Analysis |

Sowing Fear Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak, Netanyahu Is in His Element

The coronavirus pandemic has provided an embarrassment of riches for Netanyahu, who's using the chaos to his best political benefit while Gantz grapples with the sourpusses who are slipping away from Kahol Lavan

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz, right. In the middle, Health Minister and ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman.
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz, right. In the middle, Health Minister and ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

With a flimsy tissue, video images of an inflamed nose dispersing microscopic nasal discharge and an apocalyptic tone of voice, Benjamin Netanyahu is squeezing every ounce of political and propaganda benefit out of the coronavirus at a time of uncertainty and anxiety about the future. This is his big moment. He is managing matters with a confident hand while everyone else is consumed with petty politics and talking with “supporters of terror.”

Nearly every evening the prime minister holds a joint press conference with the health minister and his director general, as well as the head of the National Security Council. Bibi’s messages are artfully

crafted: sowing fear that stops a centimeter short of fueling panic; presenting draconian measures that reflect his responsibility and concern for the health of his subjects; and highlighting his international standing (“I spoke with my friend, Indian President Narendra Modi”) and proven success in managing Israel’s economy (“Our economy is going into this crisis in good shape, in very good shape”).

In his naked desire to hog as much screen time as possible, he goes into lots of technical detail and instructions that should be delivered to the public by Health Ministry and Magen David Adom officials: not to gather in large crowds, to keep a distance from other people, not to hug, not to kiss. He musters his finest thespian talent when he announces, practically gasping: “It’s happening! It’s spreading!” And then he takes a dramatic pause, clears his throat, looks straight into the camera and portentously utters the following inconsequential piece of information that already known to any 9-year-old: “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Netanyahu demonstrates how to use a tissue when coughing, during a press conference on March 11, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu is having the time of his life from the podium in the Prime Minister’s Office, while his wicked son Yair rejoices on Twitter as tens of thousands of business owners and salaried workers are about to lose their livelihoods. They are quite the dastardly duo, those two.

Let’s take a moment to compare our prime minister to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: On Wednesday she straightforwardly informed her public that the infection rate in the country could go as high as 60-70 percent. “Take care of the elderly,” she requested in a cool and calm tone, sans visual shticks and horror-movie mannerisms.

The current accursed plague could offer Netanyahu other benefits: For example, if the Jerusalem District Court – which rejected his request to postpone the start of his trial – instructs him to appear in court on Tuesday morning for the reading of the indictment, Mr. Twitter and his friends in the social media will likely launch a campaign against the “leftist” judges (to use the defendant’s term) who “are preventing the prime minister from managing the coronavirus crisis.”

Earlier this week, at one of the daily meetings in his office held to assess the situation, the health professionals on hand described the virus’ main characteristics: Children and young people are largely unaffected, and if they are infected, they develop only mild symptoms similar to those of a cold, but older people – 60, 70 and up – are liable to become seriously ill, as we have already seen.

The response from the 71-year-old Netanyahu was instructive: His face assumed a dark expression, according to someone who was present. “Hmmm,” he said, “this is a disease directed against older politicians, it creates a turnover.”

It’s always about him.

Say no to the outline

One of Netanyahu’s most prominent characteristics is his ability to evade responsibility for missteps and failures. He tends to make an appearance when there are successes and accomplishments, but he’s skilled at leaving the dark side of the moon to others: cabinet ministers, bureaucrats, advisers, military officers and so on. His current no-holds-barred effort not just to manage the crisis but to handle its PR is a clear indication of his intention to tap the situation for his personal interests. Maybe to propose that Kahol Lavan join a government headed by him? We heard the first hint of such an idea on Thursday from Interior Minister Arye Dery, who is in complete coordination with Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Shas Chairman Arye Dery (R) at a Shas Knesset faction meeting, Jerusalem, October 23, 2017Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In phone briefings to his ministers, the prime minister asks them not to refer to President Reuven Rivlin’s outline from last fall for the formation of a Likud-Kahol Lavan national unity government, when they speak with the media. “This time we won,” he declares. “There is no reason to give them a rotation under the conditions from back then. It’s a totally different situation now.”

Before Kahol Lavan MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, and Orli Levi-Abekasis of Labor-Gesher-Meretz threw a spanner in the works, Netanyahu was prepared to absorb the blow of watching Gantz form a government, and to go into the opposition for a period that he figured would last no longer than a year. Then, the premier informed his people, we’ll come back and win big-time. His plan remains the same: appoint an attorney general and state prosecutor to his liking, who will delay the legal proceedings then underway against him.

Now Netanyahu’s situation has improved. It seems quite certain that the option of a narrow government is now off the table. Kahol Lavan is aiming for an alternate plan: accepting the mandate to form the next government from Rivlin next week (perhaps even with the support of the three Balad MKs, who are leaning that way), replacing Yuli Edelstein of Likud with Kahol Lavan’s Meir Cohen as Knesset Speaker, convening the Knesset House Committee and passing legislation that would prohibit a prime minister from serving while under indictment – from the next Knesset onward.

This would give Netanyahu plenty of incentive to do his utmost to avoid a fourth election. If Gantz fails to form a government within the 28 days allotted him by Rivlin, and the mandate passes to Netanyahu, he would be ready to sell anything and everything, with the exception of his own seat, in order to gain two more MKs – in addition to Levi-Abekasis, who is apparently already part of the “bloc,” even if not yet officially. That would make the needed 61 lawmakers a mission accomplished.

It’s possible to envision this scenario taking place. The system is already traumatized by three elections in the space of a year. Fear of a fourth round, even if it has to be delayed because of the coronavirus, will have its effect.

As of now – after Netanyahu celebrated prematurely on election night and Gantz did the same a few days later – the former appears to be holding the better cards.

Not for love of Haman

If there’s one lesson that every budding politician should take to heart from the “stinking maneuver” of 1990 – when then-Labor Party leader Shimon Peres tried to bring down Yitzhak Shamir’s government, with the help of five defectors from the coalition parties – it’s this: Controversial political moves that do not seem to be a natural choice must be made with the utmost caution.

Three decades ago, two ultra-Orthodox MKs thwarted Peres’ plan to form a minority left-wing government. They just couldn’t go along with it. Their rabbis had prohibited them. Yoaz Hendel, Zvi Hauser and Orli Levi-Abekasis are the “Verdiger and Mizrahi” of our times. Is Benny Gantz a latter-day Peres?

This question has yet to be answered. What is clear, however, is that the way he has gone about trying to build a narrow government for himself with the support of Avigdor Lieberman and the Joint List (or part of it) has been amateurish in the extreme. That sort of adventurism demands a majority of 65 MKs at the very least. Yes, Gantz and his two main partners, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, of Yesh Atid and Telem, respectively, decided that it was now or never. But that’s not enough.

Benny Gantz meets with Avigdor Lieberman, March 9, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Gantz knew that he has two sourpuss right-wingers within his party – self-styled ideologues seen by some as racists and Arab-haters – who made it quite clear in the previous election that they would not go along with the idea of a government supported by the Joint List. As a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff – who would not go to war without first reviewing all available intelligence and considering all possible scenarios, bleak and unpredictable as they might be – Gantz should first have tried to secure the support of the sourpusses, and also dispatch Amir Peretz to get a take on what was happening in Labor-Gesher-Meretz.

For their part, people close to the Kahol Lavan chairman say that he did do both things: Hendel and Hauser didn’t surprise him (yeah, right), and Peretz was sent to take Levi-Abekasis’ pulse and returned with a reassuring message.

The first part of that, at least, does not jibe with the panic that spread in the so-called cockpit over the intensity of the opposition from the two members of Ya’alon’s party. They didn’t bring Kahol Lavan even one-10th of a mandate, but are so full of themselves that they act as if Kahol Lavan can’t exist without them. If their ideology also included one iota of integrity, they would feel compelled to resign. If they had an ounce of gratitude or loyalty to the person who brought them into the Knesset and stuck to his promise to them through the last election as well, they would ask Ya’alon’s forgiveness – and they’d get out of his face.

What else did we learn this week? That the right-wing bloc may be a minority in the Knesset, but it is coherent and solid. The “Just Not Bibi” camp scored a majority at the polls (62-58 Knesset seats), but it lacks homogeneity. Anyone who comes from the right and declares himself or herself as such will not survive a test in which their political allegiance comes into conflict with their ideological beliefs. Hendel and Hauser despise Netanyahu, the scars they carry from the time they worked under him are still fresh, but they hate “the Arabs” even more.

The quartet of Kahol Lavan leaders is taking a Mapai-like approach. Even Gabi Ashkenazi, who has deep misgivings about a scenario of a Gantz-led government supported by the Joint List, is not making waves. He posed for a picture together with his three comrades and Lieberman (who, can you believe it, has become the main one pushing for a government with the Joint List’s support). From now on, he is in the picture too.

Unlike the four who appeared with him in the photo-op, “Ashkenazi doesn’t hate Netanyahu enough,” says a knowledgeable source – yes, even after the barrage of filth to which the prime minister subjected him before the election. Gantz, who back in September was still willing to swallow the insults and be part of a government with the person who savagely trashed him, learned this time around just whom he is dealing with. Lapid, who was fired by Netanyahu in 2014, is not about to forgive or forget. He set Gantz a clear ultimatum: Join forces with Bibi and that’s the end of this whole enterprise.

The last two gentlemen involved here are Ya’alon and Lieberman. The amount of bad blood that has flowed between them could easily flood the Gobi Desert and turn it into the Switzerland of China and Mongolia. Today they are united in their burning hatred of the man they both served in different roles. They will be ready to retire from politics – the day after he goes.

The sting

David Levy (“our David,” as Ariel Sharon cuttingly put it) had a glorious political career. Despite the whole slew of (racist and shameful, even back then) jokes aimed at him and with all his pomposity and inflated sense of self-worth, no one can take away his achievements as a member of Knesset, the head of a number of ministries, among them foreign affairs, and as deputy prime minister. The Moroccan-born politician was an effective minister and a wise statesman.

Levy’s daughter Orli has not accumulated any real political accomplishments to her name on her way to becoming, at record speed, a consummate opportunist. Hyperbolic PR about her parliamentary work helped her secure a top spot in Yisrael Beiteinu in 2015, a move that probably didn’t even bring her boss Lieberman so much as a quarter of a Knesset seat. Later, she honed this approach into a method: Last April, dazzled by poll results and an excess of media coverage, she ran independently – and completely fizzled. In September she attached herself to Amir Peretz – the worst acquisition of all time in the history of the Labor Party. In that election and in this month’s as well, Levi-Abekasis was saved from political extinction by the center-left camp that carried her on its back. She behaved like an entitled princess, exuding self-importance while turning up her nose in disgust at her left-wing partners. Whenever she had to be photographed next to Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, she looked like she was suffering from constipation. And with all that narcissism, the returns at the voting booth were minuscule: Her electoral contribution to the Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate on March 2 was a whopping 305 votes (according to a study by pollster Yossi Vadana).

Orli Levi-Abekasis on Election Day, March 2, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Levi-Abekasis is like the scorpion in the fable, who hitches a ride on a frog to cross the river and then stings him when they reach the other side, saying, “Hey, what can I do? That’s just my nature.” If she ever writes a memoir, it should be called, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Political Galaxy.” She pulled off the perfect sting: From Peretz, she squeezed an entire election-financing apportionment – 1.6 million shekels – which was used to cover her debts (with some change leftover); the Knesset seat she stole she will hand over to Netanyahu; and she will take her place in the plenum at the expense of Ilan Gilon of Meretz, a social-justice warrior who is her antithesis in terms of modesty and integrity.

If Peretz had an ounce of self-respect, he would resign and let Bar-Lev take his seat. After the April election, he strode into the office of then-Labor chairman Avi Gabbay and told him: You failed. If you don’t go, we’ll show you the way out. Gabbay had won six seats for the party. Peretz achieved just half of that last week, inflicted the lady thief on the center-left camp – and still doesn’t think he has to draw any conclusions from this.

On Tuesday afternoon, when it became quite clear that Hauser and Hendel were not planning to support a narrow government, Peretz told someone, “I am going all-out for a government. Gantz needs to get his house in order.” He had no idea that his hitchhiker was already lounging in another limousine; she had strung him along until the last moment.

That same day, Peretz spoke with someone else. Their conversation was about Levi-Abekasis, who had seemingly showed loyalty and stood by him, unlike the two clowns from Kahol Lavan. Peretz praised his partner lavishly. “His eyes were sparkling, I’d never seen him speak like that before, about anyone,” said his interlocutor.

And while Peretz was busy gushing, Orli, with the assistance of her brother Jackie, mayor of Beit She’an and a former Likud MK, was busy weaving her safety net and golden parachute. The Likud ministers were asked directly by the prime minister to tell the media that “she wasn’t promised anything.” Of course not. That must be why her brother was coming and going from the Balfour Street residence in the hours preceding her announcement that she would not support a government backed by the Joint List, to make sure that she was promised nothing.

Politics occasionally serves up “deserters” or garden variety treacherous personalities and complete cynics. But Ms. Levi-Abekasis is in a class of her own. How will she take her seat in the Knesset on Monday between Peretz, who did so much for her, and Horowitz? Machiavelli himself would have died of shame.

What will she get from Netanyahu, if he forms a government? The health portfolio, which Peretz had reserved for her, will remain in Yaakov Litzman’s hands. Sources in Likud believe she would settle for the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry. She would receive her own financing unit (bingo – another 1.6 million shekels!), be assured a secure place on the Likud slate for the next Knesset, and, say the same sources, Likud would support the appointment of her 82-year-old father as president in June 2021. Levy, Sr., will believe that when he sees it.

In fact, the presidential battle will most likely be waged between two contenders: Yuli Edelstein and Isaac Herzog. And under certain circumstances, they might find themselves facing a third competitor: one Benjamin Netanyahu, who will make the Knesset an offer that it can’t refuse: Want to be rid of me? Be so kind as to send me to the President’s Residence, where I’ll get automatic immunity for seven years (and Sara will get a fresh new staff to prey on!).

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