Ayelet Shaked is angry again. Supposedly. The shrewd politician, who calculates her moves with care, is accusing her accusers. “I am the victim of wild incitement,” the justice minister said this week in the midst of the latest storm, this one swirling around her “Zionism as dead zone” speech. “It’s a complete distortion of what I said.” Shaked maintains that she has no intention of flailing the Supreme Court or, as some say, of inciting against it. But for some reason, that’s always the impression one gets from her meticulously prepared speeches.
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She explains that her complaints were against the legislature – that is, against her milieu – for neglecting the rights of the people for years while focusing instead on the rights of the individual. She criticized the court, for “giving extensive interpretation” to that “dead zone,” as she put it.
The cure for this anarchy is the nation-state law. “We have to see the totality, not lift one or two sentences from the speech,” she told this reporter about the furor stirred by her strident attack on the Supreme Court justices, as though they are not sufficiently Zionist and as though they disdain the country’s Jewish character and are interested only in the rights and well-being of a few tens of thousands of asylum seekers from Africa. This time she went a step too far in her critique of justices who don’t pass judgment as she sees fit.
One needn’t take the justice minister’s outcry to heart. This week was one of her most successful. The more attacks on her from the left, by former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and her colleagues, and by former Justice Ministers Tzipi Livni and Yossi Beilin – the higher Shaked’s stock among her electorate rises. When she posits herself as the protective wall of “Zionism” and in the same breath drives a wedge between the idea that is the foundation of Israel’s existence and the individual rights that are rampant here, she consolidates her status as a leading ideologue of the country’s nationalist right.
Tirades against the judiciary, and in particular against the Supreme Court – the last bulwark against the total deterioration of values here – is always popular in right-wing ranks. Shaked is adept at expressing those feelings, and her electoral base laps up her speeches. Still, the large gap between those words and actual achievements is not likely to be closed anytime soon. Shaked is pushing ahead with several important reforms in the judicial system, but after more than two years in office, she still hasn’t gotten down to the nitty-gritty.
The justices pass judgment according to the law. Even those who are identified with a national worldview or come from a right-wing home, such as current Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, or former deputy president Elyakim Rubinstein, cannot produce a different legal outcome on demand that will square with Shaked’s ideology. She will go on speechifying, and they will go on judging.
This week’s ruling by the Supreme Court about asylum seekers (that they may be deported to Rwanda and Uganda, but may not be jailed for more than two months if they refuse to go) in large measure adopted the state’s position. But its timing was puzzling: Twenty months after the hearing on the subject and just days after residents of south Tel Aviv, where many of the migrants live, demonstrated outside Naor’s home. The small demonstration pleased political decision makers. How convenient that the court, which the right wing loathes, is again drawing fire.
It’s the government that caused the complex human tragedy in this part of Tel Aviv. More accurately, the three governments that Benjamin Netanyahu has led here over the past nine years. But the demonstrators didn’t protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence or office in Jerusalem. They preferred to vent their justified anger and frustration opposite the home of the justice who, with her colleagues, is compelled at times to deal with the rotten fruits of government failures, which end up getting tossed in their direction. Netanyahu can chalk up another victory in the battle for the public’s consciousness.
Thursday afternoon, the person chiefly responsible for the ongoing disaster in south Tel Aviv showed up there, riding on the wave of protest sparked by the ruling on asylum seekers for a “solidarity” visit with local residents. The visit by Benjamin Netanyahu was a show of defiance against the court. Everything goes in our Orwellian reality: The fomenter of the crisis rails against it, truth is a lie and the media spin is the be-all and end-all.
That visit took place the day after a second Likud support rally for Netanyahu, this time under the guise of the traditional Rosh Hashanah toast. The invitations bore a huge picture of the leader in the pose of a smiling, mild-mannered dictator.
What is left for Netanyahu – who’s up to his neck in investigations and corruption cases and general degradation – to do other than to spray more vitriol at the media? It’s the same media on which he heaped praise when reporters industriously covered the investigations against his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. In another three weeks, Netanyahu will take the podium at the UN General Assembly and take pride in the State of Israel, a true democracy that, without a free media – not the media that poses as such – would be unworthy of its name.
On Wednesday, he recycled the media shtick almost word for word from the previous rally a month ago. His whipped-up audience responded, as expected, with cries of “Fake news!” And “Bibi, king of Israel!” Nothing new there. But this time Netanyahu chose to devote much of his remarks to vilifying the central prosecution witness in the case of the so-called “residences,” aka the misuse of public funds at the Prime Minister's official residence, in which the main suspect is his wife.
The pathetic nature of this gathering was exceptional even in terms of the speaker’s usual standards. The premier sounded like a criminal lawyer or like one of those PR mercenaries that he and his wife dispatch to media studios in times of trouble. Meni Naftali, the former chief caretaker of the Prime Minister’s Residence, whose testimony plunged Sara Netanyahu into deep water, was the target of a series of smears: sexual harasser, liar, thief and more. Netanyahu balked at nothing; no exaggeration was too petty for him to evoke.
It’s quite possible that, had the choice been his to make, Netanyahu would have forgone this part of the speech; at times he didn’t look entirely comfortable. But the texts were in large measure dictated by his wife and were intended to calm her and tone down the madness that’s seized their home on Balfour Street ahead of the decision by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in the case of the residences. Whether or not this was also an attempt to obstruct justice, as Naftali’s lawyer claimed, is not for us to decide. But it did constitute an attempt to frighten potential witnesses for the prosecution.
Naftali is mainly Sara’s problem, though he probably has also contributed to the police investigation in the case of the presents and gratuities received by her husband, too. The couple can’t really think that public mudslinging at a former employee and dredging up old allegations (which were undoubtedly thoroughly checked by the investigators and prosecutors before Naftali was granted immunity from self-incrimination) will tilt the scales where Mendelblit is concerned. He will make a decision based on the evidence, not according to the intensity of the roars in the hall where that Likud rally took place. It was essential, however, to the maintenance of domestic harmony.
Battlefield of the future
On Monday evening, Netanyahu arrived at the Barkan industrial zone in Samaria to celebrate with a few thousand settlers. The occasion: “50 years of settlement, building and Zionist activity” – that is, of occupation over another people. His speech had three parts: 1. Unreserved support for the settlements; 2. A (headline-making) commitment not to uproot any settlement, as that wouldn’t advance the peace which, as we know, he is working indefatigably to achieve; and 3. Criticism of the Supreme Court in the matter of the “infiltrators.”
The crowd cheered. Despite the partial freeze on settlement construction, and his refusal to yield to demands to annex Area C in the West Bank (which is under total Israeli control), even though in the era of Trump supposedly no one is preventing Israel from doing that – the settlers are well aware that they will never have a better prime minister than this one. And they know something else, too: that the prolonged investigations against him constitute a concrete – if not immediate – danger to their investment in him. So they signaled to him that he can count on them in bad times.
Apart from the prime minister’s speech, there was another element in the ceremony – ostensibly marginal: “Presentation of flowers to Sara Netanyahu.” This wasn’t mentioned in the official invitations, but politicians were asked to be present when Sara was to be given a huge bouquet by the girls of Samaria.
The kowtowing warm-up was led by the chairman of the Samaria Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, who didn’t fail to term the prime minister’s wife “the first lady” a few times, even though Israel does not have such a thing.
The mounting, repeated gestures in honor of the prime minister’s wife are the sideshow but nevertheless essential in the political campaign that Benjamin Netanyahu is now conducting, and woe be to he who omits them. The campaign is aimed at shoring up the base of right-wing voters who are loyal to him, ahead of the tough times that are looming. It’s a countrywide campaign, from the settlements to Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood; from the Likud central committee to outlying communities in the north and the south.
And it’s working. Cabinet ministers and MKs, not only from Likud but also the coalition parties, relate with astonishment that, in their travels around the country, they are discovering that Netanyahu has never been more popular among his electorate, never more beloved in his party’s bastions. Casting the media and the left as the enemies of the people, despisers of Zionism and, especially, as persecutors of Bibi and Sara, is turning out to be a political gold mine for the beleaguered leader.
In his travels and speeches, his incitement and militancy, and above all in his whining self-victimization over his bitter fate – Netanyahu is succeeding in striking the right chords among his target audience. He’s busy building the force that will stand by his side when it’s summoned, he is whipping the corps into shape, preparing them for the moment of truth when they will be called upon to show loyalty and devotion to the leader.
Next in line
In Wednesday’s rally, as in the previous one, the only speaker besides the prime minister was coalition whip MK David Bitan. Not one minister was invited to speak. Once more, the “senior figures,” or “Likud leaders” were forced to act as extras, to give fake smiles and applaud at the right times, as their stomachs churned.
Bitan has definitively been marked as the vice regent. For all practical purposes, he is now the deputy chair of Likud. He is Netanyahu’s long arm and speaks from the leader’s throat. The ministers are more important than him only by title. If we add to this the presence of the prime minister and his wife at the wedding of Bitan’s daughter last week, we get the whole picture. Netanyahu hurried to the banquet hall immediately after landing at Ben-Gurion airport, returning from his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.
No previous coalition whip has attained Bitan’s extraordinary status, and its political significance goes beyond the party level. In Likud and elsewhere in the political arena, the word is that Netanyahu is preparing the ground for Bitan’s appointment as a minister, during the winter session of the Knesset, which begins in late October. Bitan has a promise from Netanyahu, mentioned in public more than once, to be appointed a minister. Not that that means anything – there are many people in the political arena and outside it, too, who got promises from Netanyahu that have never been fulfilled. But in Bitan’s case it’s different. The prime minister wants to reward him for all he’s doing on his behalf.
Getting Bitan into the cabinet will necessitate the resignation of a Likud minister. The name being mooted is Yuval Steinitz, the energy minister. Steinitz, who has taken an independent and courageous stand on various issues, could have a hard time in the next Likud primaries. He’s being mentioned as a candidate for chairman of the Jewish Agency after Natan Sharansky concludes his term there. It’s a great job with which to slide into retirement.
In the past, Steinitz was the ultimate confidant, and most determined and devoted of Netanyahu’s defenders. But no more. He’s matured. He’s understood that there should be a limit to self-humiliation (something Tzachi Hanegbi might understand in a few more years – or not). Now, with Netanyahu’s involvement in Case 1000 and Case 2000 and the rest, the energy minister isn’t expending all that much energy in media defense of the premier.
He has an excuse. My wife is a judge, Steinitz told an interlocutor who asked about the situation. Jokes at his expense are making the rounds in Likud. “In the next government, he is invited to ask his wife for a portfolio,” the wags are saying. In any event, it will be ironic if the current No. 1 Netanyahu loyalist replaces the former No. 1 loyalist at the cabinet table.
The rest is history
A year ago, when the request of Moshe Katsav, the rapist president, for early release was rejected (and three months before he actually was released, last December), Meretz leader MK Zehava Galon found herself contemplating a rather morbid issue: Is it proper that a former president who was convicted of rape and a former prime minister who was convicted of fraud should be buried in the section allotted to the nation’s leaders on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, when the time comes?
Galon, of course, maintains that it’s not fitting that this space, which has become a major tourist site since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the burial place of presidents, prime ministers and Knesset speakers, as well as their partners, should become the final resting place of criminals and offenders. In September, she wrote Netanyahu, seeking to set new criteria for who is entitled – and, above all, not entitled – to be buried with the nation’s greats. “It should be stipulated that anyone who has been convicted of offenses of moral turpitude will not be entitled to be buried in the plot of the Great Leaders of the Nation,” the MK wrote him.
Her letter was sent before much was known about Case 2000 – involving Netanyahu’s conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes – and when Case 1000 was still in its infancy. There’s more than a little macabre irony here, which the addressee undoubtedly noticed.
Perhaps that’s the reason why it was only this week, after an inelegant delay, that the response landed on Galon’s desk. The signatory was not the prime minister but the minister who serves as liaison between the government and the Knesset, Yariv Levin (Likud). He referred Galon to the head of the Ministerial Committee for Ceremonies and Symbols, Culture Minister Miri Regev. It turns out that in 2011, this sensitive issue was addressed by the committee. Ironically again, the head of the committee then was the tourism minister, Stas Misezhnikov (Yisrael Beiteinu), now retired from politics, who is suspected of offenses involving bribery, fraud and drugs, and is likely to join the growing club of elected officials tainted with moral turpitude. Maybe that’s why the committee chose not to weigh in?
Obviously, no decision will be made as long as Regev heads the committee. Hey, is she looking for trouble with the bosses? It goes without saying that Galon in her letter and the present columnist wish everyone involved good health and a long life.