Weakened, Drunk on Power and Sensing Change, Netanyahu Prepares for War

Despite the bluster and (partly justified) self-confidence he showed when meeting the media this week, the PM is feeling shifting tectonic plates beneath his feet, due to looming legal and political threats.

After Likud moves to clip his wings, Netanyahu makes minister pay
Amos Biderman

The closed briefings that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been giving senior Israeli media representatives lately is the best summer show in town that the public will not get to see. And unlike some performers on stage, Netanyahu delivers all the goods, and more.

He floats like a mosquito and stings like a wasp. His energy is unbounded. He frightens and coddles, enchants and repels, he’s dramatic and comic, messianic and authoritative, filled with himself and of himself. His passion is enviable. His repertoire is rich and brimming over, embracing the world. He’s one of the best educated of our leaders. He has total command of the details. He proves again what we already knew: There’s no one in Israeli politics more skilled, determined and focused than he – no one more lethal, some would say.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu at meeting of Likud ministers, June 13, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

He’s the opposite of tired: He burned with the same passion this week as on his first day in office. Maybe even more. Because now, unlike when he started out in 1996, there is also a deep sense of victimization and an unquenchable desire to win the media’s esteem and its recognition of his greatness – and this is the same media that he’s trying to cut down to size and vanquish by every means possible.

He’s a few notches above all the rest. In a league of his own. Even when he’s inaccurate, cuts corners, shapes the facts to suit his narrative, he does it with self-conviction and skill that’s as rare as it is astonishing. After all, what are a few dry books in the face of a statesman of his level – a superman, almost a god, who has never been wrong, never made a mistake? Indeed, were it not for him and his 10 cumulative years as premier, and two-plus years as finance minister, Israel would be a backward Third World country, battered and weak economically, militarily and politically.

It’s obvious that he’s launched a campaign. The question is: To what end? Some say that, from his perspective, he’s at war. The public doesn’t yet feel it, but he, like a jungle animal that senses an earthquake even before it registers on the most sophisticated seismograph, is already feeling the shifting of the tectonic plates beneath his feet. There’s the forthcoming state comptroller’s report about Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, the police investigation that has reached into the living quarters of the Prime Minister’s Residence, the threats from the political arena, the public weariness with his long tenure, the disgust with the incessant quarrels in his party and his government – and maybe also his own inability to reinvent himself. In his perception, he’s may soon find himself in a position of weakness, so he needs to project power and self-confidence.

That’s the subversive, complex analysis. On the other hand, sometimes what you see is what you get: a prime minister who in his view is devoting his days and nights to making Israel strong and invincible – economically, politically, militarily – and far from getting the credit he deserves, is enduring relentless volleys of criticism, disdain and vilification. He’s portrayed as a sweaty, hysterical survivor whose only political purpose is to remain in power. It’s this image that he wants to dispel, and he’s doing it (apparently at the advice of his new foreign media adviser, David Keyes) at these off-the-record meetings.

Some of those present formed the impression that they were guinea pigs, selected focus groups for a political number that will go public in the future as a show for the masses. Of late, Netanyahu has increased the number of clips he uploads to YouTube. They all go viral. If the presentation that members of the Haaretz editorial staff were given on Tuesday had been broadcast on television and on the social networks, with an election being held the next day, Netanyahu would have chalked up a landslide victory.

Micro and macro

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Yoav Davidovich

“Yisrael Katz made a mistake,” Netanyahu told a political interlocutor this week. “He scratched a tiger, and tigers don’t like to be scratched.”

In private conversations, the premier vents the contempt and the pity he feels for those unfortunate beings who engage in political “micro-tactics,” as he calls it. He, in contrast, is engaged in macro-strategy, and in its upper spheres. To Netanyahu, Yisrael Katz, the chairman of Likud’s secretariat, personifies the contemptible realm. Netanyahu is not particularly impressed with Katz’s proven achievements as minister of transportation over the past seven years. He knows that everything begins and ends with him, and that his ministers are, at best, contractors. Usually they just get in Netanyahu’s way.

At first glance, Katz’s move on Tuesday in the secretariat, which he’s headed for more than a decade, looked like checkmate. He convened the group, which oversees the party’s bureaucratic apparatus, in order to discuss a reduction of the absolute power of the party leader (Netanyahu) with regard to personal appointments and funding. He had previously lulled Netanyahu’s aides into thinking that he wasn’t going to hold a vote on this – then suddenly asked who’s in favor and who’s against. No fewer than 95 percent, maybe more, of the secretariat voted to clip the party leader’s wings.

In principle, Katz is right. In the Netanyahu-era all Likud institutions, particularly the secretariat, have been reduced to rubber-stamp status. In the last election campaign, Netanyahu appointed many of his cronies to positions in his campaign headquarters and ordered the secretariat to sign the checks. Katz gritted his teeth and awaited his chance.

What prompted Katz to defy his boss so flagrantly at this juncture? Part of the answer can be found in the first section of this column. Katz, with his acute political instincts, discerned that Netanyahu is suffering from weakness. On top of domestic problems, the prime minister might also be in for a diplomatic hammer blow at the hands of U.S. President Barack Obama immediately after the presidential election. Katz probably told himself, as Ariel Sharon did in the past, “Netanyahu is uptight, Netanyahu can be pressured.” He launched his assault, figuring that the chief, who as many knows “only understands force,” would be afraid to fight back.

Miscalculation. Disastrously for Katz, he only discerned one part of the equation (maybe he doesn’t meet much with Netanyahu privately these days): The weakness and anxiety might be there, but so are the hubris, the imperial “I am the greatest” airs and the intoxication of power, in large doses.

In a meeting the day after the secretariat voted, Netanyahu handed Katz an unsigned letter of dismissal from his ministerial post. He demanded that Katz accept the text of a joint announcement – to be issued by the Transportation Ministry – stating that all the decisions made by the secretariat the previous day are null and void (“suspended,” in the language of the announcement, which added that a “committee” would be appointed to discuss the party’s administrative policies). If not, Katz would be fired forthwith.

Katz thought it over. Having worked closely with Ariel Sharon, the most cynical and most vicious of Israel’s recent leaders, he was aware of the scale of the humiliation and public shaming that he would endure in a coerced submission. He called a few Likud MKs to ask how they would respond if he refused to sign and was fired. Would they support him and rise up against the party leader? What he heard was hemming and hawing. His interlocutors wished him luck in his future endeavors.

Katz signed and disappeared, and the cries that had greeted his entry to the secretariat meeting on Tuesday – “Here he is, the next prime minister of Israel!” – faded into oblivion. Katz won’t try anything like that again, but Netanyahu acquired an internal enemy who will wait for the right moment to take revenge. Welcome to the club.

Until this week, Katz used his position as chairman of the secretariat to maintain a balance of power against Netanyahu. It’s unlikely he would have been appointed transportation minister in 2009, or retained the budget-rich ministry in the current government without that party-based power. He walked a thin line between posing a constant threat to the boss and not implementing it.

What changed the equation was the cooption of Yisrael Beiteinu to the coalition and the appointment of its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, as defense minister. Katz doesn’t buy Netanyahu’s claim that the negotiations with opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog are continuing, so thus has to retain for himself the foreign affairs portfolio for the head of Zionist Union in the future. Katz has a written promise from Netanyahu that he will be appointed to one of the three senior ministries: finance, defense or foreign affairs. The first two are already spoken for, but Netanyahu is fearful of revenge by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who also has a signed letter with the same promise. Which is why Netanyahu is hanging on to the Foreign Ministry.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog delivers a statement after failing to unseat Netanyahu, on March 18, 2015.
AP

Katz didn’t know that Netanyahu had run out of patience with him. In the premier’s professional and private milieus, Katz is seen as dangerous, subversive and treacherous. After the pro-Katz Channel 2 report less than a year ago described him as “paving his way to the Prime Minister’s Bureau,” an iron curtain descended between him and the fighting family.

Netanyahu’s aides allege that Katz is collaborating with opposition elements in a bid to oust Likud, dump Netanyahu and contest the party leadership. As fate would have it, hours before the Likud secretariat met, MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor/Zionist Union) uploaded photos on her Twitter account in which she’s seen hugging Katz in a tunnel of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv rail line that’s under construction. Unusually, Yacimovich also heaps praises there on Katz for executing the “only national-infrastructure [project] here, in the face of the endless verbiage and empty promises.” One can only imagine the effect those images and that timing had in the Prime Minister’s Bureau and in his residence.

Katz is also accused by Netanyahu’s people of talking to correspondents (not the above-signed) about the investigation under way against the prime minister and his family, in an effort to fan the media flames. And, naturally, Katz has been charged with having connections with the axis of evil of Noni Mozes and the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

Things finally came to a head this week. The ambush Katz thought he was laying for Netanyahu backfired on him instead. All the deals and party intrigues at which Katz was once a master were of no avail. He learned this week the hard way that when you overdo the use of micro-tactics, you can end up paying a strategic price.

Band of brothers

Olivier Fitoussi

Last Friday, following a marathon 24-hour meeting, the cabinet approved a two-year budget for 2017-2018. Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), who is on an extended family vacation in Los Angeles, worked the phone. On the other end was his chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi, who protected his interests in the formal discussions but even more in the corridors and back rooms, where deals are struck with a handshake before being brought into the conference room.

At 2 A.M. Friday morning, Gan-Zvi perused the budget and discovered to his horror that the clause promising funding for three parties – Habayit Hayehudi, Shas and United Torah Judaism – did not appear. Each party was supposed to get 500 million shekels (about $125 million) for distribution in their respective ministries or yeshivot. Gan-Zvi informed Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) and Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas), and of course Bennett.

Before he left, Bennett, fearing that Netanyahu would take advantage of his absence, struck a deal with the other two: Either everyone gets what was promised or none of them would vote for the budget, provoking a coalition crisis.

Bennett, from the West Coast, Litzman and Dery at home, along with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the name of her vacationing party leader and the vigilant Gan-Zvi all demanded an immediate meeting with Netanyahu. He responded in surprise: He didn’t know about the problem, but would deal with it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman
Emil Salman

As the group was leaving the bureau, however, Netanyahu asked Litzman to stay behind. According to a reliable source, he urged Litzman to break with Bennett. Netanyahu promised that he and Dery would get what was promised and that he would work things out with Bennett afterward. Litzman wouldn’t hear of it, saying he was bound to the agreement with Bennett. He subsequently reassured Gan-Zvi about that, who reassured Bennett. According to coalition sources, it took Netanyahu time to recover from the shock. In the final budget, each of the parties received about 85 percent of what was promised, with the remainder sure to be approved by the Knesset’s Finance Committee in its deliberations.

Bennett is pleased: His ministry’s budget was increased by 4.7 billion shekels (almost $1.2 billion). “Sometimes dreams come true,” he said. Equally important: The alliance with Litzman, which Bennett has worked on since the formation of the government, stood the test and was steeled.

Bennett, the voodoo doll of Netanyahu and his family, needs alliances like this as a defensive wall and sometimes as a lifesaving medicine. His ideal partner is Litzman, who is Netanyahu’s darling. Bennett plays his part in the alliance by contributing to the ongoing effort to eliminate or reduce the “edicts” imposed on Haredi educational institutions in the previous government under the aegis of Yesh Atid (Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Education Minister Shay Piron). When Bennett was criticized for canceling obligatory core curriculum studies in Haredi institutions, he replied that Lapid’s original decision wasn’t being implemented anyway and that “most Haredim already want to learn at a higher level,” and hence would voluntarily study subjects like English and math. “We don’t need bashing,” he added, “just to work with them quietly.”

That’s exactly, but exactly, what Litzman and his co-leader in UTJ, MK Moshe Gafni, want: lots of quiet, no bashing.

Neither forgetting nor forgiving

Before heading for New York this week on a family vacation (with some professional meetings thrown in), Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon gave a few interviews. In one of them he was asked about an online post by his predecessor, Lapid, criticizing the new two-year budget for “dealing with politics, not with the public.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on July 26, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The usually placid Kahlon responded with unusual ferocity. “I suggest showing a little modesty,” he said. “Lapid raised taxes and customs duties. I am doing the opposite. For the sake of economic growth I am working for the benefit of the social-welfare bodies, which he did not do. I suggest that he continue traveling around the world and talking about whatever he wants – anything but economics.”

By Kahlon’s standards, this was a vicious attack. Lapid usually steers clear of economic matters, as part of an obvious strategy: He wants the public to forget his tenure as an unsuccessful finance minister. He spends a great deal of time abroad, meeting with foreign cabinet ministers and legislators, practicing his English and, patriot that he is, telling people here that he’s sacrificing himself for the sake of the country in the cocktail-drenched diplomatic battlefields across the seas.

Kahlon, who knows what his predecessor did – and did not do – while in office, refuses to forget any of that, and it turns out that he doesn’t forgive, either. His assault on Lapid revealed a smoldering hostility. On the eve of the last election, Lapid urged Kahlon to run together with him. Kahlon wouldn’t hear of it. Lapid still views Kahlon as a potential future partner. But Kahlon is more likely to hook up with former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, for example.

Netanyahu undoubtedly enjoyed Kahlon’s jab at Lapid. The rise of Yesh Atid in the polls at the expense of Zionist Union is upsetting the Prime Minister’s Bureau to a degree. They believe that the time has come to let the air out of the over-inflated balloon. But Likud ministers rarely attack Lapid, to Netanyahu’s chagrin. In the wake of the arrow fired by the finance minister at Lapid, Netanyahu surely would like to tell his ministers again, as he did when the finance minister was a popular figure in Likud: “Be Kahlons!”