Analysis |

Amid Whispers of Early Elections, Netanyahu Gets Schooled in Limits of Power

From his partners in government to the president and even his own attorney general, Netanyahu was reminded the even his power can be restrained

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Culture Minister Miri Regev.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Culture Minister Miri Regev.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underwent an education of sorts this week: It became clear to him, to his dismay and perhaps his surprise, that his upcoming 10th year in office is not completely without restraints. Power has limits, caprices do not have infinite space to expand, and not all of his partners dance like zombies to the tunes he is piping. He received a cold shower from President Reuven Rivlin at the Knesset podium, on the opening day of the winter session, because of the assassination attempts his governing coalition is systematically carrying out on Israeli society and democracy.

He also took a barrage of stinging criticism, in uncharacteristically sharp tones, from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who is nursing a monster headache because of the bid to produce legislature that would prohibit the criminal investigation of a sitting prime minister.

Netanyahu encountered a stop sign wielded by two parties in his coalition – Habayit Hayehudi and Kulanu – which forced him to shelve the despicable proposed law designed to rescue him from the clutches of the police.

As Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said when coalition chairman MK David Bitan (Likud) asked for his support: “I don't work for you.” That sharp message was aimed at Netanyahu; Bitan was just the relay station.

Ah, and the prime minister coined a term, “Hamutzim” (sourpusses), which he hurled at those citizens who dare to criticize him, his character, the corruption, the moral decay in his personal life, and what’s happened to the country in recent years. At the opening of the next Knesset session, maybe he’ll just give his opponents the finger.

So, “Bibi [Immunity] law No.1” has gone into the deep freeze. Bitan insists that he will defrost it in about a month, but in any event it would not apply to ongoing investigations, including the submarines affair (which the police have called Case 3000). Anyway, it will not get passed politically, it will not get past the courts, and it will not pass constitutionally or publicly.

President Reuven Rivlin, left, addressing lawmakers at the opening of the winter Knesset session, October 23, 2017.Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO

Now, instead of the original proposal (dubbed “the French law” by the media), Netanyahu will have to suffice with a leaner Israeli alternative: another bill tailored specifically to his measurements, which would prevent the police from saying, upon concluding their investigation, what evidential grounds there are to indict the suspect.

At the moment, “Bibi law No.2” looks to have a better chance of clearing the political hurdles. Opposition to it is less robust among coalition partners. Perhaps, after thwarting the main plot, they will be willing to make nice with Netanyahu regarding the subplot, even though its public and political significance is not to be sneezed at. If upon completion of the police investigation, the public are not officially made aware of any incriminating evidence and testimonies, Netanyahu will win another, stress-free extension spread over many long months, until the attorney general reaches his decision on whether to indict. During that period of respite, the premier is liable to call an election in the second half of 2018.

Here, too, it’s a long road to freedom. Kulanu will consider supporting the proposed law only if it applies to investigations that have yet to begin. One coalition party head told me this week that, in his opinion, the law proposed by MK David Amsalem (Likud) is reasonable, since it is not the job of the police to make a recommendation one way or the other. It is a body that has the job of investigating, not recommending.

I drew the minister’s attention to the precise details: The police only note whether in their opinion there is sufficient evidence to proceed with an indictment, but do not “recommend” anything. That really is not their job.

The minister was surprised. “I didn’t know that,” he admitted. “If that’s the situation, we need to rethink our position.”

The possibility of an early Knesset election continues to agitate the main political players. They have heard from Netanyahu that this coalition will run the full term, until November 2019, with the new budget they're starting to work on at the Finance Ministry cited as evidence. However, their finely tuned senses are picking up signals, messages and hints to the contrary.

One such whisper came from the Prime Minister’s Office this week – nay, from the horse’s mouth itself. Netanyahu revealed to some of his interlocutors that he had a hot, freshly baked opinion poll, which indicated that if the next election were to be held today, the current coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties would strengthen its position.

According to the poll, Likud and Kulanu would retain the same number of seats as they have now (30 and 10, respectively), Zionist Union would slip to 18, and Yesh Atid would go up to 19. Habayit Hayehudi would also improve (to 11 seats, apparently). And Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beiteinu combined would bring in more than 15 seats. Altogether, this coalition, which Netanyahu favors, would claim more than the 66 Knesset seats it currently enjoys

The subtext of Netanyahu’s presentation was: If this is the situation and everyone gains, why not take advantage of the momentum and call a snap election? In the meantime, though, he hasn’t found any backers. The coalition partners – from Kahlon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Interior Minister Arye Dery (Shas), Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni (both United Torah Judaism) – have been telling him in private to hold his horses. If the same coalition is set to return to power anyway, what’s the rush? Only to give him a fifth term and the populist argument that will become his campaign against prosecution: “The people gave me a mandate, despite the investigations.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon in the Knesset, June 2017. Sources say he's battered and bruised by previous efforts to save Kan, and won't intervene again.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The feeling among some ministers is that Netanyahu would love to call an election in, say, the first quarter of 2018 – but he hasn’t got the support. He regretfully admitted this to someone, saying, “I don’t have a majority.” Opposition to an early election transcends party lines and is also deeply rooted within Likud. Bitan is against it. Even Tourism Minister Yariv Levin is against.

Of course, Netanyahu is able to go to the president at any time and resign. But then he exposes himself to a scenario in which someone from his party succeeds in forming an alternative government, which could serve until the end of the Knesset term. Not a likely scenario, but happy is the man who is always suspicious.

Bad blood

The fraught and forlorn relationship between the prime minister and president – about which much will be said in the next few years – has another, semi-personal aspect. There is a time-honored tradition in the Knesset: On festive occasions like the opening of a session, the country’s leadership customarily gathers in the Knesset speaker’s office about half an hour before the debate starts. The president, prime minister, leader of the opposition and Supreme Court president, along with their spouses, convene in a corner of the luxurious office suite for pleasant conversations over drinks.

Rivlin broke the custom. He and his wife Nechama observed it only once, at the opening of the first session of the 20th Knesset in April 2015, after the last election – but never again. Since then, the gatherings have been held – including this week’s – without them. “It’s the elephant in the room,” said someone who was there on Monday afternoon. “The empty chair.”

The feeling among those who assembled in the speaker’s office is that his excellency the president, a very sociable man, and his pleasant wife are, to say the least, not thrilled about spending time in the same room as Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. They are allergic to the couple, and it’s hard to fault them for that. What Bibi and Sara, Sara and Bibi, did in the spring of 2014 to try and thwart Rivlin’s election to the presidency – oh the madness, oh the obsession! – has been neither forgotten nor forgiven by the presidential couple.

The work of the two men and their bureaus proceeds as it should. Netanyahu and Rivlin meet from time to time, discuss, consult, coordinate messages before the president’s meetings with world leaders. Everything ticks along nicely – until the schmoozing stage. That’s the limit.

Rivlin’s office stated: “The president prefers to accompany his wife to her seat in the VIP balcony in the main hall.” This is true. He sees to it that she is safely seated and then proceeds on his own, with measured steps, toward the speaker’s office. There he meets Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at 3:59 P.M. on the dot, not a minute earlier, when the latter has already stepped out of his offices and together they enter the main hall.

Apropos the main hall and Rivlin: At the end of the three main speeches at the opening of the session by Rivlin, Netanyahu and Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union), Netanyahu rose from his chair. Culture Minister Miri Regev and Science Minister Ofir Akunis went up to him. A lawmaker passing by them told me he heard Akunis say to Regev: “You have to speak out against him,” meaning Rivlin.

Regev responded enthusiastically, “Yes, of course I will,” and Netanyahu nodded: “Yes, yes, you have to speak.” Regev hurried out of the main hall and went to be interviewed. And so she gave interviews and updated her Facebook page, attacking the president who dared speak in praise of statesmanlike behavior – a concept about which she knows nothing – and against the tyranny, brutality and rapacity of the majority – a concept she encapsulates to her very core.

I asked Akunis what happened. He claimed he did not speak with Netanyahu and Regev. He did, however, mutter aloud as Rivlin was speaking: “This is a political speech.” But he did not give interviews against the president, nor did he encourage anyone else to do so. Akunis reminded me that he was among Rivlin’s supporters in his race for the presidency, totally contrary to Netanyahu’s position.

Regev’s office told Haaretz that no such conversation took place, so I went back to my source, the lawmaker. He sticks by his version: He passed by, he saw, he heard. Regev and Akunis are the marginal figures here; Netanyahu is the story. On the face of it, he has remained silent and refrained from attacking the president after his harsh remarks, both personally and via Twitter. But he is happy to sic Regev on the insurrectionist president. That’s what she’s there for.

The eternal refrain

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, old plots never die. They fade away, but not entirely. Something remains inside of him, lurking in the murk for the right moment to emerge.

The intention to get rid of the Kan public broadcasting corporation in its current form is alive and well – in both the Prime Minister’s Office and residence. Shas Chairman Dery – who about a week ago proposed closing down the corporation and redirecting the resources to benefit the disabled – was not acting independently of the mother ship, which is Netanyahu. He sowed the seeds that will sprout at the appropriate time.

This is the current plan: Soon, in November or December, the High Court of Justice is slated to deliberate and rule on a petition to prevent the splitting of Kan into two: a corporation that will broadcast general programming; and a “news corporation” that will do as its name implies. The news corporation is a new creation, to which a new CEO, chairman and board will be appointed – instead of those serving today: CEO Eldad Koblenz, Chairman Gil Omer and the board that was put together by then-Communications Minister Gilad Erdan.

Erel Segal, host of Channel 20 show "The Patriots."Credit: Nadav Cohen-Jonathan

The assessment in legal and political circles is that the High Court will approve the split, which was previously agreed upon by Netanyahu and Kahlon following a major ruckus between them. Before the High Court rules, nothing will be done so as not to spoil things. However, the moment the split becomes a fait accompli, the old plot will rear its ugly head.

Netanyahu is striving for nothing existing there, so there will be nothing. In conversations with coalition partners, he is promising not to harm radio station Reshet Bet and the various other radio stations or writers, directors, screenwriters and producers who will continue to prepare materials for the general-programming corporation that will survive.

As for the news corporation – he sees no need for it. Who could guarantee that a new organization wouldn’t be infiltrated by people who wish him harm? News anchor Geula Even-Saar will not present the main news broadcast and investigative reporter Moti Gilat, who angered Dery, will no longer broadcast investigative reports. Accidents can happen, though, and Netanyahu could once again find himself stuck with journalists who won’t sing from his hymn sheet like his friends at Channel 20 and the free newspaper Israel Hayom.

During the Kan crisis earlier this year – which will be remembered as one of the peak moments in the roller-coaster ride that is Netanyahu’s government – the person who thwarted the move was Kahlon. This time, though, journalists shouldn’t count on him. Kahlon has come out battered and bruised from the previous saga. Currently, he is completely focused on the 2019 budget, which he intends to complete by Passover. He has far-reaching plans for the next two years. As long as the radio stations evade the scaffold and the artists are unharmed, the assumption is that Kahlon will go with the flow this time.

Fighting in the War Room

We reported here last week on how Netanyahu has tried to force Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to agree to the appointment of former Givati commander Ofer Winter to be the prime minister’s next military secretary. Eisenkot, though, believes he has other candidates who are more worthy. Since then, nothing has changed.

The prime minister and chief of staff are both sticking to their guns. This story has a journalistic angle that’s more political, because everything is mixed these days. That angle’s name is Erel Segal, the vociferous right-winger who broadcasts “The Patriots” on Channel 20. Thanks to his rightist boisterousness, he received his own show on Army Radio.

According to sources within the IDF General Staff, Segal – who is friends with Winter – is trying to help his pal get the job at the Prime Minister’s Office by exploiting his relationship with Netanyahu. On the eve of the 2015 election, the latter offered Segal the 22nd spot on the Likud slate, an offer Segal refused. Now he’s doing lobbying work for the officer: that’s what friends are for.

Segal’s colleagues have also heard him talking in recent months about his efforts to convince Netanyahu to choose Winter. In this matter, Segal is serving as an emissary: Winter is the darling of the religious-Zionist right. Advancement of the controversial officer to the position of the prime minister’s military secretary is currently a top priority for right-wingers, who know how to look after their own in the army and push them ahead at the command of the Holy One blessed be He.

The thesis that is driving right-wingers is this: As long as Eisenkot is chief of staff, Winter – who now heads Central Command – will not be promoted and is on the fast track home. But if he sets himself up in the Prime Minister’s Office for the next two or three years, Winter will survive Pharaoh (i.e., the current chief of staff) and Eisenkot’s successor will appoint him – inshallah – to the position he and his admirers so desire: a division commander.

Journalists don’t abstain from meddling in the battles they cover. The closeness to decision-makers and the inflated egos of many of those in the profession causes them to think they know better than the people actually in the hot seats on who should be appointed to what: the army, the government, the economy, the field of culture or sport.

Segal’s apparent involvement in the super-sensitive issue of the appointment of the military secretary – in this case, also contrary to the chief of staff’s view – is problematic. He works at Army Radio, which is part of the IDF. Though he is a civilian, there are certain rules – ethics-shmethics, and that whole can of worms.

In response to my question, Segel strenuously denied any involvement in Winter’s appointment, or acting on his behalf in the Prime Minister’s Office. He says he has no connection to Netanyahu.

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