What Made Israel's Supreme Court Chief Snap at the Justice Minister?

Has Chief Justice Miriam Naor forgotten what her job is? Move over, Iran, Palestinians and leftists. In the next Israeli election, Netanyahu's scapegoat for the country's woes will be the media.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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An illustration in two parts: Ministers Bennett and Shaked, dressed as Trojans, try to break into the Supreme Court as Chief Justice Naor bangs a gavel on her podium. Kahlon steals Netanyahu and Bitan's turkey dinner.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

What is going on with the Supreme Court president, a judicious and experienced older woman, that has made her express herself in such an extreme and even belligerent manner regarding the justice minister? The suggestion that the latter had “put a gun on the table,” which appeared in the justice’s letter to the minister comes from an entirely different realm, where it is used by professionals who are not Supreme Court presidents. It’s hard to imagine her predecessors Asher Grunis, Dorit Beinisch and Aharon Barak choosing such an image.

It’s widely reported that Miriam Naor and Ayelet Shaked have a proper working relationship. They often send text messages to one another, and they speak frequently. Shaked, 40, of Habayit Hayehudi – who has no legal background but is intelligent, ambitious, curious and a fast learner – could be the daughter of Naor, who is about 30 years her senior. Their views on the role of the court are diametrically opposed, but until Thursday that didn’t prevent them from leading a professional life of peaceful coexistence, at least as far as we know.

We can assume that Naor was insulted. She took personally Shaked’s thunderous silence about the draft bill proposed by MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu), to turn back the wheel and violate the arrangement by which the Judicial Appointments Committee has selected members of the Supreme Court over the past decade or so, an arrangement that has allowed the justices to have some veto power over the appointees.

Under the circumstances, Naor’s harsh step was superfluous, and in a sense perhaps even an own goal. Her nerves may have betrayed her. Perhaps she received bad advice.

Shaked’s gun has no bullets, in any case. Ilatov’s draft bill was stillborn. It has no majority in the Knesset. First of all, the position of the prime minister, who usually avoids interfering with the Supreme Court, is not yet clear. This is particularly true in light of his present, sensitive situation vis-à-vis the country’s various investigative authorities. In addition, the Kulanu faction, headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, is permitted, according to the coalition agreement, to vote against any legislation that challenges the Supreme Court, its justices, their status or their independence. Kahlon wouldn’t dream of supporting the new proposal – nor the “formalization bill” to legalize the Amona outpost in the West Bank – so it is doomed to breathe its last in a preliminary stage.

Shaked, an experienced politician, knows this. And yet still she chose to signal chief justice Naor and her Supreme Court colleagues that she likes the proposed legislation – which everyone agrees is futile. Why did she do so? The answer may lie in other areas. The Amona issue, for example, which has been placed on Naor’s doorstep. Shaked and her party chairman, Naftali Bennet, are being pressured by the ideological and settler right to “do something” to save the illegal outpost, if not via the parliamentary route, then via the judicial one.

When Shaked actually shows her electorate that she isn’t afraid to clash head-on with the court president, she benefits. By the same token, the justice minister is also signaling to them that she isn’t afraid to use unconventional weapons against Naor and her bench, by changing the rules mid-game. While discussion continues with respect to the appointment of four new Supreme Court justices in the coming months, the justice minister is being seen as working in a parallel channel, and subverting the proper work relations of which she often boasts.

In light of all this, Naor’s reaction demonstrated panic. Instead of Shaked looking like the one who broke all the rules, Naor now appears to be someone who has forgotten what her job is, someone who is interfering in another a game being played on another court, the parliamentary one. As someone trying to veto a bill that that the Knesset doesn’t even have a right to legislate.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Supreme Court President Miriam Naor at the Israel Bar Association conference in 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In this story that erupted into our lives on Wednesday morning, without prior warning, each of those involved climbed a very tall tree. Neither of them has any real ammunition. But Naor has a certain advantage. She is in control. As long as she is unwilling to cooperate, the four new Supreme Court justices won’t be appointed, in the absence of the required and desired majority on the appointments committee. For her part, Shaked is eager to appoint new justices, and preferably as many as possible from the right, with a conservative, non-interventionist, non-”activist” approach, who will allow the government to rule.

Thus ends a restless week, the first of the Knesset winter session, which began Monday after three months of a summer break and the fall holidays.

‘Death of truth’

Historians and political scientists have already reached the conclusion that the U.S. election campaign symbolizes an era that can be dubbed “the death of truth” in politics. The candidate of a major party, someone who could be elected president next Tuesday, conducted a campaign rife with lies, half-truths, total fictions and stories that were contradicted and revealed as such time after time – and it didn’t prevent him from going as far as possible.

It’s enough for this man to repeat a lie 10, 20, 30 times, and for it to no longer be considered a lie. Tens of millions of Americans believe that the elections are indeed rigged, that President Barack Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton created ISIS, that the polls are biased (except for those predicting the victory of the candidate in question) and that nobody – nobody! – has more respect for women than Donald Trump.

The truth doesn’t interest his voters at all; they don’t bother to check. On the contrary: The more blatant and brazen the lies and the distortions, the more these people are considered authentic, as those who are proudly challenging the Washington establishment and the hated Google-fact-checking liberal media.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct in the affair of the newly created public broadcasting corporation is reminiscent of that of the racist, boorish and coarse Republican candidate, who is officially supported by a Ku Klux Klan newspaper, and unofficially but enthusiastically backed by the prime minister’s own private PR man. Both have targeted the media. Both incite against it and attribute ulterior motives to it, Trump in his rallies, Netanyahu in other ways – for the time being, via emissaries and in crazy reactions and official declarations coming from his bureau.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking during a campaign rally at Regent University, Virginia, on October 22, 2016.Credit: Evan Vucci, AP

When Netanyahu claims, by means of the free daily newspaper Israel Hayom, that the new broadcasting entity will be a tool in the hands of the publisher of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon “Noni” Mozes – he knows that it isn’t true. The connection between Mozes and the corporation can be compared to the relationship between Netanyahu and politics that’s free of deal-making. But the very mention of the name “Noni Mozes,” which sounds elitist and Ashkenazi, is a winning card. It is designed mainly to incite the hard-core voters and it fits in well with the comprehensive and forward-looking strategy that will be discussed here.

The statement that the new corporation has been infiltrated, as if by sleeper agents, by journalists who in the past worked for the Yedioth Group and who will take orders from the demon from Rishon Letzion (because apparently anyone who worked for Yedioth in the past is permanently tainted, whether willingly or because of a special chip inserted into his head) – is especially interesting.

The loyal and obedient Israel Hayom is full of senior journalists who worked for Noni Mozes in the past – among them editor-in-chief Amos Regev, and the person mooted as being his successor, Boaz Bismut. But Netanyahu has no complaints against them.

When the premier dispatches his bailiff, coalition whip David Bitan, to roar that the corporation has been taken hostage by leftists and that it has failed in its mission before broadcasting for even a single minute – he knows there’s no greater lie. There is no Israeli media outlet with such a wide variety of employees, representative of all parts of society: the ultra-Orthodox (in numbers unparalleled in any secular media outlet), Arabs, knitted-skullcap wearers, Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin) and Ashkenazim.

The only sector that is not represented is the Netanyahu sector. Journalists who served with him, mainly in the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and contributed a great deal to its collapse and the fact that it became a hated, bloated, rotten body that has been rendered irrelevant – these people were not accepted for work in the new corporation.

MK Bitan’s claim, that closing the corporation will save the treasury money, aroused scorn among anyone who knows anything about the details of this whole project. Whenever he spouted this nonsense in media interviews, the needles on polygraphs throughout the country went off the scale. The lie is so hard to digest, even for him, that at a certain point he abandoned it and showed his cards: The new entity had failed, he claimed, and should therefore be cancelled immediately, the dying IBA should be revived, and the law should be changed so that the Prime Minister’s Office will once again be allowed to meddle and be in charge of this realm, as it should be.

The biggest lie, of course, involves Netanyahu’s cynical use of Bitan, who all along was presented as acting independently of the PMO when it came to proposing new legislation related to the broadcasting authority. The bluff was clear and transparent, therefore nobody was surprised when Netanyahu came out this week from behind the scenes and joyfully declared in the Knesset plenum at the start of the winter session that he had a plan “to rehabilitate the IBA, while taking financial responsibility.”

What a joke. For a moment we thought he was Yehuda Barkan, the legendary host of the Israeli version of “Candid Camera,” who used to emerge from a concealed room to tell the embarrassed and confused victim, “Smile, we fooled you!” Until we recalled to our embarrassment that the man in question here is our prime minister.

The big plan

“I sit with Netanyahu in the security-diplomatic cabinet. Sometimes we discuss the most sensitive issues involving human lives. Really – matters of life and death, strategic, national issues. But nothing sparks in him the same degree of passion and interest and energy and total commitment as this nonsensical corporation” – thus declared one government minister this week.

Netanyahu’s decisions and actions, according to anyone who has worked closely with him, do not always stem from rational and practical knowledge, as expected of a leader. Often he is capable of making a decision based on something hidden, mysterious, something nobody around him knows about.

“Sometimes he’s motivated by strange and foreign realms,” said one source this week. “You see him overcome by total, unexplained insanity. He moves entire systems based on a dubious bit of information, sometimes a rumor, sometimes a whisper in his ear. On this rickety basis an entire tower of theories and theses and worldwide conspiratorial insights is built. Usually the source of this phenomenon is located in the house on Balfour Street [the Prime Minister’s Residence], but not always.”

The hottest story making the rounds today in political corridors, at the highest levels, including in ministerial offices, is so fantastic that one cannot avoid talking about it – though one cannot provide identifying details. It concerns a senior journalist who works for the IBA. In recent months he was in contact with the new public broadcasting corporation about going to work for it. He had a legitimate dispute with its directors about his conditions of employment and salary.

The journalist is friendly with someone very close to the prime minister and asked him for help. Netanyahu’s confidante did what he did, and that’s how Bitan’s proposed legislation in support of closure of the new broadcasting agency and rehabilitation of the IBA was born. This is draft legislation that Netanyahu apparently initiated and authored, took credit for in the Knesset on Monday – and was then forced to put on hold under pressure from Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister and Kulanu chairman.

Let’s get back to the big plan: Everything that’s been happening lately between Netanyahu and the media – the systematic incitement against any outlet that is not Israel Hayom or the right-wing religious paper Makor Rishon – confirms the theory that in the next election campaign the media will be targeted in all Likud propaganda as a stand-in for Iran, the Palestinians, oppositionists Herzog-Livni and the left. Netanyahu has run out of ammunition, the left is almost nonexistent. Iran – yuck! The Palestinian issue is no longer on the agenda. All that’s left is the media – and the generic Noni Mozes.

At the moment, the premier’s main rival for the next election is Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid. What can be said about him? What can he be blamed for? Lapid’s strategy of disguising himself as part of the traditional right largely prevents Netanyahu from doing what he loves, namely, to portray his rivals as leftists/Arab lovers/people who would sell the country to the terrorists and so on. Lapid is immune from this. His lack of experience, his failure as finance minister, his superficiality – all are already part and parcel of his political image.

If on the eve of the next election, a right-center party is established, the battlefield will change. Netanyahu will be forced to run against a new, tougher rival. But, even if Moshe Ya’alon and/or Gideon Saar and/or Gabi Ashkenazi and/or Moshe Kahlon manage to find a common denominator and rise up against him, in some way, shape or form – rest assured that in the end they’ll all be somehow linked to the octopus “Noni Mozes.” The premier can’t accuse them of being leftists, defeatists, of abandoning the country to ISIS, of handing East Jerusalem over to Hamas. The only effective weapon he has is to stain them with the ultimate Mark of Cain. He’s working on it already.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Kahlon at the Knesset.Credit: Emil Salman

Delayed gratification

“I wasn't born on Kibbutz Negba,” said Moshe Kahlon this week in a private conversation. “For years I was a member of the Likud Central Committee, I was chairman of the committee, I was Netanyahu’s man, a minister who was close to him, in the heart of things. Did he think that I don’t know how to read him? That I don’t understand who sent David Bitan to bark at me in the media? I read him like an open book, because after all, I wrote half of that book. He forgot that he used to ask me to carry out these things.”

Netanyahu’s reading of the map this week concerning Kahlon was entirely erroneous. The truth is, it’s not like him. The prime minister has already waged, and won, far more complex and difficult political battles. Perhaps this time it was his hubris that brought him down. He made mistakes at every stage. He made the mistake of thinking that Kahlon is Yair Laid. He isn’t. Netanyahu also erred when he assumed that his threats to disband the government and move up the election would undermine the finance minister. In fact, they undermined the one making the threats.

Netanyahu sent Kahlon a series of ministers and senior officials from his bureau, carrying threatening messages about an early election. Kahlon listened and laughed. The greater the scare tactics, the more stubborn he became and the harsher his messages. That’s how he is: When you hit him at 120 kilometers an hours, he hunkers down and severs contact.

On Monday, Netanyahu invited all the heads of the coalition parties to his Knesset office. If Kahlon doesn’t calm down, the government won’t survive, he told them. Interior Minister Arye Dery of Shas was one of the invitees. He claims he wasn’t asked to mediate or convey any message. Dery once again explained to Netanyahu that the Shas ministers would vote against Bitan’s draft bill to cancel the new broadcasting authority, but if the cabinet approves the legislation, they will observe coalition discipline in the Knesset and support it.

Dery’s position is interesting. What does he care about the corporation? It’s a secular media outlet. While it has several ultra-Orthodox reporters on its staff, public, secular broadcasting, which operates on Shabbat and holidays, is not on his agenda at all. And yet Dery still refused to submit to the pressures of the prime minister, and to eliminate all doubt, declared as much personally in the media and in a meeting of the Shas Knesset faction, all of which made Netanyahu very angry.

There were two reasons for this: First of all, Dery is tired of this behavior. Of the zigzags, the somersaults, the uncontrollable whims. A law is passed, it is praised to the skies, during the election it’s a reason for boasting – and suddenly it becomes the worst thing of all, the mother of all sins, and must be abolished. Dery is the most veteran of all ministers. He served in the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. He has apparently never seen anything like what’s going on now.

Second, he hasn’t forgotten the incident of Rami Sadan, the friend of Bibi and his wife Sara whom the couple parachuted onto the board of directors of Channel 10. After Sadan’s hurtful and racist remarks against Shas and its leader were publicized, Netanyahu continued to support him. Dery had no doubt that the prime minister was behind the appointment, and behind the insistence to allow Sadan to stay on. Sadan was dismissed only recently, by the Channel 10 board of directors.

Dery doesn’t forget or forgive. And here, on the issue of the new broadcaster, he had the opportunity to take revenge.

The postponement of a decision about the future of the new corporation for at least three weeks, and appointment of a task force that will discuss its fate, does not remove the hangman’s noose from around its neck. It only postpones the end and prolongs its suffering. There’s a good chance that the wording that is found in the end won’t enable the corporation to begin work according to its planned format, and under the present management.

From the moment Kahlon drew a line in the sand, it was clear that a solution will have to be engineered. Money has never been the cause of the disbanding of a coalition in Israel.

Kahlon acknowledges that he will have to compromise, too. In terms of the broadcasting entity, what emerges from the task force will differ from what exists now. The only red line is that the cost of public broadcasting won’t exceed 700 million shekels annually. Everything else, including replacement of the management of the new corporation or its merger with what remains of the IBA, is up for discussion.

Netanyahu has been forced to practice delayed gratification. He had hoped to push through an aggressive decision this coming Sunday, but has been stymied by Kahlon. Bitan, who had already started to believe everything said and written about him, was thrown under the bus without the blink of an eyelid. Like dozens of loyal “confidants” before him, the coalition whip discovered that he was only being used as a tool, a pawn. “Netanyahu,” said a senior Likudnik yesterday, “will toss him into the air three times, but will catch him only twice.”

Government ministers demonstrated great schadenfreude this week concerning Netanyahu. It’s a good thing that occasionally someone stops him, even if only temporarily. They’re tired of his arrogance, his egotism. During the past few days, they urged Kahlon not to blink, not to fold, not to believe Bibi.

On the other hand, they also advised the prime minister not to climb too tall a tree. None of them will have a better government to join, or at least they can’t be sure they will. And it’s doubtful that they’ll come across a more amenable finance minister, who doesn’t quarrel with them, who’s attentive to their needs, who helps them when they ask. If only they could get rid of the man at the top.

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