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The Netanyahu PR Opportunity That's Threatening a 70-year-old Israeli Tradition

As the Knesset speaker and the premier girded their loins this week for the battle of Mount Herzl, Meretz's new leader saw her street cred go down the tubes

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Netanyahu heads a Passover seder table with politicians and police.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

There is less than three weeks to go until the “national consensus” spectacle takes place on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, and it’s still not clear what the format of this year’s torch-lighting ceremony will be. The ceremony marks the end of Memorial Day and opens the Independence Day celebrations. In that sense, it is a desert island, unique, in the midst of a murky sea of petty and savage politics. Left and right, religious and secular – everyone loves to love the ceremony and be touched by it.

In general, the torch-lighting ritual has managed to preserve a semblance of statesmanship. Nonetheless, during the era of Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev as head of the ministerial committee on official government symbols and ceremonies, signs of nationalism have seeped into the event, just as with anything else she has touched.

Three years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time also acting education minister, polluted the Israel Prize ceremony when he removed two members of the panel that chooses the literature laureates for the crime of being leftists. Now Regev is proudly marching in his footsteps. If the plot that Netanyahu – and no less, his honor-starved wife – is spearheading actually succeeds, the torch-lighting ceremony that opens the country’s 70th Independence Day will be desecrated too.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has threatened that the Knesset, which has played a central role in organizing and producing the Mount Herzl event since the founding of Israel, will officially boycott it if Netanyahu decides to “accept” the invitation of the official ceremonies committee to speak there: Netanyahu’s appearance would push Edelstein to the sidelines. (As a rule, the ceremony is presided over and addressed by the Knesset speaker, never the prime minister).

This confrontation between the two has already been through a number of rounds, but over the past few weeks we’ve heard nothing. The assumption was that Netanyahu and Edelstein had ironed out their differences and the premier had retreated from his intention to crash the Knesset speaker’s party. This is what Edelstein understood too, and usually he does not have a problem with understanding such things.

But over the past few days something changed. Netanyahu was at home this week, bedridden with a viral infection, and at the Balfour Street residence, the mistress of the house is in charge. The Lady is very passionate, to say the least, about her husband speaking at the ceremony – being physically there and not presented via the wonders of a video feed. She is sick and tired of being a guest of the Knesset at the event, which means being exiled to some place in the stands. She wants a front-row seat.

Added to that is the fact that the police investigations have multiplied and intensified of late, with the number of state’s witnesses growing. The legal situation, in short, is none too pretty. This week, son Yair was questioned by the police as well. One can assume that the atmosphere in the Prime Minister’s Residence is rather unpleasant. The relief that would obtain from commandeering a ceremony that always draws a large home audience might be just what the doctor ordered.

One way or another, the initiative to thrust the prime minister into the ceremony atop Mt. Herzl is suddenly back on the agenda. The details of the ceremony have already been set, including Netanyahu’s taped video greetings – and all of sudden, at the 11th hour, everything has been reopened.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Knesset Speaker’s bureau was informed of this development, and Edelstein decided that silence was not an option, that he must bring the matter to the public’s attention. At a conference last Sunday sponsored by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, he characterized Regev’s initiative – which some people think is really Sara Netanyahu’s idea that Regev adopted with pleasure – as resembling “Ahithophel’s advice,” that is, an idea that would come back to foil its creator (see 2 Samuel 15).

The next day, at a meeting about the ceremony at the Israel Information Center, which is part of Regev’s Culture Ministry and a partner with the Knesset in organizing the event – Edelstein made an explicit threat that not only would he boycott the ceremony if Netanyahu appeared, but that the Knesset Guard, which proudly marches at the beginning of the ceremony, would be absent too. As far as Edelstein is concerned, Miri Regev can recruit members of the Likud central committee, give them a quick drill instructor’s lesson and then lead them on parade in front of Netanyahu and his wife.

Even Edelstein’s predecessor as speaker, President Reuven Rivlin – who fought the very same initiative a few years ago and defeated it – did not dare voice such a threat. Without a doubt, Edelstein has decided to go to war over this. The threat to boycott is a doomsday weapon. On Thursday, Edelstein upped the ante, sending a letter in the same spirit to his fellow MKs and employees of the Knesset in which he informed them officially, that, for the first time in the state’s history, the Knesset and the ceremony were – no more.

One arrow remains in Edelstein’s quiver: If Netanyahu does not quickly announce a “return to normal” (for now he’s remaining silent, and that silence is pregnant with meaning), Edelstein will shoot it too. He will make a full-frontal appearance in the media, not via leaks, and explain to the public why removing the reins from the hands of Knesset at the Independence Day ceremony constitutes a trampling of all rules and a violation of all norms – as well as an assault on a 70-year-old tradition.

Edelstein has nothing to lose in a head-on confrontation with Netanyahu. In fact, the opposite may be the case. It seems that Edelstein has reached the well-founded conclusion that in the next Knesset – assuming Netanyahu is once again prime minister – he will not be offered the job of Knesset speaker. His star has faded, and Bibi will look for a new servant. MK David Amsalem (Likud) could be fitting. Or Likud MKs Miki Zohar or Nava Boker. If the right side of the Knesset plenum looks like a Middle Eastern bazaar, then why shouldn’t the speaker’s podium look like a market stall?

On the other hand, if after the next general election, Netanyahu is no longer on the playing field, whether for legal reasons or electoral ones, then Edelstein would benefit even more so from keeping his distance from the man. As someone who wants to run in three years and two months for the job of president, Edelstein must now go from slavery to freedom – which is what Rivlin did in his time. The last thing Edelstein wants is to look like Netanyahu’s lackey when he comes to ask for the votes of the other 119 MKs.

In the short run, going head-to-head with Netanyahu could harm Edelstein with hard-core Likud members. In the last party primary, he came in second on the Knesset slate after losing a fraught battle with Gilad Erdan. Back then Edelstein did not have enemies. This time he will. But even if he is pushed back into the fifth or sixth place on the Likud slate, it will have no importance in the election for president.

Edelstein has taken a public stand, and there is no chance he will retreat. What are the chances of Netanyahu backing down? Assuming he still has a drop of responsibility left in him, his silence could actually help him do that. He has enough excuses, security issues for example, that could provide him with an excuse to retreat. At the same time, because he’s been sick – and next week because of the intermediate days of the Passover holiday – he is at home with the wife, tea and old books. And the demons, all the demons.

Tamar Zandberg celebrating after being chosen to be the new leader of the left-wing Meretz party on March 22.Credit: Meged Gozani

Princess of tides

No other Israeli politician has experienced in exactly 48 hours both such a high and such joy – followed by collapse and humiliation. No one else has touched the heavens and then fallen so far into the abyss in such a short period.

The newly elected chairwoman of Meretz, MK Tamar Zandberg, could well get a copyright for that precedent after the exposure, just two days after she won, of her professional ties with political-strategic consultant Moshe Klughaft, first and foremost among those paid to incite against Israel’s left.

Zandberg denied having any connection to Klughaft time after time, lies and denials that were easily proven as such – until she finally got her act together and apologized.

For now, the dust has settled, but the young MK who reached the top with such ease, really in a dance, is now left without a shred of credit in the kitty. Even worse, that means she now has no room left for any other mistake, even the tiniest one. She will have to work very hard to restore the trust she breached.

She will embark upon the next election campaign against the Labor Party, Meretz’s main rival, properly hamstrung. When she accuses Labor chief Avi Gabbay and his colleagues of dressing up as the right, they will have a ready response: Klughaft. The man who more than anyone was responsible for attacks on both Zandberg’s voters and on left-wing and human rights organizations – those people for whom Meretz is their home – will serve as a weapon in the hands of the Zionist Union, comprised by Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. This too will be a sort of precedent: Two rival parties will be relying on (the dastardly reputation of) the same strategist to battle the other.

Zandberg’s need to avail herself of Klughaft’s services stemmed from a feeling that’s been shared among the ranks of the left for some time: According to this perception, the political strategists working for the right-wing parties are “winners,” they are “killers.” They take no prisoners. They know how to win in all circumstances, so why not use them in internal party battles too?

In a normal situation, there would be nothing wrong with this. PR man Moti Moral, who came up with the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” – which even to this day is considered to have been effective in securing Netanyahu and Likud’s win against a Labor Party led by Shimon Peres in 1996 – worked with Peres more than once after that election. Compared to Klughaft, however, who is not ashamed to use any means at all to smear if not smash “leftists,” Moti Moral is the equivalent of a good fairy from the story of “Sleeping Beauty.”

Dan Meridor (file photo).Credit: AP

Old-new solution?

The revulsion and disgust aroused by the 20th Knesset – with its corrupt, uncouth and bullying members – will serve as a winning card for the opposition parties when they run in the next election. For Likud, this battle has already been lost; the ruling party symbolizes the rot and corruption that have spread throughout the political system. If the next election is held under the shadow of criminal charges being brought against Netanyahu – Likud will be a sitting duck.

The need for serious clean-up and purification led to the quick removal of Jacob Perry from Yesh Atid, most likely after its leader Yair Lapid made it clear what was expected of him. That is the difference between the head of a totalitarian party who puts a gun on the table and leaves the room, and a colleague in a party where the leader is elected democratically – but who, if he lays the metaphorical gun on the table and turns his back on a rebellious Knesset member, will end up with a bullet in his body.

There will be great demand for clean, moral, law-abiding people before the coming election – for people who represent something different from the low-lifes of the present era. The first name that comes up is Dan Meridor. All these descriptions fit him, and he brings with him another precious asset: He is the Likud that once was and no longer exists, and which has sunk beneath the sea of Oren Hazans and David Amsalems. This is the Likud that Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon mourn for, and to a lesser extent also Avi Gabbay. All three have already put out some feelers with Meridor.

The suitors are wooing him, each in his own style and speed. The “bride” is also interested in returning to public life, to the government and cabinet chambers. From Meridor’s point of view, however, all the options are problematic. Each has advantages, but even more disadvantages.

The Zionist Union looks like a sinking ship, whereas Ya’alon has yet to be launched. Which means that Yesh Atid looks like the only practical alternative to Netanyahu and Likud – and the sole party through which Meridor can fulfill his dream of returning to the ranks of the decision makers.

Without a doubt, for Lapid, Meridor could be the piece that completes the puzzle – after Lapid appoints the “security figure” (possibly former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz?) he’s searching for. Meridor to his right and Gantz on his left are the perfect set of crutches for Lapid to run with. The ideal multivitamins.

Meridor would provide Lapid with the aura of the old-style Likud, the sensible party of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. As someone who worked alongside five prime ministers (Begin, Shamir, Barak, Sharon and Netanyahu), no one has greater authority or trustworthiness to bolster his character references.

Meridor would not bring many right-wing votes with him, but he would definitely provide legitimacy to an aspiring prime minister whose toolbox of experience and skills is rather sparse. The problem is that Meridor is a man of the old school, someone who is looking for consequence and substance. It would not be easy for him to stand in the shadow of someone who sees leading the country as the logical next career move after serving as TV talk-show host.

It would also not be easy for him to stifle his own opinions, to store his independence in the attic and mouth the page of talking points they send him each morning by email.

I asked Meridor what his plans were. He confirmed that he had spoken with the parties and told all of them the same things: If they give him the opportunity to strengthen and rehabilitate the state of Israeli democracy and its legal system, on the one hand, and to make progress on the two-state solution with the Palestinians, on the other – he will consider their offers seriously. He will make his decisions at the appropriate time.

Perhaps, but there’s also the possibility that he will wait for there to be a change of leadership in Likud, and then return home.

Friends with benefits

Quite a bit has been written by now about the Walla website, a supporting actor in Case 4000, aka the Bezeq affair. Testimony concerning items about Bibi and Sara that were downplayed or disappeared completely, and pictures that were photoshopped, as part of the alleged bribery scheme involving the premier and the owner of both Walla and the Bezeq telecom company, Shaul Elovitch – all this can be expected to find a place of (dis)honor in an indictment, should one be filed against the premier.

The following story may well suggest that it was not only the prime minister and his wife who enjoyed the sympathetic ear of the website’s editors, along with their hearts and minds.

On Thursday, November 6, 2014, at 7:58 A.M., Walla restaurant critic Avi Efrati posted a review of a new restaurant belonging to chef Segev Moshe in Herzliya. It was lethal. “An awful meal, one of the most embarrassing and disappointing I can remember here for years,” the critic lashed out, providing details of the culinary disappointment he experienced.

A few hours went by and the review disappeared from the site. Poof! The regular procedure for Efrati’s columns during his eight years at Walla – before and after the above incident – was: The review would first appear on the homepage on Thursday morning, and in the afternoon it was moved to the food section and stayed there until it was relegated to the website’s archive on Saturday night.

This time the item was immediately dispatched from the homepage to the archives. When Walla’s editor-in-chief at the time, Yinon Magal, was asked why, he said – according to other editors at the website, “I had no choice, an order from above.”

This “above” can have only one meaning: Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, acting at the instructions of owner Elovitch. (Magal said this week that he does not remember the incident because it took place so long ago.)

None of the employees at Walla could have imagined way back when that the strange incident might someday be connected to an allegedly criminal affair that would so entangle the site’s owner and Israel’s prime minister. But when the details of the Bezeq-Walla case were revealed, recently, someone at the website remembered the Efrati incident and wondered: Was the dismal fate of the review connected to the fact that the chef just happened to be married to one Sandra Riegler, who happened to be Sara Netanyahu’s stylist at the time?

Were the prime minister and his wife not the only ones who enjoyed the largesse of the website, an indentured servant to Shaul Elovitch until it was freed of its chains? Did their friends receive such benefits too? In any case, bon appetit to all those sitting down to dine.

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