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Why Netanyahu Suddenly Renewed His Assault on Human Rights Groups

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Illustration: Naftali Bennett, with Prof. Asa Kasher on his back, taunts Netanyahu with the ethical code; Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant walk away from each other.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman

Sunday was a good day for Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. In the morning, a Tel Aviv court ruled in their favor in their libel suit against journalist Igal Sarna, and awarded them damages of 115,000 shekels ($32,500). Netanyahu was delighted, according to cabinet ministers who met him several times that day – in the regular cabinet meeting, the weekly meeting of the heads of the coalition parties and in a meeting of the security cabinet, which dealt with the electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip. When one minister suggested to Netanyahu that he donate the money to aid the unfortunate Gazans who only enjoy electricity a few hours a day, he laughed uproariously.

Only one thing dampened his joy: Over the weekend, the media intensively discussed the latest gimmick by Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), involving a code of ethics for academe, which was written for the minister by Prof. Asa Kasher. Bennett found a real treasure in Kasher: a professor who’s identified with the left (“He supports the establishment of a Palestinian state,” sources in Bennett’s bureau said this week), and agreed to lend a hand to a deplorable, underhanded attempt, cloaked in an “ethical” guise, to silence his academic colleagues.

Bennett claims that the code is necessary in order to address three widespread problems in local universities: 1. lecturers’ calls for a boycott of their institutions or of Israel; 2. the joint establishment of legal-aid clinics with the human rights organization B’Tselem; and 3. “the trampling and suppression of students whose views are not left wing” – in Bennett’s words.

The new code will supposedly cure all these ills. But even now it’s clear that Kasher’s document is on the way to the garbage bin of used political gambits. Bennett is not about to commit hara-kiri to make the code binding. From his standpoint, just by placing the issue on the media agenda and generating a public discussion he has achieved his goal: deterrence of the academics, as he puts it (as though he were referring to Hamas). He believes that lecturers who want to urge their students to support a boycott of Israel or who will consider opening legal-aid clinics with B’Tselem, will think twice or thrice, knowing that the threat of the code is hanging over them.

So it’s not surprising that last weekend was ruined for the prime minister. His great rival, Bennett, had made a smart move: He’d recruited a leftie prof for a dyed-in-the-wool, right-wing agenda, had been lambasted by the left, which only boosts him in the eyes of their joint constituency, and came out looking like the champion of students’ rights, a warrior against BDS and the protector of the state. Checkmate.

Netanyahu could not remain indifferent. He heads a government of commissars, silencers and boycotters. Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) is censoring artworks and slashing budgets, at least verbally, and engaging in an endless series of provocations. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) is trying, so far unsuccessfully, to turn the Supreme Court into a branch of her party. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), the vice chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, is assisting her with repeated verbal assaults on the court’s justices. And now Bennett. An appropriate Zionist response was needed. On no account must the nationalist, antidemocratic and anti-liberal dialogue serve only him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a public appearance on June 6, 2017Credit: Gil Eliahu

In addition to his unceasing competition with Bennett over the support of right-wing voters, Netanyahu wants to appease the settlers who are angry over what they see as the continuing construction freeze in the West Bank. He will throw them some bones that will mainly have the effect of eliciting the objections of the left, aggravating a few European governments, and drawing the protest of some human-rights organizations – and they will calm down.

So at the meeting with coalition party leaders, Netanyahu announced out of the blue that the legislation relating to foreign funding of Israeli NGOs in its current format is too soft, and that he intends to toughen it. In the same breath he stated that it was time to promote the bill, submitted by MK Miki Zohar (Likud), that places limits on who can petition the High Court of Justice. The premier got his headlines that day and calmed down.

I asked Levin, whom Netanyahu delegated to get the ball rolling on both issues, whether these measures were an act of reprisal by the prime minister to Bennett’s code of ethics. “Absolutely not,” he replied. “Netanyahu and I have been talking about it for a long time.”

The timing is suspicious, I told him. Levin: “He talked to me about the NGOs a week before. We both said that it was time to put a stop to the system.”

But just a year ago, I said, Netanyahu wanted to water down the original legislation – and now he wants to make it more extreme? Levin: “It wouldn’t have made it through in the period of the Obama administration. They were very uneasy about the bill. The present administration has no problem with it.”

Why did the issue of High Court petitioners suddenly come up? Levin: “We also talked about that long ago. Zohar’s bill reached the committee for legislation, but the discussion was deferred. The attorney general is against it, and Ayelet [Shaked] doesn’t want to oppose him. [Likud MK and coalition whip] David Bitan suggested that we wait two weeks and try to reach coalition-wide agreement.”

Despite everything you say, it still smacks of an anti-Bennett move, I said. Said Levin, with more than a dollop of schadenfreude: “Drop it. Bennett is in a problematic period now. He has all these issues with substitute teachers, with the pedophile teacher, he has all kinds of problems.”

Turned tables

By his nature, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) isn’t fond of confrontations. But he’s had a major falling-out with Housing Minister Yoav Galant, his party’s No. 2. They’re like a married couple who’ve been sleeping in separate beds for a long time and hardly speak to each other, even as outwardly they display smilingly constrained relations and constructive cooperation. As we saw in their press conference Wednesday, at which the great apartment lottery was announced.

Divorce takes time. Already Galant, however, is in his heart and soul, and sometimes bodily, too, deep in Likud. He shows up in his full ministerial glory at social events of leading players in the ruling party. “It’s not a Likud event if Galant isn’t there,” Likud ministers say jokingly.

But Kahlon isn’t laughing. People who came up with him through the ranks of Likud (where he started his political career) are telling him that Galant, a retired major general, is saying he’s on his way to being the security figure who will beef up Likud in the next elections, following the departure of Moshe Ya’alon as defense minister. Netanyahu, who wants to maintain good ties with his finance minister for now, has told Kahlon that he’s not involved in the matter. “I am the security figure in Likud,” he told an interlocutor.

From Kahlon’s viewpoint, Galant has been unfair, disloyal and unreliable. Kahlon gave him “everything”: an important, operative portfolio and a place in the security cabinet. When Yisrael Beiteinu joined the coalition, in May 2016, Kahlon made his vote in favor of party leader Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister contingent on Galant’s co-option to the security cabinet. (He’d been an observer until then.) Netanyahu wasn’t crazy about the idea, but gave in. Now, as Kahlon sees it, Galant is exploiting the tools he got from him to muster support in Likud.

Ministers Moshe Kahlon and Yoav Galant in February 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod

“His contribution to the party so far is between zero and zero point four,” people in Kahlon’s circle say of Galant, adding, “He entered politics because he wanted to be defense minister. He was disappointed that we focused on social issues. That’s his problem. Now he’s going to Likud and marketing himself as the next defense minister. Is it really up to him? His behavior shows his lack of political experience. We expected he would resign, especially this week” – when there were reports about Galant's gestures to Likud.

On the eve of the last election, Kahlon, like others, was looking for a general, and Galant was looking for a political party. Public opinion surveys commissioned by Kahlon showed that the former head of Southern Command who almost became chief of staff received relatively high marks. Many people warned Kahlon about the aggressive, crass general, and told him that their partnership was doomed and that Galant has an agenda and ambitions that don’t jibe with those of the party leader. Kahlon listened – but brought Galant on board.

Is Galant’s dismissal from the cabinet inevitable? Kahlon told confidants this week: “There will be a parting of the ways. The question is how, whether it will be friendly or not.” That would seem to be Kahlon’s natural move: By dumping Galant, he’ll demonstrate leadership and, more significantly, deprive him of the power and influence that accrue to a ministerial post. Galant is cavorting about in Likud territory as minister of housing and construction, consolidating his position among Likud mayors and local council heads who need his ministry’s budgets. As a rank-and-file MK, he’ll be just another person seeking Likud support for his candidacy.

Politics and reality don’t always go together. Galant, who was Ariel Sharon’s military secretary at the time of the Gaza pullout in 2005, and who expressed support for the two-state solution, is now selling himself as a natural-born Likudnik. Kahlon, however, really is a natural-born Likudnik. He was a member of the group of rebels who opposed the disengagement. Now he finds himself in an odd position, in which his No. 2 is insinuating his way into the mother party and telling activists that his place is not with the defectors who ended up in Kulanu.

Children’s crusaders

The scandal in the pediatric hemato-oncological department in Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem has gone on for months. The heart goes out to the sick children and their helpless parents, and one is overcome with incomprehension: How can physicians walk out of a unit like that? How does the hospital’s director let it happen? Why is the responsible minister indifferent?

MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union/Labor) has been involved in the crisis almost from the outset, trying to mediate, solve problems, help. MK Yehudah Glick (Likud) entered the picture a few weeks ago. He asked Sara Netanyahu to intervene. For more than two weeks, she and Glick were in constant, almost daily contact. But nothing happened.

Early last week, after Glick emerged deeply upset from the protest tent the parents erected for their children in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, he called MK Nahmias-Verbin. They decided to appeal to the prime minister’s wife jointly, in desperation. It wasn’t easy for the Labor MK. Her voters aren’t fond of “the Lady.” But for the sake of sick children, she overcame her natural aversion.

Sara Netanyahu and Melania Trump talk to children during a visit to the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, May 22, 2017. Credit: POOL/REUTERS

On Sunday, fed up with being spurned, the two went public with the letter they’d sent to Sara Netanyahu. The next day, Glick briefed his fellow Likud MKs about the letter, and Netanyahu responded in a humorous vein: “I see you understand who wields the power.”

On Tuesday, Channel 2’s health correspondent, Yoav Even, reported on the letter. A few minutes later, Netanyahu dropped what he was doing and responded with a Facebook post: “Sorry to disappoint MKs Glick and Nahmias-Verbin,” he wrote sarcastically, “but three days before they approached my wife, she asked me to help solve the problem at Hadassah. Following her request, I spoke several times with Health Minister [Yaakov] Litzman [United Torah Judaism] with the goal of reaching a quick solution.”

But on Monday, in the meeting of Likud MKs, Netanyahu didn’t say a word about any of this. For some reason, he remembered the relevant information only when the story was reported on television. Apparently a certain woman refreshed his memory.

On Tuesday evening, Even reported about the developments at Hadassah on the prime-time news. While he was still on the air, Glick received an urgent phone call from the Netanyahus’ media adviser, Nir Hefetz. The colorful MK was requested in unequivocal terms to issue a statement forthwith in which he “expresses gratitude” – even heartfelt gratitude – to Sara Netanyahu for her intervention, which had nothing to do with the letter he and Nahmias-Verbin had sent. Absolutely nothing.

In other words, not only did the prime minister himself insult Glick on Facebook; the MK was now being asked to humiliate himself publicly. Glick consented. What people won’t do for domestic harmony and calm on Balfour Street. He mumbled a few, brief coerced words.

On Wednesday, Glick met with Yoav Horowitz, the prime minister’s chief of staff. Horowitz had been scheduled to join Netanyahu on his trip to Greece, but was asked by the Boss to stay home and deal with the Hadassah crisis.

Glick is satisfied. He’s not interested in getting credit, which can’t be said about others involved in this story. I spoke to him after he met Horowitz. “What do I care?” he said, unable to stifle his laughter. “If these children are cared for, I’m ready to thank everyone. I was asked to express gratitude, so I did. Fine.”

You’re amused, huh? I said. Glick: “Apparently when I spoke with the Missus, she forgot to tell me that her husband had already accepted her suggestion,” he added contentedly.

Novice savage

Avi Gabai, the former environmental quality minister on behalf of Kulanu, this week published a public opinion survey conducted among Labor Party voters by the Dialog institute, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs. The results show that Gabai and MK Amir Peretz are leading in the race for the Labor Party leadership (21 percent and 23 percent, respectively), followed by current party chair MK Isaac Herzog and MK Erel Margalit (14 percent each), with MK Omer Bar-Lev fifth with eight percent. If so, Peretz and Gabai will move to the second and decisive round, scheduled for July 10 (the first round takes place on July 4).

Primary polls can be very misleading. In the past, they were way off in the contests between Amir Peretz and Shimon Peres, Shelly Yacimovich and Herzog, and (in Kadima) between Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz. The media keeps its distance from these polls, but some candidates can’t resist the temptation.

Gabai, who joined Labor recently, after co-founding Kulanu together with Moshe Kahlon, is considered even by his rivals to stand a good chance of making it to the second round. He’s also taking the most fire, largely from Margalit, who sees him as a genuine threat. “Erel is trying to keep me close to him, but I’m giving him the slip,” Gabai told me this week. “I can’t adopt that style. I’m new. I’m the Mizrahi savage. I have to be polite. I’m in the theater, they’re on the soccer field.”

In parlor meetings, he’s saying, “If Bougie [Herzog] or Amir is reelected, what’ll happen? Nothing. The newspapers will carry a report, the political columnists will comment, and that’s it. You’ll hear no more about Labor. If I’m elected, it’ll be a serious electrical shock. Drama. Electing me saves the party from continuing to sink.”

Unfriendly advice

Despite the surveys, MK Bar-Lev believes that he, Gabai and Peretz are the three most likely to advance to the second round of the Labor primary. Herzog and Margalit are nonentities.

Two weeks ago, he met with Herzog. “I told Bougie he should run for president in another four years, after [President Reuven] Rivlin. I believe it will be against Yuli Edelstein [Likud], speaker of the Knesset. The center and the left will back you,” Bar-Lev told Herzog, “and so will the ultra-Orthodox. Some Likud MKs will also vote for you. Go for the presidency, because party leader you won’t be.”

Bar-Lev believes that if Herzog drops out, most of his voters will opt for him instead, in the next general election. “Let’s say you’re elected, and the party just treads water with 10 to 12 seats," Bar-Lev said, trying to cajole Herzog to quit. “What will it get you? You, who brought 24 seats in the last election, will finish with 12. So the party’s liquidation will be on your head.”

Herzog heard Bar-Lev out patiently, as the latter eulogized him coolly. Bar-Lev is marketing himself as the party’s security figure. He completed his army service 30 years ago with the rank of colonel. His final post was commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. He’s considered a daring fighter, but in matters of national security he certainly doesn’t have any greater understanding than Herzog, who was in the security cabinet for years, or than Amir Peretz, a former defense minister.

“If I’m elected, Labor voters who fled to [MK Yair] Lapid will come back,” Herzog told Bar-Lev. “When Peretz was elected party leader, in 2005, we lost six to eight seats to Kadima. We know why. If I’m elected, that won’t happen. I will call for an open primary for the leadership of a center-left bloc [in the Knesset], and I’ll be elected. I will also revise the party’s constitution. We’ve become a brothel – every MK does what he wants. Under me that won’t happen.”

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