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With Gantz Out of the Way, Netanyahu Marks a New Target

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Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu await the High Court's decision on their coalition agreement, set for May 4, 2020.
Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu await the High Court's decision on their coalition agreement, set for May 4, 2020.Credit: Amos Biderman

After Independence Day ended Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined a conference call with a bevy of Likud officials. On the line were ministers Yuval Steinitz, Yoav Gallant, Zeev Elkin, Tzipi Hotovely and Eli Cohen, and party whip Miki Zohar.

The lockdown is over, the curfew is lifted, Netanyahu announced. He wasn’t talking about the coronavirus but the long silence imposed on Likud ministers in recent weeks. He was in a good mood, said a number of people who took part.

There were two reasons for the change in the silence policy. The first contains two parts: the High Court hearing on whether to let a Knesset member under criminal indictment form a government, and the legality of the coalition agreement between Netayahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan. The petitions on the former question will be heard Sunday, and those on the latter will be heard Monday.

The High Court’s decision is expected no later than Wednesday, a day before the end of the 21 days after which if a new government isn’t formed – or the president doesn’t grant more time – the Knesset will be dissolved and a new election will be called.

The second reason is the coalition talks between Likud and the Yamina party to its right.

The message of deterrence that Netanyahu instructed his ministers to spread around was: Any annulment of one section of the coalition agreement that would force a return to the table would trigger a new election.

The result wouldn’t be the replacing of Netanyahu by another Likud MK who may be innocent of any crime but won’t have the “unique merits” – as the criminal defendant testified about himself in Likud’s response to the court petitions. Instead, the result would be a fourth election campaign. The High Court will sin, and the public will pay.

Over the past year, toward the end of which Netanyahu became a full criminal defendant, we’ve gotten used to all sorts of abominations. So it was nothing unusual that a person indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust whose trial will open in three weeks ordered his ministers to use threatening language against the top court.

The High Court of Justice, he told them, “can’t intervene in coalition agreements. This is a well-known principle of constitutional law.” Well, none of the ministers bothered to tell him about the sections of the agreement that turn constitutional law into Play-Doh.

One example is the coalition agreement’s shortening of the Knesset term to three years and the co-called Norwegian Law under which an MK is replaced when he or she resigns after being appointed a minister. That gambit tramples on the people's voting rights.

As he was sending his ministers to the media, there was a turnabout Thursday – of course in no way connected to the Prime Minister’s Office or residence. The protesters outside the home of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit – who have been attacking the entire legal system – had moved all the way to the Jerusalem office of Supreme Court President Esther Hayut. They gathered in front of the building to remind its residents, the members of the “High Court Party,” as they put it, that the justices don’t make the decisions, the public does.

These Bibi-ists, who lambaste the courts, the prosecutors and the police, have proved that they don’t do anything without the approval of the denizens of the prime minister’s residence. That’s why we should view their little get-together as a promo for the Likud election campaign, if another is decreed upon us. Lacking a major political enemy after the breakup of Kahol Lavan in late March, the bull’s-eye on the High Court’s back can almost draw itself.

What would happen if the High Court changed sections of the coalition agreement that serve Gantz? That's what I asked a Likud official close to Netanyahu. Would that too lead to a new election? After all, Kahol Lavan is saying: What the High Court rules, we will do.

The Likud official said: There is no danger that the High Court will rule entirely in our favor.

I asked a few Likud people this week if they assume that Netanyahu actually hopes the High Court will intervene so he can blow up the coalition agreement and enter another election campaign against the “deep state” and have the voters choose: Who’s the boss? He’d be asking: Who runs the country, the people through their elected officials or a small, elitist, unelected group of judges and prosecutors sowing evil?

Everyone I asked said they thought Netanyahu prefers a new government now over such an election. After all, we're undergoing a severe economic crisis with high unemployment and a recession on the way that could be deep and long. So you never know how it will end.

But it’s clear that Netanyahu is ambivalent. He’ll be forced to share power for the first time in his 14 years in office. In terms of his approaching trial, the agreement doesn’t give him anything.

And there’s always his small hope that the next time his bloc will top 60 Knesset seats; then all this unity-shmunity, corona-shmorona can be dumped in the garbage. On the other hand, the last two times he also believed in this sweet birdsong, which was accompanied by the chorus of his wife and son. And it didn’t help

Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz at a Kahol Lavan meeting in the Knesset, December 9, 2019Credit: Ohad Zwingenberg

The new Great Satan

Every day that passes since Netanyanu and Gantz’s signing of the coalition agreement less than two weeks ago, Bibi’s position only gets better. The spread of the virus is under control, the number of patients on ventilators is plummeting, and the hysteria that he himself inflamed has ebbed. The curve flattened at just the right time for Netanyahu – before Memorial Day and Independence Day.

In a video this week, we saw Sara Netanyahu outlining a heart with her fingers – with a scary twinkle in her eyes. And of course this happened at the beginning of the Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony. You know, the ceremony that was once the birthright of the Knesset speaker. Now the speaker is Gantz, and he tends to indulge Netanyahu in his many desires.

Now it’s clear why Likud insisted on rescuing the committee on national symbols and ceremonies from the Culture Ministry – which is supposed to go to Kahol Lavan – and leave it with the outgoing head of the that ministry, Miri Regev, the chief spoiler of the royal couple.

In any case, it’s also clear that Bibi is in Cinema Paradiso. Kahol Lavan has thrown itself on a live hand grenade for him. Or to use another metaphor, the rump Gantz party is at Netanyahu’s feet, humiliating itself at his every whim, whether in the Knesset, in the media or at the High Court.

Netanyahu never imagined that someone who just a moment earlier planned to block an indicted politician from serving as prime minister would be sending his lawyers to write sentences like: “The ending of the prime minister’s term bears much broader implications than those in ending a cabinet minister’s term.”

And with another major achievement, it’s hard to know whether to attribute it to Machiavellianism at its best or the spinelessness of the other side. This other achievement was letting Kahol Lavan do the drawing up of legislation.

It’s as if the “unity government” being established on the ruins of Basic Laws, on the diminution of the Knesset’s standing and the shackling of the High Court’s hands is an initiative of Kahol Lavan. In doing so, Netanyahu has sentenced Kahol Lavan’s members to a long and painful stoning by their former partners, the betrayed politicians in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem.

At the head of the parliamentary committee grinding all these leftovers and abominations into constitutional sausage is a new MK, Eitan Ginzburg of Kahol Lavan. He has suffered a deluge of scorn  and abuse from his former colleagues, with whom he had fought in the trenches for three election campaigns.

And all this is happening as Likud whip Miki Zohar and his friends watch from the stands, with their protective masks just barely concealing their broad smiles. Oh, what a lovely civil war.

It’s very likely that Netanyahu, a talented political tactician, foresaw all these inputs. But he certainly never imagined that Lapid, the likely new opposition leader and a skilled and determined rival, would declare that when the day to rotate the premiership approaches, he’ll join up to help prevent Gantz from taking over. This declaration would have been an earthquake if it came as a slip of the tongue or the product of a “closed discussion.”

But it didn’t, it was carefully planned. Lapid entered the committee room at the beginning of the week, sat down and delivered the message.  

What a crazy world. In the three election campaigns within 11 months, Lapid’s banner was complete opposition to Netanyahu’s staying in power – before the indictments were filed and certainly afterward. Amid the possibility that Netanyahu would leave the Prime Minister’s Office and be replaced by the person in whose tall shade Lapid had stifled his ambitions for a year, Lapid pulled the rug out from under Gantz’s feet and granted some extra hope to Netanyahu.

Only a lethal combination of hatred, vengefulness, disappointment and frustration could lead to this declaration that turned Gantz into the Great Satan and Netanyahu into his deputy. Or to use PC terminology, the alternative Satan.

Culture Minister Miri Regev, Sara Netanyahu and Benjamin Netanyahu at an event in 2018.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Even Netanyahu’s crystal ball couldn’t have shown him how Kahol Lavan’s cohesive cockpit would end up as perhaps the ugliest divorce in Israeli political history. We can assume that most of Lapid’s voters don’t identify with his declaration. We can also assume that this threat will never be carried out. He wouldn’t dare. But this assumption hasn’t reassured Kahol Lavan.

Right face

If the expanded panel of 11 justices appointed by Hayut gives Netanyahu and Gantz a green light to continue, the next hurdle for Netanyahu will be the Yamina party of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. (Of course, people on the right say the panel, which tends to be liberal, will liberally strew mines in this case.)

Despite the grumbling coming from the prime minister’s residence, and his allergy to Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, Netanyahu prefers to have them inside the government. As Lyndon Johnson once said, it’s better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.

The only question is the price. Netanyahu is offering them a proposal that seems fair: the Education Ministry and the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry. Plus they’d also get a deputy ministership with responsibility for the World Zionist Organization’s settlement division – the apple of the settlers’ eye – and for national service, which the religious-Zionist community also highly values.

This is an appropriate harvest for Yamina’s six Knesset seats but not compared to what it has today in the caretaker government: defense, education and transportation. It also doesn’t compare to what Labor’s Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli are looting: a socioeconomic portfolio for each. It also doesn’t compare to what Israel’s infamous two new princes, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, are extorting: the chairmanship of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee plus a seat on the Judicial Appointments Committee for Hauser and a whole ministry for Hendel.

But it’s definitely satisfactory compared to the crumbs left for Likud, the largest party with 36 seats. “The way we have shrunk on behalf of unity, Yamina must do the same,” Netanyahu reportedly said.

Bennett is still playing hard to get. As far as he’s concerned, this is an insulting offer that doesn’t respect his eminence and that of his forgotten partner, Shaked – two potential prime ministers; well, certainly pretentious ones. On Thursday, the six MKs boycotted the vote in the Knesset on the rotation amendment. They still don’t know if they’ll be in the government or in the opposition.

People close to Netanyahu are wondering just what it is that Bennett wants. After all, defense, foreign affairs and justice are already in Kahol Lavan’s hands, and the Finance Ministry is going to Likud’s Yisrael Katz. Education is a very senior portfolio, everyone agrees. Likud’s Gilad Erdan or Miri Regev would kill for it.

Netanyahu has instructed his ministers: Tell the media that there are no ideological differences between Likud and Yamina; in other words, Bennett and Shaked are playing ego games at the expense of the right.

During that nighttime conference call, there was plenty of the macabre. The Likud ministers, sword hanging over their heads, were sent on their last mission before it falls on them: Let Yamina prey on what’s left; 10 or 11 ministries, most of them minor, are at stake. “Is there no limit to our altruism?” these Likudniks were surely wondering.

Kahol Lavan's Gabi Ashkenazi, left, and Benny Gantz in Sderot, February 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Anything but the Health Ministry

As one minister asked Netanyahu, in this day and age, how will we explain that we’re not insisting on the health portfolio? Well, Netanyahu answered, Kahol Lavan is demanding it, and we’re discussing the price with him. If we reach an agreement, I suppose they’ll appoint a career public servant.

Gantz wouldn’t shed a tear if his No. 2, Gabi Ashkenazi, gave up on the Foreign Ministry and heroically took on health. With a knife between his teeth and camouflage paint on his cheeks, the former soldier would be so destroyed by the failures, bureaucracy, diminished personnel and missing beds that he’d go MIA.

But Ashkenazi isn’t even thinking about it. He doesn’t believe he needs to prove his valor, and besides, one concession was enough. During the three election campaigns he was declared the next defense minister; in the agreement with Netanyahu, Gantz has taken that job for the first 18 months.

So Ashkenazi will be foreign minister. When the airlines are back in business, he intends to pass through the VIP lounge at Ben-Gurion Airport en route to Washington and European capitals.

Despite his rugged image, Ashkenazi expects many meetings around the globe with ministers and legislators – Capitol Hill included. He often talks about the excellent contacts he has cultivated in Washington, also when he was army chief. Ashkenazi plans to take an active part in the discussions on annexation in the West Bank; sources close to him say he’s the moderate – you might even say the most “leftist” – of the Kahol Lavan bunch that will navigate this issue.

With or without the health portfolio, Sunday is the big day. Just like Netanyahu, Kahol Lavan officials will be watching the live broadcast of the High Court’s hearing on whether Netanyahu can form a government as well as on the coalition agreements.

And speaking of Blue and White, as the name of Gantz’s party translates, faces were a pale blue this week when Kahol Lavan’s leaders heard Lapid’s threat to thwart the rotation of the premiership. They had no idea where it came from; even after the ugly breakup they had hoped Lapid would go easy on them. They thought maybe he would take a middle road: Attack your former partners (after all, the same votes are up for grabs if there’s an election), but not forget that Netanyahu is still the main target.

To their amazement, they’ve been Lapid’s only targets over the past two weeks. They’re finding it hard to cope, a person close to the party told me. They’re busy with Lapid, with the schism, and with allaying their voters’ concerns (to no avail). Until a moment ago, Kahol Lavan’s leaders were used to being hated by half the people and loved by the other half. The new reality is a tough one.

Still, I asked, how are they preparing for the scenario of no government and a new election, after the romance with Netanyahu and Likud? What ticket would they run on?

“They trust the legal construct of the agreement with Netanyahu,” which was drawn up by their legal adviser, Avi Licht, a source close to them said.

And what if the High Court shows no trust in that agreement, I asked, and we find ourselves in an election in three months? What’s their plan?

“Cross your fingers and pray.”

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