The Greatest Danger Facing Bennett's Coalition May Be the Coalition Itself

Although Likud's antics seem not to be leading anywhere, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked may be a far greater threat to the stability of this diverse government

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Anyone who heard Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s speech to his Yesh Atid party’s Knesset caucus meeting this week got the message loud and clear: If anything is imperiling the stability of the governing coalition, it’s the coalition. Five weeks before the deadline for approving the state budget, a sense of complacency had overtaken the ruling parties. The coalition lawmakers seemed to feel that everything was fine, the danger had passed. Things have settled down and the delta wave of the coronavirus pandemic is waning, as are the disagreements over the government’s spending shifts. Despite his renewed quarrels with the Health Ministry, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is projecting a sense of satisfaction. His vaccination booster-shot campaign got the job done.

Likud is starting to lose some of its fighting spirit, as was noticeable in the Knesset this week. The usual five hecklers again whipped out their meager lexicon to harangue Bennett (scoundrel! A disgrace! You should be ashamed! What chutzpah!); they won’t be joined by any new deserters from the coalition. By now, even the megalomaniacal Yamina MK Amichai Chikli has realized that the masses will not follow his charge of the Bastille of his imagination. And Likud MK Galit Distal Atbaryan, who, seemingly oblivious to her innate comedic talents, posts hysterical tweets urging the right “to light up the streets” and promising “to march by its side” in order “to save democracy,” is under no illusions that such a thing will happen.

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So if all is well, why not advance agendas? At the start of the week, a few leading figures in Meretz went to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting itself was of no importance, though some claim it thwarted a more important event being cooked up by the Foreign Ministry. The organizer of the visit was Esawi Freige, minister for regional cooperation (one of the more superfluous government ministries). He is frustrated that the prime minister and foreign minister basically ignore him. If he had the kind of connections and the pull in the government in Jerusalem as he evidently does in the Muqata, he’d surely be one of our most influential cabinet members.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel's Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz in RamallahCredit: Meretz Chairman's Office

Why the rush to hold that meeting, wondered Lapid, who calls himself “the coalition’s nanny.” Why couldn’t they wait five more weeks? Why did Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (more on her below) jet off to the United Arab Emirates to declare that there will never be a Palestinian state? And why did Environmental Protection Minster Tamar Zandberg announce, during her own visit to Dubai, that she is considering canceling the oil transportation deal between Israel and the UAE? (“Have you decided you’ve had enough of peace with us?” an Emirati official jokingly asked one Israeli counterpart)

Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who have been maintaining the most stable political alliance in these parts, with no daylight between them, met privately twice this week. You have to be here, a worried Lieberman told the foreign minister. Dedicated nanny and disciplined soldier that he is, Lapid cleared his travel schedule for the next two weeks, apart from a two-day trip to Washington next week. In the Knesset he continually makes the rounds of the coalition members. Agendas are fine, he says, we have them too, but wait until after the budget passes (in the second week of November), he exhorts them. What good will all these announcements and actions do you if any one of us loses his head and breaks up the government?

Avigdor Lieberman and Yair Lapid Credit: Emil Salman

Is Shaked back to sabotage?

Shaked is another story entirely. Over the past week, the leaders of four of the eight coalition parties warned Bennett, directly or through proxies: Keep an eye on Ayelet, she’ll break up the government. I spoke with some of them and with others in other parties. She is arousing their suspicion, making them uneasy. They feel that even now, four months in, the most senior figure in the ruling party, the No. 2 in Yamina, is “not really into this deal.”

With our every move, they say, we discover land mines she has planted. For example: This week she reissued the emergency order banning Palestinian family reunifications; it was identical to the version that was voted down in the Knesset when Likud and Religious Zionism voted along with the Joint List. The thing is that on the evening of the vote, Bennett, in Shaked’s presence, promised Meretz that he would take their arguments and positions into consideration and fix substantial flaws in the wording of the order. At the time, we noted here that Bennett took the trouble to call Meretz whip Michal Rozin to tell her that even though the bill (which Meretz supported through gritted teeth) did not pass, he would not renege on any of his promises about it. Rozin believed him, and she still does. The problem is Shaked.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at a Yamina meeting at the Knesset, July.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Meretz and United Arab List lawmakers were furious, and informed the Prime Minister’s Office: It will not happen. No way. We will not vote for the emergency order.

What’s the deal, Shaked was asked. This is currently the government’s position, she replied, and anyway the order will only be put to a vote again after the budget is approved. So why publish it now if it won’t be put to a vote until late November, they asked her. Just to cause trouble? To set a fire?

And while she goes about setting booby traps for the coalition’s left flank, Shaked is also negotiating with Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman over support for his extremist and racist Basic Law on Immigration bill in return for the right-wing opposition’s support for her citizenship law.

Shaked’s dubious exploits don’t end there. She also announced this week that she plans to authorize the establishment of 10 new communities in the Negev. Jewish ones, of course, if anyone was wondering. The United Arab List MKs were indignant. Where their constituents are concerned, new housing is blocked, but demolition orders are not canceled. And now this poke in the eye from the interior minister.

Shaked rarely attends Knesset plenum sessions. The screams and insults from the opposition are hard for her to take. In her heart of hearts, she is standing among them, shouting at the members of the government. Her minister colleagues can’t quite figure her out. Yes, she’s a hard-core rightist. That’s her faith, that’s her ideology. But what will she get out of undermining this government? Does she really think Likud will crown her as their leader? She is behaving as if she never left Habayit Hayehudi.

The former (and future, according to the coalition agreement) justice minister opposes the bill that would bar someone under criminal indictment from forming a government. This is the norm she wants to see.

Shaked’s head may be in the Interior Ministry, but her heart is in the rival camp. She is the weak link. She is the weak link, not Defense Minister Benny Gantz, according to an associate of Bennett, adding that even now Shaked would eagerly become justice minister under Benjamin Netanyahu and send Naftali back to the Defense Ministry where he could go back to being Bibi’s whipping boy. Only then will she feel at peace.

I called Shaked’s office. She was on cloud nine after her trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where she was given a royal welcome. The day after she returned, UAE Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Saif bin Zayed Al Nahyan called to thank her. We were all very moved by your visit to the mosque and to the monument to fallen soldiers, he told her.

She rejects the claims against her, but does not hide her deep desire to be part of a homogenous, purely right-wing government without all this left-wing bunch. The citizenship law is under her sole authority. She is committed to passing it in the Knesset. Meretz and the UAL don’t have to support it – that would also be fairer to them, not to impose it on them. She’ll come up with the other 10 votes from the opposition.

She brushes off Meretz’s complaints against her. They go groveling to Abbas, and they have the nerve to complain about her? And who says she is the only one doing as she pleases? Look at Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, advancing his bill despite the fact that it is not included in the coalition agreement, because Yamina opposed it.

And as for the communities in the Negev – that has nothing to do with the UAL. The coalition agreement states that three new communities will be established in the region, and this was decided upon by the previous government. There is no contradiction. It’s permissible to build for Jews. I know that two parties are compiling talking points against me, Shaked told her people. Multiply that by three, someone responded.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Catastrophe for Bibi at the Justice Ministry

Over the last 100 days, nearly the entire top of the Justice Ministry has been replaced. A new director general, state prosecutor, chief public defender and deputy attorney general have been appointed.

In the next two months, two more deputies will be tapped, and an attorney general who will serve for seven years. By early next year, the ministry that until the arrival of the Bennett-Lapid government was essentially paralyzed, and for a year before that was treated with contempt and trampled on by then-Justice Minister Amir Ohana, will be infused with a new spirit.

People tend to forget, and some try to make people forget, but the reason for the four general elections between April 2019 and March 2021 originated at the Justice Ministry. Netanyahu sought to attain a 61-MK coalition composed of the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox, and a cabinet that would appoint a puppet attorney general who would extricate him from his corruption trial, whether by delaying it or agreeing to a cushy plea deal or pardon. These were the last three escape routes once his trial got underway.  

For ordinary citizens, the changing of the guard at the Justice Ministry is just another item in the newspaper. For Netanyahu, it’s a catastrophe – a collapse of the conception, the death of his last hope. It’s not taking place on his watch, so it’s the worst possible disaster; the minister in charge is none other than Sa’ar, who lured from Likud the two Knesset seats that would have delivered Netanyahu to salvation.

This week brought more bad news for the opposition leader. Sa’ar announced that he and Gantz were establishing a commission of inquiry to probe Israel’s questionable purchase of more submarines. The two will present the proposal to the cabinet in about a month, and it’s expected to be approved by a large margin.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut will appoint a justice to head the commission, and the inquiry will set sail. (Retired Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, who made a name for herself in the ‘80s with her courageous fight against the culture of the lie among defense officials, would be a worthy choice.)

“I don’t know how things will go in the criminal proceedings, but I guarantee you that Netanyahu gets slaughtered by the commission,” one source told me. Needless to say, this is a nightmare scenario for someone whose conduct in this case is at worst tainted by corruption and at best by negligence and looking the other way. Whether or not the final report clears Netanyahu, it will have a tremendous impact on his public standing.

But even before that, next week the Justice Ministry will issue a draft of a bill that would bar someone under criminal indictment from forming a government. The bill isn’t at all “personal” or “retroactive,” as Bibi-ists complain as the prospect of their cherished leader returning to power recedes. It would only apply starting with the 25th Knesset, which by law is to be elected four years from now.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'arCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Sa’ar stayed under the radar for most of the summer. This silence, along with the criticism heaped on the education minister from his party, Yifat Shasha-Biton, apparently contributed to his New Hope party’s decline in the polls.

This will change in the next few months. Sa’ar will be at the center of attention. He’ll be the face of the major legislation that also has majority support among right-wing voters (as does the bill to institute term limits for the prime minister, which also was presented by Sa’ar). He’ll gleefully clash with the Bibi-ists in the Knesset. Nobody drives them mad like he does.

After that, Sa’ar will play a key role in the selection of four new justices who will shape the Supreme Court for many years. (The selection committee is scheduled to meet on November 23.) He also plans to advance a Basic Law on Legal Rights, which for the first time since the 1990s, when the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty was enacted, would set down the rights of defendants and people who are investigated. This is a huge drama in the legal world.

Netanyahu understands that the quiet guy in the coalition isn’t too fazed by the insults about his sagging poll numbers. Theoretical tallies of Knesset seats have much less influence than concrete legislative moves. With the submarine inquiry, the bill on criminal indictments and forming a government, and the appointment of a new attorney general, Netanyahu’s woes are steadily mounting.

People who know him say he was in a pretty gloomy mood this week. The Hawaiian sun never seemed more distant.

Gantz gets irked again

In February, during the third election campaign, Kahol Lavan MK Chili Tropper was hospitalized so he could donate a kidney to a stranger. There were cynics who clucked in disdain, but most of the Israeli political world saw this act for what it was: a good person doing an extraordinarily good deed.

This week it was reported that Avishai, the culture and sports minister’s older brother, emulated Chili and also was hospitalized to donate a kidney. A remarkable family.  

A few hours after the news came out, Lapid ran into Tropper in the Knesset. “We know what you guys are up to,” Lapid said. “You’re trying to create a new Tropper.” They shared a hearty laugh, and when the laughter died down, the two discussed the question that always hovers over the coalition: What the hell do we do about Benny?

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in the Knesset this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In the past week or two, keen observers in the cabinet noticed a shift: Gantz has dropped his usual practice of looking for run-ins with Lapid (not that he despises him any less) and has begun quarreling with Bennett. The latest dispute was serious and justified: Gantz was angry that the prime minister didn’t tell him that he would announce in the Knesset the secret Mossad operation to find information on missing pilot Ron Arad.

He was even more angry than Lapid knew. In Gantz’s suspicious way of thinking, Bennett did him wrong twice: He kept him out of a security issue par excellence while letting his nemesis in on it.  

Most of the other dustups between the two and their offices concern a wide range of things like the defense minister’s statement after his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Gantz said they agreed on confidence-building measures. Then there are the meetings between Shimrit Meir, the prime minister’s political adviser, and Southern Command chief Eliezer Toledano.

On Monday, the farcical side of the relationship was in plain view: Haaretz’s Michael Hauser Tov reported that Gantz demanded to take part in the photo shoot on the opening day of the Knesset winter session. The list normally includes the Knesset speaker, the prime minister, the opposition leader, the president and the Supreme Court president. This time, Lapid got in on the act.

Lapid was invited because of his title “alternative prime minister,” the minister earmarked to later become prime minister in a rotation government. This photo honor wasn’t accorded to the previous alternative prime minister, Gantz, in the era of Speaker Yariv Levin and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

And so, for the second time that day, Bennett’s pal Lapid (and the boss of Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, who’s in Lapid’s Yesh Atid party) received preference over Gantz.

Rather than swallow his pride and let the matter go – it was just a banal photo after all – Gantz and his people started a ruckus. Both Levy and Bennett’s offices explained to him that there was no precedent for a defense minister taking part in the event. If he was included, why not Finance Minister Lieberman? Why not Justice Minister Sa’ar, who like Gantz is a deputy prime minister?

Formally speaking, Levy and Bennett’s people are right. But let’s not kid ourselves, they got a kick out of trolling Gantz. Why put up with the demands of public life if not for little pleasures like these?

I spoke to people close to Gantz, who’s also the Kahol Lavan chief. They offered a completely different take on things: There was never any quarrel about the Mossad part of the prime minister’s speech. Any disagreements originated in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Not everyone who helped write the speech wanted the Mossad part to go in. (Bennett’s people say Mossad chief David Barnea supported announcing the operation, to convey that the government never rests when it comes to Israelis captured or missing. In fact, he helped word that section.)   

Yes, Gantz’s people admit, if the minister had been asked, he would have said it was unnecessary to make this public. Which is probably why Bennett didn’t ask for his opinion. But there’s no quarrel. If there is any, it’s in the prime minister’s circle, Gantz’s people insist.

And no, Benny doesn’t care that Lapid was informed, they add. And he doesn’t care that Lapid was in the official photo. Such assertions are part of a campaign designed to make Benny look like someone chasing honors, they say. And that isn’t who he is.