U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry left the region bitterly disappointed, diplomatic correspondents reported this week. The penny finally dropped for him, as it did for his predecessors in the past two decades: He too ran out of hope. He told an interlocutor in Israel that he fears the situation will deteriorate into a blood-drenched third intifada. In Jerusalem and in Ramallah, he found two dug-in, obdurate, rejectionist leaders. He also checked out the feasibility of a coalition change in Israel, involving the co-option of Zionist Union to the government. His conclusion: It’s not in the cards.
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After the cabinet meeting on Sunday, just before Kerry’s arrival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his weekly meeting with the leaders of the coalition parties. He was in a fine mood. The budget had passed with no undue difficulties, which means that for the next 15 months, the government is immune to being toppled. Netanyahu also made it clear, officially, that he has no intention of parting from Naftali Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudit party in favor of MK Isaac Herzog and his Zionist Union. If the coalition is expanded, he reassured Bennett, it will not be done at the expense of any of the current partners.
The discussion that developed in the meeting of coalition leaders was highly instructive. The general feeling was that an effort should be made now, with the pressure having abated, to enlarge the government. True, the present core is coherent and functioning quite well, but the mere one-seat majority in the Knesset is suffocating.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon was the most outspoken in this regard. He said that after he returns from a visit to the United States today, he will meet with Herzog, as well as with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman to see where they stand.
Shas leader Arye Dery said he too was in favor of expansion. Even Bennett expressed support in principle, though he prefers to bring in Yisrael Beiteinu, and only on condition the government’s Basic Guidelines remain unchanged. If Zionist Union enters the coalition, Bennett warned, there will be a return to the atmosphere of the previous government, when Lapid was in the coalition and torpedoed everything. A coalition government works when it’s homogeneous, Bennett added. Netanyahu nodded in agreement: He definitely doesn’t miss the previous government.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, of United Torah Judaism, took the position of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” with regard to the coalition: There’s no need to expand it and it can continue as is until the end of its term.
None of the coalition partners wants to dissolve the Knesset. Why would they? To have an election and elect the same government all over again?
Netanyahu summed up the discussion. Expansion will not be to the detriment of any party, he said. It was clear to everyone that he meant Bennett. He also intimated that if Lieberman wants in on condition that he receives the defense portfolio – that demand will be rejected. So Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon can sleep soundly. Lieberman is welcome to return to the Foreign Ministry.
Netanyahu then raised the idea of the next budget being for two years, covering 2017-2018. That would give the government almost four full years in power, and would make Netanyahu Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Bennett, Dery and Litzman said they were in favor. Kahlon, without whose agreement there will be no budget, annual or biennial, said he wants to think about it – first the coalition-expansion move should be made.
The implication of Netanyahu’s comments, for the present moment, is that the Zionist Union option is no longer on the agenda and that the party’s status is like that of a spare tire. That approach, coming after approval of the budget, will hardly generate the energies needed in the Labor Party to advance a move to join the coalition. That doesn’t mean Netanyahu won’t go on hinting that he wants Zionist Union to join, and sending emissaries to Herzog. He did so even this week. But those messages are taken today with snorts of disdain and disbelief.
As it happened, the premier made his remarks two days after Labor MK Eitan Broshi made public a letter he sent to Herzog suggesting that he seriously consider entering the government. He walked around with the letter and read out segments from it as though it were the Magna Carta. I spoke to Broshi this week. He revealed that before writing and sending the note to Herzog, he spoke to the prime minister and was given a “green light.” I told him that this is exactly what Netanyahu is after: a brawl in the opposition about whether to enter the coalition. I suggested to Broshi that he was a pawn in Netanyahu’s hands. He reflected on this – and read out another passage from the letter.
The odd couple
A day after Netanyahu reassured Bennett about the coalition’s future, Army Radio reported that the education minister, speaking to 40 leaders of settlements, had boasted that he had forced the prime minister to retract his declaration of possible unilateral moves in the territories by shooting Netanyahu with “a bullet between the eyes.” (Bennett was referring to his sharp tweet condemning Netanyahu’s declaration, and to his orders to two MKs from his party to leave the Knesset chamber ahead of a vote on a minor bill, thus handing the opposition a victory.) Netanyahu called to scold him. Bennett apologized. He said this week that the remark had been imbecilic. Next time he’ll watch his mouth. Or not. With him it’s hard to know.
Netanyahu and Bennett are the odd couple of Israeli politics. They first worked together after the Second Lebanon War (2006), when Bennett was appointed chief of staff in the bureau of then-opposition leader Netanyahu. Bennett resigned (together with Ayelet Shaked, who ran the office), leaving behind rivers of bad blood and mutual loathing, particularly in connection with Sara Netanyahu, who didn’t cotton to the independence displayed by Bennett and Shaked and their disinclination to obey her, but also her husband.
In 2013, Bennett joined Netanyahu’s third government as head of Habayit Hayehudi, with its 12 Knesset seats. Since then, the two have had numberless personal clashes. But the political connection is rock-solid. In the end, Netanyahu has no more natural and loyal partner than Habayit Hayehudi.
This week they recorded another chapter in their joint sojourn in the political arena. It started with the turning over of a new leaf on Sunday, and went on to the bullet-between-the-eyes episode on Monday. Early Tuesday came the ugly incident involving the neighborhood bully MK Oren Hazan (Likud), who made fun of the disability of MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) in the Knesset. Netanyahu was embarrassed. Again he had to issue a reprimand, in a call that became public – this time to Hazan. Very noble on his part, but he didn’t say a word after Channel 2 broadcast its investigation several months ago of Hazan’s escapades with prostitutes, a casino and hard drugs. Nor did he protest when Hazan extorted from him membership on the Knesset’s five most prestigious and influential committees, including Foreign Affairs and Defense. The prime minister remained silent when Hazan threatened Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that he would dig up dirt about the speaker, the only person so far who has taken action against Hazan, by prohibiting him earlier from chairing Knesset sessions in his capacity as a deputy speaker.
And even as Hazan continues to humiliate the Knesset, the Yinon Magal affair burst into our lives. Netanyahu could breathe a small sigh of relief. The spotlight was turned toward the MK from Bennett’s party, who was accused of sexual harassment in his pre-Knesset period. Hazan and Magal shared the shame and opprobrium. Their faces loomed on the split television screen. So ends another week in which, under one coalition roof, living a fun life together, are Bibi and Naftali and everything between them.
To Magal’s credit, it has to be said that, in contrast to other public figures who were caught red-handed, he did not claim to be the victim of a blood libel or raise the claim that there’s a conspiracy afoot against him. He admitted the gist of the story, accepted his removal by Bennett as head of the party’s Knesset faction, apologized and promised to mend his ways. That’s important, but not enough to clear his name or spare him the future implications of his deeds. Even if criminal charges aren’t brought against him, he is living on borrowed time. Certainly in the self-righteous Habayit Hayehudi, the party of the settlers and the Hardelim (those who fuse ultra-Orthodoxy with religious Zionism), whose constituency will not easily forgive anyone who strays from the straight and narrow.
Magal will henceforth bestride the Knesset like a zombie. If the women who accused him had tapes of Magal uttering his words of unbridled lust, he wouldn’t have survived another minute in the parliament.
Until this week, former journalist Magal was the poster boy of Habayit Hayehudi. Bennett snatched him from the Walla website and gave him a high place on his party’s slate. The two became good friends. Bennett considered him one of the few sane members of the Knesset faction – along with Ayelet Shaked, of course. They were like three musketeers. The connection to the nexus of power and the feeling that the future was rosy made Magal feel so self-assured that he kept talking about the light drugs he took for his pleasure, even after being elected to the Knesset. He also tweeted incessantly, opened fronts on the right and the left and badmouthed the “left-wing” media from which he had emerged. The view in the Knesset was that he was behaving as though he were on steroids. This week it turned out to be testosterone.
At the moment it’s difficult to gauge whether the damage done to Bennett by the affair is critical, or just serious. He had big plans for Magal, but now questions are being raised again about his judgment and mental maturity. He should have checked out his new star more closely. The frenetic election-eve search for a secular celeb to attract a young target audience unable to identify with the likes of Uri Ariel and Bezalel Smotrich was too hasty, too shallow, too arrogant and too power-drunk. So, Naftali, is this the best secular guy you can come up with, people are asking in Habayit Hayehudi with blatant schadenfreude.
Bennett has handled the episode well, at least so far. He condemned unreservedly the things that were “said” (not those that were done, according to one of the testimonies), he removed Magal from his post as faction chairman and he intimated that if the episode becomes a criminal affair, Magal will not continue serving as an MK. With Bennett you pay in cash, on the spot, although Magal’s punishment is not all that severe: He’ll move a seat or two to the side. But the cameras will focus only on him. It was important for Bennett to display loyalty, too. “He’s my friend, and I love him,” he said on Wednesday. Charming, but irrelevant. If he’s your friend, invite him to a barbecue in your backyard in Ra’anana.
When Arye Dery was named minister of economy, someone remembered the law concerning the appointment of judges and presidents of the Labor Court. They need the signature of both the justice minister and the economy minister. The problem: Dery is a convicted criminal who served a prison term. It’s very undesirable for him to sign off on the appointment of judges. So it was decided that this specific power would be placed in the hands of Religious Services Minister David Azoulay, also from Shas.
A few weeks ago, Dery resigned as economy minister in order to pave the way for the approval of the natural-gas deal. The portfolio passed automatically to the prime minister with all its powers, including the appointment of the judges. In two weeks, the Judicial Appointments Committee, headed by Justice Minister Shaked, is due to meet to appoint a number of Labor Court judges. Again someone remembered that the new economy minister, too, is unable to sign off on the appointments, because he and his wife and the PMO are currently being sued in Labor Court by a former employee of the Prime Minister’s Residence. Once more, for the second time in less than a year, the power of the signatory has to be conferred on another minister.
Problem: Netanyahu by his nature is incapable of forgoing even an iota of even the most marginal of powers. On Sunday, the cabinet secretary raised the subject in the cabinet meeting and called for a new vote about whom the power should be transferred. Netanyahu was furious. “Why am I being deprived of powers?” he grumbled. The ministers riffled through their papers as though looking for something. Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin screwed up his courage and said, “Prime Minister, you should let this go, the High Court of Justice is already dealing with a petition about the excessive number of portfolios you hold.”
“The High Court deliberation is only on the communications portfolio,” Netanyahu muttered.
The ministers expressed their solidarity with him. Like the biblical poor man’s lamb. Elkin, already deep in the mud, came up with an irrefutable argument. “And besides, do you really want to be a member of a committee chaired by Ayelet Shaked?” he asked. Netanyahu fell silent and gritted his teeth. The powers were transferred again, unceremoniously, to Azoulay.