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The Vibe at Netanyahu's Bureau This Week: Desperation

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Illustration: The walls of Netanyahu's fortress are being destroyed by politicians around him.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman

This week’s political loser, MK Yair Lapid, told someone that he’s not happy with Avi Gabbay’s victory in the Labor Party leadership race, but that he’s not worried, either. In another few months, Lapid thinks, the party will start to eat Gabbay alive, as well as pluck out his eyes. The Knesset seats that returned to Labor from Lapid’s Yesh Atid – at least according to the polls this week – will make their way back to him.

I mentioned to Gabbay that Lapid is calm. “It’s good that he’s calm,” Gabbay replied. “Let him stay that way.”

Gabbay’s stunning victory – there’s no way around that trite description this time – can be analyzed and explained rationally: disgust with the old establishment, weariness with the Old Guard, a thirst for something new, problems in the headquarters of rival Amir Peretz, a failure on the part of the Histadrut federation of labor (which backed Peretz).

In the end, though, there’s another, decisive, factor that cannot be explained in rational terms and conflicts with every known form of mathematical logic. MK Isaac Herzog, the ousted Labor leader, calls it “the hidden hand.” It describes a situation where all the stars align in a rare, one-time constellation, above the head of one person, who is in effect not so much elected as almost anointed.

Gabbay’s achievement is unprecedented. The closest thing to it is Amram Mitzna’s victory in Labor in 2002. But Mitzna, mayor of Haifa at the time, had been a party member for many years. Gabbay joined Labor half a year ago. One of his rivals, MK Erel Margalit, was already ensconced in a well-funded campaign then – as was Peretz, only without the millions. Herzog had pondered long and hard before deciding to run. MK Omer Bar-Lev thought that, in the absence of a candidate with security experience, he would reap the harvest. The operations he led as commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal special forces unit were apparently based on better intelligence, otherwise he wouldn’t be with us today.

Above and beyond this, Gabbay’s term at the helm ought to make for riveting political theater: If he doesn’t succeed in transforming Labor and making it relevant and influential, there’s probably no one who can. It’s tempting to predict the future, but best to wait. After Maj. Gen. (res.) Mitzna was elected party head, someone wrote that he will “light the left’s tribal campfire.” But the person who was burned was the chairman himself, who quickly fled. Gabbay is different in that he’s coming to the job with a dry, businesslike, managerial approach. His long victory speech lacked vision, pomposity and lofty language. But maybe that’s the best way to tackle this job.

Labor under him will be a more aggressive and biting opposition. Herzog was never perceived as an opposition figure because of the never-ending rounds of talks he held with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on forming a unity government. Gabbay is not into that. He will focus on social-economic issues. He has nothing to say about security subjects, and what he says will not be taken seriously.

When one attacks the government’s economic policy, the chief victim is like to be Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the leader of the Kulanu party. Kahlon effectively invented Gabbay, appointed him a cabinet minister and was abandoned by him. Kahlon is in electoral peril. Gabbay is Mizrahi, socially oriented, perceived as lite-right, and his voters hate Netanyahu just like the people who voted for Kulanu and continue to support that party in the polls. The overlap is striking. Kahlon said this week in a private conversation that the results of the Labor primary draw him closer to Netanyahu. Not that he’s a great admirer of the man who screwed him over in the affair of the new broadcasting authority and who steal the credit from him every week, but if Kahlon’s forced to choose between the two after the next general election, he’ll go with Netanyahu. He certainly won’t treat Gabbay nicely under any circumstances.

Avi Gabbay gives a press conference after winning the Labor primary, July 11, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

But the big loser is Lapid. According to the surveys conducted by Channels 2 and 10 the day after the vote, Yesh Atid stands to lose six or seven Knesset seats, which they originally picked up from Zionist Union/Labor, and which have for now reverted to that party. Lapid tried to play it cool. But sources in Yesh Atid are talking about panic. That was also apparent in Lapid’s comments this week on the growing religious indoctrination in the school system.

Before the ascent of Avi Gabbay, Lapid told a conference organized by the newspaper Makor Rishon that there is not a problem with religion infiltrating Israel’s schools. But a few days later, after Gabbay made it to the second round, against Peretz, Lapid told Channel 10 that if there is indeed increasing religious indoctrination in the education system, he and his party are ready to assist parents who fear for their children’s tender souls.

Then Lapid popped up on Channel 2 News this week to inform the nation that he had been asked to give testimony to the police in the affair involving the sale to Israel of German submarines. Asked about the issue of religious indoctrination, he replied that it exists and “has to be fought.” A complete U-turn – within one week. Lapid, who’s an excellent campaigner, realized his mistake late: His voters hate the ultra-Orthodox, and other religiously observant types who are trying to control their lives. Many of those voters probably cast their ballots for the Shinui party led by his father, Tommy Lapid, which was anti-Haredi and anticlerical. They apparently felt betrayed by what Lapid, Jr. said. So he went and said the opposite. The polls are his shining light, not the political values he pretends to represent as part of his different brand of politics.

The usual suspect

The metaphorical red light in MK Amir Peretz’s campaign headquarters came on at about 5 P.M. on Monday, during the final round of the leadership primary. The voting patterns looked bad. There was a large turnout in the more privileged “white” regions: the cities, especially Tel Aviv, the Sharon district. But it was just the opposite in the south, and among the Arabs and the Druze. Peretz’s campaign managers worked the phones. They urged clan chiefs to get their people out. The word from the polling stations was that the trend was in Gabbay’s favor. “His voters marched to the polling stations in a trance, as though he’d cast a spell on them,” a leading Peretz activist related. “I tried to challenge them, to ask what they knew about Gabbay’s social and economic views. They didn’t want to hear.”

Peretz’s well-oiled, experienced apparatus creaked. The Histadrut machine placed at his disposal broke down. In retrospect, the alliance forged between the wannabe Labor leader and Histadrut chief Avi Nissenkorn, when the latter ran earlier this year for the leadership of the trade union federation with Peretz’s support, boomeranged when Peretz made his run for leader of Labor.

Sometimes what looks like a victory contains the seeds of defeat, and vice versa. After Nissenkorn defeated MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) in the Histadrut vote, Peretz’s people claimed proudly that he had “committed suicide” for Nissenkorn. Afterward, Peretz became confident of victory in the Labor race. That seals it, he said: The 90 percent of Labor Party members who are also Histadrut members will vote for me. Together with the Arabs, the Druze and the periphery, victory is a sure thing, Peretz surmised.

Less than two months later, Peretz’s demise was complete. Nissenkorn couldn’t deliver the goods. But Yacimovich’s faction in Labor, which is immeasurably larger than that of the Histadrut, mobilized in full force for Gabbay and against Nissenkorn – and less against Peretz. The dagger making its way into Peretz’s back from the time of the Histadrut vote, but it was only this week that he felt the searing pain.

It’s not true that failure is an orphan; failure can also have many fathers. Peretz’s alliance with Nissenkorn was disastrous. On the day after the first round of the Labor race, the two hurriedly convened a joint press conference. They emitted arrogance, hubris and smugness. Strange that the smart, experienced Peretz fell into that pit.

Under the sway of the alliance with the Histadrut boss, Peretz lost the caution that every contestant must have. He celebrated victory prematurely. For example, last Friday, three days before the final vote, he met with veteran Labor MK Eitan Cabel, who was trying to decide whom to back. He was leaning toward Peretz, but with difficulty, because of his own bitter rivalry with Nissenkorn.

Cabel wields influence in the party. Instead of embracing, encouraging and schmoozing, Peretz told him, “Avi [Nissenkorn] really doesn’t like that I agreed to meet with you.” Hearing this, Cabel, who has a short fuse and a subversive character, stalked out and announced that he was backing Gabbay. And he was at the winner’s side during the victory celebration at the Tel Aviv Fair Grounds.

In Peretz’s headquarters, they did what losers usually do: Looked for someone to blame. They accused Herzog of playing a double game, claiming that even though he had announced his support for Peretz, his backing was not full-blown, in the best case. In the worst, he also worked for the other team.

There’s a story circulating in the party about the chairman of a branch in a big city in the center of the country, a Herzog man. After Herzog was knocked out in the first round and declared his support for Peretz, this branch chair also decided to help. When Gabbay visited the branch on voting day, he and the branch chairman fell on each other’s necks like long-lost brothers. “Thanks for the help,” Gabbay was heard telling the person.

Herzog denies this – let people look for the reason for failure elsewhere, he told an interlocutor this week. People from Herzog’s campaign who worked in Peretz’s headquarters between the two voting rounds related that they were surprised by the chaos they found there. Those who came to assist Gabbay reported that things went like clockwork. When Gabbay visited Herzog at the latter’s home after the first round to ask for his support, he told Herzog that there were no politicians in his campaign headquarters, only pros. That’s where Amir’s problem lay, Herzog said when he was told that he was being blamed – it wasn’t me.

Health hazard

Last week I wrote about the protective walls surrounding the Netanyahus, walls that have been crumbling and collapsing one after the other, systematically, simultaneously and dramatically. A few days later, the collapse is spreading to the entire façade. A person who was in the Prime Minister’s Bureau at midweek described the atmosphere there in one word: desperation.

Maybe that’s why the prime minister and his wife are set to leave Saturday night for a week abroad, first in France and afterward in Hungary. The impression is that the couple is fleeing in order to avoid being questioned. And for sure we won’t be spared the usual spate of romantic photos of the two, gazing enthralled into each other’s eyes, on some bench on a Paris boulevard.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, June 28, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Within two days, Netanyahu was forced to watch as two of his closest advisers disappeared into interrogation rooms for long hours that extended into long days. To paraphrase Ariel Sharon: He took leave of his right hand and of his second right hand. First, the family lawyer who’s also a cousin and ultra-confidant, David Shimron, and afterward his adviser and long arm in the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber.

The intensive questioning, over three consecutive days, of Shimron, the veteran consigliere of Bibi and Sara, in the affair of the submarines and other naval vessels, is a brutal punch in the soft underbelly to the Balfour Street denizens. They imagine the suspect being asked over and over what the prime minister knew and when he knew, and if he didn’t know, why he didn’t know; what he was told, and when, and if he wasn’t told, why not – and they are sweating. To rephrase a popular Israeli song, a thousand air conditioners won’t be enough to dry up the cold sweat.

The phrase “Attorney Shimron placed under house arrest” is as inconceivable as the phrase, “Shimron barred from being in contact with Benjamin Netanayhu.” But in the constantly lengthening period of Netanyahu’s rule, the inconceivable becomes conceivable and what’s unimaginable definitely primes the imagination.

Thirty years of the closest and most intimate relations – only relations between spouses are closer – between Netanyahu and Shimron have reached the point in which they are prohibited from conversing about the affair under investigation. And while the country’s most senior, most involved and best-connected lawyer was spending long hours in the offices of the Israel Police’s anti-fraud unit, the director general of the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber, was being grilled by the Israel Securities Authority in connection with the Bezeq telecommunications monopoly. So one person’s being questioned, another is being called in, someone else is being freed from house arrest and still others have been slapped with the same.

All the details of the Bezeq affair are contained in the harsh and occasionally harrowing report by the state comptroller, Joseph Shapira, who plunged into the depths of the bog, the same bog that the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, preferred to bypass elegantly, with eyes wide shut. Shapira characterizes Filber a “regulator who is captive to Bezeq.” As though Filber has an autonomous personality, as though he wasn’t sent by The Boss to carry out a preferential, discriminatory policy, aimed at benefiting media mogul and Netanyahu pal Shaul Elovitch, who owns Bezeq.

The topic of “Netanyahu’s pals” is a story in its own right. The prime minister has no friends who aren’t multimillionaires, at the very least. Somehow, people who aren’t part of the upper-upper crust have vanished from the Netanyahus’ lives. But it’s not really friendship. It’s a a mutual-aid society, utilitarian and self-interested. In the style of “If they give they’ll get, and if they don’t give, they won’t get.”

Pal Arnon Milchan has already acknowledged spending hundreds of thousands of shekels on the Netanyahus in the form of expensive alcohol and vintage cigars and jewelry and who knows what else. When he needed help getting his U.S. visa renewed, he got help. The same when he wanted to buy Channel 10 – according to the suspicions, of course.

Milchan can only envy Elovitch, because Netanyahu, first as communications minister and in recent months as former communications minister, allegedly worked to give Elovitch’s company benefits worth billions of shekels. In return, the premier received empathetic, flattering, kowtowing coverage on Elovitch’s Walla News site. (No longer, though. Since the story broke concerning Case 2000 – involving the conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Group publisher Arnon Mozes – the character of Walla News’ coverage of the Netanyahus has changed.)

It’s easier to list the advisers and aides of the prime minister over the years who are not implicated in criminal activity or public scandals. Like toy soldiers in a board game, the majority fall one after the other, are hauled off to interrogation rooms, and are implicated and implicate others in turn. There’s a philosophical question here: Is the ostensible tendency toward impropriety inherent in them, being precipitated when they interact with governmental power, or does life alongside a prime minister who’s been in office for more than eight consecutive years and is showing increasing signs of Erdogan- and Putin-like behavior, leave an imprint on them, too?

The tremendous bad smell emanating at present from Netanyahu’s surroundings – of which the prime minister is the focal point and prime cause – is intolerable. A true public health hazard. Is this the Prime Minister’s Bureau, or the ammonia tank in Haifa? All the scandals and investigations – cases 1000, 2000, 3000 and now 4000, too – reflect the moral turpitude, corruption and megalomania that have become rife in this brutal, shameless group. Adviser after adviser, crony after crony, are being exposed in all their disgrace, while it is only the domineering and dominant politician whom they serve who knows absolutely nothing.

The thought that in the next election, whenever it is held, Benjamin Netanyahu and the figures that surround him will return to the Prime Minister’s Bureau and the centers of power and government has to strike horror into the heart of every decent Israeli, regardless of religion, gender, political outlook or community and ethnic affiliation.

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