Analysis |

Netanyahu's Two Greatest Fears Have Suddenly Materialized

As Netanyahu grapples with those two evils, his top political rival flirts with the right-wing

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

In the week just passed, two major evils reappeared – terror in the West Bank and the high cost of living. Two shooting incidents took the lives of three people – the newborn Amiad Israel, who was delivered prematurely via an emergency operation on Sunday after his mother, Shira Ish-Ran, was seriously wounded; and two Israel Defense Forces soldiers who had been guarding a settler’s hitchhiking stop north of Ramallah.

A series of hikes in the prices of such commodities as water, electricity, subsidized bread and other foods landed on Israelis, making it clear that 2019 will be a cruel year for their bank balances. At least they can commiserate with each other by means of conversations on their cellphones, whose rates remain relatively low.

A wave of terror and a wave of price hikes – those are the very last things a prime minister would wish to see in headlines in advance of what is emerging as the death throes of the battle over the 20th Knesset. The deterioration of the security situation in the occupied territories does not present a real electoral threat to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. The public is mature enough to understand that to terror attacks like those we saw this week, there is no solution. Even in any future “diplomatic solution,” there will be no good tidings when it comes to organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The danger that lurks for Netanyahu in the wake of the escalation of violence is related to the coalition. The Tekuma faction of Habayit Hayehudi, led by Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich, is weighing future moves if a series of demands that it intends to make of “the prime minister and the defense minister” are not positively received. Their resignation could drag with it in its wake other parts of Habayit Hayehudi – and that’s the end of this government.

Avigdor Lieberman is no longer in the Kirya defense compound in Tel Aviv, there is no one on whom to cast responsibility, to accuse of weakness – something that Likud and Habayit Hayehudi used to love to do with Lieberman. The “address” this time is someone else, the one seen this week in flattering photos with smiling soldiers, drinking steaming coffee.

From Netanyahu’s point of view, preserving the government means some sort of surrender in the face of the Tekuma demands. Heaven forbid that falls apart before the decree from on high – the so-called Gideon Sa’ar law – is passed by the Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Israeli soldiers, December 11, 2018.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The protests against the high cost of living that have returned to the streets of the country’s largest cities Friday, replete with fluorescent vests, in the wake of the success of such demonstrations in France, have hit the soft belly of Likud. When social justice and economic issues seep into the agenda, when young couples and elderly people and single parents fill up the television screens during the main evening newscasts – Netanyahu begins to sweat. And when he panics, all the demons burst forth from Balfour Street: Soon we’ll be hearing the Akunises and the Regevs, the Bitans and the Zohars and all the rest of the handservants attacking the protesters, insinuating that they are out to topple the government and accusing them of receiving assistance from foreign NGOs.

Yair Netanyahu will write that they are traitors. The premier’s inner circle will point fingers at George Soros, the financier and troublemaker. The entire apparatus will be at full throttle, 24/7.

“Netanyahu is not responsible,” one Likud minister said on Thursday. “We have a full-time minister of finance. He requested and received all possible tools. Please address all complaints to him.”

If the prime minister has any luck, it’s thanks to the opposition. The heads of the center-left parties and their other senior representatives aren’t identified in public opinion as champions of social causes. The primary issues keeping Avi Gabbay, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Ofer Shelah busy at present are in the diplomatic-security realm. A sudden turnaround on their part won’t be credible.

Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, was first to make a misstep. On Wednesday he posted a social-media selfie of himself in a bright-yellow vest on the well-tended street where he lives in northern Tel Aviv. He’s been working hard for three-and-a-half years to make everyone forget his stint as a failing finance minister who raised taxes. Early in the current Knesset term, he announced that he would try to save the country’s foreign relations, which is why he intended to serve as a type of alternative foreign minister. It was artificial and it didn’t really stick, but at least it was a strategy.

The moment the first inklings of a social-economic movement emerged, Lapid shed his diplomatic tailcoat, put on the vest and returned to the roots that gave him 19 Knesset seats in the 2013 election.

Time to woo

A blurry photo this week showed Lapid and Benny Gantz, novice politician and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, sitting together in a café on the roof of a Tel Aviv high-rise. Apparently, the courting season is underway.

About a month ago, maybe a bit more, when the political arena was tensing up for the possibility of an early election, Lapid confronted Gantz with a type of ultimatum: Decide now – yes or no. I can’t wait any longer, Lapid explained to his close circle. Unruffled, Gantz replied that he was in no hurry and that from his point of view the conditions weren’t yet ripe to make a statement about his political path. In retrospect, he was right. The election is on hold. The next date that looms for dissolution of the Knesset is the second half of January, and that’s not carved in stone, either.

Despite the assertive, military-style “nyet” that Lapid heard, and notwithstanding the prevailing assumption that Gantz is busy forming a party of his own and has no interest in joining any other faction as a second fiddle – and rightly so, from his perspective – contacts between the two have continued.

There’s nothing to conclude from this other than the obvious: Gantz is the wild card in the pack in the 2019 election. In polls, he is predicted to steal four to five seats from Lapid and thus reduce Yesh Atid to a projected 12-13 seats. When Lapid sits across from him, what he sees is an affable executioner. His desire to know as soon as possible where Gantz is headed is understandable.

It would be interesting to know whether Gantz shared with Lapid the frank response he recently gave someone else who asked him about his intentions – not with respect to functional-practical questions but in terms of substantive principle. “I will take right-wing positions,” Gantz replied in all simplicity.

That’s an important statement, the most important to date, coming from a candidate who’s been perceived as the great white hope of the center-left camp, which is scouring the horizon desperately for a knight in shining armor. (The response to a request for a reaction to Gantz’s quote was that he didn’t wish to respond.)

Given the electoral situation, there’s nothing more logical. Without three or four seats shifting from the right/center-right parties (mainly Likud and Kulanu) to the other side of the river, the other camp can forget about ascending to power. Its leaders will be doomed to wander in the opposition wasteland in the next Knesset, too – or, alternately, to squabble among themselves for portfolios in Benjamin Netanyahu’s fifth government.

Since at this fairly early point in time Gantz is the only figure on the political map capable of delivering the very valuable goods, it’s clear that he has to talk rightward, even if deep down he inclines leftward. Every greenhorn political consultant would advise him to take that path. The question is: What are “right-wing positions”? How far will he go? Against the two-states-for-two-peoples principle? Against the evacuation of isolated settlements by agreement? Against the Clinton Plan? Those are Likud’s positions. Where is the rather slippery point, down the line, at which where Gantz will begin to look like an imitation of a Likudnik?

This sort of comportment could certainly change the rules we’ve become accustomed to in election campaigns. If the strategy bears fruit, Gantz would be able to dislodge Netanyahu from his comfort zone as the sole security wiz and as the undisputed leader of the right, including the soft right. On the other hand, Gantz could lose support among the camp that’s looking in his direction with fervently pleading eyes. Left-wingers are known to be quick to be disappointed. This isn’t what we were hoping for, they will grumble bitterly before returning resentfully to their mother parties. He’ll be caught in a crossfire from right and from left. He could lose everything.

To get out of complicated situations like these unscathed, one needs to be endowed with first-rate political skills. Moderate ambition, a winning smile and blue eyes won’t cut it.

Holiday for democracy

About three weeks ago, Joint Arab List MKs Ahmad Tibi, Talab Abu Arar and Jamal Zahalka were in the Knesset, discussing the possibility of the election being advanced to May, in line with widespread speculation at the time. The holy month of Ramadan begins on May 5 and ends June 4. The Muslims fast during the day; they’re tired and prefer to stay home. The electorate shrinks.

The trio approached Netanyahu. “We can’t have an election in May,” they said to the prime minister. “That comes out in Ramadan. Better March or April. Netanyahu replied, “What’s wrong with November?” That remains his declared position: an election on the date scheduled, namely November 7, 2019, or close to it, maybe at the end of September.

The only obstacle at the moment to such an outcome is the pesky law involving conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, which won’t leave the prime minister in peace. The extension granted by the High Court of Justice for the completion of the legislative process ends on January 16, a month from now. If the bill proposed by the Defense Ministry, which was approved during a first vote (of three) in the Knesset, is enacted into law, Agudat Yisrael (which, with Degel Hatorah, constitutes the United Torah Judaism party) will bolt the coalition, and the coalition will lose its majority. They will also resign if no new legislation is enacted.

In Netanyahu’s circle they’re already pondering the shape of the next coalition. A few months ago, this column reported that the prime minister had said privately that he would seek as broad a government as possible, to be based on the right wing but with at least one party from the other camp – Yesh Atid or Zionist Union (Labor plus MK Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party). Since then, a Benny Gantz-led party has been factored into these calculations, and not necessarily as the third choice.

Such a broad-based scenario got a further boost this week from a person very close to Netanyahu, who said in a private conversation that a coalition based not on 61 or 66 but on 80 MKs would be more stable. Its leader would be free from blackmail and other pressures. None of the coalition partners would feel strong enough to make threats or put forward conditions and demands. The two nemeses from Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, would be reduced to tolerable and less dominant proportions.

What will happen when an indictment is filed against the premier? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, said the source. If it doesn’t include bribery, but “only” fraud and breach of trust, we might be able to survive that Pharaoh too.

Midfield game

In the meantime, one Pharaoh has already been dealt with. On Wednesday, in a preliminary vote, the Knesset approved the bill that would reduce the president’s powers, aka the “Gideon Sa’ar law” – although it’s actually the “paranoid Bibi Netanyahu” law. The proposal stipulates that the president will be obliged after an election to entrust formation of the new government to a party leader only and not to “any MK who so agrees,” as the current law reads.

The Sunday meeting of coalition-party leaders at the Prime Minister’s Office discussed this draft bill, which is sponsored by coalition whip MK David Amsalem (Likud). In the middle of the meeting, Justice Minister Shaked knocked on the door. She wanted to draw the attention of the participants to an issue that had come up in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which she heads, where the proposed legislation was being considered. Someone from the Justice Ministry cited the Ehud Olmert-Tzipi Livni precedent of 2008: Prime Minister Olmert was forced to resign, and Livni, who was foreign minister and vice prime minister at the time, got the nod from the president. Livni tried to form a government but was derailed and failed. Only then was an election called.

If the “Sa’ar law” is enacted and there’s a situation where Netanyahu resigns the premiership voluntarily or is forced to do so by the High Court in the wake of being indicted – no Likud minister would be able to take up the reins and form an alternate government.

Imagine such a scenario coming to pass during the first year of the next government. Say Likud has 35 seats, the second-largest party only 15. The political circumstances obligate the government to continue in power, led by Likud. However, the law stipulates that only a party leader is qualified to form a government. The result would be a superfluous election, as legal advisers have cautioned.

This is why Archimedes proclaimed “Eureka!” after discovering the principle of buoyancy. This is why Homer Simpson says “Duuuhhh!” when he hits his forehead. After all, this is exactly what the poet from Balfour Street was getting at. It’s not legislation for the start of a term of office, post-election. In that situation, it’s obvious that the president will entrust the task of forming the government to the leader of the party that get the nod from the largest number of MKs. What this is, is a law for the middle of a term of office. It’s intended as a safety net for a prime minister who’s charged with criminal wrongdoing against any attempt by his party’s cabinet ministers to oust him. They will not rebel and demand that he resign if as a result, there is either an election or the formation of a government by the leader of a different party. That’s what’s so clever about the bill. It has more than the eye sees at first reading. Like a poem.

Back to the meeting of the party leaders, where Shaked described the Gordian-knot scenario of a non-Likud party leader forming the next government. Netanyahu’s marionette, Amsalem, was flabbergasted. He never thought of that.

“Hang on, that’s right,” Amsalem said, flustered. “There’s a problem here. It could cause serious damage to Likud!”

Netanyahu, according to several members of the forum, assumed a grim visage. “Yes,” he said. “We’ll have to consider this.”

Amsalem was still agitated: “What do we do in that event?”

“No problem,” Netanyahu replied. “We’ll give it to Moishe,” referring to Kulanu leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. According to another version of what happened, he said: “To Moishe or to Bennett.”

Amsalem looked at him, appalled. The ministers chortled.

“Fine, these are things we really hadn’t thought of,” Netanyahu said, wrapping up the interlude of comic relief. “We’ll pass the bill in a preliminary vote and see what we do afterward.”

It was a tremendous performance by Bibi, someone present averred, adding: If we didn’t know him, we would have believed it.

The proposal passed its first Knesset hurdle by a vote of 60-55. But a tough fight lies ahead. Since it’s a Basic Law, a majority of 61 will be required to pass the bill into law. The coalition numbers 61 MKs, including Oren Hazan (Likud), who didn’t attend the parliamentary sessions this week due to illness. Every MK from the coalition who is absent for the first, second and third votes will cause the bill to fall.

We should mention the senior Likud MKs, whom Netanyahu is again grinding into the dust. The suffering slobs pressed the vote buttons with frozen faces, ignoring the mocking smiles from the opposition benches. They looked as though someone had stuck a pistol to their gut under the table.

Sara Netanyahu chats with Guatemala's President Jimmy Morales as First Lady Hilda Patricia Marroquin looks on, at the National Palace in Guatemala City, Guatemala December 11, 2018.Credit: \ STRINGER/ REUTERS

A first for the Lady

The farce – some would say the ongoing tragedy – that is our life in the Netanyahu era this week chalked up pathetic new lows. The prime minister’s firstborn son, Yair, showed us again who and what he is: a problematic young man with a filthy mind and a dirty mouth (who makes Likud MK Oren Hazan appear refined) who, from the residence of the prime minister funded by the Israeli taxpayer, published a post asserting that “All the leftists, politicians and media people are traitors.”

Dad issues a lame qualification accompanied by the inevitable “but.” He doesn’t mean it, though: Young Netanyahu is his father’s alter ego. He complements him. The premier warns against Arabs who are streaming in droves to the polling places, and the son strips down and crassly turns a supposedly political statement into everyday language. Sewer talk – language the young, nationalistic, racist and anti-Semitic right-wingers whom he represents, understand well.

This week, dime-store psychologists detected elements of pain and distress in the “boy.” They think he needs help, he’s stressed out, he feels persecuted. God have mercy.

If Yair needs a child psychologist, let him call Guatemala. When the premier’s wife traveled there this week at the invitation of the local first lady to inaugurate a humanitarian project, the trip was presented as just that, a “humanitarian” mission. When she landed, she changed gears. “I am on an important diplomatic mission,” she announced, and her husband quickly tweeted, “Good luck to my wife on her important diplomatic mission.”

To placate the Lady, who is insatiable when it comes to respect and honors, and to lend this marginal outing a “diplomatic” semblance, she was joined by cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman and by Foreign Ministry officials. No one was taken by surprise when Braverman went on the air from Guatemala City, praised and lauded the guest he was accompanying, and sycophantically described the locals’ delight at her arrival, as though the queen of England herself had come for a visit to one of the empire’s colonies.

He opined that it was time to enshrine “the status of the prime minister’s wife” in law, and didn’t spare his listeners his two-cents-worth about the demonstrators who cursed Yair Netanyahu in the Tel Aviv court where hearings began this week on the slander suit he filed. You could almost hear Sara huffing and puffing alongside Braverman as he declaimed the dictated text.

The phenomenon of Braverman – a former Likud activist – is another of the ills of the Netanyahu era: the prostitution of the civil service. “Civil servants,” such as the cabinet secretary or the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, have become gofers.

Ben-Shabbat, for example, was dispatched by the prime minister to Rabbi Haim Druckmam to ask him to dissuade Naftali Bennett from resigning in the wake of the defense portfolio crisis last month. Asked to explain his behavior, Ben-Shabbat said he was happy the government hadn’t fallen.

Braverman is a small-time activist who grew into a big-time functionary. Like Ben-Shabbat, he too is shaming his high position, one of the most important and sensitive in the public service. He’s behaving like a hotel concierge. Family secretary. In the past, Sara Netanyahu was always accompanied by the bureau chiefs, such as Natan Eshel or Gil Sheffer, whose main purpose was to fulfill her endless demands. With time, her expectations and demands grew. On her next trip she’ll insist that the prime minister accompany her.

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