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Netanyahu's Hysteria: Behind the Scenes of Israel's Failed Coalition Talks

As the hourglass ran down for Gantz to form a government, a paranoid Netanyahu saw plots to remove him at every turn

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustrated Gif: Politicians ride a roller coaster before dropping into a ballot box as Rivlin watches.
IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

A national unity government in Israel is – it can be said with a probability of 99 percent – history. Passé composé, as the French say. After a few meetings between Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and between their two negotiating teams, Kahol Lavan concluded that reaching a gentleman’s agreement with Netanyahu was out of the question. It’s not in his DNA. You can’t believe a word he says. Or doesn’t say.

Someone compared him to the guy playing three-card monte on the sidewalk, who’s shuffling cards in a hand-is-quicker-than-the-eye style and trying to get innocents in the crowd to bet on which card will come up. Only an idiot would fall for that. There are many good people among us who bear serious scars after Netanyahu violated agreements with them.

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One of them, someone who is still in the political arena, told me this week, “At the height of all the tension with him, the only thing I wanted to do was to take a few sticks of dynamite, attach them to my body, and blow us both up.”

For Netanyahu, “incapacitation” (during his indictment) – and an attendant immediate leave of absence – was a land mine to be avoided at all costs. And if not, then at the very least, he needed to preserve his status as second prime minister in a possible unity government. Gantz suggested introducing a law by which the premiership would be his from a specific date, a year after the start of the term. Netanyahu refused. He said that it was necessary to maintain “flexibility,” because who knows what will happen.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu and two members of his negotiating team, ministers Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin, visited the President’s Residence. Reuven Rivlin was in an agitated state of mind. “You say that you are respecting the president’s framework, but you really are not,” he growled at them. “In my plan, there aren’t two prime ministers, there is no partial incapacitation, there is no division of authority, there is no acting prime minister. Do what you want, but don’t interpret what I say in an incomplete or distorted way.”

It’s true that Gantz wanted a unity government more than the three others in Kahol Lavan’s so-called cockpit. It’s true that MK Yapir Lapid was the most insistent in his objections to it, at the emotional level. In Likud he was dubbed a “cult leader.” And it’s true that MK Gabi Ashkenazi also objected, but he, like MK Moshe Ya’alon, told Gantz that if he obtained reasonable guarantees, they would not stand in his way.

If such a government had been formed, Gantz planned to be appointed foreign minister and acting prime minister. Ashkenazi was earmarked for public security or education. Gantz hoped to have Lapid follow in the footsteps of his father, Tommy, and be appointed justice minister and deputy prime minister. Ya’alon, who vowed never to serve in a Netanyahu-led government, would have been slated to chair the Knesset’s Foreign Relations and Defense Committee.

Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.Credit: Emil Salman

Is it any wonder that Lapid freaked out? If he’d run alone, with his Yesh Atid party, and won eight seats, or even fewer, he would have received the coveted foreign affairs portfolio from Netanyahu in a minute. But if he’s not there, then Gantz isn’t going to be there, either. Like the old joke about the guy who didn’t make the cut for the air force pilots’ course, joins an antiaircraft unit instead and says: If I don’t fly, nobody flies.

Speaking of flights and antiaircraft, I asked one of the leaders of Kahol Lavan whether the escalation of tensions in the north, with Iran, wouldn’t drag them into a unity government against their will. “Our enemies don’t want war,” he replied, “and as for Bibi, we, in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, will have to keep an eye on him.”

Nocturnal briefing

Close to 1 A.M. on the night between Friday and Saturday, the phones of political correspondents vibrated. A source that’s frequently activated by Netanyahu adviser Natan Eshel and sometimes directly by Netanyahu, informed the recipients that a minority government under Gantz would be formed in the coming week. It was stated not as conjecture, but as a fact. Eshel, a well-known peddler of conspiracy theories and paranoia, is religiously observant, so there was no doubt about the identity of the nocturnal briefer.

That was the start of Netanyahu’s attack of hysteria. Its symptoms increased and worsened as the hours passed until Gantz’s mandate ran down on Wednesday night. The outgoing prime minister really and truly believed that he was on the verge of going out. Out of Balfour Street. With his wife and son. Toward a bad, bitter future, blacker than black, as black as the robes of the judges who will preside over his trials.

As soon as the Sabbath ended, he organized an urgent conference call with Likud cabinet ministers and MKs. That’s it, Gantz is going for it, it’s 100 percent sure, not 90 percent. It’s a disaster! He shouted hoarsely: A disaster! It’s madness! Before that, he had posted a panicky clip: “Clear and present danger to the country! Slap in the face to the soldiers of the IDF! There’s a red telephone here, and it rings every evening. Are we going to have to get approval from [Joint List leader] Ayman Odeh to attack?!”

He summoned an “emergency” meeting at 11:30 on Sunday morning of the party leaders from his bloc. He almost fell apart on us there, someone told me.

For the first time since the establishment of that particular forum, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon also attended. A wave of speculation swept the jittery political arena. Bibi, it was whispered by the whisperers, is afraid that Kahlon – together with his colleague from the Kulanu party, Housing Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton – is about to cross the lines to Gantzland, and so he invited Kahlon to ensure that he was still with them.

The truth was less dramatic. Kahlon was invited to a meeting of the ministerial committee on captives and MIAs. Because of a clerical error, he arrived an hour early, opened the door of the conference room, and saw the bloc leaders holding a meeting. Ah, excuse me, he apologized. You’re already here, so you might as well come in, they said to him. Kahlon took a seat. When he was asked for his opinion, he said, “Bibi, don’t panic” – which is like asking Omer Adam to sing without trills – “you need to calm down and stop attacking Evet [Avigdor Lieberman]. What good does it do?”

Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Dery also thought that the incessant provoking of Lieberman and the portrayal of him as liable to cooperate with the Arab MKs, was not useful. It was likely to push him into undesirable realms. Netanyahu listened. “They are demanding that I separate from you,” he mumbled, referring to the bloc of right-wing parties, “as though it’s not clear to me that the minute I do that, you will part from me. What do they think I am?”

On Sunday afternoon, the prime minister met with Lieberman at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. They made it through 50 minutes without gouging each other’s eyes out. Lieberman got Netanyahu to believe that he wasn’t pushing for another election. It was decided to lower the level of the flames. Netanyahu instructed the Likud folk to hold their fire and to set out for the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, where the “emergency rally” was held to oppose the establishment of a minority government with the backing of the Arabs.

“Supporters of terrorism,” “receiving directives from our worst enemies,” Netanyahu said about the Arab MKs. Why doesn’t he try to have them tried for treason? For incitement to terrorism? For “war crimes,” as he said. From time to time, when their votes are needed, he knows very well where to find them and what to give them.

Rallying the troops

When the going gets tough, the tough remember the forgotten drudges. A rare sight – almost like a lunar eclipse that occurs once every 18 or 19 years – was seen on Sunday afternoon at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. On the stage, flanking Netanyahu and behind him, were 34 members of the Likud Knesset faction – well, 31 MKs and the next three after them on the party slate.

Yes, friends, it was not a dream or a hallucination. For the first time in the decade since he returned to power and never left, the chairman of Likud was not alone on the stage. He’s always there solo, lording it over everyone, while the others are seated below, eyes looking up to him in supplication. The most they could hope for was to be invited onto the stage at the end of the event, to sing the national anthem with him and his wife. Now, with the noose tightening and the distress palpable, Bibi suffered an attack of humility. Suddenly, he remembered the loyal troops who lay themselves on the barbed-wire fence so he can cross it.

With the grim possibilities that loom for the premier – a third election, opposition, indictment, a leadership primary in Likud – this was the moment to corral them, physically and metaphorically. To share a little of the spotlight with them. In his eyes, they are merely a bunch of gullible “soldiers,” as he terms them. A little coddling and they melt at his feet. If they are summoned, they will follow him, blind and foolish, to the voting booths.

As he uttered his anguished cries, veteran Likud MKs and ministers scanned the fairly small audience. It was not an impressive turnout, even though transportation had been provided. Many of those who did show up were not well-known party members, certainly not key ones – at least, that’s what I was told by three of the party’s lawmakers. There were hardly any mayors, and very few leaders of Likud branches.

A pro-Netanyahu rally in Petah Tikva, November 2019.Credit: David Bachar

“I didn’t recognize very many people,” one veteran MK told me. “It looked more like the crowd from Goren Square” – referring to the site of demonstrations outside the home of the attorney general, in Petah Tikva.

Someone likened Netanyahu to a young David, who fled to the Cave of Adullam and gathered around him 400 “embittered” men in order to do battle against King Saul. If Bibi is counting on a popular uprising, burning streets and mass demonstrations that will paralyze the nation in the wake of an indictment against him, what he saw on that dog-day afternoon was not calculated to encourage him.

Every man for himself

On the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, Israel Air Force planes revved up their engines on the tarmac before heading off to attack some 20 Iranian and Syrian Army targets, at least one of them adjacent to Damascus. Israel was closer than ever to a broad confrontation with Iran and its satellites. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett was in his office in Tel Aviv, while the prime minister was busy with the truly important thing: a Likud primary election.

Bibi summoned Haim Katz, chairman of the party’s Central Committee; the dialogue between them on the subject has been ongoing over the past month or so. The prime minister was concerned about the democratic character of Likud, in which he takes so much pride. If an election is indeed in the offing, the Likud’s constitution would require a double primary: for the Knesset slate and for party leader. Whereas the MKs were chosen at the beginning of the year, and haven’t managed to do anything – the chairman was last elected in 2014.

Netanyahu wanted to eliminate both procedures. He no longer feels as confident as he once did. Following two consecutive failures to form a coalition, after dragging the country into two elections, in the second of which his party lost seven-eight seats, and with an indictment hanging over him – he is more vulnerable than ever. MK Gideon Sa’ar, who intends to run against him, has a chance, if not to win, then at least to attain a result that none of Netanyahu’s rivals have managed in the past to achieve, which would make him No. 2 in the party and the leading heir-apparent.

Katz and Netanyahu agreed to have the Central Committee convene in another two weeks, on December 5. Netanyahu is to submit a resolution in favor of cancellation of the primary to select the Knesset list – which is likely to garner broad support and is expected to pass. But the situation get more complicated when it comes to the party leader. Under the Likud constitution, the incumbent chairman cannot ask for a vote on the matter, as he has a conflict of interest. Anyone else, however, can request it.

Netanyahu’s original idea was more clever. He planned to hold a whip over the heads of the MKs, and tell them that the two things are interconnected: that a primary for chairman would drag in its wake a primary for the Knesset slate. His hope was that this would deter the party’s lawmakers and that they would ultimately vote against both proposals. But then he was presented with intelligence material to the effect that at least two Likud MKs whose future is unclear, were plotting to defect to the other side of the aisle.

The names of the two suspects were presented to him: One is a new, female MK who is between the 20th and 30th places on the slate, the other a longer-serving lawmaker who is between places 10 and 20. The information is very reliable, Bibi was told. Nothing further was needed to ratchet up the panic level and prompt him to discard the threats and replace them with a resolution to exempt the MKs from having to run in a primary. As for his personal tangle with Sa’ar, he’ll have to solve that on his own.

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