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What Finally Extinguished Netanyahu’s Burning Hatred for Bennett

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Illustration: TV cameras are turned toward Netanyahu's golden statue; Netanyahu and Bennett sweat over Amona.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman

Few remember, but legislation to expropriate Palestinian land and legalize unauthorized outposts came up for a vote in the Knesset four and a half years ago. Exactly the same bill and, then as now, it was submitted by MKs from the National Religious Party (known these days as Habayit Hayehudi). Then, too, the prime minister was Benjamin Netanyahu, and he threatened sanctions against ministers and deputy ministers who breached coalition discipline. Back then, he threatened to fire anyone who supported the bill. This week, acting through coalition whip MK David Bitan, he punished MK Benny Begin (Likud) – who voted against the bill and the party line – by temporarily removing him from the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Why is now different from then? The occupied territories are the same territories; the international community is also the same. But Netanyahu is no longer the same Netanyahu. In June 2012, the NRP was small, on the verge of extinction and headed by Zevulun Orlev, a bland if likable politician who frightened no one – least of all the person who threatened to annihilate the Iranian nuclear project. In his second term as prime minister, Netanyahu felt sufficiently confident to dispose of the unconstitutional, immoral and harmful bill (harmful, above all, to what’s known as the “settlement enterprise”).

Netanyahu was then head of a classic right wing-center party, before it was hijacked by the far right and the settlers. His government included Ehud Barak, Begin, Gideon Sa’ar, Moshe Ya’alon, Dan Meridor, Moshe Kahlon, Michael Eitan, Limor Livnat and Silvan Shalom.

It’s not by chance that the only one of that group who still holds a ministerial portfolio is Finance Minister Kahlon. He fled his home party and now, as head of Kulanu, occasionally blocks extremist moves targeting the Supreme Court.

Orlev was succeeded a year later by Naftali Bennett, under whom the former NRP became a key player in the right-wing constituency. The battle between Likud and its sister party for the hearts and minds of the right-wing electorate became the essence of Netanyahu’s political existence. Hostilities intensified, fueled and fanned by the primal resentment that Netanyahu and his household feel for Bennett and his party colleague Ayelet Shaked. (Check out the next story: there’s a twist in the plot.)

The climax occurred in the 2015 election when, by means of sophisticated wiles, Netanyahu infiltrated the heart of the bastions of Habayit Hayehudi’s constituency and grabbed five or six Knesset seats for Likud. That sequence of events has since dictated his political, diplomatic, public and media moves.

That was also the genesis of the prime minister’s support for the bill that is currently sullying the face of the Knesset and the country. It’s not surprising that the only Likud MK who mustered sufficient courage and displayed intellectual integrity to acknowledge the truth is one of the names on the list above: Benny Begin.

Likud MK Avi Dichter, for example – a former Kadima MK who even ran for that party’s leadership, as well as one of the six former Shin Bet security service chiefs who starred in Dror Moreh’s documentary “The Gatekeepers,” in which Dichter preached the need to build trust with the Palestinians – toed the line all the way. His courage and integrity evaporated for fear of the voters’ revenge in the party’s primaries.

Thus, as part of the absurdity that characterizes the ruling party in the current Knesset, Bitan – certainly with Netanyahu’s agreement – announced that he was ousting Begin from the constitution committee for now. Cynicism is unbounded: on the eve of the 2015 election, Netanyahu, appalled at Likud’s list of candidates, implored Begin to return to the Knesset in a guaranteed slot. He needed the ideologue of conscience as a fig leaf for the empty bunch that made it into the top 30 slots – and of whom Bitan is a prime example. Bored at home, Begin acceded to the request. And now Bitan, for whom the terms “conscience” and “ideology” are mere gibberish, is the one who punished Begin.

Formally, the whip and faction head has the power to impose sanctions on wayward MKs. But there’s also such a thing as common sense. Can’t Likud absorb Begin’s vote without humiliating him? Politically, it doesn’t even serve the party’s interests. There are still Likud voters for whom Begin remains a symbol and who feel nauseated at the antics of the party’s lawmakers in parliament. The penalty meted out to Begin could well drive them into the hands of Kahlon, or Yair Lapid, or those of a new rightist party in the next election.

As someone once said: When you chop chips, trees fly.

Row, row the boat

People rubbed their eyes in disbelief: Netanyahu entered the Knesset chamber on Monday afternoon and sat down, not in his place at the head of the cabinet table but next to Education Minister Bennett, and struck up a long, smile-filled conversation with him. On Wednesday, after the outpost legalization law passed its first Knesset reading, they shook hands. Before the cameras. They were all smiles.

There’s still no love lost between them, but it’s undeniable that at this juncture they are in a honeymoon phase. The saga of the bill and the onrushing evacuation of the outpost at Amona has left them both in the same boat. Instead of churning in opposite directions, they now find themselves rowing together toward a political safe haven.

The evacuation of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank – Netanyahu’s first in his 10-plus accumulated years as prime minister – will be registered under both their names. Neither of them will be able to make political hay from the other’s plight. In the past three weeks, they spent scores of hours together, mostly in private, in an attempt to resolve the problem of Amona and the other thousands of residential units whose legal status is identical. The effort drew them closer, notwithstanding all the qualifications and the ephemeral nature of political love affairs like this.

Habayit Hayehudi chair Naftali Bennett shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, December 7, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The ever-suspicious Netanyahu was convinced that Bennett was out to topple the government over Amona, and that after the election he would team up with Lapid in order to keep Netanyahu from becoming prime minister again. “I tell you, in the next election Bennett will go with Lapid,” Netanyahu told Likud ministers during the past few months. In their meetings, Bennett told him it wasn’t so. “I don’t want to dismantle the government,” he told him last Saturday evening. “I entered politics to change things, and now I wield influence – in education and in the judicial system. But I am ready to dismantle the government if no overall strategy is found.”

They looked into the whites of each other’s eyes and reached a decision: Amona is out, “regularization” of settlements is in. If the legislation is rejected by the High Court of Justice, they are already working on another legal approach that will exempt the other thousands of homes from a similar fate. They are being aided by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who buckled under Netanyahu’s pressure.

Two years ago, in November 2014, Netanyahu boasted in a Knesset speech that he had achieved great things for the country without having to evacuate any settlements. You can now strike that from the record. Amona will be evacuated, within two weeks at most. Netanyahu will emerge safely from this crisis, which threatened his coalition. Even Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich – both from the extremist Tekuma faction of Habayit Hayehudi – are with him, Netanyahu notes (using his favorite phrase: “on board”). The most horrific scenario of all, losing seats to the satellite party, has been erased. Lapid, who promised party colleagues during the past year that “Amona will cause the break-up of the government” will have to continue to remain patient.

Netanyahu left the lofty sentiments to Bennett, who, with throat choking, delivered pathos-ridden declarations on Facebook and in the Knesset about the historic importance of the outpost-legalization law, as though for the settlers it were the Balfour Declaration, 2016-style. The High Court will decide whether it’s Balfour or bluffer.

It’s important for Bennett to present the package, which includes the dismantlement of Amona, as a second “1977 upheaval” – his Facebook reference to Likud’s first-ever Knesset victory – in order to offset the gloomy impact of a possible violent evacuation. He forgot that the person who came to power in 1977 was Menachem Begin – who gave the Egyptians the Yamit settlement in northern Sinai and demolished all the settlers’ homes there.

Bennett managed himself pretty well in this affair. The plan enjoys broad support among the settlers. The Amona settlers reject it, but that’s their problem. They had two years to leave peacefully, without subjecting their young children to the trauma of black-uniformed police officers entering their homes, with mounted horsemen outside, along with the attendant screaming and forcible evictions. Their leader, Avichai Boaron – who didn’t do well enough in the Habayit Hayehudi primaries to enter the Knesset – is preparing his next run in the primaries at their expense. He has no real troops, only the media that’s fussing around him.

The art of politics

Last Tuesday, two political events took place in Tel Aviv, about one kilometer apart as the crow flies. In one, Zionist Union leaders held a press conference to launch a campaign under the rubric of “Netanyahu’s hidden taxation.” The big guns were there, including party chiefs Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Manuel Trajtenberg and faction head Merav Michaeli. None of them would make it into the top 10 of any survey of politicians identified, even loosely, with a social-justice agenda.

The campaign itself featured a video starring Trajtenberg, an economics professor who chaired the public committee that was established to solve the high-cost-of-living issue after the 2011 mass protests. There were all kinds of facts and figures about the indirect taxes the public pays in housing, education, transportation and health. It’s an important message, but a complicated one, hard to follow and heavy with statistics.

Not far from there, in Rabin Square, a 4-meter-high (13 foot) gilded statue of Prime Minister Netanyahu was installed at dawn, evoking images of dictators whose countries are replete with their sculptured likenesses. The message here was sharp, transparent, even simplistic. The provocation was obvious. Dozens of citizens gathered around the sculpture, argued, exchanged opinions, until one hothead – from the left, as it happens – toppled the statue, to prevent the desecration of the memory of another prime minister who was assassinated just meters away.

The statue stood in its place for about six hours until it was brought down, after which it was hauled, slightly the worse for wear, back to the studio of the artist, Itay Zalait. His artistic-political act concluded shortly after the end of Zionist Union’s press conference. And what happened next? The sculpture story grabbed the headlines in all the news outlets.

The Rabin Square event can’t be written off as an anecdote. The discussions it sparked encompassed art, politics, morality, the public sphere, even municipal issues. The artist touched a raw nerve. Zionist Union’s “hidden taxation” campaign, which also dealt with acute core issues affecting every Israeli, didn’t get an iota of that attention.

The only debate the new campaign stirred was within the party: Between the MKs who were invited to the press conference and those who weren’t. The event was covered by the financial newspapers the following day, but the whole item floated quietly into the media stratosphere.

The sculpture happening only underscored the nullity of the opposition. Whatever Herzog and his colleagues may do – short of, perhaps, barricading themselves on the roof of the Tel Aviv Municipality and shooting in every direction – will be greeted by a hearty yawn. Their story is over. Finito.

On Monday, Herzog – emulating his father at the United Nations – tore the outpost-legalization bill to pieces at the Knesset rostrum. Sources in Zionist Union say he was extremely agitated ahead of the symbolic act. He expected that it would cause a furor, shake the rafters. But no, nada. Like father, not like son. The media didn’t care. No one heard about it.

In launching the new campaign, Herzog and his associates made every mistake possible. The timing was bad, disconnected, out of context. There might have been some logic if they’d waited for the budget discussions and held a press conference in a seething Knesset. That probably would have got them an item on the TV news. That wasn’t the purpose, however, claimed one of those behind the campaign, yesterday. “The intention was to channel the discussions on the budget, when they begin, another two weeks from now. And it was directed at the financial press.”

The list of participants was also peculiar. The party’s MKs who are identified with “social” issues – notably Shelly Yacimovich and Amir Peretz – weren’t invited. Not even the chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, Eitan Cabel, knew about the event.

The press conference was kept secret from the party’s other MKs, as though it were a raid on the Prime Minister’s Office. The night before, the parliamentary aides of the relevant MKs received an email about the press conference. The sheet of messages would be sent to the MKs – Zionist Union currently has a total of 24 – only after the press conference began, they were told – probably to ensure that none of them leaked anything.

The other MKs laughed their heads off. That was the only thing that brought a smile to their lips this week, after a Channel 2 News poll forecast that Zionist Union would win 10 Knesset seats if an election were held now.

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