Analysis

The One Politician Netanyahu Should Be Very Worried About

Netanyahu would do well to take note of what’s happening in Habayit Hayehudi Israel's opposition leader hopes for a comeback after details of secret peace summit emerge According to Herzog, Netanyahu initially seemed ready to go a long way to advance a historic peace summit. Then two of his ministers entered the picture.

Illustration: Ministers Shaked and Bennett dance on Supreme Court President Miriam Naor's desk.
Amos Biderman

In her 22 months as justice minister, Ayelet Shaked hasn’t pushed through one reform or bill that could undermine the status of the Supreme Court, reduce its power or clip the wings of its justices. Mostly she has made speeches and outlined an alternative, subversive vision aimed at placating her voters in the settlements and the political right, who despise the rulings of that court and, more generally, the application of the rule of law in the territories.

The appointment this week of four new justices – all of them district court judges – can definitely be considered Shaked’s first true achievement vis-a-vis the front that’s most important for her. Three of the new appointees are considered conservatives. David Mintz is a settler, Yael Willner is from the religious-Zionist movement, and Yosef Elron is also believed to advocate views that the right wing likes, having not issued rulings that would suggest otherwise. (The fourth appointment is Judge George Karra, from Nazareth District Court.)

The main obstacle ahead of the vote by the Judicial Appointments Committee was Elron from Haifa, which is also the hometown of committee member Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister. Kahlon absolutely insisted on Elron’s appointment, contrary to the wishes of the three Supreme Court justices on the committee, who didn’t want him in their club. A balance of terror emerged. Shaked threatened that if the necessary majority to elect the new justices could not be mustered, she would take action to revoke a 2008 law stipulating that a special majority of seven of the committee’s nine members is needed to elect a new justice.

The pistol that Shaked placed on the table in the first act was apparently not loaded. Kahlon and his party, Kulanu, were not obliged (under the terms of the coalition agreement) to back the amendment that would annul the veto power previously held by the three Supreme Court justices on the committee.

In this judicial-political theater, another pistol also played a part, one that was hidden from the eye. That pistol belonged to Kahlon. He’s the only one who could have shot to kill in the last act, if the three Supreme Court justices had refused to budge in their opposition to Elron. Knowing that the threat of the amendment loomed above them, they preferred to cut their losses. Once again, Kahlon achieved what he wanted, without having to fight with anyone. It’s doubtful that he had time to study in any depth the philosophy or rulings of the Haifa district court judge (who was appointed to that position by Tzipi Livni). The fact that he was from a transit camp, and a Mizrahi, was enough to captivate him.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog addresses the Knesset, February 14, 2017.
Emil Salman

Habayit Hayehudi, as usual, lost no time in declaring that “history” had been made and the like. We’ll see. These three newcomers ostensibly have a different approach from most of the current justices. But they are all judges, part of the system; not private lawyers or refugees from academe. They could yet prove disappointing to the dreamers and hopers.

Undoubtedly the revamping of the Supreme Court would be a source of great satisfaction to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife and their entourage, currently in Australia, were it not for the identity of its progenitor. Both he and she, but especially she, loathe Shaked from the period in which she was bureau chief of opposition leader Netanyahu and paid no heed to Sara.

Netanyahu would do well to take note of what’s happening in Habayit Hayehudi. On the one hand, Shaked’s main, declared mission in the Justice Ministry has been achieved; on the other hand, party leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who at the start of the investigations against Netanyahu declared solemnly that he would not topple a right-wing government “over a few cigars,” has been singing a somewhat different tune lately. These days, when he’s asked, what will become of Bibi, his reply should be worrisome to someone up there: “As long as there’s no indictment, there’s no reason to talk about resigning.”

Next week, Bennett will be able to celebrate the release of the comptroller’s report on the subject of the Hamas tunnels during Protective Edge, in which he comes off as obsessed with the threat, whereas Netanyahu and former defense minister Ya’alon appear as indolent and lumbering. Nothing good awaits Netanyahu.

‘Litmus test’

Barak Ravid’s scoop in Haaretz about the regional peace initiative and the secret summit in early 2016 that underlay failed efforts to form a unity government last spring, brought the color back to the pale cheeks of MK Isaac Herzog, head of Zionist Union/Labor and leader of the opposition. With the entire picture now revealed, the large doses of criticism, scorn and ridicule to which Herzog was subjected by his colleagues and the media, including in these pages, now seem to be beside the point. He deserves an apology. After Herzog spoke personally with the leaders who attended the summit – Abdel Fattah al-Sissi from Egypt, King Abdullah II from Jordan and John Kerry from the United States – and after they told him that without his joining the government the regional initiative would not take off, there’s no doubt that it was his obligation to check the situation out with the prime minister.

When Netanyahu again fled the scene, filled with the fear and apprehensions of a two-bit politician, Herzog remained alone, outside, in the cold; he was the one who drew all the barbs. True to his word, he kept what he knew to himself. Subsequently, when he claimed that an opportunity for a dramatic regional breakthrough had been missed, his listeners rolled their eyes and nodded their heads.

Last May 23, after negotiations broke down and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party was coopted into the government instead of Zionist Union, Herzog stated in the Knesset: “In the past few months I made an effort to examine the situation with senior leaders in the international arena and in our region. Some of them you are very familiar with, others less so. Some are veteran leaders, others are young people whose names cannot yet be divulged I reached the conclusion that a rare regional opportunity had presented itself” He went on to accuse Netanyahu of a missing a historic opportunity, with possible serious long-term repercussions. The prime minister sat in his chair, ashen, casting a penetrating gaze at Herzog.

No one actually listened to Herzog, and those who did attached no importance to what he said. When he left the podium, his party colleagues ignored him demonstratively. One cabinet minister, the leader of a coalition party who perhaps knew what Herzog was referring to, text-messaged him: “Not one of your colleagues stood up to shake your hand. They are not worthy of a leader like you.”

According to Herzog, Netanyahu initially seemed ready to go a long way toward the Arab leaders and Kerry, in order to advance the historic summit. In prior talks between them, the premier had promised Herzog veto power over construction outside the West Bank settlement blocs. Herzog, who, under the scenario mooted at the time, would become foreign minister, was to muster international support for construction within the blocs, which in practical terms would mean a freeze on building outside them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Blair House in Washington with senior aides ahead of his meeting with President Donald Trump. February 13, 2017.
Avi Ohayon/ GPO

But then Netanyahu let his loyal backer in Likud, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, in on the secret. He, with the aid of Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud), set about to scuttle the move. Herzog recounts an incredible conversation he had with Netanyahu and Levin, in which the latter warned against mentioning the word “blocs” in connection with construction in the territories.

“Shevach Stern won’t let you,” Levin said, referring to a well-known Likud activist from the party’s right wing. “Shevach Stern? He’s the one who decides for you?” Herzog shot back. “Yes,” Levin replied, “he’s our litmus test.”

The word “blocs” was discarded, to be replaced by the phrase “large urban centers,” which was invented during the presidency of George W. Bush. Herzog was satisfied. The teams started to draft the policy-related addendum to the coalition agreement. At that point, Levin, like the villain in an opera, again emerged from behind the scenes, amid metaphorical thunder and lightning, and once more instilled fear in Netanyahu. “The addendum must not take written form,” he whispered in the prime minister’s ear. “Likud cannot swallow such notions as responding to parts of the Arab Initiative, stopping construction outside the blocs (under their new name, too), making concessions to the Palestinians,” etc.

Levin persuaded Netanyahu that the most Likud and Habayit Hayehudi could agree to was a verbal statement by him. A speech and no more. This was unacceptable to Herzog, of course. The contacts between him and the prime minister continued for a time, and then Netanyahu, under pressure from Elkin and Levin – who cooked up the move in advance – called in Lieberman and offered him the defense portfolio, and the rest is history.

This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has turned out to be a champion of deception. Sometimes, he is so intent on leading everyone up the garden path, that he also tells himself lies. When they are exposed, he takes fright. How many more rounds are needed before we understand that this goat will give no milk?

I asked Herzog this week whether he had believed that this time Netanyahu would be brave enough to go for the jackpot, despite the steep political price he would pay. His answer was interesting: “I thought that he would be apprehensive about lying to the Arab world, but that he would have no problem playing around with Likud.”

I also asked Herzog whether he thought Netanyahu had brought in Levin in order to help him find a way to beat a retreat. To get cold feet, however, Netanyahu didn’t need Levin: For that he has his own paranoia, hesitation and fears. “That’s a good question,” Herzog replied. “I don’t have an unequivocal answer.”

Did his colleagues in the Zionist Union Knesset faction apologize to him? “No,” he replied. And yes, he would expect some sort of statement from MK Shelly Yacimovich, who likened him to a cur, from MK Stav Shaffir, who called for him to resign, and from MKs Erel Margalit and Miki Rosenthal, who tore him to shreds. Nada. Thunderous silence. Too bad. Sometimes integrity is an option, too.

Israeli soldier Elor Azaria is embraced by his mother at his sentencing hearing at a military court in Tel Aviv, Israel February 21, 2017.
Moti Milrod

On the roof of the world

On Feb. 14, Netanyahu met with his advisers at Blair House in Washington, preparing for his meeting with President Donald Trump. The Israeli Government Press Office photographer captured them sitting in the Victorian lounge, grim-faced. Riffling through papers. But Trump wasn’t the only thing on their minds that day. They were also thinking about Beit Shemesh, far away.

On Feb. 22, a week after the White House meeting, Finance Minister Kahlon was supposed to visit Beit Shemesh and sign a framework agreement with the local government for construction of new housing for young couples. Netanyahu’s bureau, which had moved, lock, stock and barrel to Washington with him, called Kahlon’s office and implored him to postpone the event so the prime minister could attend. The 22nd isn’t good, they said, because he’ll be in Australia. (And next month, he’ll be in Moscow, Beijing and, again, in Washington. All of the international, intercontinental activity will enable his people to ask: You really want to replace a world-class statesman because of some nonsense?)

Digital calendars were activated on both sides of the pond and the sea. The Beit Shemesh event was rescheduled for April 7, with Netanyahu’s participation. Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his wife returned to Israel, unpacked their seven suitcases, reorganized and left for Singapore, en route to Australia.

Betwixt and between, the sophisticated intelligence apparatus that the Prime Minister’s Bureau operates in other ministries never stopped working. Another housing agreement was in the offing, this time in Eilat, on March 7. Early this week, the phone rang in the finance minister’s office. On the line, from Singapore, or from the plane prior to departure for points east, was the bureau with a message: The prime minister will be delighted to take part in the Eilat event alongside the finance minister.

This time there was no need for a change of date, but the invitations had to be rescinded, because only Kahlon was mentioned on them. On top of which, he was also slated to be made an honorary citizen of the southern city. That bit would have to be rescheduled, because of the prime minister’s presence.

In fact, Kahlon was to take part in two more events in Eilat: the opening of a new beach and the ceremony commemorating the city’s liberation in 1949, where he was due to be guest of honor. The Prime Minister’s Bureau requested to have the boss participate in those festivities, too. And so it will be. The lead player was shunted to the role of an extra. The spotlight will not be on him.

What can we learn from this? First of all, Netanyahu hasn’t been weaned from his propensity to steal the credit from his ministers. Whenever he spots the potential for a positive headline, he comes to the party, invited or not.

Second, he apparently believes that something is about to change in the realm of housing, which has seen only soaring price rises in his eight years as prime minister. Otherwise, he wouldn’t insist on being present at the events in question.

Third, during this period of investigations about his alleged corruption and hedonism, it’s important for the premier to have his photo taken with his finance minister. Two weeks ago, they went for hummus together in Jerusalem, and in the weeks ahead they will bask in the sun together in the south, and there are certainly more good times in store for them.

Sorry event

The public security portfolio was the fifth or sixth option for Gilad Erdan, on the eve of his late and faltering entry into the government. Far behind foreign affairs, finance, education, transportation and justice came the thankless public security ministry, about which it’s said that no one has ever come out of it alive. Promising politicians who bubbled with potential fled from it, with their head in their hands. Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami and former Shin Bet security service chief Avi Dichter are only two examples.

Erdan now seems to be sliding down the disastrous slope carved out by his predecessors. If he had hopes that serving in the neighborhood of the men in blue would aggrandize his status and cast him in some sort of bright security aura, the exact opposite has happened.

It started with the farce of appointing a new police commissioner (remember Gal Hirsch?), continued with the rash of fires early in the winter and the hysteria of the “intifada of the flames” that never was, and now the event in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran.

With the fires and the Bedouin village, Erdan behaved militantly, rashly and childishly. Instead of waiting for the investigators to do their work and for the truth to be uncovered, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. When journalists who covered the event in Umm al-Hiran raised doubts about the police account, in which the apparently innocent Bedouin driver Yakub Abu al-Kiyan was cast as a terrorist, he countered them on Twitter with distinctly non-ministerial barbs.

In fact, Twitter is another ailment he suffers from. Erdan is said to be one of the most intelligent ministers in the government. As such, he should have treated the police reports with more than a grain of salt. After two years on the job, he still hasn’t grasped whom he’s messing with. It’s not by chance that the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers has its hands full. It’s well known that the police can’t always be depended upon to speak the truth, especially where Arabs are concerned.

In this case, Erdan was misled and he also misled others. With typical stubbornness he made assertions that time after time were revealed to be incorrect by the media, which didn’t buy the dubious goods that he and the police tried to sell them. Were it not for the sad circumstances, the eulogy delivered by Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich over the open grave of the police officer who was killed in Umm al-Hiran, Sgt. Maj. Erez (Amedi) Levi, could easily have taken the prize for satire of the month. “Everyone knows very well,” Alsheich declared with shrill pomposity, adding that the driver who ran over the policeman and was killed taught at a school where six teachers supposedly took an interest in ISIS. That’s like someone accusing the top police ranks of sexual and other offenses, because six of their colleagues found themselves expelled from the force in the past year or two for committing various immoral acts.

Thursday morning, Erdan published another long, argumentative post on his Facebook page in which he made it clear, at last, that if the investigation finds that there was no terrorist attack in Umm al-Hiran, the right thing will be to apologize to the family. He admitted to getting his information from the police officers at the scene. He signaled, for the first time, that he was dissatisfied with the quality and reliability of the information he received. Of course, that does not absolve him of his wild incitement and character assassination aimed at the unfortunate family of Abu al-Kiyan.

The combination of an arrogant, overbearing police commissioner who comes from outside the organization and isn’t yet familiar with it, and an uptight minister who’s looking for security disasters at any price to demonstrate that he’s in control of the situation, hasn’t proved itself.

This week Erdan called the event in the Bedouin village a “regrettable incident.” At this stage, it looks as though he’ll need a miracle for his own term as public security minister not to be remembered in the same way.

Alternative facts

The punishment meted out this week by a military court to the soldier who shot a dying, helpless assailant in the head, was below the lowest bar of the standard punishment that’s called for. Every other defendant in a similar situation would have breathed a sigh of relief, thanked the judges and the Almighty for his good fortune, packed his duffle bag and entered prison to serve his term (which will anyway be reduced in the future, after the dust settles and tempers cool).

The Azaria family, however, believes that its precious son Elor deserves not punishment but a citation from the chief of staff at the very least. Maybe he could also light a torch in the state ceremony on Independence Day? Charlie and Oshra Azaria taught their children to hate Arabs unreservedly. “It’s especially important to kill the women and the children,” the merciful mother wrote in Facebook during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, in 2014.

The media are painting the parents and son as some sort of innocents who fell into the hands of cynical, crooked and failed lawyers who want only publicity for themselves. There’s no way to know whether that’s true. No one knows what was said behind doors, who’s firing up whom. But Elor Azaria’s arrogant and provocative smile as the judgment was being read out attests perfectly to his mood. If he could, he would probably do it again: coolly take aim at someone who poses no danger, squeeze the trigger and then strut like a peacock among his pals and exchange backslaps with Baruch Marzel and his flock of Hebron settlers. Elor’s a hero, don’t you know, and his buddies in the unit, who never even thought of doing what he did, are chickens. Cowards.

Predictably, the most pathetic show was put on by the politicians. Even before the judge finished reading out the lenient sentence, they launched their shabby campaign for a pardon: There were Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) who popped up in every television and radio studio, Culture Minister Miri Regev, with her vulgar style, and Education Minister Bennett, who warned that “the security of Israel’s citizens” will suffer if the convicted soldier spends even one day in prison. Bennett preferred to ignore the fact that in the many dozens of encounters with terrorists that have occurred since the incident in Hebron in March last year, the soldiers involved acted as required and according to the army’s rules. They didn’t run and they didn’t execute anyone. Even Finance Minister Kahlon couldn’t resist the temptation and added his voice to those demanding a pardon. And on Thursday morning (Israel time), the prime minister reiterated from Australia his well-known stance that Azaria deserves amnesty.

But first prize for hypocrisy and cynicism easily goes to Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid. In a self-righteous Facebook post, with the usual nod to the political right wing, Lapid engaged in spectacular verbal acrobatics. With the left side of his mouth he “backed” the chief of staff, and with the right side he urged Azaria’s commanders to consider a pardon. In the same breath, he scolded his political colleagues and called on them to stop intervening in what goes on within the military. Because he, after all, is not a politician. He’s above them. A beacon of morality and wisdom.

Pardon for what? Azaria admitted nothing, did not apologize, did not express an iota of contrition, didn’t ask for forgiveness, didn’t say that maybe, just maybe, he should have not have opened fire but should have turned to his commanding officers instead. In his testimony and in what led up to it he lied, revised his accounts, made up stories, cast aspersions. The court utterly rejected his version of the events. To pardon a person like that would be to spit in the face of a court in Israel, in the face of the State of Israel. But what does that matter in the face of a few more votes in the primaries?