Railroad Row Highlights Netanyahu’s Never-ending Purge of Political Rivals

The prime minister spends just as much time dealing with his own fear as he does instilling it in others.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Credit: Yoav Davidovich
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In the late 1940’s, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was looking for an excuse to purge the young and upstart Communist leadership in Leningrad. The city had become too independent during the three year Nazi siege in World War II.Its leading figures, disciples of the disgraced Leon Trotsky and the murdered Sergei Kirov, showed worrying signs of ambition. The January, 1949, All-Union Trade Fair, organized by the Leningrad Communists to revitalize their city’s ravaged economy, provided the pretext. It was a secret plot to introduce capitalism and siphon off federal funds from Moscow, Stalin’s henchmen claimed. In what came to be known as the Leningrad Affair, Soviet authorities tried and executed the alleged renegades, launching a major purge that would decapitate the political and intellectual elites of the city, which is now called St. Petersburg.

It goes without saying that Benjamin Netanyahu is not Stalin in any way, shape or form, other than the fact that the Israeli prime minister is also a highly suspicious if not outright paranoid political leader and that he too is a wily political operator who has successfully purged, albeit in a far more peaceful manner, any and all potential competitors in recent years. And that his pretext in his most recent effort to diminish if not expel his Transportation Minister, Yisrael Katz, was train tracks, not trade fairs.

It’s a convoluted, only-in-Israel kind of story about railroad construction projects that were being carried out on Saturday, the official day of rest, in order to minimize their impact on train schedules and automobile traffic on weekdays. For one reason or another – getting to the bottom of who started what is a Rashomon-like endeavor – the hitherto routine rail works turned into a major political crisis late last week, as Netanyahu seemed to cave in to religious politicians’ demand to stop the Shabbat rail construction and simultaneously launched a ferocious attack on Katz for supposedly masterminding the incident in the first place.

In a 48-hour bombardment of Soviet-style hyperbole against Katz, the Prime Minister’s Office accused him of organizing “a putsch”, no less. The Likud minister was “trying to poison relations between the prime minister and the Ultra-Orthodox or trying to damage his reputation with the general public”, Netanyahu wrote on Facebook. On Sunday, however, Netanyahu retreated from his threat to sack Katz, either because he was deterred by public opinion, which was clearly siding with Katz, or because he preferred to keep the now subdued minister by his side, for now, with a Damocles Sword of dismissal hovering over his head.

Knowing Netanyahu, however, a sword left hanging in the first or second set is certain to decapitate someone in the third. Katz, once a disciple of Ariel Sharon and a Likud powerhouse in his own right, has long been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side and a potential target in his sights. Relations between the two took a turn for the worse in August when Katz, who serves as Chairman of the Likud, tried to take over the Secretariat of the party as well. Netanyahu browbeat Katz to retreat from the move, but the fight was clearly not over for him or Katz or the both of them together. Given the prime minister’s proven record of liquidating an astonishingly long line of previous would-be challengers for Likud leadership, after this latest skirmish one can safely assume that Katz’s political demise is now only a matter of time.

It’s no exaggeration to claim, in fact, that the panel of potential Likud rivals, real or imaginary, that Netanyahu has directly or indirectly removed from power and often from politics could form a far more impressive Israeli cabinet than the one that is currently serving. It would include potential and wannabe successors such as the recently departed Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, former Education Minister and popular Likudnik Gideon Saar and former Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom as well as so-called Likud princes Dan Meridor, Ronnie Milo, Michael Eitan, and Benny Begin, who was distanced by Netanyahu but later reprieved.

Netanyahu at Likud Headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters

And there’s a whole other class of Netanyahu rejects, who were once close to the prime minister, were then rejected and have now come back to haunt him. These include his current Defense Minister and one time confidante Avigdor Lieberman, his current Education Minister and one time loyal aide Naftali Bennett and his current Finance Minister and one time star prodigy Moshe Kachlon. And that’s without even mentioning political allies who have turned enemies, such as Ehud Barak, and more or less all of the security chiefs who worked under Netanyahu and eventually came to revile him.

Netanyahu’s success in eliminating rivals and distancing critics may have deprived the country of much-needed talent and, in some cases, moral leadership, but it has consolidated his hold on power, turned him into Israel’s second longest serving prime minister and left him virtually unassailable as the country’s leader. Netanyahu has shown himself to be a master plotter and grand manipulator, constantly on guard for the next potential threat and always on alert to pounce and eradicate it. Though he often seems to wonder why he isn’t loved, Netanyahu has clearly opted for the Machiavellian choice of being feared instead. It’s a double-edged sword, however, because like all hyper-anxious and overly suspicious leaders, from duly elected presidents to tyrannical despots, Netanyahu spends just as much time dealing with his own fear as he does instilling it in others.

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