Analysis

With Investigative Noose Closing in on Him, Netanyahu's March of Folly Continues

With one hand, the premier is trying to create a 'European front' against Iran, and with the other, he validates the disgraceful law of plunder. In between? Hummus with his 'everyman' finance minister.

Kahlon buddies up to Netanyahu, Yacimovich runs for leadership of the Histadrut labor federation, and Bennett stands on top of settler homes.
Amos Biderman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked worried when he arrived for the meeting of leaders of the coalition parties on Sunday. “I’m thinking of postponing the vote until after I meet with [U.S. President Donald] Trump,” he told them. He was referring to the legislation intended to enable the expropriation of Palestinian land and the legalization of illegal settler outposts. He never liked the bill, from its origins back in 2012, and through all its different incarnations. “What do you say?” he asked his political partners innocently.

One after the other backed him. “Bibi, I’m completely behind you on this,” declared Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), seconded by Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas). The chairman of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, MK Moshe Gafni (Degel Hatorah/United Torah Judaism) was the most adamant of all. “Of course we have to postpone,” he said emotionally and quoted a passage from the Gemara that forbids Jews to provoke gentiles and rebel against the world’s nations. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) wasn’t present, but told Netanyahu earlier that he would support any decision the prime minister made. That had been his position from the outset: coordinate, coordinate, coordinate.

Then all eyes turned to the wayward lad, Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi). “Sorry,” he said, “it will come up [in the Knesset] tomorrow, and it will be passed tomorrow.” That sentence became Bennett’s mantra, which he intoned for all who asked.

Netanyahu still looked concerned. “Get me Dermer,” he told his secretaries, “we’ll hear what he has to say.” A sign of the new times: After three-and-a-half years of futile service, when Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, was persona non grata in the corridors of the administration, finally someone in the White House picks up when Dermer’s on the line. For the first time he’s able to provide the boss in Jerusalem with reliable information based on authoritative sources, rather than on the wishful thinking of frustrated Republican lawmakers.

Dermer wasn’t available. The meeting broke up his two cents. Bennett was a bit nervous. To be on the safe side, he called his man in the Trump administration and asked how the enactment of the land-grab legislation would be received in Washington ahead of Netanyahu’s visit next week. Bennett’s impression was that it wouldn’t matter. Maybe Netanyahu later got a similar answer from Dermer.

The Knesset passed the bill the next day by a vote of 60-52. Netanyahu was on a plane at the time, heading for a get-acquainted meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Before boarding, he stood below on the tarmac, his wife’s eyes – one admiring, one accusing – on him, and declared that he was too busy running the country to be impressed by “false ultimatums” and “meaningless briefings.”

Bennett wondered what Netanyahu was getting at. He hadn’t presented an ultimatum, either open or hidden, and had deliberately refrained from giving briefings. He’d only said, calmly, “It comes up tomorrow, and it passes tomorrow.”

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May
Chris J. Ratcliffe, AFP

Netanyahu’s pre-boarding statement stirred questions in the political arena about when the vote would be held. The feeling was that it would be deferred. Everyone looked for the guy who knows, coalition whip MK David Bitan (Likud). At the time, he was in Windsor, England, at an impressive conference of Limmud FSU, an organization that works with Jews from the former Soviet Union. (Full disclosure: I was a guest at the event.) Bitan was inundated with calls, text messages and requests for interviews from Israel. Everyone wanted to know whether the vote would take place.

Of course it will take place, he said. His interlocutors didn’t believe him. I asked whether his confidence stemmed from a phone call he’d received from Netanyahu. On the contrary, he said; they hadn’t spoken.

Patchwork government

When the history is written of the march of folly of the fourth Netanyahu government, the past few weeks will undoubtedly get a place of (dis)honor.

With his left hand, the prime minister is trying to create a “European front” against Iran, consisting of Germany, Britain, France and other countries. With his right hand, he validates the law of takeover and plunder whose international and legal hazards are known to him better than to most. He himself warned against the legislation countless times.

He embarks on a flashy world junket to drum up support for some sort of new agenda, which many find artificial, and before leaving lines his route with a series of political and diplomatic land mines. It’s become tiresome to write that in this term, Netanyahu has become the head of Naftali Bennett’s government, but it’s the truth. The only reason this constitutional and policy-related disgrace came about is the insane competition for a few right-wing Knesset seats, thanks to which Netanyahu is prime minister. In 2012 when Bennett was still in high-tech, Netanyahu furiously shot down attempts by Habayit Hayehudi in its earlier incarnation to submit exactly the same bill.

The “Regularization Law,” as it’s known in newspeak, is another witches’ brew concocted in a moldy cellar, to deal with the fatal disease of the settlements. On this issue, the government is addressing virtual, short-term issues whose supreme aim is to prove to right-wing voters that the leadership’s word is its bond and that its heart is with them.

This conception collapsed in the settler outpost of Amona. There were years of deferments and long weeks of twists and useless solutions, until at last the illegal outpost was evacuated and demolished. In the weeks ahead, nine houses in the veteran settlement of Ofra will be evacuated, followed by the outpost of Netiv Avot. Final court decisions have already been handed down in both cases.

As for the Regularization Law itself, it will likely be struck down by the High Court of Justice. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which the justices will reject the position taken by the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, who has gone out of his way to demonstrate his displeasure with the law, and may even appear before the court to argue his case. (Some in the Prime Minister’s Bureau are fantasizing that Mendelblit’s display of independence on the land-expropriation law is intended to make him a media hero ahead of a future decision to close the cases against Netanyahu.)

The problem of the settlements and their legal status is in fact a genuine one, and it demands a solution. Land-grab legislation is not the recipe. Its harm to the settlement project outweighs its benefit. Bennett knows that, Lieberman knows it and has said so, Kahlon knows it, and Netanyahu knows it, too. They’re all playing a childish game, nodding to their voters, reaping political hay where they can and rolling their eyes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, enjoying a break with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, February 8, 2017.
Netanyahu’s Twitter page

The hummus solution

On Monday, the prime minister invited the finance minister to join him for hummus in Jerusalem. Kahlon picked up the distress signal. He understood he was being used as a prop to kosher a can of worms in a play not of his devising. He immediately accepted: What does he care?

On Wednesday, legions of bodyguards invaded a local hummus joint. Netanyahu arrived with his chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, and Kahlon with his spokesman, Omri Harush. They sat around a Spartan table, ate and drank well – and of course the premier footed the bill. How generous. Nor did he forgo a tip. What mental preparation he underwent, what inner fortitude he summoned to make this rare gesture. The scene of payment to the waiters was staged and meticulously directed by Netanyahu’s advisers, as though it could dissolve the evidence and testimony about goods worth hundreds of thousands of shekels that the Netanyahus got others to buy for them. Then Bibi and Kahlon sat outside over Turkish coffee.

“We’re getting a bonus of an excellent economic year,” Netanyahu declared, promising that many more such years, even better ones, are on the way.

The investigative ring around the premier is getting tighter. Case 1000 is buckling under the load. Case 2000 is still a mystery. Case 3000 is morphing from “examination” to criminal investigation, which, even if it doesn’t involve Netanyahu, very much involves his personal lawyer and close confidant, David Shimron. This is a time when it’s crucial to project calm, stability and inner resilience – in short, business as usual.

And when the aim is to put space between you and unseemly tales of champagne, cigars and the queen’s jewels, there’s no better haven than a bowl of hummus, together with beans and pickles, in the company of the “everyman” politician who symbolizes the very opposite of everything that’s enshrouding the prime minister and his wife. A photo-op in his company is medicine for melancholy.

There are other ministers, including some in Likud, who are ordinary, honest and decent folk, untainted by scandal. None even comes close to the folksy fellow from the treasury.

The TV news on Wednesday revolved around the various investigations involving Netanyahu. Haaretz investigative journalist Gidi Weitz published another stomach-turning story about the incomprehensible greed of the lady who forced her husband to call their private ATM, aka Arnon Milchan, and implore him to buy her jewelry worth 10,000 shekels ($2,500) for her birthday. The hummus story, which was broadcast on all the channels, helped sweeten the sour taste of the other reports, at least momentarily.

The message Netanyahu wanted to broadcast is that all is under control, everything is hunky-dory – but it’s not. His ministers are up to their necks in planning for the day after. One Likud minister is working on a plan to have the Likud Central Committee – and not those voting in the usual primaries – elect the next party leader, who will form an alternative government during the current Knesset, without new elections. Netanyahu is still alive, but the birds of prey are already hovering overhead.

Naftali Bennett, who promised in the recent past not to topple a right-wing government “over cigars,” is talking with people in his circle about the next stage in his party’s evolution. He’s planning what he calls a “dramatic renovation” of Habayit Hayehudi, to make it more attractive to a broader public. That means dumping extremists like Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich; beefing up the ranks with more secular women in the spirt of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked; and considerably reducing the number of bearded kippa-wearers in favor of mainstream ‘bros and sisters.

In Bennett’s vision, Habayit Hayehudi Gen 3 will make serious inroads into a post-Bibi Likud, which, leaderless and bewildered, will embark on an internecine feudal war. Bennett has happily adopted the idea Netanyahu conceived more than a year ago (and which was first reported here): establishment of a “Republican party.” It would consist of an alignment of center-right and religious parties, some more moderate than others, which would wage battle against the center-left bloc, which is currently led by MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid).

Bennett will suggest conducting polls among the potential electorate to determine who should head the right-wing umbrella party. For now, he’s calm. The up-to-date surveys he sees indicate that he’s the preferred candidate of the right after Netanyahu. But Bennett's ideas are unlikely to come to fruition. Likud will want to choose its own leader and test the party’s strength in the polling booths. But how ironic it will be if Netanyahu’s ambitious project gets off the ground – without Netanyahu.

The union forever

A little more than a year ago, this column reported that Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich was contemplating a run for leadership of the Histadrut federation of labor instead of trying to regain leadership of her party. “The job [of Histadrut leader] is tailor-made for her,” I wrote, adding that the current head, Avi Nissenkorn, “shouldn’t pose an obstacle.”

The considerations that were guiding her then haven’t changed: Labor is still going downhill. The party will not win the next election, and the day after the new government is formed, the party leader will become a lame duck.

Yacimovich still looks like a decent option at all for the position at the Histadrut. What has changed since then is that Nissenkorn has become an obstacle, even a serious one. He’s gained experience, seniority, power and influence. He’s forged alliances and formed coalitions, and he was just a step away from creating sweeping agreement within the organization that would have canceled the elections and bestowed on him another five years in power, on top of the three he received as an inheritance from the former Histadrut leader, Ofer Eini.

Yacimovich has lost interest in the Labor Party, at least in the upcoming round. She still enjoys being an MK, and she’s definitely one of the most influential legislators we have. But after a decade of lawmaking, she wants an operative role. The idea of forming a social-democratic party was considered but is not relevant now.

The alliance she entered into with her fellow party member and sworn rival, MK Eitan Cabel, is surely one of the weirdest ever seen in Israeli politics. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. The prevailing hypothesis is that the two reached an agreement. He will give her, as a necessary base, his faction in the Histadrut; she will place her supporters at his disposal, if he decides to run for the party leadership this summer. Both of them deny the existence of the second part of any such deal.

Nor is it clear whether Yacimovich can deliver the goods: Her supporters are independent-minded people, a fact she’s the first to take pride in. If any of them think that Amir Peretz, Isaac Herzog, Avi Gabbay, Erel Margalit or Omer Bar-Lev (to name a few) is better suited to lead Labor – a directive from Yacimovich is not likely to make them vote against their conscience.

In the meantime, everyone’s awaiting a court decision as to whether Cabel has the right to allow Yacimovich to run at the head of his Histadrut faction. If so, Nissenkorn will be attacked for trying to prevent her from running: If he’s so sure of himself, why did he try to block a democratic process? That attests to weakness and fears.

But even so, Yacimovich would have to run against a particularly powerful coalition that supports Nissenkorn, led by Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz (Likud), a good friend of hers who worked with her to pass extensive socially oriented legislation, and by MK Amir Peretz, from her party, who is also backing Nissenkorn. A Yacimovich victory would come as a surprise.

In fact, even Nissenkorn’s critics concede that in his term beneficial measures have been introduced to help workers. Indeed, three weeks after this column wrote about Yacimovich’s thoughts on the matter, she was asked in an interview whether she intended to run for Histadrut leader. “The Histadrut is an extremely important body, but that idea is not on the agenda,” she replied, adding, “and I am pleased with the job Avi Nissenkorn is doing.”

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon in the Knesset, November 16, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Zero-sum game

The earth is trembling in Meretz. Reader, even you must have felt the shockwaves. The intention of the party’s leader, MK Zehava Galon, to change the rules and introduce open primaries in the party, both for the leader and MKs, is encountering fierce opposition.

Galon wants to discard the archaic procedure whereby the leader and the slate of Knesset candidates are chosen by a moldy, exclusive club of 1,000 convention delegates. She wants to open the ranks and invite everyone who wants to, to register, declare that he’s a Meretz voter, pay a symbolic fee and check off the names.

Galon is convinced that Meretz, as a liberal, ethical party that advocates transparency and openness, has no future under the present backroom system. There are many left-wingers out there who are looking for a party but also want influence – let’s give it to them willingly, she’s saying. Galon is demonstrating courage and willingness to take a risk. She’s also placing her neck on the chopping block: She too will have to win the hearts of an unknown public.

The major opponent, at the moment, to the primaries initiative is MK Ilan Gilon. He is set to contest the party’s leadership against Galon. If so, he’ll prefer the intimate, warm court of the convention, which will be asked to decide about Galon’s initiative this fall, if the general elections aren’t moved up.

Galon intends to fight this battle to the finish, without compromises. For her, it will be all or nothing.