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Gantz Wants a Six-month Coronavirus Government, Netanyahu Wants Annexation

With Joe Biden possibly the U.S. president come January 20, many Likudniks think it's now or never for a West Bank land grab

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz and the coronavirus.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz and the coronavirus.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

If anyone asked Likud’s Yariv Levin, who’s running Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s negotiations with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, which he preferred – to be the justice minister but without extending Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank, or to be badminton minister but with annexation – he wouldn’t bat an eyelash. He'd choose the latter.

His ideological fervor for Greater Israel overrides even his longing to preside over the destruction of the Supreme Court’s independence. But don’t worry, if he's appointed speaker, he’ll make sure to turn the Knesset into a fortress whose artillery is aimed at the hall of justice on the next hilltop.

Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

As of Thursday evening, what to do about U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” was the main dispute between Kahol Lavan and Likud, and it delayed the signing of a unity-government deal. Netanyahu was under enormous pressure from the settler right and most of Likud’s Knesset members. They were pushing him to exploit what they believe are the few months left until the propellers of the presidential helicopter tousle Trump's orange hair one last time. Then he'll be replaced by Joe Biden.

Ever since Trump’s crooked diplomatic plan was born, the right has sought to raid its pantry: annexation now, a Palestinian state never – just like a child who wants the crust removed from the bread. In the right's view, and apparently in Netanyahu’s as well, it’s now or never.

At the heart of the dispute is the six-month period defined as an “emergency government,” during which Kahol Lavan wants to eschew any diplomatic activity and focus on the health and economic crises. For Netanyahu, Levin and their ilk, this is a death trap. A month before the U.S. presidential election in November, the polls will indicate whether it's a close race. If Israel announces that it’s extending sovereignty to part of the West Bank, Biden, who is well on the way to becoming the Democratic candidate, will send a strong message: Hold your horses, my friends.

Netanyahu feels like he’s standing on his diplomatic legacy’s Mount Nebo – like Moses, he can see the Promised Land but can't enter it. He’s likely to miss his only chance to make a significant mark on Israel’s history. Of the 120 MKs, 67 or 68 are in favor of extending sovereignty: Netanyahu's bloc plus Orli Levi-Abekasis, Moshe Ya’alon, the Derech Eretz breakaways from Kahol Lavan – Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser– and presumably others from Kahol Lavan who would support the move if they could vote their consciences, as Likud proposes.

But Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and most Kahol Lavan members oppose an annexation supported by no one but the United States. Gantz and Ashkenazi aren’t suffused with messianic sentiment. As the people slated to become prime minister and defense minister in October 2021 in the rotation government, they want room to maneuver diplomatically, not facts on the ground that could cause problems with a hostile world, both in our own neighborhood and beyond.

Over the past two days, Netanyahu has shown Kahol Lavan his inner Bibi. In other words, he has reneged on his promises and reopened parts of the coalition deal on which an agreement had already been reached. He’s evidently incapable of acting otherwise; it’s in his blood. Still, as of this writing, the prevailing assumption is that an agreement will be reached and a government will be formed.

Kahol Lavan’s veto on Yuli Edelstein hasn’t been lifted, so he won’t return as Knesset speaker. His brutal provocations against the High Court of Justice will stain him for the rest of his political career. As of Thursday night, it wasn’t clear what will become of him: Will he be promoted to foreign minister, or, like the folkloric Hershel of Ostropol, carry out his threat to go to bed hungry on the Knesset’s backbench?

Netanyahu is running the (apparently) final stretch of the coalition talks from his quarantined residence, to which he returned after Health Minister Yaakov Litzman tested positive for the coronavirus. In some ways, this is a convenient position for him. No angry MKs or offended ministers can lurk in the corridors of the Prime Minister’s Office hoping to bang on his door and demand their rightful place in the cabinet.

Top Likudniks are sufficing with getting petitions launched by leaders of party branches and members of the central committee, saying there’s nobody like so-and-so, and he if doesn’t get the right cabinet position (or any), Likud is finished. And then there are people like Nir Barkat: The ice on which the campaign promise to appoint him finance minister was written hasn't only melted, it has evaporated.

Barkat is once again bombarding the prime minister, his staff and everybody else with his arsenal of polls. So what? He can set up a shadow government with Moshe Feiglin, Gadi Yevarkan and a great many others. After all, Barkat promised that if he were declared the nominee, six to seven seats’ worth of votes would move from Kahol Lavan to Likud and the right-wing bloc would have 61 MKs. But it didn’t work. And since he didn’t keep his promise, the promise made to him won’t be kept either.

As always, Netanyahu is paying almost no attention to the threats by other Likud members. He’ll deal with those by Yamina leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked at the last minute. Meanwhile, like a CrossFit instructor in the coronavirus era, he’s deploying his loyalists via Zoom; most of the weeping and wailing falls on them. That’s how things are in the quarantine of the long-distance runner – during coalition talks, he feels the high.

Ya’alon’s grief

Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi on election night, March 2, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Political life sometimes makes for strange, unnatural alliances. Sitting together on the opposition benches will be Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon, Avigdor Lieberman, Nitzan Horowitz and Ayman Odeh. In the Knesset, Ya’alon, an ideological rightist and a former military chief of staff, will be staring at the backs of two of his former subordinates, Gantz and Ashkenazi, who will be sitting in the seats for cabinet members.

Kahol Lavan’s musical score has changed with dizzying speed, from brotherhood and friendship to hatred and invective. The pre-coronavirus photo-ops of hugs have been replaced with epithets, especially by the betrayed spouses, Lapid and Ya’alon.

“Benny showed weakness,” Ya’alon tells anyone who greets him. “It was clear to us that he was trying to crawl into the government. What’s his agenda? What are his motives? Maybe we’ll find out in the future.”

I asked what he was getting at, whether there was an ulterior motive, not just an offer to lend a hand. “Look, I won't be surprised if in the future we discover that there were other reasons for the move,” he replied.

“But it’s clear to me that he was worn out. He didn’t want to be prime minister. He began to fear it and preferred to be No. 2. Now he’s a political corpse. The man’s irrelevant. His excuse was that he wanted to carry the stretcher. He'll soon discover that his job is holding the poles of the sedan chair that Bibi is sitting on.”

As Ya’alon would have it, Netanyahu was determined to break up Kahol Lavan, something he failed at after the second general election in September.

“This time, he did it easily,” Ya'alon said. “Every time Yair and I heard there were negotiations, Benny would say he was just sounding out positions. He did everything behind our backs, with the help of Gabi, who thinks the world revolves around him being defense minister.

As Ya'alon put it, “Gabi viewed Kahol Lavan as a platform for his personal advancement.” Do you think he's eyeing joining Likud? I asked. “It’s not out of the question,” he replied.

If it hadn’t been for the coronavirus pandemic, Ya'alon said, Netanyahu would have used the Iranian issue to warn that Israel was facing an existential threat that would justify an emergency government.

“Now he’ll escape the criminal defendant’s bench with the help of Benny and his associates. I agreed to the formation of a narrow government, with one vote for the Joint List [of Arab parties]. This wouldn’t have brought about the end of the country, but leaving Netanyahu there is existential rot.”

I asked him how he would have formed that government after those two jesters in his Telem faction, Hendel and Hauser, announced they wouldn’t support it under any circumstance.

“Benny should have done what Ariel Sharon did during the [Gaza] disengagement,” said the man who lost the chance to serve an additional year as military chief due to his opposition to that very plan.

“There was opposition in the cabinet, but he went full steam ahead. And they weren’t the only two jesters. Gabi also objected, as did Chili [Tropper], Omer [Yankelevich], Orit [Farkash-Hacohen]. If Benny had shown determination, one of the jesters would have ultimately voted in favor, the second would have abstained, and it would have passed. We would have formed a government, passed the laws barring Netanyahu from running, and then parts of the right-wing bloc would have come to us.

Ya'alon's nuttiness

Kahol Lavan's Moshe Ya'alon on election night, March 2, 2020.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

“Bogie [Ya’alon] has gone crazy,” said someone in Kahol Lavan. “His hatred for Netanyahu has driven him crazy. He would sit in the cockpit, say non sequiturs, and when he lost his train of thought would simply shout: the submarines, the submarines” – referring to the so-called submarine affair in which Netanyahu has not been indicted.

“Benny is a decent man, too decent. When he came to Yair and Bogie and said, 'Guys, there’s still no agreement, give me the job of Knesset speaker and if we reach an agreement, do what you want,' they went crazy.

“Benny has chalked up an enormous achievement: parity and the premiership. He's receiving incredible power. It’s an equal splitting of the spoils, even though he's coming in with only 17 or 18 MKs. Every appointment that's brought to the cabinet must be agreed by both of them, and only he can fire Kahol Lavan ministers, even when he's deputy prime minister.”

This Kahol Lavan official insisted that despite what people think, the rotation will really take place. He said the legislation on the matter was put together by former Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht and the experienced political adviser Shalom Shlomo. “It won’t let Netanyahu skirt it.”

This is where the indecent demand for an official residence for the deputy prime minister comes into play – which both Likud and Kahol Lavan have accused each other of demanding. The source in Kahol Lavan insists that not only is this demand Netanyahu’s, it ensures that he will carry out the rotation. “Sara and his demand for an official residence for the deputy prime minister shows they understand [that the rotation will take place]. Benny doesn’t want an official residence and didn’t ask for an official residence. It doesn’t interest him,” the source said.

“What was the alternative? An election? We wouldn’t come out of that well. Support for Netanyahu is rising by the day. Not exponentially, but rising. Three times we tried to beat him at the ballot box, and three times we failed. Benny concluded that it's possible to beat Bibi – maybe, that’s not certain either – by pushing him out, by moving him. Not by a decapitation.”

Law and Regev

Likud's Miri Regev campaigning in Rosh Ha'ayin, February 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One of the main demands on Kahol Lavan’s list in the coalition talks was to remove Miri Regev as culture and sports minister. It's a small ministry with a meager budget, but one that became a symbol for everything that's bad in the Netanyahu era. And symbols are important.

There was no resistance at all, Regev can't wait until she leaves the ministry. She has nothing left there to destroy, and besides, she was promised before the election a year ago that she would be appointed public security minister. This promise, unlike a slew of others by Netanyahu, will be kept. It's not just to reward Regev – one of the pillars of Bibi's ingratiating base, the wheels of the bulldozer of the prime minister’s residence. It's an act foreshadowing the future.

Netanyahu has been blessed with a talent for planning moves five steps ahead, which doesn't prevent him from being razor-sharp brutal regarding the task at hand. After the forming of a new government, Regev will ask that a new police commissioner be appointed, someone who thinks the way she does, who will trickle things down to his subordinates and investigators.

And in general, there will be a new spirit regarding everything concerning the launching of future investigations into Netanyahu. Two such cases are now waiting on the desk of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit: the so-called shares affair and the spying on Gantz during the election campaign.

For some reason, the ministry that's considered a political graveyard is the heart’s desire of Likud's chief shrieker. Sure, there's not much the minister can do regarding the police, but it's a grandiose title and ensures membership in the security cabinet.

Regev has been preparing for the job for a long time. When the outgoing minister, Gilad Erdan, announced at the beginning of the year his intention to appoint a permanent police commissioner instead of our acting commissioner for life, Moti Cohen, Regev hinted to Erdan to drop the matter because it wouldn't happen anyway. Erdan understood who he was really talking to via Regev, and backtracked.

Erdan is honest, and he no longer had the strength to fight a losing battle. His removal now to reward Regev for her actions is stupidity – but not a crime, as is leaving Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the minister of negligence and irresponsibility, in his post.

Regev’s candidate for police commissioner might very well be Yoram Halevi, who retired from the force a year ago, a number of law enforcement officials said. Regev and Halevi are close. Two years ago, just before the previous police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, retired, he accused Halevi – then the commander of the Jerusalem District – of being secretly in contact with the Netanyahu family “using a third party.” Who knows, maybe that party was Regev. Netanyahu and Halevi denied the claims.

I checked with a senior official in Kahol Lavan. He said the coalition agreement states that every key appointment – excluding the directors general of ministries – will have to be made with the consent of "both prime ministers." After all, in a year and a half Gantz will have to work with the new police commissioner.

It's also clear that Gantz will interview the candidates, too. According to the Kahol Lavan official, there's no chance of appointing a mercenary of Regev and the prime minister’s residence who will sow fear in the hearts of investigators and block the awaiting investigations. "We've thought about these scenarios," he said.

Maybe they have, but even in the least bad scenario in which Regev is just a baneful contrarian for the institution she oversees, she'll still be very difficult to digest. Have mercy on all the men and women in blue.

Moribund Labor

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz in March 2020.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

At first, Labor MKs Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli negotiated separately with Gantz regarding the joining of a government headed by Netanyahu. The two Laborites didn't exchange a word for months.

Later their relations thawed a bit and they began coordinating their positions. Peretz, the chairman of the smoldering remains of the Labor Party, didn't feel comfortable entering such a government by himself; he wanted the protective covering of Shmuli, who's apparently more of an ideologue.

While the entry of Gantz and Ashkenazi into a Netanyahu government means the dismantling of the sole alternative to Likud rule for now, Peretz and Shmuli don't carry this burden. It's a bit easier for them. Almost all the spotlights were turned on Gantz, so Peretz and his former vassal can join the coalition celebrations with glee. The corpse of Peretz’s mustache is turning on the barbershop floor, but who cares.

The Labor brand went into bankruptcy at the ballot box on March 2; the leader and his No. 2 are joining a right-wing government. The No. 3, Merav Michaeli, will remain in the opposition and join forces with Meretz to the left. Or maybe she'll return to the media as did Shelly Yacimovich, who realized in time that this stream wasn't flowing to the sea, but to the sewer.

Peretz is a political corpse in every way. His big days, and his little ones too, are behind him. The position of economy minister is his ventilator. His dream of the presidency is dead.

But Shmuli still seems to have a future. Lapid's Yesh Atid has wooed Shmuli for a long time. Shmuli explains his decision to join the government – it seems as social affairs minister – with his desire to contribute in an area close to his heart. Let's see if his political career ends with the end of the incoming government.

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