Even Without Rivals, Netanyahu Can't Help but Watch His Back

The prime minister makes a series of anguished flip-flops meant to ensure he remains his party's leader, but ends up back in square one; meanwhile, his coalition partners accuse him of swinishness for hoarding ministerial portfolios.

Illustration.
Amos Biderman

After making a spectacular and unforgettable U-turn, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found himself, limping and bruised, back at square one, the place from which he’d embarked confidently on his path. The first step in his journey was the coup – by now standard operating procedure in Likud – that he pulled off by advancing the date of the party’s leadership primary. And this time not by a mere year or 18 months, but by three full years. This would keep potential rivals from breathing down his neck, mobilizing forces and raising funds.

Not very nice, possibly infuriating, but perfectly kosher and democratic. Netanyahu has become an expert at pulling the rug out from under those who are plotting to oust him. He’s a mega-survivor. In a milieu teeming with dangers, even if they’re imaginary, he behaves as though a herd of predators is about to pounce on him and terminate his political life. His proficiency in political infighting has turned him into a Schwarzenegger. That’s why he’s still here with us after so many years, while around him is a wasteland of tumbleweed and dust, with only the melancholy whistling of the wind audible from the dark horizon.

Once the target of advancing the leadership primary was captured without a shot being fired, all that remained was to solemnly declare Netanyahu the party’s chairman and its candidate for prime minister (theoretically until 2023, if the present Knesset and the one that follows go their full terms). But then he had a panic attack: Is a “declaration” the same as being elected? Or does it expose him to another possible fight, against actual flesh-and-blood rivals, on the eve of the next Knesset election?

During the week after the date for the primary was set, at his request, for February 23, Netanyahu was concerned by the possibility, which soon became a reality, that no one would run against him. He found himself missing Danny Danon, a serial rival in internal party elections, whom he dispatched to the United Nations. And even longing for good ol’ boy Moshe Feiglin, who used to run in every race in which Netanyahu’s name appeared. But this time the arena was his, the primary had become superfluous. If there were to be such a vote, he would be allowed to solicit a maximum of 1.5 million shekels (about $380,000) from his multimillionaire friends in Israel and especially abroad. But if there's no primary, he can't raise money at all.

Well, the leader and his advisers (who, to an outside observer, sometimes seem to have been coopted to the Prime Minister’s Office from a traveling circus that happened to be passing through town) hurriedly huddled. They decided that in order to block every loophole and ensure that Netanyahu’s election was secured by a hundred tons of cast concrete, it would be necessary to hold a full-fledged primary, with polling stations, observers, guards and transportation, at a cost of some 4 million shekels (nearly $1 million). Well, Netanyahu, who sees the big, historic picture, isn’t one to be deterred by such paltry expenses.

Here the roller coaster – on whose cars is engraved the well-known motto, the “Netanyahu Method” – began hurtling toward its inevitable destination. This time the person who sometimes seems to be so preoccupied with devising petty tactics and maneuvers to fortify his status and guarantee his position in the party that it’s far from clear when he finds time to deal with security and foreign policy, outdid even himself. Within a minimum time of four days, he got on the case of the submissive, obedient party institutions, which bent over backward to keep up with his rapidly changing caprices.

Blank protest

Netanyahu’s series of anguished zigzags during those few days should be studied by experts from a variety of fields, not only political scientists. When it was explained to him that there would be two ballots in the polling stations – one for him and one against – a new round of panic ensued. What will happen, heaven forbid, if the number of “nay” ballots is larger than expected, with all the concomitant shame? Definitely not a fitting outcome for His Imperial Majesty.

Netanyahu’s aides marked the “nay” ballot as a strategic enemy destined for annihilation. It was decided to replace it with a more convenient rival, a blank ballot, which in legal terms is a nonexistent entity and is not counted in the final tally. The Likud institution known as the “elections committee” approved that scandalous idea unanimously – at which point, the prime minister was beset by a third anxiety, brought on by the sheer whiteness of the ballot. Suddenly, that innocent creature loomed as the most terrible enemy of all, the mother of all threats, a slingshot, a knife, fingernails to be guarded against.

Netanyahu was worried about a possible popular protest that would spawn unpleasant japes and gibes at his expense, by means of messages scrawled on the blank ballots. This fear was well founded: According to Likud sources, in the vote a few weeks ago to set the date of the primary, quite a few Likud stalwarts expressed their frustration at the chairman’s selfish maneuver by bad-mouthing him on the blank ballots made available to them then. “Dictator” and “one-man ruler” were among the compliments heaped on him. Of course, no one has actually seen those ballots, but that’s the talk in Likud these days.

Concern morphed into anxiety that shifted into panic, and thus we arrived, on Wednesday afternoon, at a meeting of Likud’s highest court, headed by former MK Michael Kleiner. The court deliberated a petition to cancel the whole shebang. And thus our story ends at exactly the point at which it began: primary, out; formal administrative decision declaring Netanyahu party leader and premiership candidate, in.

By the way, legal experts maintain that Netanyahu is not immune to the scenario of another leadership contest. After all, he was not elected legally. In a scenario in which he suffers a public-opinion collapse, under circumstances not currently predictable (the investigation of Sara Netanyahu has barely begun), where the polls predict a Likud loss, with someone else looming as a candidate who could rescue the party – the Likud Central Committee has the right to decide, by a special majority, to hold a new primary. The chairman of the central committee is Haim Katz, the social affairs minister, who is not a pawn in Netanyahu’s hands. He is, though, a pal of two possible contenders for the crown: former Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.

Not even the fact that the winner of the leadership primary is officially declared to be “the Likud chairman and the party’s candidate in Knesset elections” – a formula that has existed since 2007, which was the first time Netanyahu played the card of advancing the primary – is a foolproof insurance policy for him. If the next Knesset election is held as scheduled, in three years, and Netanyahu is not an electoral certainty, some will say: “You dragged the party into a snap move in which you were declared leader, in order to be ready for every eventuality, namely an early general election. But because there was no early election, political logic dictates that a primary must be held now, ahead of an election.”

In the ridiculous series of zigzags we witnessed this week, Netanyahu got what he wanted, as usual. But his no-holds-barred game of survival nullified his party completely. Likud cabinet ministers are silent, other than in vituperative off-the-record briefings; Likud MKs are fleeing for their lives from every microphone and camera. The party’s institutions have been ground into dust. Everything revolves around him. He is the moon and the stars, he is the whole solar system.

And you know what? He’s right. A leader of one of the coalition parties recently commissioned an in-depth public opinion survey to examine where voters from all parties stand on a range of issues and what they think of many public figures, including some not currently in the political arena. Voters of all parties, without exception, including Likud, expressed dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s performance. But 55 percent of the respondents agreed submissively with the statement that “there is no one to replace him.”

There’s one bit of consolation: On the way to becoming “North Korea,” we will still get to enjoy inane and amusing moments of the kind that our beloved leader so generously bestowed upon us this week.

Netanyahu and Dery at the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

Extortion argument

Now the way is paved to complete the coalition jigsaw puzzle and redistribute a few portfolios. The big prize is the Economy and Industry Ministry, which Arye Dery vacated when he sidled back to the Interior Ministry this week. Netanyahu has informed his coalition partners that he wishes to appoint two ministers from his party: MK Tzachi Negbi, and either MK Benny Begin or MK Avi Dichter. This might seem only logical, as Danny Danon and Silvan Shalom are gone.

But Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leaders of Habayit Hayehudi and Kulanu, respectively, won’t hear of it. They say that even if you stretch the arithmetic to its limits, this is sheer swinishness. Even now, they say, Likud has more cabinet ministers than coalition calculations allow. After Danon left and after the appointment of United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman as health minister, only one more minister can be appointed, if the government is to adhere to the public promise to hold the number of ministers at 21 or less (including the prime minister).

Actually, at this week’s cabinet meeting, it was Kahlon, who is not perceived as an aggressive politician, who objected to Netanyahu’s intention to appoint two ministers. He also demonstratively boycotted the weekly meeting of the leaders of the coalition parties. Ever one to bow to pressure, Netanyahu invited the head of the Kulanu party to meet with him on Monday.

“Look, there’s a coalition agreement and you are unraveling it,” Kahlon said to the prime minister. “If you bring in two ministers then I deserve another one and the others will want more, too, and we’ll be a laughingstock. We all agreed when you brought in Litzman outside the agreement, because we thought it was important for the ultra-Orthodox to be full-fledged members of the government, at long last. We promised the public a government of 20 ministers [plus the prime minister], and promises have to be kept.”

Netanyahu argued, but Kahlon was adamant. They decided to postpone the discussion until next week. This clash is not a threat to the government’s stability. Knowing our premier, we can say that he’s the last person who will risk his position so he can dish out perks within his party. If he has no choice, he will tell Dichter or Begin, both of whom he counts as his buddies: Sorry, my hands are tied by the coalition.

In the meantime, a smaller quarrel is brewing within the larger one, between Kahlon and Bennett – or more accurately, among “their close circles.” Outwardly they are united against Netanyahu’s imperial ambitions, but in the same breath each is claiming that the other has no right to talk about coalition imbalance or greediness, given his coalition booty.

Kahlon’s circle is saying, “Bennett came out with an extortionist agreement. At the last minute, a party with eight seats got the education and justice portfolios, the agriculture portfolio plus the land-settlement department, the chairmanship of a key Knesset committee [Constitution, Law and Justice] and a deputy minister in a top ministry [defense]. Bennett is the last person who is morally entitled to demand ‘balance.’”

To which Bennet’s confidants retort, “Kahlon is like someone who comes into a play in the middle of the plot and decides retroactively who the good guys and the bad guys are. In the coalition talks, he claimed he didn’t want ‘jobs,’ only a ‘toolbox,’ because he’d come to do work. Not to bask in titles. As part of the toolbox, he divested the Interior Ministry of its primary authority in the realm of housing, and received powers that no previous finance minister ever had – on top of getting the housing and environmental-quality portfolios. How dare he call us extortionists! He’s been holding a Turkish bazaar. There’s nothing ideological about him.”

But those are ultimately “troubles of the rich.” Both Kahlon and Bennett rise every morning with a smile on their faces. A coalition of 61 MKs is their dream. The prime minister is totally dependent on them. Neither they, nor Dery – who has returned to the ministry in which grounds were found for his conviction and imprisonment – nor Litzman, who has become the ultimate ultra-Orthodox pet for the secular public, dares to upset the coalition boat. Each of them has a vested interest in this government serving its full term.

Ironically, the only one who might in the future bring down the building on his head, and on the heads of his allies, is Benjamin Netanyahu. He dismantled the previous government because of legislation that threatened to harm his mouthpiece, the freebie Israel Hayom. He’s liable to send this government home because of issues close to home.