Scandals Loom Over Netanyahu Despite Tel Aviv Attack Aftershocks

Reports of alleged ties to a French fraudster clouded the PM's visit to Russia this week, and tensions with Shas threatened his newly expanded coalition, yet oddly enough, humiliated opposition leader Herzog still seeks to join the government.

An illustration showing Netanyahu disassembling a Russian matryoshka nesting doll. The doll's heads are painted with images of French billionaire Arnaud Mimran, Ministers Dery and Bennett, State Comptroller Yossi Shapira and the PM's wife, Sara.
Amos Biderman

After a relatively long period of quiet, which some have called “deceptive,” so-called lone-wolf terrorism has returned. It struck in the heart of Tel Aviv at a popular leisure-time complex, just spitting distance from the Kirya, the defense establishment compound, symbol of Israel’s security might. The political agenda that dominated the headlines in the past week was instantly swept aside – but that doesn’t mean it was erased.

At the time of the Wednesday-night attack, which claimed four lives, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was returning home from a visit in Russia that missed the mark, from his point of view. Moscow, which, together with the prime minister of Israel celebrated the 25th anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries, was merely a bleak backdrop for the stories of the French billionaire Arnaud Mimran and the lobbyist Rami Sadan, which hounded Netanyahu all the way to the stage of the Bolshoi. The first story, which remains shrouded in mystery, raises disturbing questions about something that has made the premier stumble repeatedly in the past two decades: money. The second story rocked the coalition, which is finding it difficult to get back on an even keel after it was expanded precisely in order to make it more stable.

Naturally, when “security” returns to center stage, even if its return is stained with the blood of innocent civilians, Netanyahu is back in his element. It’s a well-known paradox: When terrorism is suppressed, he takes pride in its suppression, and when terrorism surges, he portrays himself as the only one capable of dealing with it. So far, the public is buying it.

When Netanyahu arrived in his office in the Kirya on Wednesday night, and met his new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, there, he surely breathed a sigh of relief. He could easily have imagined how Lieberman would have responded to the attack if he were still in the opposition, lambasting Netanyahu’s wimpish policy and calling for his immediate resignation in light of the incessant rampaging of illegal Palestinians on our streets.

And incidentally, the fact that Palestinians without entry permits are present in Israel is one of the great failures of the defense establishment. Many of the terror attacks in the past nine months were perpetrated by such people. An opposition worthy of the name would use this to hammer the government. But MK Isaac Herzog is busy trying to hammer his way into the coalition. The opposition on the left side of the map is not relevant when it comes to developments in the country’s political arena.

Netanyahu at the scene of the shooting attack in Tel Aviv, June 9, 2016.
Netanyahu's FB page

What could prove very relevant is the plethora of investigations under way (some known to the public, others perhaps not) and affairs relating to the Netanyahus. Drop by drop, and suddenly the bucket is full. Sometimes it’s a question of quantity more than quality. Ehud Olmert was toppled by quantity, and is serving a prison term after being convicted over a relatively marginal sum of money. A critical mass can form imperceptibly – but once it’s here, it’s here.

Legally speaking, Netanyahu is weaker and more vulnerable than it seems outwardly. The gloomy faces of the prime minister and his wife, Sara, as caught by the cameras during the welcoming ceremony for them in Moscow, suggest that thoughts of that kind are going through their mind.

Off-the-shelf party

Opposition leader Herzog was asked at a cultural event about entering the government. His condition for doing that, he said, was removal of the “extreme right,” meaning Habayit Hayehudi, from the coalition. As if Likud ministers Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Miri Regev, Tzipi Hotovely, Yisrael Katz and most of the party’s MKs are less extreme or more moderate than Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. When it comes to their political outlooks regarding resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you can’t tell the difference between them with a magnifying glass. Not to mention those of the boss himself.

Netanyahu, according to his declarations, is ready to have Israel take part in a regional conference that would set a diplomatic process in motion. (Bennett and Shaked won’t make a fuss over that, either.) But is he really prepared to remove tens of thousands of settlers from their homes? Would he sign off on Israel’s return to the 1967 borders? Does he see East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine? Would he consent to some sort of return, even symbolic, of Palestinian refugees?

Those are questions that Herzog is not concerning himself with. What he wants is a symbolic achievement that will win over the Labor Party Convention: the ouster of Habayit Hayehudi from the coalition. But Netanyahu isn’t there yet. There were signs that he was close to firing Bennett last week, after Lieberman was sworn in as defense minister. But the fact is that Bennett is still in and is continuing to defy Netanyahu – and Herzog remains outside.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog delivers a statement after failing to unseat Netanyahu, on March 18, 2015.
AP

Herzog’s relentless drive to enter the government is playing havoc with his party, as new polls show. It’s making Zionist Union look like an off-the-shelf party. Instead of bringing the embarrassing coalition saga to a halt immediately after Netanyahu opted for Lieberman, Herzog is still demanding certain terms and is effectively holding a kind of public tender for his party.

What more does Yair Lapid need? Is it any surprise that his party, Yesh Atid, is continuing to surge in the polls? (Though the new right-wing option – Moshe Ya’alon, Gideon Sa’ar and Moshe Kahlon – would likely take all the seats garnered by Yesh Atid, according to those surveys, and for dessert, another three or four from Zionist Union.)

For Lapid, Zionist Union as it looks today is a gift that never stops giving. In the weeks that preceded Yisrael Beiteinu’s cooption into the coalition, during which advanced talks were also held between Likud and Zionist Union, Netanyahu was persuaded that if the coalition were not expanded beyond 61 MKs, it would collapse within weeks because of the difficulties in passing the budget. The prime minister, then, was determined to expand the coalition at any price, even if it meant giving the defense portfolio to Lieberman, something he never imagined doing before.

It was actually Herzog himself who helped break the political siege around Netanyahu. The negotiations he conducted were an eye-opener for Lieberman, who realized that a broad coalition was in the offing, one that would survive until 2019: The moment he was promised defense and a little money for new immigrants, he was there. So, a year and a half late, Herzog finally made good on his legendary slip of the tongue on Channel 2: “I will preserve a united Netanyahu.”

And still Herzog continues to look for a way in, like someone who’s lost his sense of direction. No option is being ruled out. In the 1990s, Benny Begin called the trio (Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Modai, David Levy) that heaped obstacles on Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s road to the Madrid peace conference, a “coalition of ambition.” Today, a quarter of a century later, we have an opposition of ambition – to enter the government.

Squeezing the lemon

These are happy days for the Shas Knesset faction, or at least they were until the terror attack in Tel Aviv put everything back in perspective for the entire country. Days in which the motifs of oppression, racism and hatred of Sephardim return to public discourse are sunny days indeed for a party that thrives on victimhood. And that was the situation earlier this week in the wake of remarks apparently made by Rami Sadan, Sara Netanyahu’s PR man/lobbyist who, out of the blue, popped into our lives after being appointed the new board chairman of Channel 10 News.

Rami Sadan, new board chair of Channel 10 News, left, with Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Dery.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz, YouTube

The comments attributed to Sadan – to the effect that he, as a member of the elites, hates ultra-Orthodox Shas and the “thief” Arye Dery, its leader – is just what the doctor ordered for a party that’s been in poor political health for some time. It brought the color back to the sunken cheeks of Shas’ MKs, who wonder what will happen if Dery, the subject of a criminal investigation, is forced to resign from the Knesset and they are left stranded.

Sadan’s remarks in a closed meeting (which he denies having made) are to Shas what Lapid’s comment was to Dery in an election-campaign debate: “You are a convicted felon and you need rehabilitation.” In a word, oxygen. And this week Lapid, ever the cynic, was the first politician, or among the first, to condemn Sadan’s utterances. Lapid, who after the 2013 election cast his own personal veto on the entry into the coalition of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, has since been converted and has become a pillar of defense of the Shas public and of the criminal-in-need-of-rehabilitation. He’ll take a bullet for him if needed.

Sadan’s arrogant statements, which were first reported in Haaretz, are actually a marginal part of the story. They diverted attention from the crucial element: the bizarre catapulting of someone with no journalistic skills into a job that demands such skills. It’s a phenomenon that has become commonplace: the gradual takeover by the Prime Minister’s Office, and of Netanyahu, as prime minister and communications minister and chief regulator, of the country’s media outlets. Until it’s proved otherwise, every sensible person has to assume that Sadan wasn’t chosen by chance. “For more three-and-a-half years, we’ve been trying to get one of our people into Channel 10, so why are you sticking us with this now?” a Netanyahu confidant complained to Dery this week, according to sources in Shas.

Shas could be trusted to squeeze this lemon for all it’s worth, including issuance of a threat to topple the coalition and a well-publicized meeting between Dery and Netanyahu. And, as a happy byproduct, we learned this week about the existence of Yoav Ben-Tzur and Yigal Guetta as MKs. The two Shas parliamentarians owe their 15 minutes of fame to Sadan.

Family affair

Never has such a short article with such a groundless title – “The Israeli left prefers getting rid of Netanyahu to peace” – kicked up a fuss like Natan Eshel’s oped in these pages last Friday. To recap, the author left his senior post in the prime minister’s bureau under a cloud four years ago, to the Netanyahus’ great chagrin. Most of Eshel’s time on the job was spent dealing with The Lady, an occupation he turned into an art form. She eventually found solace in his replacement, but everyone knows that a devoted butler who knows his mistress’ mind the way Eshel did was a one-time gift.

Eshel is now a private businessman, and in his spare time serves as the prime minister’s emissary to political personages, mainly on the right, where he’s easier to swallow. He spends lots of time in the Netanyahus’ residence in Jerusalem, doing what he knows best. It’s a comeback for the books.

The blurb Eshel chose to use to describe himself below the oped (in which he claimed that the left’s refusal to join the coalition is prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), was: “The writer is a close friend of the Netanyahu family.” All too true – but why is that relevant? What do family ties – namely, friendship with Sara (too) – have to do with the political move of expanding the government? Are we to understand that the “Netanyahu family,” as distinguished from Prime Minister Netanyahu, believes that Zionist Union should enter the government?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disembarks with his wife Sara from a plane upon his arrival at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, Russia, June 6, 2016.
Sergei Karpukhin, Reuters

The answer is: yes. That is Sara’s position, as far as we know. The conclusion is that before our eyes, governance in Israel has become a family affair. The description chosen by Eshel may be a marginal episode, but not a chance one.

Another example: The freebie paper Israel Hayom wrote on the eve of Independence Day that the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl would be held “under the auspices of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu.” In fact, the event is organized by the Knesset and the Government Information Center. The prime minister’s wife is a guest like any other. She has no special status other than getting reserved seats for her and her sons. But so do other dignitaries, who don’t have a private newspaper that is always happy to share a bit of virtual reality with its readers in order to gladden the hearts of the family living on Balfour Street.

Again, this week, ahead of Netanyahu’s trip to Russia, the prime minister’s bureau sent out an email that opened, “On Monday 6/6/16 the prime minister and his wife will leave for a working visit to Moscow, Russia.” That’s a world first. Since when is a prime minister’s wife part of an official working visit? What working meetings did she hold there, and with whom? Unless the fact that her husband mentioned her (“She is being ground into human dust”), without being asked about her, at the joint press conference with President Putin, who looked stunned, was actually the “working” part of The Lady’s visit.