“During my term, I have appointed 334 judges and we promoted hundreds more. One appointment was apparently flawed – but what about all the rest?” said Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Hayamin Hehadash/the New Right) this week. “Most of the appointments were unanimous.”
Quantitatively, she’s right. One out of 334 is but a fraction of a percent. The judicial system is sufficiently resilient to withstand a frontal assault. Those who believed in it until now, will go on doing so. Those who viewed the courts as a closed, rotten guild will feel this even more strongly.
But the minuscule number is not the story here. Thethe evil spirit that infiltrated the Judicial Appointments Committee real story is , the spirit of the head of the Israel Bar Association, Effi Nave, and the alliance he had with the minister of justice.
Nave was revealed to the broad public in all his sordid glory in a jaw-dropping investigative report by Omri Assenheim on the “Fact” television program, back in November 2017. The bar association boss was seen to be a mega-macher, intoxicated with power – a cynic whose only ideology was his own self-advancement. To see Nave whispering to individuals seeking a judgeship or other form of professional promotion, ingratiating themselves with him, was in itself a frightening sight. By the way, it takes two to tango.
Shaked – who was set to change the judicial system, and in particular the Supreme Court, and to replace it with a conservative, rightist, religiously oriented court suffused with the settler spirit and the spirit of her party (Habayit Hayehudi at the time) – found the perfect partner in Nave. Her right-wing vision dovetailed with his naked drive for power and unethical personality to create an efficient D-9 bulldozer that destroyed with determination and built with persistence.
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She herself is not corrupt, far from it. But she chose to cooperate with a person of dubious character, whose values are not all they should be, to put it mildly. And she did it with full awareness, in the name of her agenda and her conservative holy spirit. She’s the velvet glove, Ms. Clean, the idealist; he’s the meddling, interfering fist.
“This is hypocrisy,” Shaked shot back this week at her critics. “Until I arrived, the Bar Association was the partner of the group of Supreme Court judges on the [appointments] committee. It was like that for decades. So, when the lawyers and the judges acted together that was all right, but when I succeeded in bringing the Bar Association over to my side, it’s corruption?”
The convergence of interests morphed into a close personal friendship, including at the family level. Shaked, who wanted to see the head of the assistant attorney general, Dina Zilber, rolling in the town square for the sin of making a statement with a left-wing tinge, didn’t have a bad word to say about Nave last month, when he was charged with fraud for smuggling his female companion in and out of Ben-Gurion International Airport. Leftism, in Shaked’s eyes, is a worse crime than a criminal offense.
Their terms of office overlapped. She became justice minister in May 2015; he was elected head of the bar association a month later. The sharp, experienced functionary who had already chalked up plenty of miles in the association, met a young, ambitious politician who lacked any legal background.
Shaked landed almost by chance in a ministry she hadn’t dared dream of, as a result of a perfect storm of circumstances. In May 2015, about 24 hours before the end of the period allotted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by the president to form a new government, Avigdor Lieberman walked out of the coalition negotiations and left the premier with a 61-member coalition.
Naftali Bennett, then the head of Habayit Hayehudi, spotted a golden opportunity to extort the justice portfolio from Netanyahu for his party colleague. He gave Netanyahu an ultimatum. Shaked didn’t think it would work, but Netanyahu blinked first. With her appointment, he and his wife Sarah had to eat a whole lot of humble pie. The schadenfreude they no doubt feel today vis-a-vis the situation of Shaked, whom they abominate, must be great indeed. In their tangled legal situation, with the horizon darkening for them, what other pleasures remain for them than to rejoice in another’s sorrows?
As things look now, the Shaked-Nave episode – whose echoes will naturally fade in the weeks ahead and disappear completely when the attorney general publicizes his decision about the Netanyahu investigations – should not undercut her popularity with the base. The slings and arrows she’s taking from the left will only boost her status among the right-wing electorate. For them, Shaked is a princess, a talented, skilled politician who, as the saying goes, has no God and sees only what she wants to see.
In another 80 days, we will vote for a new government. Shaked could find herself with the justice portfolio again. If her New Right party gets seven-eight seats, and Netanyahu finds himself stuck with a right-wing-ultra-Orthodox government again, the ability of Shaked and Bennett, as well as that of the other parties, to extort will soar. Maybe the Justice Ministry is less than what she has in mind.
So, it’s worthwhile to pay attention to the signs indicating that there are those who are already scheming: For quite some time, the new right – not the party, but rather the whole phenomenon – has been plotting to get rid of the Judicial Appointments Committee altogether, and transfer its powers to the Knesset, “like in America.” The current scandal is likely to help those hoping to advance that idea in the next government, assuming that the right is in charge once again. The first sign of the scheming came in the form of a comment made by a committee member, Likud MK Nurit Koren, who said that “it’s unclear on what basis” the panel gets to seal fates.
Once the Knesset – a sterile, objective and impartial institution – appoints judges, everything will be clear, clean and strictly kosher.
Organizers of Tuesday’s ceremony marking the induction of the new Israel Defense Forces chief of staff tried to arrange the most honorable place possible for the man who was their boss until recently, Avigdor Lieberman: in one of the front rows, next to the aisle. To his left were two former chiefs of staff: Benny Gantz, and, to Gantz’s left, Shaul Mofaz.
Naturally, I asked Lieberman whether he and Gantz had conversed. Words were exchanged, he said. What do you think will be with him, I asked. Lieberman sighed: “I find it hard to see him surviving in the political arena.” In all fairness, the former defense minister admitted that they didn’t know each other well, but from his considerable experience, that was his unmediated impression of the affable gentleman.
I noticed that you didn’t criticize him like your colleagues on the right after what he said about the nation-state law. “I don’t intend to hurt anyone personally,” Lieberman replied. “My campaign will be positive. I will talk about policy and about essentials.”
From the gallery he watched with satisfaction as Aviv Kochavi was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and became the new army chief. The candidate that Lieberman had forced on Netanyahu now basked in compliments and superlatives as though he were a demigod.
“My candidates, in contrast to those in the police, or in the army during the era of [defense minister Ehud] Barak, were perfect,” Lieberman said with a sense of vindication. “I was able to manage everything properly. Almost the whole IDF General Staff was replaced in my period without unnecessary drama, without ‘wars of the generals,’ without street fights on the 14th floor [of the Kirya, defense establishment headquarters, in Tel Aviv].”
There were reports that Kochavi wasn’t your first choice, I reminded him. “Don’t listen to rumors,” Lieberman retorted. “I wanted to announce his appointment back at Rosh Hashana [last September]. Despite the strong opposition of the Prime Minister’s Bureau, in the end I appointed him about a month after that. I executed the move with determination and sensitivity.” (Netanyahu, who heard about the appointment during his flight home from Oman, would undoubtedly dispute that.)
A devoted reader of this column reminded me that at the Saban Forum (which until a year ago met annually in Washington for an enjoyable weekend of lectures and discussions on Middle East policy) held in December 2017, Kochavi, then deputy chief of staff, gave a fascinating talk about the security challenges facing Israel. “He was very impressive. The talk was that Lieberman, who sent him in his stead, would choose him to succeed Gadi Eisenkot,” said the reader, who was present.
Is that true, I asked the former defense minister. “I wanted someone who would represent the position of the defense establishment in the sharpest possible way,” he replied. “I sent him despite a very fierce protest from the Prime Minister’s Bureau.” Protest? Why? Lieberman chose not to elaborate. “There was a strong protest, but that was of no interest to me.”
But it is of interest to me. What led the prime minister to object to the “mission” to which Lieberman assigned Kochavi? We know that Netanyahu didn’t want Kochavi as chief of staff. He preferred Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, his former military secretary. Something about Kochavi bothered Bibi. Not unsuitability or lack of qualifications for the job – on the contrary. Possibly because he’s too qualified. Maybe because of his intelligence, ambition and air of leadership.
No one is better than Netanyahu at spotting political threats, real or imagined, immediate or distant. He picks them up in the embryonic stage, sometimes before they even know they’re a threat, and cuts them down by sophisticated and creative means. Just look at the severed heads of potential rivals from the political arena or from the IDF who lie before us in a long, long line.
Luck has sometimes played into Netanyahu’s hands by removing potential rivals from his path, as in the case of former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, a victim of the so-called Harpaz affair. Or Dan Halutz, who had everything needed to be prime minister and then some – until the Second Lebanon War finished him off and turned him into a forgotten army chief. Or Ehud Olmert, who went to jail; or Ehud Barak and the second intifada; or Ariel Sharon and his stroke, just before the 2006 election.
There’s not a politician in sight who’s capable of posing a challenge to Bibi. Not today and not in the foreseeable future. If there is a threat, he’s somewhere on an army base, among the guys in uniform. From the General Staff shall come the ill wind.
It’s not surprising that Netanyahu looked askance at Kochavi’s visit to Washington just over a year ago. Participants in the Saban Forum hobnobbed with senators, top administration officials, important journalists and shapers of public opinion, and also some Jewish billionaires who love Israel and admire the IDF and could be future donors.
Netanyahu sat by himself on Tuesday as Gadi Eisenkot took his leave. Some of those who were there said he looked morose and reflective. Around him, the senior officers, in the career army and the reserves, embraced Ashkenazi and Gantz, who also embraced each other. Much attention and plenty of hopes and expectations were focused on those two. Hardly anyone went over to Netanyahu. After 13 years as prime minister, he remains a type of outsider, like he was when he was first elected, in 1996.
Supply and demand
Next Monday, Tu B’Shvat (Arbor Day), will mark four weeks since the start of the election campaign, and four weeks and a bit until the deadline for the parties to submit their slates. The situation is, overall, static.
So far, all the talk about unification of forces in the center-left bloc have come to nothing. The potential partners have been focusing on their parties, their mobilization campaigns, their video clips. If we’re going to see any Big Bangs or mergers, they will take place in another three weeks or so, a little before the date by which the lists of candidates have to be submitted to the Central Elections Committee – February 21.
In the time that remains, the party leaders will step on the gas and flex their muscles in order to arrive at the final and decisive stretch of the talks resilient and strong in their own right. The weak will have to abandon all hope, or be thrown by the wayside and snapped up at humiliating end-of-season prices.
The top game, in the meantime, is between MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Benny Gantz (Hosen L’Yisrael). The polls are giving each of them the same number of seats, about 12 on average. Lapid believes that Gantz has reached his glass ceiling; that as soon as he leaps into the seething political waters he will begin to sink and in the end will come gasping to him. Gantz is convinced that he will soon start polling more seats in the surveys, and that his entry into the fray will catapult him into the 20-something sphere, certainly if he’s reinforced by Gabi Ashkenazi and MK Orli Levi-Abekasis (Gesher).
Even if one of these two scenarios plays out, it’s almost impossible to see either Lapid or Gantz forming a government. In fact, they are competing for the position of opposition leader, which is not interesting, or for the post of foreign minister or defense minister in Netanyahu’s fifth government.
The supporting players in the political drama are waging a battle of a completely different kind. The Labor Party is slowly being drained of its MKs. Its leader, Avi Gabbay, has been given the right to enshrine three outsiders in slot Nos. 2, 10 and 16 on the slate, but the supply is not thrilling. At the moment, none of those on the waiting list is worth more in the political market than the existing stock: Shelly Yacimovich, Itzik Shmuli, Amir Peretz or Omer Bar-Lev.
One floor down we find Levi-Abekasis and Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah). The former is wavering between two dreams: One is enchanting, the other a nightmare. In the enchanting one, she gets six seats and becomes the pivot in the coalition talks. She calls the shots. In the nightmare, she is weakened and wakes up to discover that Gantz, Lapid and Ashkenazi have finalized a joint list and left her on ice.
According to three polls from this past week, Levi-Abekasis is about to find herself caught up in the nightmare scenario. For months she cruised at the level of five-six seats. She threatened to become the new version of the Pensioners Party of 2006, or of Kulanu in 2015. No longer. Now she’s tottering on the precipice, with only four seats in the polls (the minimum needed to enter the Knesset). One slip and she’s out. She might do well to start considering an exit and arrange to have coffee with Gantz.
Livni is already there, below the threshold, looking frantically for the exit that is nonexistent. In most of the opinion surveys, she doesn’t make it into the Knesset. She’s trying to revitalize her base, with statements that these days are considered bold and on the brink of subversive, such as “separation for peace”(!).
To her credit, it has to be said that she’s not fudging and not stuttering, and that she isn’t afraid to speak her mind, in contrast to Lapid, who’s still fantasizing about getting votes from the soft right. Now it remains to see what Gantz will say after launching his first slogan on the web yesterday: “Israel above all.” There’s a good chance we’ll hear from him next week. Don’t zap.