Analysis |

Netanyahu Is Stuck in Limbo, but There's a Way Out

With the mandate for cobbling a coalition together about to pass to his rival, the sword of indictment dangling over his neck and untold pressures at home, Benjamin Netanyahu has entered a state of uncharacteristic paralysis

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu sit in a sukkah decorated with loyalty declarations.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Six days had passed since the Likud Central Committee, in a meager turnout and in low spirits, ratified the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu is what he is – the party’s candidate to form the government in the new Knesset – and once again there was a demand for a declaration of loyalty.

This time around, on Wednesday this week, it was turn of leaders of the rightist-ultra-Orthodox bloc to recommit, with their signatures, that under no circumstances would they hook up with a demonic minority government “with the support of the Arabs” (!) that Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz is liable to cobble together when the mandate to form a government passes to him. Again, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of Hayamin Hehadash declined to take part in the pointless ritual, which is void of any practical significance. Those who signed off also did so with a shrug and a roll of the eye – just leave them alone with these signings already. Was this the Prime Minister’s Bureau or the office of a notary public?

It’s been more than a month since the election, and 23 days have passed since Netanyahu was tasked with forming a government. As if trapped in an endless loop, he’s preoccupied solely with torpedoing supposed schemes and exorcising imaginary demons by means of a series of largely meaningless moves of a mostly PR nature, which don’t advance him by one centimeter toward another term as prime minister. If anything, these moves reveal his fears and mounting lack of confidence, as he finds himself in the heart of a political limbo – between the paradise that is a fifth term and the hell that is ouster and a trial.

His conduct has become frenetic. A “snap primary” that “will consolidate my leadership,” as he put it, surfaced and then disappeared after a two-word thrust, “I’m ready,” was tweeted by his chief rival in Likud, MK Gideon Sa’ar. Attendance at the annual UN General Assembly last month was called off at the last moment. Ditto a trip to Japan – for the second time in recent months – as well as two visits to India that had been arranged at his request. Netanyahu’s appearance at the central committee meeting last Thursday was also canceled,on short notice and without any explanation.

The man is suffering from vertigo. The Netanyahu we knew for most of the past decade was the sharpest, most focused politician around. He was always the man with the plan. Today he looks like an improvisational actor who has lost his balance in front of an alienated, tough audience.

He is still holding onto the mandate to form a government, although he’d promised to return it to President Reuven Rivlin quickly, within a few days of receiving it. The attempt to decipher why he hasn’t done so has given rise to numerous theories that have spread through the political arena. For example, because he “is waiting for a security-related development,” expects the bribery charge against him to be dropped following his hearing, or is trying to extort from Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman a commitment that he will not support – by means of abstaining, in Knesset balloting – a minority government of Gantz and the left-wing parties that is backed by the Arabs.

The latter is an extremely unlikely scenario that exists mainly in the message sheets coming out of the Balfour Street residence and is declaimed in the media by various spineless Likud figures. Lieberman, who in the past quarter-century has turned into the most sophisticated detector of spin and fear emanating from Netanyahu, is refusing to dance to that tune, and we can understand that as we wish. He hasn’t come this far in order to dissipate Bibi’s apprehensions.

“I don’t work for him,” Lieberman told me impatiently this week, “and I don’t have to play by his spins. We asked them to meet with us and talk about basic guidelines [for a government]. As long as they’re not willing to do that, they needn’t make requests of us. We want to talk about the president’s blueprint, about the defense budget, about religion and state. If they’re not interested, then never mind.”

Next week, when the ball passes into Gantz’s court, Lieberman will send him the identical letter. Gantz will reply positively. The negotiating teams of Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu will embark on a series of meetings. On the surface, the differences between them don’t seem to run very deep. Maybe salvation will come from there.

Benjamin Netanyahu, October 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Incautious pessimism

Three weeks ago, after Rivlin gave Netanyahu the mission of forming a government, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, chairman of the negotiating team for Likud (and subsequently “for the bloc”), was quoted here as saying, “There will be no negotiations, and if there are, nothing will come of them.”

In recent months, Levin has gained much – and, in particular, bitter – experience in pointless and hopeless coalition talks. In April and May, he conducted negotiations with Yisrael Beiteinu when that party was still considered one of Likud’s “natural partners.” At a very early stage, however, Levin informed Netanyahu that it was a waste of time: Lieberman wasn’t playing ball.

After the year’s second election, on September 17, Netanyahu asked Levin to head the team again, together with Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin. Apart from a few meetings that went nowhere, the two have been unemployed.

I called Levin this week to get his take about the next stage in the coalition cobbling. I asked him whether, if the Kahol Lavan team were to invite him to talks, he would show up, despite their having refused to meet with him and Elkin.

“Of course, we’ll come,” Levin said, “but at the very start of the meeting, we will tell them that we represent 55 MKs, not only the 32 of Likud.”

Kahol Lavan will balk at that, I said: They want to talk party to party, 33 MKs to 32.

“That was our position and it will remain our position,” he said.

Why don’t you yield on this point, I persisted. That’s how the Peres-Shamir unity government was formed in 1984: Likud and the [Labor] Alignment agreed on basic guidelines and then coopted whoever wanted to go along with them.

“We have reached the limit of our concessions,” Levin replied. “We agreed that [a situation of] incapacitation would be applied to the prime minister if he is indicted, even though the law allows him to serve until a final ruling is handed down. That’s a tremendous concession. It’s [like applying] a law tailor-made for him. You and your friends are always shouting against laws like that. This time, because it’s Netanyahu, you’re silent.”

Levin projected bitterness, anger and above all, weariness. This unfinished symphony is leaving its imprint even on cold bureaucrats like him, for whom politics is not only in their blood but in their soul.

It sounds like a nonstarter, I said. Everything will then come down to those final 21 days (the extension following the initial four weeks), in which either someone will crack or we’ll go to another election.

He tended to agree, but with regret. “The public doesn’t yet understand the implications of a third election, in 2020,” he said. “It looks all right now, because we have a budget for 2019. But beginning next January, the country will be operating without a budget, on the basis of one-12th of the [2019] budget per month, until a government is formed. That means paralysis of government activities and a deep and dramatic cut in the next budget, which will affect every citizen.”

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.Credit: Emil Salman

Between two clocks

It seems to me that we need to look into other realms for the explanation for Netanyahu’s inactivity and idling – perhaps in the psychological realm. Over the past few days, I asked a number of Likud figures considered to be extremely well-informed about the secrets of the kingdom, how they saw his behavior.

“I don’t understand it, I just don’t understand it,” one replied.

“I don’t know, I really don’t know,” another sighed.

“Balfour,” a third averred, “it’s Balfour.”

I asked for clarification. “Look,” he said, “when Netanyahu got the mandate from the president [on September 25], he said that he would return it quickly [if he couldn’t form a government immediately]. A matter of a few days, it was understood. He repeated that the next day, in a public appearance. There’s no doubt, this was his position. And then came the weekend with the family, where, as you know, decisions are sometimes made contrary to what he thinks.

“There were a few natural exit possibilities along the way. For example, when the Kahol Lavan negotiating team boycotted the meeting of the negotiators, or when Gantz got back from London and stood the prime minister up. You know, it’s clear to all of us,” the confidant added, “that the judicial clock is ticking in a way that is not in his favor, and that it’s in his clear-cut interest to expedite and shorten the political path before the attorney general makes his decision [as to a possible indictment]. But for reasons that aren’t clear, he is choosing to behave in the opposite way. And when the prime minister behaves irrationally, the reason can usually be traced to home.”

Even without resorting to psychological explanations, one can certainly imagine what Netanyahu is going through these days. For the first time since 2009, and for the first time after four election campaigns, the task of forming a government, which he got used to viewing as his personal fiefdom, is about to pass to the rival. For the first time in the past decade, he will not be the designated one but only “the outgoing prime minister,” as President Rivlin referred to him.

Despite the consensus in the political arena and the media that Gantz’s prospects of succeeding where Netanyahu failed are extremely poor, all that has transpired to date still constitutes a type of trauma for the ruling family. The very destabilization of the foundations of democracy – as they perceive it.

Contrary to the mistaken prevailing notion, Netanyahu does not have to “return” the power of attorney he received from the president. It will simply expire automatically next Wednesday at midnight, unless he asks for an extension, which he is not expected to do. Even if he does, he won’t get one.

From that date, Gantz will have 28 days to try his hand. During that period, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is likely (at least according to the signals being sent from the Justice Ministry) to make a decision in the cases against Netanyahu. If an indictment includes bribery, there is no way the mood in the public and among Netanyahu’s so-called natural partners will not be affected – and to his detriment. Under those circumstances, the term “lame duck” will be an understatement. “Dead horse” will be more like it. The hope that is still beating in Likud’s heart – that in the final 21 days, after Gantz, too, hits a dead end, there will be at least 61 MKs who will recommend Netanyahu as prime minister in writing – will be shattered. When it rains, it pours. From that stage, the slope will be as slippery as an eel.

On the other hand – and this is apparently Netanyahu’s working plan/wishful thinking – the bribery charge in Case 4000 could go the way that such a charge already went in Cases 1000 and 2000, and be dropped by Mendelblit. That development would generate a tremendous campaign in the spirit of “He is innocent!” Three bribery charges were thrown out by the prosecution itself, Netanyahu will say, so give me a year in court as a serving prime minister, not incapacitated, and just watch how I smash to smithereens the lesser charges of fraud and breach of trust, too.

That situation has a certain potential to untangle the knot. Gantz might agree to join forces with the premier under those conditions, but it’s not clear whether his associates, Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Moshe Ya’alon (Telem) and Gabi Ashkenazi (Kahol Lavan) would board that particular ship. Still, there’s another idea being floated that I heard this week from a very senior Likudnik to whom Netanyahu turns for advice.

“If Gantz wants to be first [in a rotating premiership], we might agree to that, with two conditions. The first is that he will serve for one year, then Netanyahu in the following two years, with Gantz returning in the fourth year,” the source said. “The second condition is that the incapacitation clause in the president’s blueprint would be erased and the situation will be as the law presently stipulates: that a prime minister can serve even after being indicted. You know,” he added, “we will not agree that, when Netanyahu’s turn comes, if he has already been indicted, that he will declare himself incapacitated immediately on the first day of the rotation.”

Naftali Bennett.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Three comments

• This week’s meeting between Gantz and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, held at the former’s request, was not intended to provide the Kahol Lavan leader with an excuse for hooking up with Netanyahu. He knows the security situation; he was updated by the prime minister when the two of them met with the president, and also by the director of the National Security Council and by the prime minister’s military secretary. Gantz’s purpose was to signal seriousness, responsibility and gravitas, on the eve of being tasked with forming a government.

• Before he left for the United States this week, Naftali Bennett, chairman of Hayamin Hehadash, also felt the need to offer a blueprint for a unity government that would be registered in his name and be placed on the shelf along with the blueprints of the president and Lieberman. There wasn’t much new in Bennett’s plan, but one clause caught my attention: “If, heaven forbid, a criminal trial were to begin against Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he writes, “he would enter into a situation of incapacitation, according to the president’s compromise, and the prime minister in practice would be Gantz.”

It’s no secret that Bennett and Bibi have become partners; indeed, this column took note of their frequent meetings and phone conversations two weeks ago. Bennett writes, “If… a criminal trial were to begin” (and not, “If it is decided to place Netanyahu on trial”). Long months could separate such a decision and the actual start of the trial. That’s what Netanyahu wants, and that’s what Bennett is echoing in his blueprint.

I asked him what he meant. “The precise timing of the start of the incapacitation would have to be finalized in negotiations between the two sides,” he replied.

• Journalist Haggai Segal, editor of the newspaper Makor Rishon, claimed this week that the public, which did not give Likud and the rightist-Haredi bloc a clear majority in the election, is to blame for the sad fates of both Naama Issachar, the Israeli woman sentenced to an extended term in a Russian prison for smuggling hashish into that country, and the Kurds in northern Syria. “Trump and Putin saw his [Netanyahu’s] weakness and started to take less account of him.”

Since Segal is considered a serious person, his tweet can only be considered a satirical jab. It recalled the famous comment of Labor figure Yitzhak Ben-Aharon after the 1977 election, when Menachem Begin’s Likud came to power. “The nation made a mistake,” Ben-Aharon asserted. “The nation does not understand what it has done, and will come to regret it.” Later, the right wing attributed to him – unjustly – the statement, “We have to replace the nation.” Well, four decades later, he has a successor.

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