nazi Germany. Anyone who claims that is either evil or an idiot. The panicked clarification the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit issued was unnecessary. He said what many Holocaust survivors said in media interviews this week: that the reality of life here in recent years has been difficult, painful and saddening for them. This Israel is not what they hoped for.
It’s legitimate to ask whether IDF officers have the right to philosophize in their public statements or should stick to military matters. What makes the Golan “issue” political is the reaction of the right wing to a chief of staff, his deputy and a director of Military Intelligence who aren’t afraid to deviate from the government line in their statements and assessments. The army of the past few years is no longer the icon of the political right; for right-wing parties and media outlets, it has become subversive, almost traitorous. Maybe the next thing will be a suggestion to send members of the General Staff to a reeducation camp.
The good fight
In the weekly meeting of leaders of the coalition parties, Netanyahu was asked about the expansion of the government. Lieberman is a lost case, the premier said: “His language is extreme and far-fetched, and he slanders and badmouths me all the time.” Netanyahu hinted that Lieberman is colluding with someone in an effort to topple him. He didn’t name the co-conspirator, but he may have been referring to Yair Lapid.
A few weeks ago, at the wedding of the daughter of Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Lapid and Lieberman drew as much attention as the bride and groom. They huddled together, whispering, for two hours. One of the other politicos on hand apparently reported this to the Prime Minister’s Bureau. By chance, or not, the bureau later issued a particularly aggressive response to an attack by Lieberman against Netanyahu at a Shabbat morning public event. The tirade included an accusation that Lieberman is a “leftist” who’s collaborating with Lapid to remove Netanyahu from office.
At the meeting of coalition party heads, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) argued that there’s no need for a change, as the government is efficient and functioning well. “Sixty-one [MKs] is bad,” Netanyahu replied, “but it’s the lesser evil.” He added, “There are wayward elements among us; they have to be dealt with.”
“Mr. Prime Minister,” Education Minister Bennett said, “all the waywards are in Likud. You deal with them.”
“That’s true,” Netanyahu admitted.
Netanyahu may well have been referring not to the usual suspects who have been on his case, such as MKs David Amsalem and Avraham Nagosa (on the issue of the Falashmura community in Ethiopia), or Oren Hazan (who has announced that he supports a bill limiting the prime minister to two terms in office). He might have been talking about a certain Likud minister who is eyeing the top spot and is suspected by the Prime Minister’s Bureau of urging coalition MKs to vote for the two-term bill, sponsored by Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union/Labor), in its preliminary reading.
Even if the legislation passes, it’s likely to be buried for a long time by the Likud-controlled Knesset committees. In any event, it wouldn’t be implemented for another two elections, so Netanyahu doesn’t have to summon the movers just yet. But we can trust him to fight the bill for all he’s worth. First, he likes to win. Second, the bill’s passage, even in a preliminary stage, would be interpreted here and internationally as an indication of the revulsion that Israel’s parliament feels toward the person who has led the country for a total of 10 years and shows no signs of being sated.
Cherchez la femme
The Israel Women’s Network (aka Women’s Lobby) is celebrating its more than three decades of activity. To mark the event, the network published a book documenting its welcome activity on behalf of the rights and advancement of women. The lobby’s leaders asked to meet with the prime minister, to give him the book and sum up their work and achievements.
But the Prime Minister’s Office kept delaying its answer – evasively, the women felt. Finally, a date was set and a small delegation led by the organization’s chairwoman, Yafa Vigodsky, arrived for the meeting with Netanyahu. Also present was the minister in charge of social equality, Gila Gamliel (Likud).
The meeting began well. Netanyahu listened to Vigodsky’s survey of IWN’s work. He then asked, “How is it that there is one woman who has been attacked and persecuted relentlessly for years upon years, who is the target of endless slanders and vilifications, yet your group has never once spoke out in her defense?”
The women were completely unprepared for this complaint, uttered in an angry, bitter tone (according to someone present). They looked at one another, and wondered what Netanyahu expected them to say. They went on with their surveys and were again interrupted. “But how can it be,” he grumbled, “that there is one woman who is attacked and slandered and your group has never bothered to say a word in her defense. Not one word!”
The bizarre ritual continued. The lobby’s leaders talked about their activity on behalf of single mothers, sexual harassment, discrimination against women on the job, problems in the rabbinical courts and so on – not exactly the sort of situations encountered by the prime minister’s highly privileged wife. But Netanyahu went on with his – her – tirade.
Finally, one of the women decided that enough was enough. “Mr. Prime Minister, we got the message,” she said. The question is whether that was said only to stanch the flow of Netanyahu’s words, or whether, perhaps, the next time someone in the media dares to criticize Sara Netanyahu, the IWN will mobilize and speak out on behalf of the defenseless woman from Balfour Street. That would be a first.