Analysis |

The Man Challenging the Narrative That Netanyahu Is Israel's One and Only Savior

A plot by President Rivlin and Gideon Sa'ar to dethrone Benjamin Netanyahu may sound absurd, but what is less fatuous is the fact that, with possible indictments hovering, the premier is fighting for his life

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A gif showing Rivlin shining a flashlight and Sa'ar making a wolf shadow on the wall with his hands. Netanyahu is terrified by it.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman

The prime minister’s bureau worked hard and long, by means of envoys, to plant the story in the media of a putsch being concocted by President Reuven Rivlin against Benjamin Netanyahu. However, in the absence of evidence, logic, feasibility or even the wobbliest leg to stand on, no buyer was found for this worthless, stale merchandise. It was returned to sender.

Earlier in the week, the scheme was mentioned and seriously played up by Army Radio’s Yaakov Bardugo, but no one paid any attention. Only on Wednesday was it put out of its misery. The headline in Netanyahu’s freebie mouthpiece, Israel Hayom, declared that the prime minister had changed his mind about calling an early general election due to “fear of Rivlin.”

The swift response by the President’s Residence, attributing a mental illness – paranoia – to the person harboring the fear and referring him for psychiatric treatment, was violent and jaw-dropping. Rivlin has long since lost his patience for the spins, lies and ploys employed by Netanyahu against him. He decided to nip the stupidity in the bud. Panic seized the PMO. They realized that this might just be a coming attraction.

Instantly the missile changed trajectory. The plot, Netanyahu’s aides claimed disingenuously, wasn’t actually hatched in the President’s Residence. It was the work of a “former senior Likud figure” – in other words, Gideon Sa’ar, who allegedly spoke with someone about something.

On Wednesday evening, at a birthday party for the premier in his bureau in Jerusalem, Netanyahu related, as though incidentally, that he’d received information to the effect that a former minister had concocted a “subversive maneuver” together with certain elements in the coalition to snatch the premiership away from him after he leads Likud to a sweeping victory. Again the self-victimized, lone leader of his party and effectively of the whole country bemoans his bitter fate.

Wife Sara, at his side, looked at him with concern and nodded her head sadly. “That won’t happen,” he reassured her and his audience, regarding the possible theft of his rightful position, “The support has been amazing ... but a legal loophole has been exposed and we’ll have to think what to do with that.”

He’s already thought. MK David Amsalem is on it. Likud is undertaking to enact legislation that would deprive the president of the right to decide – after consulting with the representatives of the parties elected to the Knesset – who will form the government.

Under normal circumstances, it would be possible to talk about changing the law, such that the leader of the party garnering the most votes in an election would form the next government without needing to have in place a large body of potential partners for a coalition, which involves endless blackmail. But the right time for making a change would be after an election, not beforehand, when such a move gives off a putrid odor and would defame the president.

The Likud’s legislative proposal is another personal law, conceived in sin, and the heads of coalition parties must weigh in on it soon. So far, Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi said he’d think about it; Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon told me his objection to such laws has not changed.

As noted, it’s a subject worthy of discussion – but Netanyahu, to whom no fantastical conspiracy is alien, chose to launch the public debate about the necessity for such legislation in conjunction with disseminating the details of a debased and imaginary wide-ranging conspiracy against him.

The thought that Rivlin, the symbol of state sovereignty and No. 1 democrat in the country, would foment a revolt against the will of the people in the election and entrust Sa’ar with forming the next government, only because they’re friends, while Rivlin and Bibi are at each other’s throats, is more than paranoia. It’s total madness. And the thought that Sa’ar, an experienced, judicious politician, would try to recruit coalition parties that are his potential rivals for some off-the-wall banana-republic putsch under his leadership, is an insult to the intelligence.

If Rivlin weren’t celebrating his 80th birthday next year, we’d undoubtedly get a headline from “senior figures in Likud” attributing to him a secret plan to resign as president in order to lead the center-left bloc in the election.

Method act

Here’s the madness as a method: On January 6, 2013, two months before the election of the 19th Knesset, Israel Hayom, aka the “Bibipaper,” ran a similar scoop. “President will do everything to entrust government’s formation to the left,” screamed the headline to the report, which cited “right-wing sources.”

The president was Shimon Peres; the prime minister was, as always, Benjamin Netanyahu. Gideon Sa’ar was not involved in politics at the time, so the left got the nod.

In 2014, Netanyahu accused Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid and then-finance minister in his government, of plotting a putsch against him – yes, again, a putsch – to form an alternative government together with the ultra-Orthodox parties. Yes, Lapid and Haredi MK Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) would establish a government. Sure.

In 1993, unforgettably, when Netanyahu was running for Likud chairman, he rushed to the Channel 1 TV studio to confess that he’d cheated on Sara, after getting an anonymous phone call from someone who claimed to have a video of his trysts with the paramour. He accused his rival, David Levy, of the blackmail attempt, calling him “a senior Likud figure surrounded by criminals.” They are scheming, he alleged, then as now, to subvert the will of the voter. The police investigation didn't find evidence to support his story. There was no tape.

Netanyahu feeds on these intrigues. He wallows in them like a farm animal in a puddle. He creates imaginary enemies, plotters scheming to topple him, oust him, remove him from the throne. All that’s needed is a little whisper in the ear, a random rumor or a bit of gossip on WhatsApp that comes to his attention, and he’s already sweating, edgy, making calls, activating his minions in the media and the Knesset, imploring them to stand by him, protect him – bodily, if needed.

An “indefatigable schemer” is what Yitzhak Rabin called Shimon Peres in his autobiography. Bibi is indefatigably schemed against. A perpetual victim of various axes of evil. He marks out the plotters while his band of trolls – who surf the web and record every fantasy, every iota of nonsense and meanness – unsheathe their knives and charge the targets: Rivlin, social activist Orna Peretz from Kiryat Shmona, Yitzhak Rabin’s grandchildren, television personality Ofira Asayag – and those are only from the past week or so.

Gideon Sa'ar.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

On Wednesday, a fresh slab of meat was thrown to the insatiable pack: Gideon Sa’ar, a longtime demon, the person behind the election of Rivlin as president in summer 2014, and the politician whom Netanyahu sees as a clear and possibly present threat to his rule. That rule looks more stable than ever just now, but with one fell swoop by the attorney general it could become seriously destabilized.

Sa’ar is spoiling the narrative that Netanyahu is toiling to implant among his party’s members and voters: that without him there is no rule, no Likud, no state, no security, no life. Unfortunately, all the surveys the premier is commissioning for internal use, and the external ones published in the media, show that Sa’ar is perceived by the general public as a natural successor to Netanyahu. He would deliver the same number of Knesset seats as him if he were to head Likud, in the opinion of those surveyed.

This projection is driving the tenants of the Balfour Street residence insane. They are incapable of coming to terms with a situation in which anything continues to exist after they depart.

In the past decade, Netanyahu has created a reality unexampled in Likud: that it’s all about him and only him, that all his colleagues are dwarfs, they’re all scared, all juniors (including the “senior figures”), and that all of them live from scraps he deigns, out of the goodness of his heart, to throw their way. There was nothing comparable under Menachem Begin or Yitzhak Shamir, and not even under Ariel Sharon.

He demands that everyone declare allegiance to the king and queen, and kneel to him and praise and honor her in public events, as indeed happens at campaign rallies.

Thursday, after the putsch allegation sparked mockery and ridicule in the serious media, the prime minister’s aides came up with a new invention. Sa’ar, they claimed, is planning “to appoint” a subsidiary faction within the Likud Knesset faction, which will consist of his loyalists, representatives of the party’s districts. Since when can Sa’ar, or anyone else, appoint the people who will stand for election? And in a party in which Netanyahu is omnipotent, too, where he’s the single, unchallenged ruler.

Netanyahu views Sa’ar’s return to Likud as a flagrantly negative development. Sa’ar, for his part, has proved that he has backbone: Before his temporary retirement from active politics, four years ago, he prevented the closure of Educational Television, promoted Rivlin for the presidency and blocked attempts to abolish the presidency and to eliminate the Mossad.

If the decision is made by the attorney general to indict Netanyahu for bribery, the party will not be able to continue, as though nothing’s changed. Internal opposition, if it’s significant and has a strong leader, would be a horror show for Netanyahu.

A necessary, albeit not totally sufficient, condition for Netanyahu’s continued survival in power, under the shadow of an indictment, is a loyal Knesset faction that will back him to a man. But with Sa’ar there, heading his own faction, that’s less likely to be the case.

On Thursday, he was interviewed on Army Radio. It was a historic day of sorts. For the first time in a decade, a prominent Likud candidate, who once held a position of seniority and influence within the party and may do so again, dared to call Netanyahu a liar – without being defensive or self-righteous. For the first time, someone fought back against the incitement, persecution and slander machine that is the premier’s bureau.

Change of circumstances

Israel Hayom is known for loyally echoing Netanyahu’s messages. If the above-mentioned headline is true, that the premier has indeed decided not to move up the election to the beginning of 2019, his motive is not related to an ostensible Rivlin-Sa’ar conspiracy to rob him of the premiership. It lies in the conclusion of the police investigation of Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla case, and in statements attributed to law enforcement sources – that this time the speed of the decision about whether to try Suspect Netanyahu will surprise everyone.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit could make a preliminary decision on an indictment as soon as in the first few months of 2019. If the election were to be moved up, according to Netanyahu’s original plan, to February or March, then Mendelblit’s decision would come at the height of the election campaign. Investigative materials would be made public, testimonies and evidence would be leaked – the whole picture would become public knowledge.

That’s not a desirable situation for candidate Netanyahu. He might still win the election, in the sense of Likud emerging as the largest party, but he would find it difficult to cobble together a government. Potential coalition partners would not all rush into his arms. Accordingly, he needs to enact a “Rivlin-bypass law” before the current Knesset is dissolved and, accordingly, he must try to sabotage and mine the road of primary candidate Sa’ar.

These days, Netanyahu looks calm and brimming with self-confidence, but he’s fighting for his life, and what we saw this week is, as the saying goes, the trailer for the promo.

Minister Zeev Elkin. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Not strewn with roses

Zeev Elkin, the minister for Jerusalem affairs in the Likud government, acquired his prestige in the political arena, on both the right and the left, by dint of his credibility, strategic vision, analytical skills and ability to think a few moves ahead. His hobby is chess. His political analyses are among the most original in the arena. His forecasts aren’t always on target, but it’s always fascinating to listen to him.

Half a year ago, when he decided to run for mayor of Jerusalem in the municipal elections next week, the assumption was that his political acumen would land him softly in the seat being vacated by Nir Barkat. A figure of his caliber, a cabinet minister, even if a bit drab, wouldn’t gamble his reputation if he weren’t almost totally convinced that he was a shoo-in to win.

Since then, however, Elkin’s had a rough time. Many of his basic assumptions proved unfounded. He thought that the secular candidate, Ofer Berkovitch, wouldn’t last. But Berkovitch is running strong and is thought to have a good chance to make it to an almost-certain second round of voting, in which the race will be decided. Elkin thought he would get most of the Haredi votes, but in the meantime only a negligible proportion of the local community are backing him. He counted on the local Likud branch and its well-connected, strong activists mobilizing for him. The branch is indeed working full steam ahead – but against him. He received Prime Minister Netanyahu’s support late and skimpily. And he hoped the religious-Zionist movement – after all, he’s flesh of its flesh – would back him unreservedly. But the movement is split between him and Moshe Leon, whose patrons are Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas), and who also wears a knitted kippa and has the Lithuanian and Sephardi Haredim behind him.

The prevailing view is that if Elkin makes it to the second round, he will be the favorite to win. The Haredim, the religious-Zionist movement and the Likudniks will tip the scales in his favor. But his prospects of making it to the final stretch aren’t clear at this time.

He’s the only national figure running in the municipal elections around the country. Apart from him, almost all the candidates in the big and not-so big cities are from the local playing fields.

A loss, especially in the first round, would be disastrous for Elkin. He’ll enter the Likud primary as a lame duck. His rivals in that competition will be delighted; they will dance on his blood, as the saying goes. They are already taking advantage of his absence from the roiling party field, which is rife with primary candidates.

Jerusalem is one of the country’s three biggest cities where the mayoral race looked set to be boring but isn’t. Haifa is the second such city. Its incumbent mayor, Yona Yahav, who’s been on the job for 15 years, is trying to beat back an onslaught by the Labor Party’s Einat Kalish-Rotem, who was initially disqualified from running but whose candidacy was approved this week by the High Court of Justice. It looked like a walk in the park for Yahav, but a poll conducted Thursday by the Walla news website showed that Kalish-Rotem is now ahead. A revolution in Haifa may well be on the horizon.

In Tel Aviv, a huge gap in the polls between longtime mayor Ron Huldai and his deputy, Asaf Zamir, has been reduced to the one-digit level. The race now looks a lot closer than could have been predicted at its outset.

Zamir has conquered the city streets with mobile, static and rotating billboards and posters. If every home needs a balcony – according to the title of a novel by Rita Frank – in the center of Tel Aviv, Zamir’s power base, the feeling now is that almost every other balcony carries a portrait of him. He’s running a clean, abuse-free campaign, with big-time family funding. His actress-wife, Maya, is the daughter and granddaughter, respectively, of billionaires Eitan and Stef Wertheimer.

Huldai, who’s been mayor for 20 successful years, is running for a fifth term. He was pretty uninvolved in the campaign until two weeks ago, as was the case in the previous two campaigns, when he entered the fray about three weeks before Election Day. Since changing his tune and giving no few interviews, he’s now managed to stymie Zamir’s momentum somewhat.

At the start of the campaign, I wrote that Huldai had reached the “Teddy Kollek point” of his municipal career. He’s popular, esteemed, the object of gratitude – but what you haven’t done in 20 years you’re not likely to accomplish in the next five. The elderly Kollek was defeated in 1993 by Ehud Olmert, a Likud “prince,” a former minister in the Shamir government, which had been voted out of power a year earlier.

Olmert was big-time. Huldai’s opponent is not a heavyweight, luckily for the mayor. Leading political figures – such as MKs Tzipi Livni or Shelly Yacimovich from Zionist Union, or maybe Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on a good day – would defeat him handily. But local governments aren’t as interesting and attractive as they once were. Still, it’s not clear why a term in the Knesset opposition, or a post as a minor minister, attract those people more than running a state like Tel Aviv.