Analysis |

The Israeli Governing Coalition's Near-death Experience in the Shabbat Wars

As Netanyahu's government was jolted by one shock after another this week, Defense Minister Lieberman assumed a lead role in the drama, displaying brinkmanship that could have ended badly

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Illustration: Lieberman fires at Israeli Arab and ultra-Orthodox politicians.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

When the Knesset’s winter session began, two months ago, Likud MK David Bitan made the following prediction: If the coalition were to remain intact through November, it would have smooth sailing until 2019. This past week put his prophecy to a real test. Just when the coalition whip is most needed, his gloomy personal circumstances had left Bitan functioning at half strength, or less. A walking dead man, people call him in the Knesset. With pity, not schadenfreude.

Mid-December, and the shocks jolting the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continue relentlessly. The crisis of Israel Railway’s Shabbat work has abated for the moment. It claimed one victim: Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), who was compelled to resign. Shaping up as even more dangerous, however, is legislation that would force grocery stores to close on the Sabbath. (Specifically, it would authorize the interior minister to block municipal bylaws that allow businesses to open on Shabbat, apart from in Tel Aviv.) The coalition majority that allowed for the passage of that bill on its first reading in the Knesset was achieved only by strenuous efforts, late at night, and with the active intervention of the prime minister.

“We went through a near-death experience,” one party leader said this week, referring to the threat by Shas leader Interior Minister Arye Dery to resign immediately if the bill was not approved.

There are two schools of thought about all this. One is that Dery never made a threat, that people in Likud wanted to scare wavering lawmakers and spread it in his name, and that he simply didn’t deny it. The second version is that Dery, sly as ever, placed the gun of resignation on the table only after he knew for certain that the majority was in his pocket. In any case, he wanted to show his dwindling electoral base that Litzman is not the only Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leader who’s willing to fall on his sword for the sake of the Sabbath.

But whether or not the threat was empty, if it even existed, the ministers suddenly realized that the only thing separating them from an election campaign, in which anything might happen, was a terse letter of resignation to the cabinet secretariat. This time the coalition was saved from defeat, but it has yet to deal with the 2019 state budget, the police recommendations in the Netanyahu cases, and other religion-and-state laws that are a ticking bomb even in normal times, but now more than ever because of Yisrael Beiteinu’s leader, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman, who strongly opposes the grocery-store bill, is a key player in the drama. This week he displayed brinkmanship that could easily have ended in a crash. The Lieberman we’ve been seeing lately is the “Yvet” (his nickname) from his opposition period. He’s railing against Arab MKs with the same old songs (“war criminals,” “go to Syria,” “we need to boycott the residents of Wadi Ara”), and stretching the rope with the Haredim to the limit. On the grocery stores issue, he guessed, correctly, that the remaining rejectionists from Likud would grasp that he meant what he said, and that they would chicken out and hurry to toe the majority line – and save the coalition. And they did.

Lieberman is behaving as though the (electoral) ground is rumbling beneath his and his party’s feet – even though, as the party’s leader, he holds the most important and empowering portfolio of all and is considered a successful minister who is behaving judiciously, gets along with the top ranks of the Israel Defense Forces and is accepted by his colleagues in the United States.

But far from adding points to him personally or to his party, the defense minister post is actually harming them. According to the polls, Yisrael Beiteinu is losing seats, while he is losing ground as a person perceived to be suited to be prime minister and in terms of public satisfaction with his performance. Before his party joined the government, in May 2016, after a year in the opposition, the polls gave it the equivalent of eight or nine seats; now it’s down to about five.

The prevailing wisdom is that no one wants elections less than Lieberman, as it’s far from certain that he’ll return to the Defense Ministry afterward. This week he challenged that perception. Additional bills relating to matters of religion and state loom: one aimed at expanding the powers of rabbinical courts (Yisrael Beiteinu has already declared it will again defy coalition discipline and vote against), another related to army induction, and other legislation that should make life miserable for those at the top.

Survival missions

On Monday evening, Yaakov Litzman, the former health minister who is due to return as deputy minister but with full ministerial authority, was standing outside the Knesset chamber and projecting displeasure. The atmosphere was tense. The MKs were getting ready for a long night, which included votes on volatile bills: the grocery legislation, and bills to prevent infiltration by asylum seekers, to fund party primaries and to muzzle the police with respect to publication of the results of their investigations (the latter was deferred).

Litzman was looking for the bill that would allow him to ease his way back to the ministry that’s the apple of his eye (second only to Shabbat) – but in vain. That is legislation that would grant the labor, social affairs and social services minister the power to “take into consideration” the matter of the Sabbath when approving or denying work permits.

Meanwhile, Dery’s supposed threat concerning the grocery stores bill was still hovering over the plenum and a majority had not yet been assured for its passage. Ministers and MKs wondered aloud whether this was the end of the fourth Netanyahu government. Litzman decided to add a little fuel to the fire. After ascertaining that he had a large enough audience, from his preferred side of the House, he started to disseminate rumors about the resignation of his UTJ party from the coalition and its desire to join a more reliable one after new elections.

He spied opposition leader MK Isaac “Bougie” Herzog (Zionist Union/Labor). “You know, Bougie’s grandfather [Isaac Halevi Herzog, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel] had a special status with the Gur Hasidic sect,” Litzman recalled nostalgically. Bougie isn’t the leader of the Labor Party anymore, his listeners reminded him. “So what?” Litzman retorted. “We love Avi Gabbay, too!”

The message got through and soon afterward, a new item was added to the Knesset’s already full agenda. The vote, at 5 A.M. Tuesday, on the powers of the labor, social affairs and social services minister vis-a-vis Shabbat work. The bill was approved on its first reading.

For Litzman to make a comeback as deputy health minister, the Knesset would have to enact an amendment to a Basic Law in a manner that bypasses the High Court of Justice and allows the court to validate it. Litzman is not in a hurry. Let them first finish the railway infrastructure work, then we’ll see. How would it look if he were to return and then resign again, a month later?

That’s only one of the difficulties, albeit a significant one, that faces Netanyahu and his partners in their quest to get through this term. As of now, the prime minister has abandoned his desire to call early elections in an effort to counteract the investigations against him. Wife Sara and son Yair are of the opinion that a replay of the December 2014 government-dismantling maneuver, based on some lie, isn’t necessary. Let him hang on until November 2019, until the situation calms down and until Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit closes the cases, inshallah.

The stage at which the police recommendations concerning Case 1000 and Case 2000 (involving, respectively, allegations that Netanyahu and his family received lavish gifts from two businessman; and held conversations with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes over positive coverage) is shaping up as another survival mission for the premier. If the police conclude that an evidentiary foundation indeed exists for indicting Netanyahu for bribery or other charges, the system will go into a state of shock. Netanyahu will say that it’s only a recommendation and that we need to wait for the attorney general to decide.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), the weak link in the scenario of possible elections, will find himself in a classic prisoner’s dilemma: to spearhead the elections, do nothing and absorb the wrath of the public, or be dragged into a nation-wide vote that he did not initiate. Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) will face a dilemma of his own: to behead Netanyahu (unlikely), to claim that the police recommendations don’t justify new elections, or to go to the wall for the premier. Whatever he and his party colleague, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, do – or do not do – will also affect the actions or blunders of Kahlon.

In the meantime, Bennett is making ambivalent statements. We’ll see what a recommendation to indict the premier entails, and then we’ll decide, he tells people who ask.

Hearing this, Netanyahu swallows hard. He understands that what Bennett is telling him is: Bro, your fate will be in my hands. And that drives him crazy.

Disappearing act

The suspicion that fictitious donors acting on behalf of Michael Ganor (who turned state’s evidence in case 3000, involving Israel’s purchase of submarines from Germany) helped fund the primary campaign of Yuval Steinitz (Likud) – possibly, as reported in Yedioth Ahronoth, without his knowledge – is driving the last nail into the political career of the national infrastructure, energy and water minister.

This is Steinitz’s last term. In the next Knesset he’ll disappear. The only question is: To where? To the Jewish Agency, to an embassy, to another public office or, let’s hope not, to police interrogation rooms? In the worst-case scenario, knowing him as we do, Steinitz knew of and cooperated with corrupt acts. In the less-forboding scenario, he’s a space case who somehow didn’t see the aura of criminality that spread over his closest circles, under his nose.

The clearest indication of the diminished drive of the politician who’s held senior posts in the Knesset and cabinet for two decades – chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, finance minister, infrastructure minister, member of the security cabinet – was evident at this week’s Hanukkah holiday celebration. More accurately, not evident.

Likud has a long tradition of holding a festive “toast,” and invited its leaders and activists. Some do this on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, others at Sukkot or Passover, and some light candles with supporters on Hanukkah. Hanukkah has always “belonged” to Gilad Erdan (minister of public security) and to Steinitz. Those to hold the deed on these events.

Erdan organized his event last week. Steinitz – nada. Not even one skinny candle. The Likudniks concluded that he has thrown in the towel. In the past few months he’s rarely attended festive events hosted by Likud colleagues.

The latest episode ostensibly linking funding of Steinitz’s primary campaign in 2013 to money from bribes is related to an extremely problematic bill that passed its first reading this week in the Knesset. The “primaries law” stipulates that the state will henceforth pay the primary-election expenses for candidates whose parties hold them: Likud, Labor and Habayit Hayehudi.

At present, candidates who seek a slot on their party’s Knesset slate get their money from home or from donors, or both. Each candidate is permitted to accept no more than 11,000 shekels ($3,100) from any one donor, and up to several hundred thousand shekels, depending on the number of members his party has. A pretty negligible amount.

If the bill is enacted, the state will be required to fund the politicians’ primaries expenses, according to the number of registered voters in their parties. On that basis, for example, serving MKs from Likud would get 320,000 shekels, while Labor MKs would receive 200,000. And they would not need to return the money even if they’re not reelected.

Well, the MKs certainly organized themselves a fine holiday gift at our expense. Since when, and why, should the state have to finance politicians’ private campaigns? On top of which, in order to induce the coalition parties that don’t hold primaries (Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, United Torah Judaism) to support the legislation, a clause was inserted stipulating that such parties will get a grant of 50,000 shekels ($14,000) for each serving MK.

That stinks to high heaven. For one, MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union/Hatnuah) has stated that she will refuse to accept such funds, calling on the leaders of other non-primary parties to follow suit.

It’s true that the donations system has loopholes that can be exploited. But temptations exist in the work of every MK who comes into contact with the public. The way to cure these ills, however, is not by reaching into the taxpayer’s pocket, which is already heavily subsidizing the democratic system with its political parties.

It hardly needs to be said that what both of these corrupt bills, the police “recommendations” and the funding of the primaries, have in common is MK David Amsalem (Likud). The man who’s not affected by the stench of such legislation told the Knesset this week that he is working in the name of the integrity of his colleagues in this exclusive club. “We need to make a separation between politicians and money,” Amsalem asserted. “At no stage should the candidate have to encounter donors and shekels.”

And what about those who aren’t running? Who have already been elected and hold a high position? The MK who went all out to help Netanyahu, who’s suspected of receiving bribes to the tune of 600,000 or 700,000 shekels, has now donned the mantle of the white knight. It would be interesting to know what and who is motivating the MK this time around.

Second round

On Hagai Street, in the heart of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, is a plain-looking building. Exactly 30 years ago, that building hit the headlines when Ariel Sharon, at the time the minister of industry and commerce in the first unity government, and his wife, Lily, decided to purchase an apartment there.

The Sharon of December 1987 was not the Sharon we knew as the restrained, responsible, moderate prime minister of the early 2000s. He was a cynical politician, guided by a right-wing nationalist approach, a provocateur who thrived on political conflagration. What interested him most was to trap and defy Prime Minister Moshe Shamir from the right, on the issues of the settlements and Jerusalem. “I will force them to guard Jews in the Old City,” he declared. “If I have no other choice, I will buy a home there.”

Sharon was as good as his word. The apartment was ostensibly meant for use when he stayed over in Jerusalem. In practice, he and Lily hardly ever visited the place – why should they, since they had a ranch that they loved in the northern Negev? – but the heavy security around the property cost the state treasury plenty.

Sharon’s political provocation made a lot of noise internationally; it was one scandal of many that he fomented in the course of his many ministerial positions. A scandal of the sort that he wasn’t prepared to tolerate from right-wingers in the governments he headed, from 2001 to 2005.

Arik and Lily dedicated the apartment in December 1987, in an event that included the lighting of Hanukkah candles.

This past Tuesday, Sharon’s son Gilad – who hopes to get a place on the slate of the Netanyahu-led Likud party, which his father fled from – went back there, together with a few dozen Likud activists, to light the first holiday candle. He brought potential voters with him, toured the Old City with them and guided them to his family’s home, which now serves the ultranationalist Ateret Kohanim organization.

Turns out that the house on Hagai Street remains a vital presence. What was a political tool in the mid-1980s is serving the same purpose in the second decade of the new millennium, this time for Generation II. And who knows how many grandchildren will hitch a ride on it in another 20 years?

I asked Gilad if Arik in his 2000 version would have bought the apartment. He said that he would. “He never had doubts on the question of Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s not like the Gaza Strip, which was controversial.”

Do you think that Prime Minister Sharon would have reprised the act of then-Industry Minister Sharon and bought a home in the heart of the Old City? Again Gilad replied with a definite yes. Interesting, I told him, that’s not the Sharon I remember. But Gilad insisted that he hadn’t the slightest doubt.

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