The Selfie That Prompted Netanyahu's Call for Early Likud Primaries

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An online photo of Gideon Sa'ar with other ex-Netanyahu loyalists set off alarm bells at the PM's residence. Coincidentally or not, two days later the premier proclaimed: A Likud primary – soon!
An online photo of Gideon Sa'ar with other ex-Netanyahu loyalists set off alarm bells at the PM's residence. Coincidentally or not, two days later the premier proclaimed: A Likud primary – soon!Credit: Amos Biderman

In his two previous ploys to call for an early party primary, a favorite pastime, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at least tried to offer a logical explanation for his actions. In 2007, after the Second Lebanon War, Prime Minister Ehud Omert was like the politically walking dead, staggering along and hemorrhaging in the polls. Each day his government managed to stay afloat was a miracle. As head of the opposition then, Netanyahu saw a window of opportunity. His office convened the Likud Central Committee amid warnings that the government was collapsing and they had to be prepared. In no time, a primary was held. Silvan Shalom grumbled at the time that with the way Netanyahu was acting, the premier would be right at home in Syria’s Ba’ath regime.

In 2011, Netanyahu showed admirable patience. Almost two years after the previous election, he again felt the urge to pull the rug out from under any potential rivals. Given the way things are here, two years after a vote could be considered a reasonable time before seeking a new mandate. So he again checkmated those who saw themselves as serious contenders – primarily Silvan Shalom (who’d believe that now?).

His present move is the most ridiculous of all. Disconnected from reality and lacking any apparent justification. From his lofty imperial perch, Netanyahu hasn’t even bothered to give his subjects any substantial explanation this time. At the Likud faction meeting, he casually remarked that it would “ultimately contribute to the coalition’s stability,” and that “we must be prepared for every eventuality.”

What possibility is he talking about? Who is threatening him? His government has been in office for barely seven months. And the coalition does not seem shaky. Party leaders who were informed by the prime minister of his decision at their weekly meeting on Sunday were unaware that there was any stability issue. Netanyahu asked what they thought, ostensibly. Since the state budget was approved and the chances of expanding the ruling coalitional forum were reduced, he’s been devoting lots of attention to his partners. They shrugged. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a former Likudnik, summed it up well: “You amass money and political power when you are able to, not when you need to.”

In the past, the party’s central committee, which has the authority to approve the holding of a primary, would have convened to discuss the proposal from the movement’s leader. Then there would be a vote on it. This time, acting with the divine authority bestowed upon him to lead us even into the next decade, perhaps, the Likud chairman did not see any need, not even for appearance’s sake, for a discussion on his proposal. He later declared that next Tuesday, when Likudniks elect a new central committee head, they will also be asked to vote on approving his date of choice for the primary, February 23. You want a discussion? By all means – spout off all you want on the radio talk shows, or in your WhatsApp groups.

By chance, Netanyahu’s announcement about moving up the primary, first reported by Channel 2 news, was made shortly after a critical tweet from Gideon Sa’ar in the wake of the stabbing attack in Ra’anana: “When will the all-talk government start seriously taking care of those who enter illegally, and effectively close the [Palestinian] Authority’s territory?” he wrote. Some people thought they saw a connection, but while Sa’ar’s tweets do have the potential to drive the occupants of the official residence on Balfour Street mad, this was clearly just a coincidence.

If it wasn’t Twitter, just what was it that set off all the alarm bells at the Prime Minister’s Residence, exactly 48 hours before the announcement of the early primary? A single, innocent-looking picture. Let’s call it “the Japanese connection.”

Last Thursday evening, the outgoing Japanese ambassador, Shigeo Matsutomi, held a farewell dinner at his lovely home in Herzliya Pituah. On hand were a number of friends the envoy made during his tenure here: Sa’ar and his wife, Geula Even; Netanyahu’s former government secretary Zvi Hauser; former PMO director-general Harel Locker; and former bureau chief Gil Shefer, Japan’s honorary consul in Israel, and his wife, Nava. Besides their friendship with the ambassador, the latter three also have a long-standing friendship with Sa’ar. At the end of the meal, in keeping with local custom, the obligatory selfie was taken. The cheerful picture of Matsutomi and his guests who, in various past incarnations, were considered Netanyahu loyalists but can’t really be considered as such now, appeared on both Sa’ar and Hauser’s Twitter accounts.

To a normal observer, it was nothing more than a routine social event. But to someone who is pathologically suspicious in general, and of Gideon Sa’ar in particular, the image was enough to ignite every fear. Just look! Between the sips of sake and rolls of sushi, the campaign staff of the man who is scheming to return to politics and to contest the incumbent for the Likud leadership was taking shape. A dangerous, traitorous bunch, just like their leader, whose friends are all “alumni” of Netanyahu’s various bureaus over the years. All of them deeply familiar with the secrets and the skeletons, the weaknesses and strengths, the alliances and rivalries, the ties and connections. All that is seen and, most important, all that is unseen.

Sources in-the-know say the online photo did not escape the attention of the prime minister and his wife. Coincidentally or not, just two days later came the grand proclamation: A primary, as soon as possible! We must be ready for any possibility.

A new Naftali

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also Minister for Diaspora Affairs.Credit: AP

The robust defense offered by Habayit Hayehudi leader Nafatali Bennett this week for the Shin Bet security service, with respect to its interrogation of the suspects in the firebombing in Duma, seems like a milestone in his political career. Over the past weeks, Bennett and the other cabinet members have been receiving very disturbing reports about the small and dangerous hard core of Jewish “hilltop” terrorists, who’ve made it their goal to replace Israel’s democracy with a theocracy. To this end, they are ready to commit more Duma-style attacks until total chaos and anarchy take the place of the already-flimsy law and order that prevails in the territories.

The Naftali Bennett of December 2015 is not the same Naftali Bennett who climbed up on a roof when the Dreinoff buildings in the Beit El settlement were being torn down and gave a speech that, even if unintentionally, riled up hundreds of hotheads, who cursed and beat the police officers there. He has learned to distinguish between the anarchists, lawbreakers and supporters of the Duma suspects, and the vast majority of the national-religious public. The next time buildings erected illegally are being torn down, you won’t find him shouting from the rooftop.

The realization dawned on him this week, after much perusing of the WhatsApp groups in his constituency. He was horrified to see how the “mainstream” was being hijacked by the crazies. He also received countless appeals from people he once considered sane, calling for the closure of the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division, where the precious suspects are allegedly being subjected to all kinds of torture. Bennett, of course, is well-informed about what’s going on there, and torture is not part of the picture. The interrogations are certainly harsh, but everything is being done within the bounds of the law and High Court rulings. He decided to break his silence and hasn’t looked back. Whether speaking in the Knesset, in interviews or at a convention of national-Zionist leaders, he’s been making himself absolutely clear. He stands by the investigators completely, and unequivocally condemns anyone who aims to subvert the state. No ifs, ands or buts.

The merger between the historic Mafdal (the National Religious Party), which Bennett transformed into Habayit Hayehudi, and Tekuma, led by Uri Ariel and Bezalel Smotrich (who offered the learned opinion that the burning of the Palestinian family in Duma was not an act of terror), appears to be on borrowed time. Bennett has had it with his partners.

This week, it was Ariel who recommended that the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division be shut down. What’s the problem, he “innocently” protested: It’s not like I proposed closing down the whole Shin Bet. As if he wasn’t well aware of whom his words serve, who is listening to them on the hilltops, and drawing the requisite conclusions.

Redundant role

Members of the Likud Party Central Committee voting on Nov. 9, 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Next week, the 3,580 Likud Central Committee members will elect their chairman, now that Danny Danon has moved to New York to serve as ambassador to the UN. The candidates are Minister Haim Katz, MK Tzahi Hanegbi and MK David Amsalem. Netanyahu, of course, supports Hanegbi – a friend and associate for many years who, in the past year, has replaced Yuval Steinitz and Ofir Akunis as the one who is ready to lay himself on the line for the boss.

Amsalem is considered to be the loudest opposition to the party chairman. Katz, an independent politician who isn’t part of Netanyahu’s clique, is somewhere in the middle. Katz and Amsalem both have long lists of supporters, including MKs and ministers. Hanegbi has fewer, but is said to be working hard on it.

There’s no point trying to predict the outcome. And it doesn’t matter. As soon as Netanyahu added the vote on the date of the primary to the election for central committee chairman, he made the latter role largely redundant. The most significant function of the chairman involves setting the primary date. He can thwart or delay such a move. Amsalem or Katz would do precisely that if the current scenario occurred on their watch. But that’s all water under the bridge. Come Tuesday, a date will be set – Netanyahu shouldn’t have any trouble getting his wish – and whoever is elected chairman can then look forward to several years of boredom.

What could give this institution and its leader a renewed shot of relevance? Netanyahu’s declared desire to draw up his super list – his own “Republican Party” composed of Likud, Kulanu, Habayit Hayehudi (minus the ever-more-extreme Tekuma faction), Yisrael Beiteinu, and if it’s up to the premier, a religious or ultra-Orthodox faction too. Some in the Likud think that the aim of the early primary is to make it easier for Netanyahu – when the day comes, if the next budget doesn’t pass and the government is about to fall (which seems quite unlikely now) – to devote all his energy solely to this mission without having to deal with trying to get reelected party chair at the same time.

Which brings us to the man of the week: Moshe Kahlon. The finance minister taught Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn a lesson in showing concern for weaker workers. And he did so in his usual calm and pleasant manner, out of a deep and genuine commitment to reduce the widening economic gaps in the public sector.

Kahlon is still being wooed by Netanyahu to become part of his dream center-right team – and not just in phone calls or private meetings. This week, the courting became public, if one can describe the cabinet meeting that way. It emerged as such when a few ministers reported on satisfying agreements they had reached with Kahlon. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman cited a deal regarding dental care for children under 14, and thanked the finance minister. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon also mentioned agreements with Kahlon and, surprise – he, too, thanked the finance minister.

“There’s no question,” replied Netanyahu. “Moshe Kahlon is the most effective minister in the government.” A hush fell over the room. Several ministerial jaws dropped. June 19, 2011, is still fresh in their memories. “Kahlon [then the communications minister, who had just completed the reform of the cellular phone market] has done great things,” the prime minister scolded his other ministers then, in the wake of the “cottage-cheese protest,” adding, “You all need to be Kahlons and find solutions.” The ministers gritted their teeth this week. What had they done to deserve this recurring nightmare of praise being lavished on Kahlon, in his presence and theirs?

The last time it did not end well; the recipient of the flattery made a stormy exit, only to go on to found Kulanu which took bites out of the Likud’s Knesset seats. This time around, Kahlon is free as a bird. He could run again independently, or join forces with whomever he desires. His mood seems to fluctuate: Before the election, he said he wouldn’t be part of a narrow government, that he would work to establish a broad coalition, and so on. You don’t hear him saying things like that anymore. He’s doing quite well in this government. His standing is solid. He’s like a prime minister for economic issues. He is pleased with how his mortgage reform plan is going. If you think about it, he’s the last person who would want to cut short the government’s life. For who can guarantee that after the next election he’ll be able to waltz back into the Finance Ministry, equipped with all the tools he was given during the last coalition negotiations?

Stav of Arc

MK Stav ShafirCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

Stav Shaffir (Labor-Zionist Union) is a prominent, active MK. She can often be seen duking it out on camera with former Finance Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky of Habayit Hayehudi. She focuses on three main issues: transparency, transparency and transparency. She’s appointed herself “kashrut inspector” over the “transfers” – those hidden and elusive processes that enable the committee members to move huge sums from Point A to Point B without any real oversight. It’s not that before Shaffir came along, the committee operated with wanton abandon. Or that before Shaffir, the Knesset lacked decent and honest MKs who kept an eye on the public coffers and zealously guarded the public interest. They just did it a lot more quietly.

As happens to many fine, and less fine, people, Shaffir fell in love with the Joan of Arc image she so arduously built for herself during the last Knesset, her first one. Her admirable rigorousness and tenacity evolved into a stubborn and dogmatic puritanism, as the following story illustrates.

On Wednesday, the last day of the parliamentary week, committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) put forward an urgent proposal to approve the transfer of 9 million shekels for the Arab public: 5 million shekels for the Ministry of Culture and Sport, to fund “Arab culture” programs, and 4 million shekels for the Ministry of Science, for Arab-sector R&D. The money was already secured, with much blood, sweat and tears, by MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint Arab List, but final approval was delayed for technical reasons. This week, an agreement was finally reached. With the end of the year fast approaching, Gafni asked the committee to approve the request immediately. “Tibi scored a great achievement for his public,” Gafni said, warning that if the process was not concluded quickly, the promised funds would be squandered.

However, according to the committee’s rules, an exceptional request requires the consent of the opposition – and to those 9 million shekels, the Finance Ministry added a request for approval of a transfer of another 70 million shekels (110 million shekels, Shaffir claims) to the Culture Ministry.

Opposition representatives Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), Erel Margalit and Manuel Trajtenberg (Zionist Union), and Micky Levy (Yesh Atid) agreed immediately. Shaffir objected. She demanded to know why the funds for the Arab sector had not been previously transferred. Tibi said the main understanding had been reached the year before, but that the actual closing of the deal was only happening now. Shaffir insisted she needed more information.

Margalit and Trajtenberg requested a recess to arrange a consultation among the opposition faction. Shaffir dug in. Her colleagues pleaded, “It won’t look good if we keep this 9 million shekels from the Arabs.” Trajtenberg talked to her. Shaffir refused to listen. Margalit reminded her that just the day before, the committee, with her support, had voted in favor of a similar exception and approved a transfer of funds for the welfare of Holocaust survivors. “If we agreed to make that exception yesterday, there’s no reason we shouldn’t today.” Shaffir continued to act more Catholic than the pope, lecturing about the importance of transparency. Levy grew exasperated: “Stav, it’s not fair for us to hold up this 9 million forever, when yesterday we used the same procedure to approve tens of millions for welfare.”

Meanwhile, Yisrael Beiteinu representative Oded Forer announced that he, too, had reservations, and that until he heard from Avigdor Lieberman, he was opposed.

Tibi lost it. His shouting at Shaffir could be heard down the hall. The abridged version went more or less as follows: “Stav, you see what you’re doing? Because of you, Yisrael Beiteinu woke up. I’ve been working tirelessly to remedy the historic injustice that your party did to us, the decades of discrimination. Just yesterday you agreed... Why are you being so stubborn?”

“I have to examine every cent,” Shaffir said.

Tibi exploded: “You’re doing this to be spiteful! You’re patronizing! You condescend to Arabs, Mizrahim. You’re the queen of hypocrisy of the Finance Committee and of the Knesset! You come here only when transfers are being discussed, and you bring your aide to film you shouting at everyone, and this time you’re doing it at the expense of the Arab public. I have a demand: Don’t say hello to me when you see me in the Knesset (echoing his colleague Jamal Zahalka’s famous complaint that Shaffir overtly ignored him because he was Arab, and never said hello to him).

The meeting fell apart. Gafni managed to obtain another postponement. In the afternoon, he convened the committee, and it was agreed that the transfer would be approved on Monday, days before the funds would have evaporated. Tibi breathed a sigh of relief. Zionist Union chair Isaac Herzog apologized to him for the unpleasantness caused by Shaffir.

I asked Shaffir what she thought of the apology. She was dumbfounded. “Are you sure?” she asked. I said yes. She took a deep breath. Of course, she sees nothing wrong with her behavior. She thinks that these sorts of deals between the opposition and the coalition are wrong. The Arabs want money they rightfully deserve? The state should allocate it as a basic part of the budget. I asked if she saw herself as more honest than Gal-On, Trajtenberg, Margalit and Levy. “I don’t want to tell anyone how to work,” she answered. “I’m just doing my job.”

Waste of a decade

It’s not just Silvan Shalom’s last year on the political scene that was pointless and, as seen this week, had catastrophic implications. The entire last decade was a waste of time from his point of view. His days of glory ended in 2006, after a five-year period during which he served first as finance minister and then foreign minister. Since then, he’s had to manage with the scraps left from Netanyahu’s table at the last minute, with fictitious portfolios and meaningless titles. Even after the 2006 election, when the Likud, headed by Netanyahu, crashed to just 12 Knesset seats, Shalom could not position himself in the public as a worthy alternative. But the fantasies never left him. He and his wife continued to talk of the possibility of his becoming prime minister, with Judy relying in part on the optimistic predictions of her personal astrologist, Miriam Binyamini.

It would be interesting to know whether Binyamini predicted how Shalom’s political career would end as it did this week. If not, what is she good for? And if so – did she warn her faithful client ahead of time?