Netanyahu Takes a Hit in the Polls, but His Rivals Shouldn't Celebrate Just Yet

The chaos that ruled last weekend on the rails and in the political arena was more the result of ineptitude than malicious plotting Lapid panders to the ultra-Orthodox as he climbs in the polls, but this might work to Netanyahu's advantage Efforts to form a unity government persist.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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An illustration showing Netanyahu, Lapid and Katz fighting in bulldozers while Haredi politicians stand on the tracks looking angry.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Now that the storm has subsided, at least for the time being, and the train has left the station, we can sum things up: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken a public-opinion battering, as expected. He passed the hot potato to Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (no relation), the antihero of the drama, is cherishing his five minutes of fame. The ultra-Orthodox, who had the upper hand in the first act, are not celebrating. They are walking on eggshells with respect to their dual commitment: both to Shabbat and to the coalition. They understand that another two or three “achievements” like this will spell curtains for them. Instead of “Pyrrhic victory,” people will be able to talk about a “Litzman victory.”

It’s clear now that the transportation and political chaos in which the country found itself last weekend was not the result of a Machiavellian scheme by Yisrael Katz to get Netanyahu on the wrong side of the Haredim and topple the Likud government. A deeper examination shows that the developments were set in motion less by malice than by the usual Israeli snafus, mixed with the amateurishness of inexperienced personnel in the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

What happened, briefly, was that last week on Wednesday, the famous meeting was held in the bureau, with the participation of all those responsible for determining what work on the railroad would be allowed on Saturday. Israel Railways was set to carry out 20 construction and maintenance jobs over the weekend, 17 of them fairly essential, three deemed super-essential. The participants emerged with the feeling that the 17 not-absolutely-critical projects would be postponed, while the other three, which could more or less be explained in terms of fulfilling life-saving needs, would go ahead. The Haredim were supposed to swallow hard and accept this.

But no one actually ordered work on the 17 projects to be stopped. So last Friday, four hours before the start of Shabbat, the work got under way. At all 20 sites. Absurdly, the part that required the dismantling of train tracks was not included in the list of the three vital jobs, so that once it was stopped midway, it meant there would be no train service between Binyamina and Tel Aviv from Saturday night until Sunday evening.

When the Haredim learned that the sounds of maintenance were going to split the night, and at 20 different sites, heaven forbid – they got hopping mad. Netanyahu, acting through his chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, ordered a work stoppage 20 minutes before Sabbath began. The train tracks had already been dismantled. The surprised workers went home for an unplanned Shabbat-eve meal with their families.

A mass desecration of Shabbat ensued in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, and the Defense and Transportation ministries. But so what? The main thing is that work on the railway stopped. At midday Sunday, with the trains idle and many frustrated commuters venting their rage on the government, the forum of coalition party leaders met in the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Netanyahu was uptight. He predicted a tsunami in the polls. “I didn’t know they would dismantle the rails!” he said. “No one told me.”

That was a key statement. The ministers were both surprised and not surprised. Surprised, because the element of the tracks was a critical part of the screw-up. Maybe if Netanyahu had known that his directive would cause such a mess in the realm of local transportation – not the most advanced in the Western world to begin with – he would have decided differently. Maybe he would have allowed the tracks to be put back in place, even on Shabbat. But the ministers were also not surprised, because they know their man.

The Prime Minister’s Bureau is being run by raw recruits. But the Transportation Ministry is run by a very experienced, crafty individual who maybe, just maybe, decided to lower his profile at the critical moment.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz on a train to Be'er Sheva, 2012.Credit: Moti Milrod

The ministers continued to discuss the events in the coalition forum. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), tried to console Netanyahu. “In the end it wasn’t so terrible,” he said.

“No,” the prime minister replied. “You’re wrong. It’s grim, very grim.” Asked how he intended to ensure that this whole story wouldn’t repeat itself, he replied, “I don’t have the full picture, I need to collect more intelligence.”

That’s how it goes, one of the participants in the meeting observed, with a prime minister and a chief of staff both of whom served in the Sayeret Matkal commando unit. You get army slang, everything is secretive. But when you have to deal with something elementary, like ensuring that 17 projects are called off, or find out if rail lines have already been dismantled – leave it to beaver.

Rare interviews were given by Horowitz and by the head of Netanyahu’s National Information Directorate, Ran Baratz. Horowitz forgot the limitations and rules he was supposed to abide by as a civil servant and lashed out at Yisrael Katz like some member of a local Likud branch. Baratz was a bit more refined. Neither of them did himself proud in the interviews.

Former staff of the bureau relate that in the past, during political crises, senior bureau officials received furious phone calls from Mrs. Netanyahu who demanded in no uncertain terms that they get on the radio and TV forthwith to defend her husband bodily and castigate his rivals. They evaded the order by various wiles. Not even chiefs of staff Natan Eshel and Gil Shefer, who were very close to the prime minister’s wife, allowed themselves to be used as political battering rams against cabinet ministers.

Horowitz and Baratz did. And for some reason, in an interesting and rare case in its own right, neither of them accompanied the prime minister on his visit to Holland this week. Nor did the prime minister’s wife, which is exceedingly rare. We can’t rule out the possibility that the three – Sara, Ran and Yoav – coordinated their absence and used the time for consultations in the residence. A type of shadow government. Or shadow premiership.

Interim report

The public opinion surveys came in two waves this week. First, the public was asked who was to blame for the transportation glitch. The results were unequivocal: Netanyahu, not Yisrael Katz. It’s said that the latter was euphoric. After seven-plus years in the Transportation Ministry, Katz is getting public acclaim as an efficient, professional manager. No less but also no more. If he thinks there’s a correlation between support for him as a builder of roads and bridges, and being a worthy candidate for prime minister, he had better wake up – and fast.

What benefited him in the polls was the contrast with what was happening with Netanyahu. No one disputed that the premier caved in to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox. Katz’s frontal clash with Netanyahu was over a specific issue on which a lar ge majority will always be on the side that abhors religious coercion and detests giving in to rabbinical dictates. That’s what earned Katz public credit.

It also didn’t hurt that for the whole weekend the Prime Minister’s Bureau tried obsessively to stick Katz with the label of “subversive.” The reasonable citizen wasn’t buying that. It sounded too conspiratorial, half-baked. Netanyahu, in press communiques that accused Katz of everything but passing secrets to Hezbollah, ratcheted up the crisis until it assumed monstrous proportions.

Katz kept mum, and wisely so. Maybe he grasped that Netanyahu’s response would boomerang on him. At midweek, Katz said to an interlocutor, “I lost the Haredim, but gained the public.” But ephemerality is the hallmark of Israeli politics. We’ve already seen that the more Netanyahu is weakened, the stronger he gets, and the more power his rivals acquire, the weaker they become, dooming themselves to premature extinction.

The second poll that caused ripples was reported by Channel 2 News. If elections were held today, it predicted, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would win 24 Knesset seats (13 more than it has now) and become the largest party in parliament. Likud would lose eight seats and tumble to just 22.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, June 2016. Credit: Dudu Bachar

Still, even that poll, conducted in a catastrophic week for Likud and its leader, doesn’t yet catapult Lapid into the Prime Minister’s Office.

Ironically, all this is not such bad news for Netanyahu, for three reasons: For one, Lapid has the least chance of any candidate to form a coalition. He doesn’t have the Haredim or the Arabs, and also probably not the right wing (and if he does, he won’t have Meretz). He could win 28 seats, like Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party in 2009, and still remain in the opposition, as she did. Second, the real threat to Netanyahu is a right-wing party or candidate who will grab votes from the right-wing bloc, and Likud in particular. The stronger Lapid becomes, the less likely it is that a candidate from outside the system will enter the fray. Paradoxically, it’s not all that bad for Netanyahu that Lapid’s popularity is soaring, since most of his potential new voters would come from Zionist Union. Finally, as we’ve seen in the past, what gets Netanyahu votes is the right-wing electorate’s feeling that their rule is under threat. In 2015, a supposedly close race drove that electorate’s voters back to Likud in the final days of the campaign, in order to save the country, as it were. The more Lapid becomes a perceived threat to Likud, the greater the prospects of a Netanyahu resurgence. In the end, the tribe speaks.

Besides the fact that Lapid’s unqualified for the job, he doesn’t have a coalition, at least on paper. In the past 18 months, since the installation of the present Knesset, he’s become a poster, playing the part of an imaginary “foreign minister,” avoiding controversy, not criticizing the prime minister. At the same time, he continues his desperate and embarrassing courtship of the Haredim, knowing that without them he has no government, not even in his fantasy world.

Yesh Atid voters would do well to read the column of the Haredi commentator Shimon Breitkof, in the magazine Mishpacha (Family) this weekend. He offers quotes from a conversation with Lapid that can only be called an unconditional surrender. Lapid repeatedly expresses regret for his behavior vis-a-vis the ultra-Orthodox both as an MK and as finance minister. The person who insisted on introducing the core curriculum subjects in Haredi schools says he has seen the light and will never try to force anything on the Haredim again. And he’s proud of not having exploited the trains-Shabbat issue to point an accusing finger at them, as though they had nothing to do with it.

“I didn’t dance to Netanyahu’s tune. He wanted the Haredim to take the fire. I did not use the past week to incite against the Haredim, I hope they will start to believe me,” Lapid gushes in the interview.

September song

Since the meetings (whose existence was denied) about a month ago in Caesarea between Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog, we haven’t heard anything about a unity government. But have no fear, it hasn’t gone away. Messages are being constantly exchanged, draft texts are being exchanged, the fax machines are buzzing.

The primary difficulty is the peace issue. A formula is needed that would make it possible for Herzog to convene a Labor Party convention and request approval for the party to join the government coalition. It’s an interconnected process: together with the attempt to enable Herzog and his cohorts to join the coalition, worldwide and regional efforts are under way to set a diplomatic process in motion. One is contingent on the other. Without significant diplomatic progress, Labor won’t come; without Labor’s entry – which could trigger the departure of Habayit Hayehudi and spawn a rebel faction within Likud – the international community, the Americans, the Egyptians, the Palestinians and Tony Blair, who’s trying to stir up something, won’t believe that Netanyahu is serious. Maybe he really isn’t, and even if he has intentions in the morning, who’s to say he will still have them in the evening?

On the assumption that something is cooking, the race is against several clocks: the international clock, in the form of the U.S. elections and the onset of a twilight period during President Obama could spur an anti-Netanyahu resolution in the UN Security Council; the political-parliamentary clock, given that the Knesset’s winter session begins Oct. 31, following a month of Jewish holidays – meaning that the work would have to be completed by the end of September; and, judicially, if the attorney general decides to open an investigation into the various suspicions against Netanyahu, time will have run out.

Generation gap

There is no acting prime minister in the Netanyahu government, no one to take over in the event that he is unable to perform his duties. Ariel Sharon had Ehud Olmert and Olmert had Tzipi Livni in that capacity. In 2009, when Netanyahu was elected again, he drew a lesson from the unfortunate case of Sharon and told his ministers that he had no intention of appointing a crown prince who would harbor a burning desire in his eyes for Netanyahu’s removal whenever they met. The premier is even afraid to appoint a foreign minister from Likud, in case the appointee forges a statesmanlike image for himself and “overshadows” Netanyahu. An official acting prime minister is a mortal danger. As Netanyahu himself said in the past, “I wouldn’t be able to allow myself to drink a cup of tea calmly.” He doesn’t even have deputy prime ministers this term, that’s how bad the paranoia is.

The result is that the subject has become a carrot-and-stick tool for Netanyahu. Before each trip abroad he appoints a replacement ad hoc. The function itself is totally marginal, confined only to the power of convening an emergency cabinet session in an extreme situation, which has never happened. But the honor, the respect! The whole world shall speak the prime minister’s glory.

When the lucky fellow appears in the electronic media, the interviewer is asked to announce “minister (of whatever) and acting prime minister.” The members of Likud’s Central Committee go wild. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who won the prize this week during Netanyahu’s 36 hours in Holland, related that he had never received so many emotional responses from activists as when they learned he was the acting PM. No deed (and he’s done many), no legislation (and he’s enacted plenty), no successful coalition talks ever got him such an abundance of hurrahs from the grass roots.

Early in this term, Netanyahu entrusted the acting PM baton to Yisrael Katz, as compensation for breaking his promise to appoint him to one of the three senior ministerial portfolios (foreign affairs, defense, finance).

Katz believed he would be the one and only acting PM. But two months ago, on another Netanyahu trip abroad, he appointed Katz’s rival, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Katz took it hard. He complained to Netanyahu, who replied, more or less, “Forget it, let him do it this time, he’s been terribly offended.”

This time, after the trains-Shabbat affair, it was obvious that Katz was not a candidate. Erdan was abroad. Levin, who came to Netanyahu’s defense in the media on the railway issue (as did Minister Without Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi), got the nod. Only 18 months a minister and he’s just a phone call away from the red button.

Why is it important? Once there was hierarchy. A second generation of experienced leadership became acting PMs: Olmert and Livni, and Moshe Ya’alon and Silvan Shalom in previous Netanyahu governments. There was a certain logic to it. This time, Netanyahu skipped a generation. If it’s Levin this time, tomorrow it will be Ofir Akunis or Miri Regev. Anything goes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Naftali Bennett pose for a photograph in a school in the Israeli Arab town of Tamra, September 1, 2016. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner, AP

Primary colors

Here’s a short lesson in political geography. The Arab city of Tamra, population 32,000, is situated in Lower Galilee, 20 kilometers southeast of Acre. Tamra has a small stepsister in the Jezreel Valley called Tamra Jezreel or Tamra Zoabi, after the family that dominates it, the ramified Zoabi clan. Its population is about 1,500 and it’s classified as a village. Few people have ever heard of it, even among Israel’s Arab public.

But the Prime Minister’s Bureau knows about it. On the first day of the school year, Netanyahu chose to make a festive visit to the village’s primary school. Festive is putting it mildly. Israeli flags flew everywhere, the Scouts’ band played and the children were outfitted with crowns and flags, which they waved when the Leader, accompanied by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, entered the facility.

In our political lingo, Tamra Zoabi is considered an unabashedly pro-Israel, pro-government community. Its breadwinners, from the extended Zoabi clan to which the annoying MK from Nazareth also belongs, are described as being “somewhere between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi” (according to an Arab MK) in terms of their political leanings and the Zionist and national spirit that impels them. That’s their right.

Netanyahu’s decision to visit could have been seen as a positive, confidence-building act in light of his fraught relations with the Arab electorate since the last election. But it was a home court with zero risk and a fixed game. The village hardly represents what’s known in Hebrew as the “Arab sector.”

If Netanyahu had visited the city of Tamra, there would not likely have been such a festive reception. He played it safe and it paid off: The headlines told about a visit to “Tamra” and the accompanying text didn’t offer the necessary differentiation.

The impression gleaned by television viewers and newspaper readers was that our prime minister is not a-f-r-a-i-d. He displayed leadership, entered the lions’ den, and commanded the first-graders (!): “Learn Hebrew and be loyal citizens.” And was applauded for his efforts.

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