To Sign Deal With Turkey, Netanyahu Turned His Back on His Electoral Base

In striking a deal with Erdogan this week, Netanyahu veered away from his constituency and paid a low price for it. But he'd ask for a serious payback from Herzog if he decides to join the coalition.

An illustration showing Netanyahu jumping into a pool and splashing water on Lieberman, Bennett and Shaked.
Amos Biderman

Left-wing Israelis don’t get much satisfaction. But once in a while they too feel good. A case in point: the reconciliation agreement with Turkey that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed this week, after he agreed to pay in cash and also persuaded his security cabinet to vote in favor.

Three years after apologizing by phone to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the killing of civilians aboard the Gaza-bound Marmara – and being spurned – the premier was able to end the six-year crisis with a regional power whose bilateral strategic relations with Israel are crucial. Better late, etc., etc.

It’s often said of Netanyahu – and these pages are no exception – that everything he does is geared toward please his constituency, that it’s all about the base. But this time, because of what he considers to be of supreme national interest, Netanyahu chose to veer leftward from his usual electoral base on an emotional issue about which few on the right are in agreement with him.

Contrary to his political instincts, he conceded the right-wing slot to two politicians who are his rivals for the hearts and minds of the right: Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu). Still, the political price of the new accord was not excessively high: Bennett and Lieberman made do with a quiet “nay” vote in the security cabinet, without shouting from the rooftops in defiance.

Lieberman, the nonpareil protector of Israel’s soldiers – who demonstrated in favor of the young man who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian in Hebron (and is now on trial), and who in the past fulminated against any sign of readiness for compromise with the Turks – fell silent. Bennett, who also milked the Hebron incident for all it was worth and who almost toppled the government over a technical issue concerning the security cabinet, also suddenly lost the power of speech. A short Facebook post, a sentimental presentation in the security cabinet, and that was it.

Some ministers raised the possibility that Netanyahu waited for Lieberman to join the coalition before signing the agreement with Ankara. After all, it’s obvious what would have happened here if another prime minister – Ehud Olmert or Isaac Herzog, say – had signed such a document. Netanyahu was spared the vicious rebukes from the right, which, though bitter, was relatively quiet. The left came out in support for the most part, other than an unclear rant from opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog, which didn’t add to his credibility.

Effectively, the only opposition voice that challenged Netanyahu from the right was that of former cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar, who called the compensation Israel will pay Turkey as compensation for the victims of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident a “national humiliation.” Criticism from the right rattles Netanyahu. In the press conference in Rome, he grumbled about those who “tweet” against him while he runs the country “not by tweets and not by headlines.” And Sa’ar drives him up the wall.

This week, an ultra-Orthodox site reported that the head of the Shas party’s Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, told Sa’ar, who came to pay his condolences on the death of the rabbi’s wife, “You helped us a great deal, we are waiting for you to return.” Within less than an hour after that comment was quoted on the web, a senior Shas figure got a call from a worried citizen in Netanyahu’s close circle. The person wanted to know what the nostalgia was all about, and why the Sephardi party was apparently longing for the return of someone who, as everyone knows, might try to topple Netanyahu and, if possible, to replace him.

Jogged memory

Initially, the cabinet secretariat allotted 90 minutes for the security cabinet’s discussion of the reconciliation agreement with Turkey, which had already been signed, sealed and delivered. If we deduct 30-40 minutes for the presentation of the accord by the chief negotiator, the head of the National Security Council and the director of the Mossad, that would have left each of the 10 members of the forum (including the prime minister plus an observer or two) with about three minutes to speak his piece.

The ministers didn’t like this. Not only were they presented with a fait accompli and expected to vote for it, they weren’t even being allowed to speak. By popular demand, the time allotted for the discussion was doubled, to three hours, and in the end, the meeting lasted almost five. The agreement was approved by a large majority of 7-3.

A few selected quotes from the discussion follow. Defense Minister Lieberman, who announced beforehand that he would vote against, did not actually make a great effort to persuade the ministers of the justice of his cause. He mumbled something about Erdogan deliberately souring Turkey’s relations with Israel since 2008. “As I am part of the government,” the minister asserted, “I have no intention of launching a campaign against the agreement.”

His colleagues hid a smile, remembering how Lieberman, as foreign minister, publicly savaged the prime minister and defense minister for their handling of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 in the midst of that campaign in Gaza. In any event, Lieberman left the cabinet meeting less than two hours after it began, claiming he had a previously planned “military discussion” to attend. Shortly afterward, he was spotted huddling with Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, from his party, in the Knesset. Maybe they were discussing a commando operation to bring over new immigrants.

National Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz, the only Likud minister who declared in advance and publicly that he would support the agreement, explained his approach at great length; ministers came and went during his exposition. He was followed by Education Minister Bennett, who took issue with some of Steinitz’s arguments. Steinitz lost his patience and repeatedly cut in.

Bennett: “Yuval, I didn’t interrupt you. And unlike the others, I stayed in the room when you spoke, so show respect.”

Steinitz did not let up.

“Enough already, Yuval!” Bennett shouted. “If you want, take the floor again after me.”

The ministers blanched: What, a double dose of Steinitz?!

“No, Naftali, don’t do that to us,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said. “It’s better if Yuval interrupts you once or twice more.”

Bennett concluded his remarks, and as expected, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) said he’d vote in favor; likewise Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas). Erdan, for his part, said he had reached the conclusion that Ankara cannot force Hamas to return the Israeli of Ethiopian origin or the bodies of the Israeli soldiers they are holding – two conditions that some ministers had wanted to add to the agreement. Accordingly, he requested a future discussion by the security cabinet, and soon, about toughening the conditions of Hamas prisoners in Israel. Netanyahu moved the issue along: The cabinet will be convened, maybe, at some point. Toughening the conditions? We’ll see. Will it help? No way.

Transportation Minister Katz then declared his support for the accord. Some ministers thought that he’d waited to see how Erdan would vote. After the result of the vote was announced, Erdan’s Facebook page filled up with curses from his pals on the right.

The ministers reported a calm, serious, even in-depth discussion. Netanyahu was attentive when present, but was not on hand when Lieberman spoke. The “concern” the Prime Minister’s Bureau evinced that there might not be a majority for the agreement turned out to be a ploy. Netanyahu and his aides were certain it would be approved; the only question was the size of the majority. Interestingly, until Tuesday morning, Netanyahu believed that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) would vote in favor. The day before, she had responded in a low-key manner when asked about the subject in the Knesset and even pooh-poohed the compensation issue. But on Wednesday, Habayit Hayehudi announced that both its ministers would vote against. People in Netanyahu’s circle raised an eyebrow.

Netanyahu was surely pleased by the relative silence of the three naysayers. But the pleasure would not be complete without a jab in the ribs. The jab was executed by Mossad director Yossi Cohen. He was given the floor and had a scoop: “I have to say that in the previous government, when I was head of the NSC, the prime minister asked me to update the leaders of the coalition parties about the details of the agreement. Those details were very similar to the final accord. I remember clearly meeting with all the party leaders, and I don’t remember any of them protesting or expressing opposition.”

Bennett and Lieberman realized immediately that Cohen, as Netanyahu’s envoy, was trying to embarrass them. They both got pissed off. We don’t remember, they snarled. “Perhaps the director of the Mossad will refresh my memory,” Lieberman said. Bennett insisted there had been no such meeting. “Come with me to the office,” Cohen told him. “The minutes of the conversations are there.” They immediately went one floor down, to the office of the head of the NSC. Bennett looked less vehement when he returned to the meeting.

Pointed story

Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) was on a working visit to Paris this week when he was summoned back to the security cabinet meeting. He landed early Wednesday and got to the meeting a few hours later. He wanted not only to vote (for) but also to voice his opinion, on the assumption that his two cents’ worth as a retired major general and former commander of the elite naval commandos would influence wavering ministers.

Galant spoke of the strategic necessity for the accord, and dismissed the uproar over the $20 million in compensation. “Israel has already paid much more during its existence,” he said. “Every time we negotiate, even indirectly, with terrorist organizations for the return of captives, it’s far more significant than money. The money is earmarked for the families of those who were killed [on the Marmara]. That’s how it works internationally. It’s preferable to being dragged before an international tribunal.”

He added that 50 years ago Israel had struck an agreement with Germany after deciding that “our strategic and security effectiveness is worth more than emotions and feelings. So don’t tell me that we’re being humiliated over $20 million.”

Galant went on to share a personal story with the ministers, about his time as head of Southern Command, six years ago. When reports arrived about a Turkish ship that was headed for Gaza and the navy began to discuss how to stop it, he asked then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to invite him to the operational meetings, as he was supreme commander of the relevant sector and also had experience in similar operations. “All my requests were turned down,” Galant said. He then asked navy officers to update him, which they did. “This is what you’re planning?” he recalled asking them. “I thought it was folly. I invented the method of descending from helicopters or climbing aboard on rope ladders, in 1985. It was intended for surprise night operations, when no one aboard imagines that the ship is about to be raided. Here, the whole world knew, and the people on the ship were waiting for us, too. It was obvious that it was doomed to failure.”

In a General Staff meeting, held a week before the fateful maritime operation at the end of May 2010, in which 10 passengers on the humanitarian aid ship were killed and 55 wounded, Galant continued, “I warned that this method was inappropriate. That the soldiers are liable to find themselves outnumbered, facing people who might have firearms and will certainly have cold weapons. I warned that a soldier could be grabbed and locked into a room. My remarks were greeted with scorn.” When asked by Ashkenazi what he proposed, Galant said, “I suggested a different method: to send a ship ten times the size of the Marmara, with armored sides, to attach it to the Turkish ship at night, flood the bridge with water jets and foam, lower slides and ladders to it and send in far more soldiers than planned, including from elite units other than the naval commandos. That would have ended the affair without casualties on either side.

“All this happened in May 2010,” Galant concluded, and fell silent. Netanyahu, who enjoyed every word, was about to give the floor to the next speaker. But the silence turned out to be only a pause, before the main point. “Afterward,” Galant noted, “I discovered that in May 2010, the chief of staff was busy creating a false document that, when it was publicized, would be attributed to me.”

As our sages used to say: Ouch!

A summer night’s dream

The unity-government scenario has disappeared from the headlines and political discourse, but the prospective partners, Netanyahu and Herzog, remain interested. Netanyahu is now ready to make do with one-third of the Zionist Union/Labor faction: Herzog has to collect the eight MKs necessary for a split and cross the river into the Promised Land of juicy jobs, including foreign minister and economy minister. The premier’s dream is to be known for splitting Labor on two occasions (the previous one was in 2011, when Ehud Barak bolted with a loyal few). Two notches on the gun. In any event, there are signs the two sides were in contact until as recently as 10 days ago. Knowledgeable sources in Labor say Herzog is not yet ready, nor happy to take the kind of dramatic, irreversible step that Barak did unblinkingly.

Apparently, the opposition leader is waiting for some diplomatic development – the convening of a regional peace conference, say – before trying his luck and mustering a majority in the Labor Party convention. In the meantime, he is watching with concern the growing cooperation between two MKs who until recently were considered to be rivals: Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich.

Since the last election, Yacimovich has generally boycotted meetings of the Zionist Union Knesset faction, in protest of the fact that Livni sits next to Herzog as co-leader. But the obstacles the two placed in Herzog’s way into the government two months ago – a move that ended in searing failure for Herzog and brought Lieberman into the government – has drawn Livni and Yacimovich together.

Today, too, Herzog knows, they are not his partners. They also forged a united front and isolated him on the issue of the agreement with Turkey: They welcomed it, he assailed it. On top of which, on her Twitter account, Yacimovich congratulated Livni for supporting the accord. “When she’s right, she’s right,” Yacimovich wrote, reprising what Livni told an interviewer. “When Netanyahu does something reasonable, I see no need to attack him.”

That tweet deeply upset Herzog and his aides. He has already stopped counting on Yacimovich for a unity government. But Livni’s insistence on putting forward conditions on the peace issue is hemming him in. If he decides to join up, he will say it was a political-diplomatic necessity. But if she, his political-diplomatic “arm,” says the opposite, he will be seen as a sheer opportunist. In practice, he’s been stymied.

‘Two who know’

On Tuesday, there was an official announcement and a leak from the Israel Police. The announcement dealt with a recommendation to bring charges against Perach Lerner, Netanyahu’s former parliamentary adviser. Unlike in the case of a particular lady who is better connected, by marriage, the recommendations concerning Lerner did not remain secret. The leak, to Channel 10 News, claimed that a basis of evidence has also accumulated against another former Netanyahu adviser, Ari Harow, on suspicion of fraud and breach of trust. Just like Lerner.

This pairing pricked the ears of conspiracy-theory fans. On the one hand, two advisers who were very close to the kingdom and its secrets are facing possible indictments. On the other hand, the subject of the prime minister, according to recent reports, is at the center of clandestine working meetings in the bureau of the attorney general, concerning a subject about which there is a flood of hot rumors in political and media circles.

There are some who wonder – and this is where the plot seems to thicken – whether what might be interpreted as an exertion of pressure on “two who know” is actually intended to pave the way to the conquest of another, more important target.