Poised for Netanyahu's Fall, Politicians Scramble for New Alliances

Meanwhile, what happens when the prime minister's wife gets a gift certificate to a jewelry store.

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Illustration: Netanyahu fights Bennett over the electoral base; Kahlon and Lieberman hold hands as Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak flirt.
Illustration: Netanyahu fights Bennett over the electoral base.Credit: Amos Biderman

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns from his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, probably in mid-February, he will encounter a new political situation. Maybe even a new era. An American president who, so far at least, seems to empathize with the settlement movement, or not be hostile to it, is already making Netanyahu’s political supporters quiver with great expectations. That constituency is looking to the premier in the hope – and with the demand – that he will do something dramatic. He no longer has any excuses nor a scapegoat (in the form of President Obama) to blame for his relatively restrained policy regarding growth in the territories.

The right wing is Netanyahu’s only electorate. Its members aren’t disturbed by the investigations he’s undergoing. For them, ideology outranks trivial things like personal integrity. The assessment in the Israeli right wing that the Likud-Habayit Hayehudi government is nearing its end, and the fact that there’s no guarantee that the next government will pursue a similar ideological line, is ratcheting up the internal tension in those circles.

The right wing is now calling on Netanyahu – not yet as an ultimatum – to leave behind some sort of legacy: annexing Ma’aleh Adumim, according Israeli sovereignty to settlements in Area C of the West Bank, passing the law to legalize illegal settler outposts (including Amona, retroactively), or approving the Jerusalem Law proposal, which would apply sovereignty to “greater Jerusalem” – the Eztion Bloc, Ma’aleh Adumim, Betar Ilit and Givat Ze’ev, all of which are across the Green Line. The revived bill, voted down by previous governments, is now sponsored by MK Yoav Kish (Likud). And there are more bills in the pipeline, awaiting the moment that the prime minister’s plane takes off from Andrews Field outside Washington on the way home.

The more intense the interrogations and the leaks become, and as the moment approaches when the Israel Police announce whether there is sufficient evidence to indict Netanyahu – the greater the pressure on him from the right will grow. Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett is relentless in provoking, challenging and taunting the prime minister over construction in the territories and annexation of settlements. At the same time, knowing his constituency, Bennett is defending him body and soul on the “other” issue: “You don’t topple a right-wing government over cigars,” he’s telling his electorate.

Likud MKs and ministers said this week in not-for-attribution conversations that they don’t discern in Netanyahu any sort of readiness for the “moves” expected of him by the right wing. Much depends, of course, on his meeting with Trump. But it seems unlikely that he’ll emerge from it with the president’s agreement to the unilateral annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim.

Palestinian schoolgirls walk past the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, November 2013.Credit: Reuters

According to one Likud figure, “Netanyahu corresponds only with the right-wing base. It’s insane that he spent three weeks working day and night on the plan for Amona, which obviously has to be evacuated. On the other hand, he’s not courageous enough to apply Israeli sovereignty to Area C. Why’s that? Because the ruins of Amona are a deadly photo-op for him, and in the application of sovereignty there is no photo-op.”

Small consolation

Following Netanyahu’s summation for the defense in the Knesset on Wednesday, many coalition members approached him to offer encouragement. Indeed, it was a depressing spectacle. The prime minister’s distress was plain to see. His usual aura of arrogance was coated with concern and apprehension. At times he looked like a hunted animal.

Netanyahu had taken to the podium to reply to parliamentary questions about the ministries he holds. But most of the questions remained unaddressed, thanks to the generosity of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud). In fact, it wasn’t entirely clear whether he was acting as coalition whip or as Netanyahu’s counsel, instructing him not to answer questions liable to incriminate him.

At the end of the question period, the speaker gave Netanyahu 10 minutes to say what he pleased. Reading from notes, the suspect offered his version of the list of offenses for which he’s being investigated and will apparently continue to be investigated. Well, if that’s all he has up his sleeve, his situation isn’t good, to put it mildly. Some of the things he said amounted to insults to the basic intelligence of most of those in the chamber.

For example, did his meetings with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, transcripts of which have become part of the public domain, constitute a routine sort of exchange between a politician and a newspaper publisher or editor, as Netanyahu claimed? After all, the two went into minute details about reducing the circulation and influence of the premier’s mouthpiece, the free daily Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage by the rival paper, Yedioth, and its website. Maybe Likud MK David Amsalem was persuaded, though even that’s not for sure. But how can the ongoing supply, on demand, of cigars and champagne for years, to the tune of 660,000 shekels (approximately $165,000) be termed “presents that it’s permissible to receive from friends”? That’s enough money to buy a two-room apartment in the hinterlands.

Why are they only investigating me, the prime minister complained/feigned, in a transparent message aimed at the police and at Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who ordered the investigations. But he aimed his main message at his (former?) friend and supplier of booze and cigars, billionaire Arnon Milchan, who gave information to the police that at this point seems to be Netanyahu’s biggest legal problem. “We’re friends!” he yelled from the podium. “For 20 years we’ve been close friends! Our wives are close friends! Our families are close!” It sounded like he was begging.

“The cigars and champagne have apparently affected you,” quipped leader of the opposition MK Isaac Herzog, who spoke after Netanyahu and called on him to resign. Herzog was incorrect: Maybe it was the lack of those items, so essential for the psyche, that made Netanyahu put on a show that was far below his usual level.

About a month and a half ago, at the height of the discussions on Amona, I reported that Netanyahu had stopped smoking the cigars he’s so fond of. Many of his interlocutors, who were forced to put up with the stench in their meetings, breathed a sigh of relief. They hoped it wasn’t a passing phenomenon, and in fact they haven’t encountered the cigars since. Some of them thought Netanyahu was on a health kick. None imagined that the reason was far more prosaic: the stock ran out. The supplier, who may already have been undergoing questioning by the police as part of their eight-month “examination,” stopped sending the fancy boxes to Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who rarely pays for anything out of his own pocket, almost as a guiding principle in life, simply dropped that particular guilty pleasure. Now, in the wake of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan's easing of restrictions on cannabis smoking, maybe Netanyahu will switch to smoking joints.

Milchan may end up being the cause of an indictment, but there’s always a silver lining: At least the prime minister’s health was enhanced.

Sara Netanyahu and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ramat Hanadiv, April 25, 2016.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

Halves and half-nots

Apropos “presents from friends,” on Sara Netanyahu’s birthday a few years ago, four couples from among the Netanyahus’ friends got together. Knowing the extravagant tastes of the prime minister’s wife, each wrote a check for 1,000 shekels ($250). They aren’t billionaires or even millionaires, like the couples’ neighbors in Caesarea. They are ordinary people, self-employed, well-off, but not floating in money.

One went to a well-known Jerusalem jewelry store and purchased a gift certificate for 4,000 shekels from the money he’d gotten; it was presented to the birthday girl at a party in the Prime Minister’s Residence. A few days later, the person who’d purchased the gift certificate got a call from the store. He was informed that the prime minister’s wife had been there and had bought an item of jewelry. Everyone was delighted.

The only thing was that the price of the chosen item did not match that on the gift certificate. The disparity was around 4,000 shekels, and the person who bought the jewelry didn’t pay it. The caller from the store requested her interlocutor to come and settle the debt ASAP. After picking himself off the floor, he called his three friends and told them about the wild inflation that had afflicted the cost of their present.

The end is not surprising. With no choice and with less pleasure, the couples each had to add another 1,000 shekels. It’s not criminal or even semi-criminal; it’s only sad and rather sickening.

That story is in keeping with what veteran Israeli journalist Amnon Abramovich reported on Channel 2 News last Friday – that in 2004, Sara Netanyahu asked Arnon Milchan to buy her a jewelry set from H.Stern Jewelers at the Tel Aviv Hilton, where he was staying at the time. Milchan’s wife Amanda and his business manager went to the store and checked out the necklace and bracelet that Ms. Netanyahu wanted. The necklace cost $6,265. Ms. Milchan decided that that was expensive enough; she bought it and left the bracelet ($2,305) on the shelf.

Amanda may have said enough was enough, but not Sara. According to Channel 2, Finance Minister Netanyahu called his pal Milchan, apologized and told him in her name that she’d received only “half a present.” (Half a present is horrible, like a half-lie, which is worse than a whole lie.) It goes without saying that the bracelet was purchased, too, and sent to the Netanyahus’ home in Jerusalem, because you don’t say no to Sara. She has this magical effect on people around her, whether they’re friends or employees.

Asked for a comment about the story of the birthday present, the following response was received from the bureau of of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “We have no intention of cooperating with your campaign of lying and tendentious vilifications against the prime minister and his family – not even when what you allege never happened.”

Anger Down Under

Australia is a good friend of Israel’s. A few days after the United Nations Security Council, in the absence of an American veto, passed Resolution 2334 decrying construction in the settlements, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull condemned the resolution unequivocally, terming it “one-sided” and “deeply unsettling.” His country, he promised, would never support it or anything like it.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin shakes hands with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, March 16, 2016.Credit: GPO / Mark Neuman

A good friend, but a very distant one, geographically. As a result, Australia often falls victim to cancellations of visits by Israeli leaders, to the chagrin of the Australians, who for some reason crave attention from a country they seem to hold dear.

In August 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled a planned visit to the continent Down Under because of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. The Aussies were disappointed, but understood. They waited for some sort of compensation, which didn’t come. Last March, President Reuven Rivlin was scheduled to pay a state visit to the country, whose leaders and whose Jewish community worked feverishly to organize him a dream trip.

Three weeks before the scheduled date, Rivlin canceled and instead paid a surprise visit to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin. The Australians were deeply offended. It’s true that Russian military intervention in the region made Rivlin’s visit urgent, but the cancellation at such short notice was particularly insulting. The Australians started to think that the Israeli leadership was looking for excuses to opt out.

The compensation for that is meant to happen in three weeks. On Saturday evening, Feb. 18, Netanyahu is due to embark on a 10-day visit to Singapore and Australia. The plans are complete, expectations are running high, but again there’s a gnawing doubt – and again Jerusalem is wondering about the visit’s feasibility. Clearly, during such a high-pressure period of investigations, Netanyahu will not be eager to be out of the country for such a long period. Two weeks ago, he canceled a four-day trip to the economic forum in Davos, an annual event he likes attending, citing scheduling conflicts, although the real reason was obvious to everyone.

As a preliminary step in anticipation of the possible cancellation of the upcoming trip to Australia, the Foreign Ministry sent a travel alert to Rivlin’s office: The president’s aides were informed that he might be asked to go instead of the prime minister. Rivlin is due to visit Vietnam at the beginning of March – maybe the visits could be combined.

It would be an understatement to say that the Australians, who got wind of these maneuverings, are boiling with anger. If the prime minister wishes to shorten his visit, that’s possible, an Australian diplomatic source said, but we will not look kindly on another cancellation. According to the same source, Australia will not agree to accept President Rivlin as a substitute. Rivlin’s aborted visit a year ago still rankles. They are very different visits, involving people of different rank and different programs. We will not be able to make a last-minute change, the source explained with icy diplomatic politeness.

I asked the Foreign Ministry about the status of Netanyahu’s visit to Australia. “At the moment there is no change,” I was told. What could bring about a change, what could provide Netanyahu with a reasonable, acceptable excuse for canceling (after all, he can’t say he wants to stay here, close to his attorney Jacob Weinroth)?

The answer is Donald Trump. The new president has become the answer to every question, the solution to almost every problem. Netanyahu is meant to visit Washington in the first half of February. If the trip were to be scheduled for the third week of February, about the time of the Australian junket, that would be an excellent excuse for calling off the latter. The prime minister cannot allow himself to be out of the country for almost two weeks, will be the reasonable explanation. The normally good-natured Australians are aware of the delicate line between the two trips. They even suspect that the Prime Minister’s Bureau will deliberately seek to arrange the visit to the White House very close to the planned trip to Australia.

Broadcasting cooperation

Half a year ago, at the height of one of the waves in the prolonged crisis over the new public broadcasting corporation, this column reported on an initiative by a senior cabinet minister to incorporate all the country’s public broadcasting bodies – the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Educational TV and Army Radio – under one umbrella. The IBA is being annulled anyway, the minister, who asked to remain anonymous, noted; Educational TV will be under the aegis of the new corporation as the law stipulates; and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman wants to remove Army Radio from Israel Defense Forces auspices, per the recommendation of Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.

Uniting these entities in the new entity and with an appropriate change of the law, in a way that would have pleased the prime minister – who at the time was obsessed with doing away with the new corporation – could resolve the crisis smoothly, the senior minister maintained. However, for various reasons his initiative melted away and was forgotten.

This week, in the wake of Lieberman’s decision to transfer Army Radio to the Defense Ministry, the idea cropped up again. The new broadcaster is now scheduled to go on air in early April, with Educational TV as part of it. Army Radio is on the way out of the IDF, possibly ahead of its total extinction, and only one more step is needed to accomplish the mission: to move Army Radio from the auspices of the Defense Ministry to that of the corporation .

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who supported the unification idea from the outset, said in private conversations this week that he’s still in favor. “All the public broadcasting entities must be under one roof, under one regulator, and operate on the basis of one law,” he said. That roof can be the corporation and nothing else.

As the person who presides over the public coffers, Kahlon’s stance could be of great importance, depending on whether Lieberman flows with him. Which brings us to the relations between the two. Since Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party entered the coalition last spring, and more intensively in recent months, an unofficial axis has been formed between him and Kahlon. Their cooperation is particularly obvious in security cabinet meetings. They take an identical stand on almost every issue. When Lieberman, in the cabinet, opposed the annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim proposed by Naftali Bennett, and emphasized the need for full coordination with the United States – Kahlon backed him up. The two see Bennett as rash, dangerous and irresponsible. They speak of themselves as the “sane, pragmatic, responsible right wing,” as opposed to the extremist messianic version of Bennett and his associates. The protocols of cabinet meetings held during Operation Protective Edge that were leaked this week to Yedioth Aharonoth certainly will not have improved their impression of him.

Kahlon backed Lieberman when the latter announced that he wishes to appoint his confidants, former ministers Uzi Landau, Yitzhak Aharonovich and Yair Shamir, to key posts in the military industries. Kahlon and Lieberman coordinate their positions ahead of security cabinet meetings, usually against Bennett. A week ago they met for a discreet lunch in which they agreed to continue their cooperation and extend it into other spheres.

The intriguing question is whether this alliance might generate a merger between the two parties in the next elections. The common denominator, for now, is in diplomatic and security areas. In matters of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the attitude to Israel’s Arab population, Yisrael Beiteinu is far to the right of Kulanu. But as we know from past experience, in the end it’s all personal. Views can change.

Ehud Barak speaking at the Herzlia Conference, June 16, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Enemies, a love story

A production of the play “Angina Pectoris,” by Michal Aharoni, has been playing at Tzavta Theater in Tel Aviv for the past year. It’s about a nationalist, racist Israeli defense minister (played by Doval’e Glickman) who in the past supported a law forbidding Jews to receive organs from Arab donors. But then, when he needs a transplant, the only suitable organ available has just been removed from the chest of a Palestinian from Nablus.

On Monday, the play was attended by two former defense ministers – MK Amir Peretz (Labor/Zionist Union) and the worried, tweeting citizen Ehud Barak. They sat in the front row, with the Tzavta board director, Avshalom Vilan, a former Meretz MK, between them. The joint invitation wasn’t a coincidence, nor was the seating arrangement; the same holds for the group photo taken with the actors behind the scenes.

The joint past of the two ex-ministers is well known, rife with quarrels and grudges. In 1999, Peretz left Labor because of his particularly sour relations with the party’s leader, Barak. Eight years later, Barak shunted him out of the Defense Ministry. And so on, unrelentingly.

Now something is happening. Peretz is running for the Labor leadership again. Barak – in his tweets, posts and the speeches he delivers occasionally (on Sunday he’ll appear before Labor’s veteran “Central Stream” group) – has become one of the sharpest voices around of opposition to Netanyahu and his government. His and Peretz’s messages are similar in substance if not in style.

Barak continues to insist that he has no intention of returning to the political arena in the next election. His behavior suggests the opposite. He’s certainly striving to be relevant, influential, active and effective in the forefront of the effort to oust Netanyahu.

In private conversations, Peretz is saying that if he becomes Labor leader in the primaries that will likely be held in July, he will try to recruit a senior defense figure to the party. The names he’s mentioning are Barak and former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. He’s good friends with the latter, having twice appointed him – both times surprisingly: once as director general of the Defense Ministry, once to the post of chief of staff.

People who speak with Peretz are hearing explicit things from him. He is convinced that the passage of time, and the trauma of Netanyahu constitute fertile ground for future cooperation with his former nemesis. I have zero lingering resentments toward Barak, Peretz says. A mutual friend said this week that Barak, too, isn’t rejecting the idea out of hand.

“The two are sort of weirdly flirting, without even meeting,” the friend noted. He explained the cold logic of the connection. Peretz is strong in the peripheral areas, north of Hadera and south of Gedera, and of course among Mizrahim. Barak complements him. He can be of help among the traditional hard core of Labor voters, the Ashkenazim who, when Peretz ran as party leader in 2006, fled to Kadima and the Pensioners Party.

An example of the platonic flirtation was seen early this week, when Peretz participated in a panel discussion of former defense ministers at the Institute for National Security Studies. He related how, as defense minister, he decided to advance the Iron Dome project, against the advice of the army and Chief of Staff Ashkenazi.

“From the moment the decision was made, the chief of staff pitched in and did all he could to help,” Peretz said. “But we have to remember that there was a change of command in the Defense Ministry. Barak succeeded me. If he were just looking for credit, he could easily have canceled the project and chosen a different form of defense. He continued what I started. He behaved with responsibility and not from petty considerations.”

I asked Peretz when we can expect to hear the wedding bells. “Both of those personalities contributed greatly to the defense establishment,” he replied, “and both will constitute serious reinforcement for the Labor Party in the campaign to topple Likud and Netanyahu.”