When Netanyahu's Last Confidant Describes Him as Unstable

Netanyahu is keeping everyone guessing what his plans are regarding an early election; his motive? Investigations, investigations and investigations

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a question and answer event on Israel's foreign policy at Chatham House in London, Britain, November 3, 2017.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a question and answer event on Israel's foreign policy at Chatham House in London, Britain, November 3, 2017. TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

Monday morning, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, his ministry’s director general, Shay Babad, and the budget director, Shaul Meridor, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They presented him and the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eli Groner, with a timetable for the passage of the 2019 budget: The intention is to conclude the legislative process by the end of the Knesset’s winter session, late next March. Ambitious, but possible.

Netanyahu okayed the plan. “I need a declaration,” the highly experienced Kahlon persisted, whereupon Netanyahu told Likud’s Knesset faction that the budget would pass by the designated date – meaning that the government intends to stay in power for its full term. Such a statement isn’t exactly a bank guarantee, but it’s all there is.

>> Read more from Yossi Verter: Israeli president's one-state solution averts diplomatic scandal with Spain >>

The thing is that, even now, while projecting messages of ostensible stability, the premier is also singing diametrically opposite tunes. Two weeks ago, this column reported that he had told someone who advised him to advance the next election, “I want to, but I don’t have a majority.” And this week, in a private conversation, he mumbled something about an election in the spring of 2018. We don’t know if that was uttered as a wish or whether he blurted out a work plan.

A rumor spread among Likud ministers this week that a date has been set for the vote: May 29, 2018, three years after the formation of the present government. Why then? Two main reasons: 1. To expedite the attorney general’s decision about whether to indict Netanyahu; and, 2. To exploit the public momentum that should be generated by the celebrations marking Israel’s 70th anniversary, next April. They will aggrandize the prime minister’s image to mythic proportions (Miri Regev, minister of state ceremonies, is on it!) and circumvent all mention of his rivals.

The contradictory, mixed messages are part of the prime minister’s strategy: to blur, to anesthetize, to lead his partners up the garden path, and maybe himself, too. The motive for everything he does, overtly or covertly, can be broken down into three parts: investigations, investigations and investigations. They are the reason and the cause for everything. There’s what the eye sees – in the Knesset, for example – and there are the clandestine things going on in the Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem. A few of them were revealed on Thursday on Channel 12’s “Fact” investigative program.

In an interview with anchor Ilana Dayan, Jacob Weinroth, the veteran lawyer who represents the Netanyahus in criminal matters, talked about the family lifestyle: “[Netanyahu] sometimes calls me in as a semi-psychiatrist. My task is to calm things, just so to peel away the anxiety and leave the problem in its naked state, without the layers of anxiety. He emerges from meetings with me calm, but five days later it leaps out again. He has the feeling that something is persecuting him, but he can’t put his finger on it. The problem is that there are cases in which I can’t calm things down; even a psychoanalyst sometimes needs pills and medicines.”

Until now we’d thought that Sara was the “complex” one, to put it delicately, in that relationship. Now, along comes Weinroth, whose days may be numbered due to illness, and reveals an anxious prime minister who feels he’s being persecuted and needs ongoing emotional support, a shoulder to lean on.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, November 7, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

That jaw-dropping part of the Weinroth interview was recorded a year ago, before the affair of the submarines and missile boats erupted, when Cases 1000 and 2000 were in their infancy, under secret investigation, and long before the detention and interrogation of almost all the prime minister’s men, all his secret sharers, past and present. Heading that list now is the special envoy, attorney Isaac Molho, who joined his law-firm partner, attorney David Shimron, who’s been in and out of the interrogation rooms in the submarines affair. If this was the prime minister’s state of mind a year ago, what’s going on with him now?

Without those two, Netanyahu would be nothing. Samson shorn of his locks. At present the premier is alone, isolated as never before. Never before – and these are not just mere words – has there been an Israeli prime minister around whom such a wilderness prevails. You can actually conjure up images of tumbleweed skittering between the rooms in the aquarium, as the Prime Minister’s Bureau has been dubbed. Even Boaz Stembler, the media adviser who somehow survived for a relatively lengthy period, fled and recently landed the cushy job of head of the Government Advertising Agency.

At the far end of the corridor, behind double doors, sits a person who has lost control. His fate is now being decided in the interrogation rooms of the police’s Lahav 433 national fraud unit. His last confidant, his confessor, tells an interviewer who was unforgettably attacked after reporting on what really goes on in the prime minister's residence and bureau, that Netanyahu is unstable.

Off the leash

The thuggish legislative initiatives of the duo of David Bitan and David Amsalem continue to move ahead. The two are Bibi’s Amstaffs, the parliamentary equivalent of debt collectors, who at the boss’ behest systematically harass his greatest enemy, the Israel Police – the organization investigating him and almost all his confidants. The twosome’s frequent unhinged rants are debauching the political environment. With authority, they are submitting bills and promoting moves that are simply inconceivable, and the sane ministers, who are heartily sick of the two, are forced to defend these abominations in the media half-heartedly, hemming and hawing.

In the most recent, weekly Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu asked the two to lay off the police. “The police are the police,” he said. “We don’t occupy ourselves with them.” His words weren’t aimed at MKs Bitan and Amsalem, but at the media. They were intended to project statesmanship, responsibility and maybe a response to Likud’s nosedive in the latest polls, but were accompanied by a virtual wink: I’m asking you to behave nicely, but you can go on doing your thing.

Indeed, the response wasn’t long in coming. Two days later, in the Knesset plenum, the two orchestrated the passage, in a preliminary reading, of the so-called “recommendations law.” This is a concoction of Amsalem, who is waging a private campaign of revenge against the police for questioning him under caution, twice, on various suspicions during this decade and the previous one. The cases were closed, but Amsalem doesn’t forget and he doesn’t forgive. His vendetta is two-pronged: to get rid of those who dared detain him, and to try to extricate the prime minister from the political and public morass into which he’ll be plunged if the summation and conclusions of the police investigations in Cases 1000 and 2000, which are likely to be submitted before the end of the year, are made public.

The legislation with the mafia-like tinge that’s roiling the entire judiciary and the police, has been tailored to fit the serving serial suspect, Netanyahu, by a former suspect. What’s so improper about that? Netanyahu, with typical double talk, said he has no interest in having “personal laws” passed for him. Nice words, but if they are sincere, it means that the two errant MKs are ignoring his unequivocal instructions.

And illustration of the heads of Reuven Rivlin, Moshe Kahlon, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gilad Erdan, Isaac Molho and David Shimron.
Amos Biderman

Now Netanyahu insists he’s against the latest idea put forward by Amsalem: to raise the prime minister’s salary, with funds that come from cutting the salary of senior figures in the public service, notably that of Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich, who makes 80,000 shekels (about $22,800) a month. In a TV interview, Amsalem complained mightily about that huge salary; in contrast, he said, a policeman who’s just starting out takes home a mere 6,000 shekels.

Amsalem’s campaign to delegitimize the top ranks of the police has achieved notably parodic heights. On Wednesday, he convened the Interior and Environment Committee, which he heads, for a special meeting about the terms of employment of the police’s strategic adviser Lior Horev. Projected on a screen in the committee room was a compilation of Horev’s witty (or witless) tweets against Likud and, in particular, against Amsalem, Bitan, and MKs Miki Zohar and Nava Boker.

Amsalem read them out with exaggerated emphasis, nodding his head like the self-righteous clergywoman on “Saturday Night Live.” There is in fact something of a problem with an adviser hired by the police ridiculing MKs, even if he can claim in his defense that he was only speaking the truth. After all, with this group every joke at their expense, no matter how wicked, pales in the face of reality.

But Horev should have restrained himself, in order not to supply Likud’s Amsalems with ammunition in their war against the police commissioner who employs him. The problem with Alsheich is that he’s incredibly stubborn. He should have given Horev a dressing-down. He’s paying the guy a handsome fee for his services, so let him at least not shoot himself in the foot.

Meanwhile, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) broke a long silence and expressed his opposition to the recommendations law. I won’t let the police be emasculated on my watch, he said at meetings in his office. I will not allow the police to be undermined and the force’s credibility to be called into question.

It took Erdan a long time to emerge from his shell. He noticed that his Likud colleagues were targeting the organization for which he bears ministerial responsibility, as though he didn’t exist. So he reminded them that he’s alive. In regard to Horev, Erdan is actually in tune with Amsalem. But when it comes to the recommendations law, he doesn’t intend to toe the Balfour Street line. The prime minister will again give him the cold shoulder at cabinet meetings. Well, Erdan is already used to that. But at least he’ll maintain a modicum of integrity in the face of honest investigators who are working day and night to get to the truth.

Today we can assume with considerable certainty that the scheme to trip up police investigators and prevent them from drawing up their recommendations soon of the Netanyahu cases, and thereby drag out the judicial entire process for another year or two (and then to claim delay of justice or invoke the statute of limitations) won’t work. Neither Habayit Hayehudi nor Kulanu will support the retroactive implementation of such a law. It’s not they who will be Netanyahu’s saviors.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.
Gil Eliahu

The investigations will end, the findings will be summarized up, the public will hear whether an evidentiary infrastructure to try Netanyahu has emerged, or not, and for which offenses. The public will hear what Netanyahu doesn’t want us to know.

Smiles and laughs

Likud will not have a government without Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party, no matter how many seats they win in the elections. Labor leader Avi Gabbay is not an option for Kahlon; MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) is.

Nevertheless, Kahlon of all people has lately become a target for Likud barbs. Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis slammed him at a political gathering. “An extreme-left policy,” no less, he termed the finance minister’s approach to economic issues. Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Haim Katz whined about him at a meeting of Likud ministers: “Everything that’s totally Kahlon’s doing passes, and everything that’s not doesn’t get passed.” The same Katz this week asked the treasury to make available 50 million shekels for heating for needy old people. “Why only 50?” Kahlon wondered. “Take 109 million.”

Last week, in London, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who accompanied the Netanyahus on their trip there, was heard telling an interlocutor: “You think Likud is running the country? Wrong. Kahlon is running the country.”

The complaints continue to pile up. It bothers them that Kahlon doesn’t accede to all their requests. Regev wants money for culture and sports in outlying areas? She’ll get it, in spades. She’s asking for 200 million shekels ($57 million) for next year’s Independence Day celebrations? She’ll go to bed hungry if necessary. Whatever works with his worldview, Kahlon pays for. What doesn’t, he rejects. Likud has a central committee, primaries, people who have to butter up others – I don’t, he says in private conversations.

Now they’re angrier than ever at him. Gritting their teeth. He’s put a stop sign on road taken by Amsalem and Bitan: There will be no retroactive or “personal” legislation. Kulanu won’t lend a hand to that. Bitan is furious, sometimes he puffs himself up like a blowfish in meetings of coalition-party heads, threatens that the government will be dismantled. Kahlon laughs in his face. This week, in the presence of the prime minister, he told Bitan, the coalition whip: This school, in which you’re now enrolled as a pupil? Go to the corridor and you’ll see photographs of former principals on the walls. I’m one of the principals. I was there long before you. I invented some of the tricks you’re now trying to use on me.

Bitan said nothing. Netanyahu smiled. Kahlon laughed.