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Netanyahu Is Already Preparing for His Next War

The prime minister is plotting what he'll do while on trial – because going home is not an option

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Gif: Netanyahu walks away from a fighter jet and toward a car with Rivlin and Gantz.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The two days of warfare in the Gaza Strip that began with Israel’s assassination of a senior figure in Islamic Jihad, ended with no one killed on the Israeli side, very few wounded, and a victory photo that waited for with baited breath: the funeral of the troublemaker, Baha Abu al-Ata.

This mini-campaign was good for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite the sensitive political timing. He can take credit (in Ariel Sharon’s favorite phrase) for separating a mega-terrorist’s head from his body, without appearing as if he was influenced by extraneous motives. Apart from a few lone and negligible comments from the left, the prevailing view and the dominant narrative are that the operation was essential.

For Israel, the events ended in a more optimal way than the previous two rounds, in November last year and this past May. So, from Netanyahu’s perspective, he scored a few points. Gaza was always his Achilles’ heel. Now he can brandish some sort of tactical achievement that doesn’t move the country even one millimeter toward a solution for that hot spot.

The “paralysis” – the latest trendy word – that a two-bit terrorist organization forced on the strongest country in the Middle East arose from a strategic void. That national debacle dates to before Netanyahu’s era and has continued through the last decade, in which he labored to consolidate his image as “Mr. Security,” the rock of Israel and its redeemer, and as the Messiah son of David.

History, which does not judge leaders according to their spins and manipulations, will describe the prime minister’s years in office in less glowing terms than those bandied about by him and his herd of sycophants. Netanyahu will be remembered as a terrific speaker, with or without technical aids, in English more than in Hebrew – but as someone who produced extremely meager results. His period is the golden age of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, an era in which both movements gained much strength and made great strides.

Even if this wasn’t the intention (a very senior source who can’t be suspected of being fond of Netanyahu swore to me that the army and Shin Bet security service pushed hard for the gentleman’s demise, precisely now), the events in Gaza dovetailed with the premier’s campaign against the formation of a minority government. In the end, that has become the major nightmare scenario, since it means leaving the Balfour Street residence, becoming reacquainted with the opposition seats in the Knesset and facing a relatively quick trial.

Today, people will still be summing up the fighting down south, but on Sunday the whole episode will be behind us, as though it never happened. Sunday will also mark the start of Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz’s last four days to form a government. If the unbelievable does not come to pass – a minority government with Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List – Gantz’s mandate will expire, or he will return it meekly to the president.

The final 21 days will begin next Thursday, the period in which neither of the candidates has a mandate. In that time, the Knesset, with a majority of at least 61 MKs, has the right to recommend a candidate of its choice to President Reuven Rivlin. A minority government will no longer be on the agenda. Unity or an election – those will be the only two options.

The implications that Operation Black Belt – as the Gaza operation was code-named – seemed to have for the conduct of the main political players, evaporated even before the water came to a boil.

Netanayhu visits an Iron Dome battery.Credit: עמוס בן גרשום / לע

Two’s a crowd

Not long after the September election, when President Rivlin decided to plunge into the depths of the stalemate – aka the “political Gordian knot” – he surfaced with his blueprint. He consulted not only with jurists about the legal and constitutional aspects of his proposal, but also with a retired politician, an old friend with whom he stole quite a few horses when they served in the Knesset together: Yossi Beilin.

Rivlin considers Beilin to be one of the most brilliant, creative and original MKs in recent decades. When out-of-the-box thinking is called for, Beilin, who was cabinet secretary during the first half of the unity government of Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres in the 1980s, is the president’s go-to guy.

The two agreed that a prime minister who has been indicted cannot go on serving as though nothing has happened. But also that his honor must be preserved, his face saved.

This was the genesis of Rivlin’s idea that Netanyahu will not resign if he is indicted but will declare himself incapacitated for a period that will not end after 100 days, as the law now stipulates: rather, it will be for an unlimited time. During this period, the premier’s trial will be held, and he, his wife Sara and their elder son Yair will continue to revel in the pleasures of power at the expense of the state – without which they’d rather be dead. If Netanyahu is acquitted, he will be able to resume the premiership, according to a timetable to be agreed on by the parties.

When the incapacitation scheme was first presented to Netanyahu and Gantz by Rivlin, the prime minister didn’t seem to be surprised and responded happily: Benny, what the president is suggesting is for there to be two prime ministers.

But Gantz emerged bewildered from the tripartite confab. Outside the President’s Residence he met Dr. Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Shlomo, both members of his coalition negotiating team. Netanyahu says there will be two prime ministers, Gantz informed them – is that possible? No, they replied, there’s no such animal. He sent them to Rivlin, who reassured them, according to a Kahol Lavan source, that the interpretation was Netanyahu’s responsibility, not his.

From the moment the period of incapacitation begins, all prime ministerial powers pass to the acting premier, and the incapacitated individual will only have a title, Rivlin clarified, stating the obvious. And when will that period begin – asked “Turbo” and Shlomo. I have a clear position on that, but I won’t reveal it, the president replied. It will be agreed upon in the negotiations between you.

Since, as the saying goes, God is in the details – although the devil also lurks in them – that lacuna bears the potential to cause much chaos. Every reasonable person will say that the filing of an indictment against Netanyahu by the attorney general will be the decisive moment at which the bells will ring for incapacitation. Just as a minister must resign the moment he is formally charged.

In this case, flexibility is needed. A possible indictment is a matter of a few weeks away. Likud has suggested that Netanyahu serve first, under a rotation agreement, up until the start of his trial, or until the end of the first year of his term, whichever is later. The “start of the trial,” which the reasonable person will consider to be the day on which an indictment is read out, is a flexible concept. Likud suggested that it means the start of the presentation of the evidence (meaning, when the prosecution witnesses are called to testify); Kahol Lavan won’t hear of that, for now.

It’s clear that Netanyahu’s lawyers will use every trick in the book to postpone the stage of the witnesses being called. The proceedings surrounding a request for Knesset immunity could last half a year. And even if it’s denied, that doesn’t mean the trial will commence and the witnesses will take the stand. There’s an argument known as “abuse of process,” which is a trial before the trial. There’s no doubt that Netanyahu’s lawyers will invoke it. Their contention of “selective enforcement” – Netanyahu is accused (in Cases 2000 and 4000), but in the past Tzipi Livni, Eitan Cabel and others got off scot-free – is a classic abuse-of-process item. That, too, could take half a year.

By the way, that same “abuse of process” clause was inserted into the Criminal Procedure in 2007, at the initiative of opposition MK Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s main rival in Likud. In the end, Netanyahu will have to thank him.

Banny Gantz and Avigdor Liebmerman. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One more thing

The thought that during the incapacitation period the prime minister will sit at home, idly, with Sara and Yair driving him crazy and shouting at him, is apparently too appalling for Netanyahu to contemplate. The thought that while he’s hanging out on Balfour Street, a gang of Likud MKs will be ministers in a Gantz government paralyzes him with fear. They might get used to life without him, stand tall, develop a backbone. Who knows what he’ll have to come back to, if he’s acquitted.

So now he’s putting forward another demand. If the incapacitation section in the law is being amended for him anyway, as is called for in the president’s blueprint – perhaps lawmakers would kindly add another small clause: namely, that the incapacitated individual can serve as acting prime minister during the course of his trial. As with an MK.

That way, Netanyahu won’t have to desist from political activity, he won’t be sent to the Balfour gulag or to another residence that will be found for him (undoubtedly, a billionaire will be found who will donate his estate to the beleaguered family). And most important for Netanyahu: He will not be cut off or consigned to oblivion, he will continue to lead Likud ministers in the government and be the most senior minister among them. He will cut off the head of anyone who dares show signs of independence, and will maintain his political and public status until the court hands down its verdict.

That’s the demand that was transmitted to Kahol Lavan via secret channels – the same demand by which Gantz, if he accedes to it, will dig his own grave.

Shooting and crying

You didn’t have to be a “Bibist” to have squirmed in your chair upon hearing what Yonatan Ben-Artzi said at the state ceremony in memory of his grandparents, Yitzhak and Leah Rabin, held this week on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

His outspoken remarks have a place in public discourse. Yes, Netanyahu should resign and devote himself to his legal affairs. Yes, Prime Minister Rabin, ramrod straight, resigned on election eve in 1977 because of a minor matter – the dollar-currency account his wife had in a Washington bank. And yes, today’s leaders are not taking responsibility for their deeds and misdeeds, as was the case here a generation ago.

But to exploit an official state stage to declaim a political manifesto is an obnoxious act. Speeches like that have their place in Rabin Square at the annual left-wing memorial rally, or at family or political events. The problem with those occasions is, however, that they are not broadcast live and don’t get maximum exposure on all media outlets.

The “grandkids” – Yonatan and Noa (who delivered her political credo at the memorial ceremony a year ago) – have no public status. He is a businessman, his sister is a frustrated politician who tried to get elected to the Knesset on the Democratic Union slate and failed. So, really, who are they? What are they? Once a year, at the graves of their grandparents, the two put on anguished faces, manage to extort a headline, bask in the applause of the Tel Aviv bubble, and the next day disappear back into well-deserved anonymity.

Netanyahu seemed nervous to those present, as he arrived at the ceremony. Maybe he had prior intelligence about the nature of the speech the family’s representative would deliver. As Ben-Artzi laid into him, his face grew ashen, almost as gray as his hair. Every so often he nodded his head.

Afterward, seated in the front row, the prime minister started to pour out his heart to President Rivlin, while to the right, Culture Minister Miri Regev complained that this sort of thing isn’t done, that it’s a disgrace. (She had become annoyed even earlier, when she discovered that she had been seated behind a pillar that hid her from the cameras.) To Netanyahu’s left, grumbling could be heard from the direction of Science Minister Ofir Akunis.

Netanyahu and Rivlin at the Rabin memorial.Credit: Emil Salman

Most attention was focused on the rather loud dialogue between the prime minister and the president. From minimal lip-reading and conversations with three of the people in attendance, the following picture emerges: When the whining of Regev and Akunis spun out of control, Rivlin had enough. Friends, he hissed them, you can’t behave like this. This is a state ceremony. You are the state. This is not the place.

When they fell silent, chagrined, Rivlin turned to hear Netanyahu out. Bibi, calm down, he told him, relax. It’s not right (referring to Ben-Artzi’s remarks), but you’re the prime minister. Calm down.

Netanyahu declined. Look what they’re doing to me, he griped. All day they’re inciting against me. Today, too. They’re calling for me to be attacked and no one backs me up. The incitement against me is nothing compared to what there was against Rabin. There are thousands of calls on the social networks to assassinate me.

I haven’t seen them, Rivlin said.

Because you don’t read those things, Netanyahu responded.

I read what my people bring me, Rivlin replied; for example, what people in your household write about me.

From there the circus moved to the Knesset. Netanyahu, really furious by now, dragged the complaints and the bellyaching from his seat on Mount Herzl to the podium in the Knesset plenum. He let fly as though it were his last speech as prime minister at the end of a parliamentary session.

As happens to him a lot, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink. An intelligent alien who might have happened into the visitors’ gallery and been asked for his opinion of the goings-on, would have inferred that the speaker was the victim: that he was the target of the incitement, he was being vilified, people were demonstrating against him by carrying a coffin around and dressing his effigy as an S.S. officer. Or, that unrestrained, bloodthirsty rabbis were issuing religious rulings against him. That’s how authentic it all looked.

He has this quality, Netanyahu does. He’s capable of uttering seemingly outlandish, off-the-wall statements. If he repeats them enough times, he also starts to believe them.

Lost in translation

On Wednesday, I mentioned the tweet condemning “a minority government supported by the Arab parties” that Netanyahu sent to his followers a few hours before the assassination operation in the Gaza Strip. He shared a tweet (from journalist Yinon Magal) in which Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi, whom Netanyahu is especially fond of needling, is quoted as saying, in memory of Yasser Arafat, that the latter is “always in our hearts.”

MK Ahmad Tibi.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Tibi pointed out to me that the translation (which originated in a Channel 20 report) is incorrect. The Arab expression he used this week in connection with the 15th anniversary of Arafat’s death, means “will be absent and will not disappear.” Less cloying, it must be admitted, than what was attributed to him. There are two possibilities: Either the prime minister’s new media team was lazy and didn’t check the original, or the mistake was made – and this is really hard to believe – knowingly and with malice aforethought.

I told Tibi that the expression stirs an association with a present-day term. Which one, he asked. “Will be absent but will not disappear” connotes incapacitation, I replied. He grumbled.

We were speaking immediately after Tibi’s clash with the prime minister in the Knesset, in which Netanyahu was the scriptwriter, the director and the lead actor. The prime minister went up to the plenum to make a statement about the fighting in the south. At least that was the excuse. In fact, he was out to pick a fight with the MKs from the Joint List, to provoke them, to incite against them (when he mentioned “the terrorists from Gaza,” he gestured with his hand at them), and to extract from them anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian statements that would rattle the right-wing members of Kahol Lavan at the thought of a minority government.

Netanyahu succeeded; they fell into the pit he’d dug for them. A ruckus ensued. Tibi approached the podium. “You are inciting and lying,” he shouted at the speaker, Yuli Edelstein, who ordered the guards to remove him from the chamber. The rest of the Joint List faction followed him out.

I asked Tibi what had angered him so much – after all, Netanyahu has been verbally battering him and his colleagues since the 2015 election.

“Every day he uploads two posts about me, with gross lies,” Tibi replied. “And in the past few days I’ve had a flood of threats on Facebook, even on WhatsApp.” (He sent me a few examples: “Inshallah, a rocket will fall on your daughters! Representative of the primitive and murderous Muslims in the Knesset!” a woman named Zehava railed at him. “I wish for a missile to hit your house,” someone named Raz wrote.)

“I’m thinking about complaining against Netanyahu to the Ethics Committee,” Tibi continued. “This week, he spoke at a conference held by [the newspaper] Makor Rishon and said that during Protective Edge [the 2014 Israeli operation in Gaza], I read out the names of terrorists in the Knesset. I ran the video. I’m standing on the podium and reading out the names of children who were killed in Gaza, aged 2, 3 and 5 – and of their mothers. Are children of that age terrorists?”

I asked Tibi if he didn’t think that a remark such as that of MK Aida Touma-Sliman – to the effect that the assassination of Abu al-Ata was “premeditated murder” – riles 80 percent of the Israelis.

“In principle, in terms of my conscience, I am against liquidations,” he said.

Fine, I said, there haven’t been such assassinations for many years. But when a senior terrorist is planning to attack us, isn’t it legitimate to neutralize him?

“I don’t like the term ‘liquidation,’ it’s a difficult term,” he said.

Never mind, I persisted. Is it murder or not?

He sighed and said, “In a war between people bearing weapons, things sometimes happen.”

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