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What's Keeping Netanyahu's Cracked Government From Falling Apart

Sensing Netanyahu's weakness, his coalition partners are blackmailing him – and he's capitulating to every caprice

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The 2019 state budget, which will be voted on by the cabinet next Thursday, is a political text par excellence. Its gaze is directed at elections, but its immediate goal is to stabilize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. These days, the coalition can be likened to a ship in stormy seas whose wheel is grabbed every few hours by a different drunken sailor, who steers the vessel in the direction he wants.

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Passage of the proposed budget will pave the way for the government to complete its full term, which ends in the fall of 2019. This will have a calming effect on the hysteria that has gripped party leaders in the past two weeks: After all, if their lease is being extended by almost two years, why spend all day bickering?

The delay in the publication of the police’s conclusions from their investigations of the prime minister in Cases 1000 and 2000 – apparently until the end of January, if not longer – couldn’t have come at a more propitious time for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Let’s imagine a situation in which the conclusions, aka the “recommendations” regarding a possible indictment of Netanyahu, were to see the light of day this week or next, as originally planned. The public would go into shock after hearing of the alleged deeds and offenses attributed to the premier in these two cases, from bribery to fraud and breach of trust, together with the central testimonies in the two cases – chiefly, that of Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, Ari Harow.

The narrative pushed during the past year – “You don’t topple a prime minister over champagne and cigars” – would find its worthy place in the dustbin, along with the brilliant slogan, “There will be nothing, because there was nothing.” The scale of the spins heard until now would be matched only by the intensity of the shock and disillusionment experienced by those who wanted to believe the spins or had been lured into believing them.

The public protest that would erupt, and the headlines, the demonstrations and the bellyaches that would have afflicted some Knesset members in Kahlon’s Kulanu party, would have made it extremely difficult for him to present the budget as though all the brouhaha were nothing. Any delay, even of a week, in getting the budget approved would have toppled the entire edifice. Netanyahu himself said, about a month ago, that if the budget was not passed by mid-January, it would not be approved at all.

As things stand now, the police conclusions with respect to Cases 1000 and 2000 (involving, respectively, suspicions that Netanyahu received luxury gifts and other personal benefits illegally, and possible illicit conversations that he held with publisher Arnon Mozes in order to garner more favorable media coverage) will be published when the state budget is virtually a done deal. The calls to Kahlon to resign immediately and bring down Netanyahu will get no response. He will cope with the pressure, the slings and arrows, the speeches and op-eds, until the dust settles. The budget will be his prop. His life jacket.

In one possible scenario, he could vow that if the attorney general adopts the stance of the police, should they propose to indict Netanyahu, he will take the positition that the prime minister is not able to continue in office.

Until that happens, Netanyahu is sparing no effort to seal the cracks in his coalition, which are growing wider by the minute. On Wednesday, when the vote on the bill to introduce the death penalty for terrorists hung in the balance, the prime minister himself phoned ministers who hadn’t yet shown up in the Knesset plenum. This would never have happened when MK David Bitan was the coalition whip.

Next week, Netanyahu faces another test in the House: the legislation promoted by Interior Minister Arye Dery to close down supermarkets on Shabbat. If the prime minister were really interested in an early election, this could have provided the perfect pretext. The bill is loathed in Likud, where it’s seen as the embodiment of blind and boorish religious coercion that in turn is a consequence of Dery’s dire personal and political straits.

Minister Ofir Okunis, who has been entertaining himself with the idea of standing for mayor of Tel Aviv next November, announced from the podium of the Knesset that in Likud, they loathe the bill. Earlier this week, at the meeting of Likud ministers, he warned Netanyahu that passage of the bill would be a “free gift” to Yair Lapid. Netanyahu mumbled a response that was understood to be suggest agreement. “We also deserve something,” he said, in reference to his own request to Dery, which has not yet been acceded to, to exclude from the bill supermarkets in Eilat and convenience stores at gas stations.

But the election option is not on the cards. Netanyahu weighed the idea last May amid the madness relating to the launch of the new public broadcasting company. He considered it also during the crisis of the Sabbath repair work by Israel Railways two months ago – the crisis that engendered the supermarkets bill. Then, too, he rejected the idea. Also, as reported here two weeks ago, his wife, Sara, and son, Yair, are also vehemently opposed. To them, he listens.

Netanyahu believes he will win the next election, because of the weakness of his rivals in the opposition, and the strength of the right-wing-ultra-Orthodox bloc he heads. The polling station itself is not the problem, from his point of view; the trap lies on the way there.

About a month ago, he met with a Likud MK. They talked about the possibility of advancing the election. The MK asked the prime minister whether he wasn’t concerned about the scenario of an alternative government. By law, if the prime minister announces his resignation, the president is obliged to invite the parties with representation in the Knesset for consultations. If an MK presents a viable alternative coalition, he will be entrusted with the task of forming a new government. And if he succeeds, the election would be deferred and, in this case, Netanyahu would find himself out of political life, coping with his legal problems like an ordinary citizen. Some in Likud are waiting for that auspicious moment, in order to seize the reins.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Arye Dery.Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu looked contemplatively at his interlocutor. “That’s just what they’ll do,” he said to him.

Cynical charm

What’s currently underway in the Knesset looks like an end-of-season sale of fantastical legislation, some of it utterly untenable, some of it dangerous and harmful, the rest just superfluous.

In a superhuman effort to preserve his rule, Netanyahu is responding with a series of shameful capitulations – to every caprice, every dictate, every threat, even by the most junior partners, even if the capitulation will ultimately exact a steep political price for his own party. As for the price that the state and its citizens will pay, that’s the last thing he cares about.

The lower the place on the electoral and public totem pole of politicians taking part in these festivities, the greater their chutzpah. They sense the weakness of the leader, and where someone is extorted, there are also extortioners. The salient example is Shas’ Dery. His party’s voters are jumping ship. Shas symbolizes nothing to them, other than a vague memory of revolution, longings for a beloved rabbi and a gloomy reality of corruption at the top.

The so-called supermarkets bill is meant to be the medication that will put Shas back on its feet. OK, let’s just suppose. Dery used to comport himself when making any political move intelligently, judiciously, cautiously. But when he’s standing at the edge of the abyss, the panic gets to him. His attempt this week to drag MK Yehudah Glick away from the shivah for his wife in order to get the MK to vote on a bill that is of no urgency whatsoever, citing a fake reason – Sabbath observance – attests to Dery’s mental state.

Dery was always a big-time cynic, believing in nothing but deals and power, in an environment where cynicism is hegemonic. His cynicism was always accompanied by a touch of charm, of mischievousness, of pragmatism in security-related and other matters, which garnered him admirers in the political arena. So skewed has his compass become that he did not hesitate to call a press conference and in a whiny voice accuse the opposition of lacking humanity in the wake of its (justified) refusal to accede to his private caprices, having asked the opposition to have a member abstain from voting so as to offset Glick’s absence.

Afterward, he half-apologized, and after getting reoriented he launched into his usual victimization routine and hurled accusations every which way. It’s not him that’s under attack, it’s the Sabbath, and he is putting himself on the line for its sake. If the remaining Shas supporters really buy that merchandise, then Dery is indeed the leader they deserve.

Nor is Dery alone. His buddy/rival in the dubious club of leaders of parties who’ve known better days – i.e., double-digit Knesset seats – and are now doing a reverse countdown, is Avigdor Lieberman, defense minister and head of Yisrael Beiteinu. His moderate, judicious behavior in the face of the unceasing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, and the fact that Hamas figure Ismail Haniyeh is still alive and kicking – after Lieberman threatened last year to kill the Palestinian leader – are exacting a price from his voters. His election promises in the state-and-religion realm have remained on paper. He’s taking into account an early-election scenario, and things look bad for him.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Olivier Fitouss

The folly that goes by the name of the death-penalty-for-terrorists bill is Lieberman’s equivalent of Dery’s supermarkets bill – but with a dramatic difference, like the difference between being denied coffee and a croissant on Shabbat, and turning Israel into a country where executions take place. Charlatanism bowed its head in shame at what happened this week in the Knesset.

The bill wasn’t even discussed by the security cabinet or the full cabinet. Yet it would constitute a radical change. It is opposed by the entire defense establishment, and it could thrust Israel – if anyone is actually ever executed – into a bloodstained whirligig of kidnappings and executions. Clearly, such a law would discriminate between Jewish terrorists and Arab ones, just another in a growing list of discriminatory acts. This one was submitted for a vote as the private initiative of a junior MK from Yisrael Beiteinu, one Robert Ilatov, whose speech in support of the legislation was the embodiment of shallowness and ignorance.

But the prime minister, susceptible as he is to pressure and extortion, went with the flow. More than two years ago, Netanyahu led the opposition to identical legislation that was submitted by then-Yisrael Beiteinu MK Sharon Gal. But this week, he suddenly discovered that there are terrorists who deserve to die, who “slaughter and laugh,” and have no right to live.

Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who doesn’t miss a chance to poke a finger into Lieberman’s eye, called the death-punishment proposal “hollow” and a “ride on the back of the bereaved families” of terror victims that will change nothing. That’s an apt description, equally applicable to the election-oriented law of Habayit Hayehudi that was passed this week in the Knesset, according to which any concession regarding the political status of Jerusalem would require the votes of 80 MKs.

No great expectations

Moshe Kahlon was sick last weekend, knocked out by a serious flu. His limbs were weak, his head pounded, his temperature rose. All he wanted was to stay home, in bed. But then, Channel 10 publicized WhatsApp messages sent by Netanyahu’s confidant Natan Eshel in which he analyzed the political moves made by Kahlon and his party. “The coward from Olga,” Eshel called him, referring to the finance minister’s hometown of Givat Olga, near Hadera.

Through the steam of the tea Kahlon smiled bitterly. He’s well acquainted with that sort of appellation: When he finished first in the Likud primary in 2006, Netanyahu, with a show of supercilious patronage, presented him on the platform as “a boy from Olga” who against all odds had overcome his Ashkenazi rivals who had not grown up in the hinterlands.

A few years later, when Netanyahu appointed him social affairs minister, he again recalled Kahlon’s childhood in Givat Olga as being good preparation for the job of the minister responsible for dealing with social distress in the country.

And now “Olga” was back, this time with the addition of “coward,” courtesy of Eshel, the chief of staff who left the Prime Minister’s Bureau under disturbing circumstances but continues to be a frequent guest in the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Kahlon could have suspected that Eshel was echoing the boss, but he didn’t let that thought disturb his rest. Nothing would surprise him – he has no expectations anyway.

What the treasury minister did have to do was attend the cabinet meeting on Sunday. He’d intended to stay home, but he knew that the headlines would interpret his absence as boycott, insult, peevishness. He barely dragged himself to Jerusalem, took part in the meeting and also went to the weekly meeting of coalition party leaders. Just so people wouldn’t gab. “I would have come even on a stretcher,” he told those who asked how he was feeling.

At the beginning of the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu turned to him and said he wanted to make it clear that Eshel’s messages were unacceptable to him and had not been written with his knowledge. Kahlon made a sharp gesture of dismissal with his hand. “Forget it,” he said. “I’m not interested either in what was said or who said it.” At first, the ministers inferred that he was talking about Eshel. After a few seconds, they grasped who else he was talking about, maybe.

Corporate wound

Three months ago, in October 2017, it looked as though Kan, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, which was born in pangs of pain, was again hovering between life and death. Interior Minister Dery suggested shutting down the new corporation’s poorly rated TV broadcasts and digital operations, and leaving Kan Bet public radio (formerly Reshet Bet) – the station that specializes in current events – on the air as a sop to advocates of public broadcasting.

From Netanyahu’s direction at the time came a whiff of agreement, conditioned on the consent of Kahlon, for whom the words “broadcasting corporation” are still an open wound. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud), the most comical minister in the history of Israel’s governments, tweeted: “Received PM’s blessing to close the corporation.” A few minutes later he hurriedly deleted the message. Those who spoke with Kahlon did not hear sweeping opposition to the idea from him. And since then, there’s been silence.

Zehava Galon.Credit: David Bachar

Well, the Kan folks can relax. In the 2019 budget, due to be approved by the cabinet next Thursday, the corporation remains intact, unharmed. Its current budget of 750 million shekels ($216 million) won’t be slashed. Thanks to Kahlon, its survival is guaranteed until January 2020, which is more than can be said for other media organizations, which are having to fire people, cut costs and streamline their operations, and for which every year means a new round of trench warfare.

Last chance

In the end, sound logic and common sense won the day. The most exclusive club in Israeli politics is about to open its gates and let in a bit of fresh air. Let’s hope they don’t catch cold there.

The Meretz convention, which is due to meet on Sunday, is expected to decide to introduce primaries for its leader and MKs, among registered party members. Revolution! Revolution! Revolution! – as we all remember Labor leader Isaac Herzog shouting on the eve of the last election.

The maneuver by Zehava Galon, the party leader, who resigned from the Knesset last October, was largely successful. The primaries won’t be completely open – a system that’s never been tried. The candidates for leader of Meretz and for the Knesset will vie over the votes of 1,800 registered party members. The membership rolls will be open for about a month and a half in order to allow new people to join, in the hope that there will be some.

Galon, who will contest the leadership once more, on March 22 – against MK Ilan Gilon, social activist Avi Dabush and perhaps also MK Tamar Zandberg – can justly claim full credit for the new dawn that is about to break on Israel’s only left-wing party. Like the two parties mentioned above, Meretz, too, has known happy days of 10-12 seats. (Today, it has five.)

If Galon hadn’t resigned from the Knesset and launched an effort, aided by a successful media campaign, to move to a primary system, there is no way her comrades would have ditched the faded security blanket that has served them faithfully until now.

She called them by name: an elitist, closed, insular group that elects itself in a forum of a thousand people that is rife with intrigues, riddled with factionalism and smells of strange deals. She made them look in the mirror for the first time. If that doesn’t save her from extinction, then apparently her time to leave has come. In any case, the proper place for her is in the left wing of the Labor Party, alongside MKs Shelly Yacimovich, Merav Michaeli, Zouheir Bahloul, Yossi Yonah and many other good folk.

New recruit

The Labor Party has been blessed with a new member: Henrique Cymerman, a foreign news stringer for Spanish media outlets – a nice person, unknown to 99 percent of Israelis. Not a dramatic development, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The office of party leader Avi Gabbay released a statement full of superlatives about the new member, predicting that Cymerman will be a “major boost to everything that relates to our foreign relations” and adding that he has “rich international experience and close familiarity with world leaders” – descriptions usually reserved for former foreign ministers. At a press briefing, reporters were told that the veteran journalist will help Gabbay with international ties, and open doors for him.

Here’s advice for Gabbay: If Cymerman is busy, the Labor leader can turn to Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog. There isn’t a president, prime minister, foreign minister, ambassador or UN secretary-general that the two of them haven’t met in their 40 combined years as ministers, opposition leaders and party heads. They’ll be glad to help.

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