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The Week Netanyahu Would Like to Forget

The settlement bill debacle showed Lieberman has become the Israeli government's only voice of reason and that Bennett is ringmaster.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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An illustration showing David Bitan riding the Netanyahu elephant, with Bennett in the role of an elephant tamer. Lieberman is flying a helicopter above as Kahlon, dressed as a bunny, munches on a carrot. Nearby, a human Netanyahu climbs a mosque tower, on top of which Tibi is standing with a megaphone.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Face pale, expression surly, like a child being taken against his will to visit an aunt and uncle he can’t stand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the Knesset on Wednesday to vote for the so-called formalization law aimed at legalizing illegal settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land. His disgust at being dragged into this situation by Education Minister Naftali Bennett was palpable. The cabinet ministers who sat on either side of the premier avoided eye contact with him, fearing he would turn on them viciously. He voted – once, twice, three times – for each of the bills submitted by Knesset backbenchers and then hurriedly left the chamber.

An hour later, political reporters quoted a statement from a “Likud source” that bad-mouthed Bennett. In response, Habayit Hayehudi, the party Bennett heads, issued a communique thanking Netanyahu for supporting the bill, which passed its preliminary reading.

Netanyahu will never let himself be caught in a position that’s to the left of Bennett. Not to mention the fact that the great majority of Likud’s Knesset faction has long since become the evil twin of Habayit Hayehudi. The difference is that Habayit Hayehudi is a niche party, while Likud has been the country’s ruling party for years.

This isn’t the first time Netanyahu has offhandedly sacrificed Israel’s national and strategic interests on the altar of narrow political gains. But it’s been a long time since someone has spat with this intensity – at Israeli and international law, at the attorney general and the Supreme Court, at the principles of morality and justice, and indirectly at the flimsy legitimacy of the settlement project across most of the West Bank.

And to what end? The leaders of all the coalition parties without exception agree that no real directive will emerge from this legislation. Even Bennett admits as much. For him, it was a means to accelerate parallel processes meant to solve the problem of thousands of residential units in the territories that are under threat of evacuation. If no solution is forthcoming, he will be able to tell his constituency that he stopped at nothing, including threatening to topple the government. And that the blame lies with the prime minister.

Forcing Netanyahu to come to the Knesset as he did was only a bonus for Bennett. In the days preceding the vote, Netanyahu found himself caught up in a whirligig. He’d been persuaded to support the bill, but had a problem with the timing. He mumbled something against it in his weekly meeting with Likud ministers on Sunday, but at no stage did he demand that they vote against it in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

When Netanyahu genuinely wants to “request” something, he pounds the table with his fist, to make sure people understand. As he’s done many times in the case of the new public broadcasting corporation.

In this case, he was both for and against. The ministers construed this to mean that they had a free hand. Their impression was that Netanyahu was truly conflicted, fluctuating between contradictory considerations and motivations like a boat being tossed on stormy seas. To use a different metaphor, it drove him crazy to think Bennett would checkmate him on the board of the right-wing electoral base. But the premier was also deterred by the notion that he would be depicted as breaching international law, contrary to the clear and trenchant legal opinion offered by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who threw Netanyahu into a steel trap.

The premier expressed concern to a few ministers that Israel – and he – would be cited as war criminals in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. But in the end, what made him decide was what he likes to call, contemptuously, the “micro-tactics” of politics – a base trait that he attributes to his inferior rivals, though he himself is up to the neck in it. For a fistful of Knesset seats, and virtual ones at that, he tainted the country.

From left: Naftali Bennett, Gilad Erdan, Benjain Netanyahu and Yisrael Katz at the Knesset during a discussion on the bill to legalize outposts, November 16, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Reverse progress

This week, to the ever-growing club of people disappointed in Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon were added justices of the Supreme Court and advocates of the rule of law. The expectation that he would instruct his Kulanu party MKs not to support the formalization bill, which shames Israel and contains a clause that shows explicit contempt for the court, was dashed. The commitment Kahlon received from Netanyahu privately, and from coalition whip MK David Bitan (Likud) in the Knesset – to the effect that the blow to the standing of the Supreme Court would be avoided down the line – was meant only as a face-saving device.

In any event, the legislation is likely to be aborted soon, in the Knesset’s committees, so Kahlon will be able to claim that his party’s vote was only tactical: measured progress in reverse, in order to avert a systemic collapse.

On Wednesday morning, he discovered that the fate of the coalition hung on him. Bennett, who sensed he was in a win-win position, turned the screws, announcing he would not negotiate the legislation’s wording. A senior member of Netanyahu’s bureau told Kahlon, “Bennett is ready to go to the people [that is, to an election] over Amona [an illegal outpost whose removal the Supreme Court has ordered, and the immediate cause for the legislation]. In fact, for him it’s even good. We must not give him that pretext.”

Kahlon met with Bennett and asked what he wanted. “From my point of view, you have three options,” Bennett told him. “One is to appeal the decision of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation [which had already approved the bill, a gesture that would delay the Knesset vote and transfer the decision to the full cabinet]. Or you can vote for the bill or against it. If you and your party vote against and spike it, I will consider myself no longer bound by a commitment to the coalition in votes on the budget and the [accompanying] Arrangements Law.”

Kahlon’s impression was that Bennett would not object strenuously to an appeal, in which case the onus would be shifted to Netanyahu. It would become his problem. Bennett’s rival is Bibi, not Moshe. Kahlon asked Netanyahu if he wanted him to file an appeal. “No!” Netanyahu replied, appalled at the thought. “Anything but that.”

Netanyahu and his aides would have preferred for Kahlon to veto the bill, on the basis of clause No. 35 in the coalition agreement, a general statement amenable to diverse interpretation. Before the Knesset vote, people from the Prime Minister’s Bureau called the finance minister’s office every few hours: What about the veto? Kahlon wasn’t eager to be the “Shabbes goy” in this affair. He was even less eager to give Netanyahu a way to extricate himself from the mire. Netanyahu had left him in the lurch with the broadcasting corporation, let him get out of this mess by himself.

An hour before the vote, a meeting was held in the prime minister’s office in the Knesset, between Yariv Levin, the ministerial liaison between the government and the Knesset, MK Bitan, Kahlon and Housing Minister Yoav Galant from Kahlon’s party. “I have to stick to my line: that the Supreme Court must not be adversely affected by this legislation,” Kahlon said. Netanyahu promised that the preliminary reading would be the last. He said that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman would, within a few days, produce an alternative area, on a nearby hill, to which Amona could be relocated intact. As for the thousands of other illegal homes, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) would quickly advance the “Cyprus model,” which entails international arbitration in cases of construction on privately owned land.

Kahlon sighed – and signed. After all, what really interests him is the budget. The rule of law was never part of his agenda. Ditto for public broadcasting. Those are issues where compromise is possible. Or giving in, if necessary. Bennett’s explicit threat seemed to Kahlon to be genuine. He knew the media would roast him for caving in, but decided to take it.

Amona’s fate is sealed. Settlers there would do well to heed the words of Lieberman, who told them there is no alternative to evacuation and not to take seriously what Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev wrote on the back of her hand like a high-school student, when she cast her vote for the bill in the Knesset on Wednesday, about Amona not being evacuated.

Apple of their eye (1)

“If things hadn’t worked out, there was a real danger that we would have found ourselves on a treacherous course leading to a new election,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who is close to Netanyahu, said Wednesday evening. “Amona is the apple of the eye of many in Likud and in Habayit Hayehudi. If the bill had been defeated, it would have been like torpedoing Kahlon’s proposed tax on third residences. He was right to take a step back – as he did with the broadcasting corporation, by the way.”

I asked Levin if he didn’t think that Netanyahu had been led by the nose by the rival he hates most. “I see it the other way around,” Levin replied. “What happened is that Naftali and Ayelet Shaked had already come to terms with the evacuation [of Amona]. And then they saw a notice in the paper signed by 25 Likud MKs and ministers [expressing support for the formalization bill]. So they had to take a firmer line. It was actually Bennett who was dragged into the fray by us.”

What next? “I hope that what’s been delayed for months will move ahead quickly,” Levin told me. “There must not be a situation of evacuation and then taking months to find alternative land. The solution has to be back to back.”

In December 2014, I said, the High Court of Justice gave you a two-year extension, so why did you wait until the last minute? “Ask the Justice Ministry, ask Ayelet Shaked,” Levin said. “They’re the ones who dragged their feet. It was up to them to find legal solutions. That was why Habayit Hayehudi wanted the Justice Ministry – for the sake of the settlements in Judea and Samaria. Now they will start to do what they should have done before.”

Levin is effectively Shaked’s deputy in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Under the coalition agreement, he can veto her decisions to submit bills for a vote. On that stormy Sunday when Bennett and Shaked broke up the meeting in the prime minister’s office about the formalization law, and Shaked went one floor up to the legislation committee to push through the vote in favor – Levin stayed behind. He, along with two other ministers, Arye Dery (Shas) and Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), tried to find a compromise. Levin had understood from Shaked that she would not hold a vote until he arrived. Suddenly, however, he learned that the vote had taken place, without him. And he took that hard.

Apple of their eye (2)

Netanyahu arrived at the weekly meeting of Likud MKs on Monday in a buoyant mood. He announced that on Sunday, the committee for legislation had approved the “muezzin bill.” Netanyahu looked jubilant, as if he had just announced the destruction of the Iranian nuclear project.

This episode is part of what the political arena is terming “the-thing-that’s-happening-to-Netanyahu lately.” The leader of one of the world’s most complex countries in terms of security and the political-diplomatic situation, a prime minister who’s preoccupied with existential matters, comes out with some nonsense that should be handled by a unit of the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The premier’s obsession with the muezzins’ earsplitting calls of the faithful to prayer, which really is a nuisance, especially at 4:30 A.M., goes back years, when it earned the label “the Sunday effect” from Likud ministers. Netanyahu would return from a Shabbat in his Caesarea mansion and tell the ministers about the terrible “Allah is great” blasting out of the mosque of the neighboring village of Jisr al-Zarqa, disturbing the upper-crust locale where he spends weekends. In previous governments, he complained to Arab MKs about this problem, too. “It comes into my home,” he said. Then he’d forget about it until the next time.

On Sunday, after their meeting, members of the security cabinet were asked to stay for an urgent security update. Interior Minister Dery took advantage of the relatively intimate forum – without the presence of Miri Regev – to raise two sensitive issues: the formalization bill and the muezzin bill. As he does on almost all national issues (apart from religious ones), Dery displayed moderation and a responsible approach. He was dead set against both proposals. He urged Netanyahu to find a solution that would obviate the approval of a bill to legalize outposts, which would only put Israel to shame in the international community.

Netanyahu asked Dery and his ultra-Orthodox colleague Litzman to deal with the outposts bill. Neither was eager to step into that swamp. After all, there’s a prime minister, a ruling party – let them display leadership. Who rules the roost, Bibi or Bennett?

Dery was equally unequivocal in opposing the muezzin law. Justice Minister Shaked thinks it’s unnecessary and Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin (Likud) also sees no need for legislation concerning a negligible issue that can be resolved via dialogue between Arabs and their Jewish neighbors, or by administrative regulations.

Dery told Netanyahu that the Arab MKs were ready to negotiate about lowering the volume of the muezzin’s calls, on top of which there are simple technical means available to achieve the same result. Arrangements had already been worked out in Haifa, Acre and Ramle.

Netanyahu seemed to be responsive to these arguments. But a few hours later, when Bennett and Shaked broke up the meeting about the formalization bill, the prime minister pounded the table: “Then we’ll vote on the muezzin bill, too,” he ordered Levin and Bitan.

The next day, the angry Arab MKs looked for ways to foil the vote. MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint Arab List/Ta’al), who has considerable parliamentary experience in dealing with muezzin issues, was advised to approach the Haredi parties. Noise is noise, whether it originates from a mosque loudspeaker or a siren announcing the advent of Shabbat. Tibi told Dery, Liztman and MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) that the law could hurt them, too: “If it is applied only to Muslims, I and my Jewish friends from Tel Aviv will take the matter to the High Court of Justice and demand equality.”

Litzman and Dery were empathetic. Tibi met with Litzman three more times. He reminded him that when the Knesset was going to pass legislation under which Haredi men would have to serve in the army, the Arab MKs were asked by the Haredim to absent themselves, because the issue of army service – in their case, avoiding it – is the “apple of their eye.”

“We showed sensitivity and understanding and we left the chamber,” Tibi told Litzman. “The muezzin is the apple of our eye.” After which Litzman submitted an appeal against the decision of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, with Dery’s support. The vote on the private bills, which was to have been held on Wednesday, was postponed. Probably for all time.

Our man in Caesarea, who gets whatever he wants, will have to wait. Earplugs are an option, and not only to cope with the droning of muezzins.

November surprise

This time it looks serious, not a passing incident. Avigdor Lieberman is changing his strategy. The briefing he gave diplomatic correspondents on Wednesday was of dramatic significance, two months before the new administration takes over in Washington.

His suggestion to resurrect the letter of President George W. Bush, which supported construction by Israel in the settlement blocs but not in isolated settlements, is a political statement such as no one in Israel’s current government, including its Kahlon-led moderate wing, has uttered to date.

Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Lieberman’s recommendation, mainly to the settler right, not to dance on the roofs and hilltops before President Donald Trump is sworn in and appoints a cabinet and advisers, is the embodiment of healthy diplomatic judiciousness. Lieberman’s message to the United States and Israel alike – to achieve coordination on a cessation of construction in isolated settlements in return for a free hand to build in the main settlement blocs, where about 80 percent of the settlers live – is the most logical thing uttered by a senior member of the coalition since its formation in May 2015. As of now, Lieberman has positioned himself at the far left of Netanyahu’s coalition.

By the way, it was over this same issue that the prolonged talks between Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog on forming a unity government collapsed. Herzog wanted Netanyahu to say something – at least orally – that could be construed as agreement to building only in the blocs. Netanyahu declined vehemently. And now it’s being advocated by Lieberman, who entered the government instead of Herzog, and bearing the reputation of the dangerous extremist who would ignite the Middle East.

The importance of Lieberman’s remarks is also related to their timing. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, her policy on the settlements would have replicated Obama’s: opposition to construction in the isolated settlements. But from the statements made by Trump and his advisers, it sounds as if they have no special problem with settlements anywhere. Why should the construction-eager Israeli government paint itself into a corner?

This shows that Lieberman had planned this move in advance. With him, there’s no knowing why, but clearly it was thought out. The first sign came a few weeks ago, when the Amona issue arose. He was the first minister to declare that the outpost would be removed, period. Nor has he recanted on his previous declarations about his readiness for the establishment of a Palestinian state to include also the so-called "transfer" of Israeli cities, with the Trans-Israel Highway as the border.

Lieberman veered sharply to the right when he was in the opposition, in order to set himself apart from Zionist Union and Yesh Atid. That all ended when he took over at the Defense Ministry, from where, as the song goes, he can see things he didn’t see before.

With this new approach he is effectively abandoning the competition with Netanyahu and Bennett over the vote of the extreme, messianic, settler-based right wing. But he will never be perceived as a “leftie” – his image is too much that of the strongman. But in the United States, where the Trump era is about to begin, and in Europe, whose leaders find it hard to deal with Lieberman’s racism vis-a-vis Israel’s Arabs, what he said will undoubtedly be listened to closely.

After half a year in the Defense Ministry, devoted to learning and internalizing, Lieberman is now seeking legitimization. He wants to signal the international community that he espouses a moderate, centrist approach. Netanyahu surely didn’t like Lieberman’s new posture, certainly not on the day of the vote on the formalization bill. Netanyahu wants to be the exclusive shaper of Israel’s foreign policy with the new administration. This week he discovered that Lieberman had pulled a fast one on him.

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