Analysis |

The Destabilizing Effect of Netanyahu's Obsession With the Media

Netanyahu and media mogul Arnon Mozes, bitter enemies, are dragging each other into the abyss ■ while Finance Minister Kahlon is disgusted by the premier's hedonism, he won't push him over the edge ■ Why Israeli Arabs fear for their future.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes tumble off a cliff mid-fight, as Sara Netanyahu watches from above with a bottle of champagne in her hand and police await below.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The Prime Minister’s Bureau announced this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had canceled his planned attendance at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which begins this Tuesday. The reason? Scheduling issues. The surprising cancellation shows the depth of the sense of emergency Netanyahu is feeling. He’s starting to resemble rulers who are afraid to leave their country for fear of returning to discover that they had been deposed in their absence, stripped of their crown.

He wants to be in control, finger on the pulse, every second of the day. The headlines are pursuing him at a dizzying pace. Who knows what might be published while he’s on the plane on the way there or on the way back, without his being able to respond? And while there, he would have to hold meetings with world dignitaries, make speeches, take part in events. Here, he’s fully attentive to and focused on the urgent issues threatening to unseat him, namely the two investigations of him that have been launched in recent days, dubbed Case 1000 and Case 2000 – the former, involving allegations that wealthy businessmen, including the Israeli Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, were asked to purchase luxury items such as cigars and alcoholic beverages, with a total value of hundreds of thousands of shekels, for Netanyahu and his wife; the latter, involving a deal that Netanyahu apparently concocted with Arnon “Noni” Mozes, publisher of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, whereby the prime minister would receive favorable coverage in Yedioth in exchange for cutting back on the extent of the commercial activity of the competing, pro-Netanyahu freebie daily Israel Hayom.

The two bitter enemies, who have been battling each other relentlessly from the beginning of the decade, could fall into the abyss together, locked in an embrace, the sword of each plunged into the other, hands around each other’s throat – the prime minister and the person whom Netanyahu called, in private conversations, “the real prime minister.” The series of exposes, principally in Haaretz and Channel 2 News, about the meetings between Netanyahu and Mozes, and the dialogue of horse thieves and horse traders the two conducted, demonstrates the scale on which Netanyahu’s uncontrollable obsession with the media has undermined and destabilized both arenas: politics and the media.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits an army base in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, January 10, 2017.Credit: Baz Ratner, Reuters

So, there’s no place that Bibi and Sara would rather be next week than a luxury hotel on Thomas Mann’s “magic mountain,” he with a cigar on the heated balcony, with bottles of red wine that cost as much as the minimum average monthly wage here, and with the fresh, pure air that expands the lungs and the mental horizons.

And there’s no place that Netanyahu would like less to be than the Likud secretariat, where he was on Wednesday, next to the person he suspects, apparently mistakenly, of cobbling together an alternative government behind his back. But in these hard times he has no choice. Just a few months ago he threatened to fire the secretariat’s chairman, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz – a perpetual prime suspect in the eyes of the Balfour Street occupants – after the latter passed a few defiant and brazen resolutions in the secretariat that angered the head honcho. Past experience shows that it’s best to demonstrate presence and self-confidence at the scene of the crime, in order to prevent a future crime. Complacency is from the devil.

Likud ministers feel like they’re in a POW camp, or, alternately, in the house of Big Brother, of TV reality show fame, where every movement and every word, even a whisper, is filmed and recorded. Bibi and Sara are looking to them for protection – for an offensive, for them to charge the barbed-wire fences and throw themselves on the grenade, if needed. Only three ministers have done that: Miri Regev, Tzachi Hanegbi and Yariv Levin (who gave testimony about the legislative processes related to the Israel Hayom bill, which was intended to stop the free distribution of the freebie, Netanyahu’s private propaganda tool). Others are remaining mute, or making do with the minimum.

Culture Minister Regev and Regional Cooperation Minister Hanegbi are the only ones who aren’t ashamed to parrot the mantra that appears on the message sheet they receive: There will be nothing, because there is nothing. As though they have a clue about what there is and what there isn’t. Every day that passes, with its new reports, shows them up in all their pathetic shame. Regev, whose dream is to become communications minister (an idea that was discussed in the Prime Minister’s Bureau a few weeks ago, but now looks unfeasible), isn’t making do with echoing the narrative. She is blasting and bad-mouthing the media, accusing it of malice aforethought. Not surprisingly, Sara Netanyahu is delighted: “Learn from Miri,” she scolds other Likud ministers, “look at how she rallies to the cause.”

On Wednesday, MK Merav Michaeli (Labor/Zionist Union) submitted a bill that would require the prime minister to appoint someone to replace him automatically if he is unable to fulfill his duties for any reason. The Prime Minister’s Bureau instructed the coalition to scuttle the legislation. In the back of the Knesset plenum, a few Likud ministers apologized to Michaeli with bowed heads for having to vote against a worthy bill that they support. Too bad there are no cameras there.

Bad smell

The Knesset, worried that its term will be abbreviated, is rife with subversive conversations. A prime topic is the option of an alternative government that would be formed while the current government is in office, and obviate the need for an election. In informal conversations, people close to Labor/Zionist Union head MK Isaac Herzog are suggesting Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) for the position of prime minister. “With me, ego isn’t a problem,” Herzog told an interlocutor this week. “It wasn’t a problem before the election, and it isn’t one now.”

Herzog is certainly no egoist and certainly isn’t imbued with the feeling that he was born to govern, like MK Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid. But his willingness to anoint Kahlon doesn’t stem only from nobility and humility: For Herzog, any solution that does not involve an early election saves him from an inglorious fate. It has to be said that Herzog has already demonstrated significant political skills in tough circumstances. His fate is not yet sealed, but serving a year as foreign minister wouldn’t hurt at all.

The prospects that an alternative government will be formed in this Knesset if Netanyahu is forced to step down are purely theoretical and extremely poor. An attempt would undoubtedly be made to assemble one, but the pieces don’t fit together. Lapid will press for an election – he believes he’s a hair’s breadth from the premiership. His pride would not allow him to serve under Kahlon, who mocks him at every opportunity for his abject failure while serving as his predecessor in the treasury.

And for the same reason Kahlon, unwillingness to make Lapid premier, is unwilling to assume the role that many have cast him in – the “deposer colleague” – along the lines of what Ehud Barak did to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. In a not-improbable scenario in which the evidence against Netanyahu mounts and his public status dwindles, Kahlon will not rush to push him off the edge of the cliff, so as to avoid an early election. “I’m not there,” he told an interlocutor. Nor is he in a rush to anoint Lapid.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) and Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

That didn’t stop Kahlon from declaring publicly his disgust with Netanyahu’s hedonism. “Each person and his lifestyle,” he said on Wednesday in a characteristic chortle at a meeting in Haifa. “I don’t smoke, certainly not a cigar. First of all, it stinks. And the only place I get presents is at a wedding.”

Kahlon was clearly differentiating himself sharply from Netanyahu, but by the same token, he let it be known that he will not hurry to draw political conclusions. To date, this is the only statement by a minister from a coalition party that implies criticism of the prime minister. In our time of the silence of the ministers, on the one hand, and their blabbing, on the other – that’s something, too.

Tip of the trunk

The whole Nonigate story, as some have called it, with its opprobrious meetings between the publisher of the Yedioth Group and Ynet and the prime minister, is a bit like the tip of the trunk of the elephant in the room. This series of meetings, now thankfully illuminated by the full glare of the sun, is a byproduct of the real and outrageous scandal we have already become used to: the fact that Netanyahu is the beneficiary of an open, naked benefit worth tens of millions of shekels a year from a billionaire casino mogul who lives in the United States.

After all, Netanyahu spoke with Mozes as one publisher to another, not like the leader of a state to the owner of a media group. The obnoxious deal they discussed is something that only publishers are capable of implementing. Now Netanyahu is claiming that it was all a maneuver, a pretense to entrap Mozes. By the way, this message is having an effect in Bibi’s constituency. A senior figure on the political right said this week that 85 percent of the right-wing electorate believe Netanyahu and think he comes out of the story a real man. He’s being aided in this by right-wing media people such as Shimon Riklin, Arel Segal, Ynon Magal and others, who will happily whitewash every sin and gloss over every impropriety (provided they’re the acts of a right-wing prime minister).

The very fact that a meeting like the ones with Mozes could take place and that the prime minister could negotiate and trade and procure by means of a media outlet over whose content he claimed until recently to have no influence, is a black mark against the judicial system, which is so far ignoring the phenomenon and allowing this disgrace to persist in a country that purports to be properly run. Champagne and cigars at the sugar daddy’s expense is revolting. A free newspaper that serves as a giant clearing house is at the prime minister’s disposal. The paper pampers him endlessly and is merciless to his rivals. This is a dagger in the heart of democracy.

Anyone who talks about an equal balance of power – “Naftali Bennett is pampered in Yedioth Ahronoth the way Netanyahu is in Israel Hayom” – is missing the point. Can Bennett meet with Sheldon Adelson on behalf of Yedioth and suggest shackling the journalists’ hands, changing the editorial line or dealing with the price of the ads it runs? Let’s see him try.

What’s my line

Sara Netanyahu sees herself as a hardscrabble person: criticized, mocked, not sufficiently appreciated for having worked as a child psychologist in the public service. Occasionally she calls various people, depending on the circumstances, to tell them her troubles and ask for their support. In these conversations, some of which are recorded without her knowledge, the name “Noni,” accompanied by a range of epithets, is a frequent guest.

About a year ago, on the eve of a ceremony in which she participated, she called a person who played a key role in organizing the event. How shall we describe the person? Far removed from the vanities of this world and especially from the media industry. The conversation, which was almost completely one-sided – an angry, self-victimizing monologue – quickly slid into Noni, Noni, Noni.

For a long time, the Lady bemoaned the tribulations she endured at the hands of said Noni. The person on the other end said nothing, occasionally nodding or humming in understanding. Afterward, he asked someone else, who had listened to the conversation on the line: “Tell me, who is this Noni she keeps talking about?”

Buildings demolished by the authorities, in the Israeli Arab city of Kalansua, January 10, 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod

Behind enemy lines

On Sunday at dawn, demolition crews with bulldozers, supported by hundreds of policemen, arrived in Kalansua, an Arab city in Israel’s Sharon district, and razed 11 illegally erected houses. The demolition orders had been issued 48 hours beforehand, so the residents didn’t have time to appeal them. The land on which the buildings stood was theirs. Dozens of children, infants, women, men and old folk were left without a roof over their heads.

We won’t keep our readers in suspense: No, the government did not order that the evacuees be compensated to the tune of millions of shekels. The prime minister did not meet with their representatives in the middle of the night. The security cabinet did not meet repeatedly to find a solution to their problem. What’s fitting for the “dear brothers” of Amona – the illegal settler outpost in the West Bank, which was built on privately owned, occupied Arab land – is not fitting for Israeli Arabs who built their homes on their own land. “Egalitarian enforcement” is what Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called it as he celebrated the daring operation.

In the midst of the demolition, Netanyahu shared a message on his Facebook page that appeared on the right-wing website 0404: “Our forces are now operating in Kalansua ” This wasn’t the first time that the prime minister of Israel has treated Israeli citizens as enemies. As long as it serves his electoral base, anything goes.

Arab MKs are often criticized for calling strikes and shouting to the heavens after homes are demolished, but not doing anything before the act to prevent it. You have 13 MKs, members of their constituency say, so take advantage of that.

Here’s a story that contradicts the accepted wisdom. At the height of the political crisis over the natural gas deal, when the government needed two votes in the Knesset to pass the legislation, envoys from Netanyahu came to MK Ahmad Tibi (chairman of Ta’al/Joint Arab List) to see if a deal could be struck that would entice the Arab MKs to support the bill. Tibi replied: Why not? In any case, the profits won’t reach the Arab population, and if they do, it will be minimal and contingent on all kinds of conditions.

What would you like in return for two or three votes, the prime minister’s people asked. You’ll get five at least, Tibi said, but let’s finally get to legalizing the tens of thousands of illegally constructed buildings in Galilee, the Triangle and the Negev, stopping demolitions of homes for two-three years – during which the illegal construction will be stopped completely – and hooking up those homes to the power grid.

Tibi was joined by two other Joint List MKs, Talab Abu Arar and Osama Saadia. A marathon of meetings took place, with the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, the then-economy minister Arye Dery and the assistant attorney general. But when the proposed arrangement landed on the desk of the prime minister, he rejected it out of hand. He wasn’t wild about voluntarily forgoing such a useful political scapegoat. The Justice Ministry also objected, but similar objections from the ministrydidn’t stop Netanyahu from advancing the legislation that would legalize illicit Israeli settlements and outposts (which he’s now shelving) or a variety of Amona solutions, with all their legal and moral stench.

If he’s forced to go, Netanyahu will not depart quietly. He will “burn down the clubhouse,” as the Hebrew saying goes. The first to be in the trajectory of the fire-storm will be Israel’s Arab citizens, or at least that’s their gut feeling. They are the weakest, most vulnerable group, the most susceptible to the arbitrary conduct and brutal force of the authorities. “The depth of the demolition will match the depth of the investigation,” Tibi said on the ruins of the Kalansua houses. He believes that there’s much more of the same in store. In the name of egalitarianism, of course.

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