Analysis |

As Chaos Reigns, Netanyahu Must Carefully Weigh Whether He Really Wants an Election

The opinion polls show that Avigdor Lieberman will be the kingmaker again, while Likud legislators are wallowing in hatred and the settling of accounts

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Israel's political chaos of July 2020.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It’s a month before the deadline for approving the state budget in the Knesset – and at the Finance Ministry the lights are off. The number crunchers are away on a kind of paid vacation. The negotiations with cabinet members, which should be hectic, have altogether ceased.

This is on orders from above, until it’s determined what kind of budget this will be – for two or three months, which is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants, or for 14 months, as his partner in the unity government, Benny Gantz, demands.

This week the two haven’t discussed this at all. They met and decided on an addition to the defense budget. Health? What’s the rush?

“From the outset we saw no possibility of passing a budget by August 25,” a top Finance Ministry official said this week. “We were thinking the end of September, even the end of October.”

Without a budget – or legislation that will postpone the deadline – Israel will be flung into a general election. Yes, just like a rag doll, as President Reuven Rivlin so aptly put it – an election for the fourth time in a year and a half.

But this time it would be with a terrifying twist: an election during a pandemic, which, according to the prevailing forecast, is expected to get worse in the fall and winter, with all the knock-on effects on the health system and worsening economy.

Netanyahu isn’t 100 percent sure about holding an election at the end of 2020 – not because he cares about the country but because he’s far from convinced he’ll obtain the outcome that has evaded him three times: 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

That magic number would let him form a dream government, purely right-wing and ultra-Orthodox. It would let him regain control of the Justice Ministry, fire the attorney general and replace him with a dangerous sycophant who would delay his corruption trial or concoct a plea bargain. (He should have a look at the opinion poll results I discuss below, which make clear just how elusive his fantasy is).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of his corruption trial, May 24, 2020.Credit: Amit Shabi

There are other motives here, too. One was revealed in a statement last week by Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, the Netanyahu family’s mercenary for plundering the law enforcement system. Ohana’s declaration that “he will appoint” a police commissioner within 30 days was a declaration of intent – on behalf of the boss – addressed to two people: Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

A mechanism hasn’t yet been established for agreeing on senior appointments in the government. Mendelblit, meanwhile, understood the mafia-speak implication, and this week sent Defendant No. 1 a letter that clarifies: You cannot take part in appointing a police commissioner, you have a conflict of interests. Netanyahu’s astounding reply was basically: I don’t give a damn about you – you’re the one with a conflict of interests.

This is a critical matter. Netanyahu’s political immune system is weakening. And this is also affecting the mojo of the people facing him – and, it seems, his judges. This week he hoped to get a decision in the courtroom of Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman postponing the evidence stage of his trial for at least a year – and even then – court sessions only once a week. (And in an uncharacteristic show of restraint, the shrill propaganda machine at the Balfour Street residence kept its mouth shut on the trial that day).

But her honor is no patsy and she’s fed up with the maneuvers of the suspect who hasn’t even bothered to put together a consistent defense team. At the beginning of 2021, three times a week, his trial will carry on at a businesslike clip. And all this is connected to the appointment of the police commissioner and the battle with Mendlebilt.

The investigators are requesting a green light for probing, as seems obvious, the additional suspicions against Netanyahu, like the stock portfolio that stinks to high heaven; maybe even the submarines. If that happens the standing he still has vis-à-vis the attorney general and the court will melt into a puddle. No plea bargain, no maneuvers and no punks staging raucous displays outside the Jerusalem District Court will do him any good.

In the bosom of the state

Getting back to the budget and a possible election, Netanyahu prefers that Gantz’s Kahol Lavan will give in and agree to a mini-budget for the rest of 2020. But the professionals aren’t there at the Budget Division, whose chief has become an enemy of the people. They know it’s a farce, considering the time that remains.

This position has been joined by the governor of the Bank of Israel, Amir Yaron. Pay attention to him; he’s a personal appointment by Netanyahu, who isn’t clamping Yaron’s mouth despite the prime minister’s catastrophic performance on the economy, which also according to Yaron (between the lines, but very clearly) is tainted by political motives.

Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron on a panel on March 11, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

A postponement might produce for Netanyahu another exit ramp to an election next June or July. By then, the pandemic might have waned, vaccines might be available and the economy might have begun to recover. He’d be able to tell the public: We’re going in a positive direction, don’t stop us.

But this November, another possible election date, we’re not going to be there yet. We see how he’s managing things: Failure follows fiasco, fiasco follows disgrace. Everything he touches he screws up. The impression is that the government is toying with people’s lives and livelihoods in a criminally frivolous way. A tiny number of infections leads to hysterical decisions, in the dark of night, on shutting down thousands of businesses, dealing a death blow to hundreds of thousands of workers.

In the first wave he coined a cute acronym in Hebrew for the trio of masks, social distancing and handwashing. For the second wave we can think up something cute for the trio of capriciousness, charlatanism and the ideas that fly off the top of his head.

There is of course a direct relationship between his worsening weakness and Kahol Lavan’s courage to challenge him. This has been the case regarding the grants, the restaurants and the beaches. Every time Gantz meets with him, something changes. This drives Netanyahu up the wall, and in the evenings he goes home to chaos that’s exacerbated by the protests and the noise.

His meagerly talented aides and gang of spin doctors appear unable to rescue their boss. Genius, apparently, has fallen victim to the coronavirus. They’re fueling their foot soldiers in the media and on social media with top-notch rubbish: blather about the Wexner Foundation, Ehud Barak, Jeffrey Epstein. All this remains the province of the engineered Facebook feed and the grating WhatsApp groups. How much further can you stoke the already stoked?

The hard core, the Netanyahu famiglia, marked out an old-new target this week. After the revelation that something illegal might have been done regarding an asset belonging to the husband of the prosecutor in the Netanyahu trial, Liat Ben Ari, (a matter definitely worth examining), the Bibi-ists made this a crime against humanity.

On Wednesday, in the wee hours of the night, demonstrators were sent to the prosecutor’s home to scream out against the dangerous criminal. If the protesters are disturbing Sara Netanyahu’s sleep, the prosecutor won’t shut an eye either.

And speaking of demonstrations, perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps out of pure sycophancy – or a dangerous combination of the two – it was revealed on Army Radio that Ohana ordered the police to ban demonstrations outside the prime minister’s official residence. If Ohana had taken a prep course on his job, he would have known that the police are a statutory body and the minister can’t “order” them to do anything regarding operations.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana in Ramle, June 8, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

And if he had paid attention in his civics classes, he would have realized that the right to protest isn’t the government’s to grant. And maybe he really does know all this and is still pleasing his master with foolish and outrageous actions.

One moment of bliss was given to Netanyahu’s megaphone choir in the media. It happened Tuesday when a protester, a social work student, climbed on the menorah sculpture on the plaza outside the Knesset and took off her shirt. The well-oiled machine went into high gear. The self-righteous reactionaries, some of whose values are pretty shady, plunged into a maelstrom of prissy protest tweets about “harming a state symbol.”

The media fell into the trap; for days the anchors and reporters obsessed over the state’s breasts. And that whole time, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee was preparing the government’s dramatic emergency powers law.

Twenty-four hours after the country was busy with pixelated boobs, ever so quietly that law was passed, after midnight into Thursday – a stunning lesson about separating the wheat from the chaff, and life itself.

Likudniks vs. Bibi

About a year ago, under the agreement with the now defunct Kulanu party, Yifat Shasha-Biton was parachuted onto the 29th spot on the Likud election slate. The assumption was that, like her colleagues also previously of Kulanu, Yoav Gallant and Eli Cohen, she would run in the next Likud primary.

If she had any intention to do so, this week wiped it out entirely. She transgressed the three “thou shalt nots” of Balfour Street: As a Knesset member, thou shalt not show independence, thou shalt not use thy judgment and thou shalt not disobey the dictator.

Some will say, precisely because she’s a free agent who’s not building a future in Likud, she has no inhibitions. She’s holding serious deliberations in the coronavirus committee that was put into her hands; she dares to demand data from the government!

Likud MK and Coronavirus Committee Chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton at a ceremony in Jerusalem, May 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

And she’s under a barrage of threats of getting fired from Netanyahu and his ambitious lackey, coalition whip Miki Zohar, as well as appalling belittling comments (“childish behavior!”) from Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. This hasn’t budged her. She sparred with Netanyahu three times and each time knocked him out.

It’s not just the head of the coronavirus committee (who has now been neutralized with the passage of the emergency powers law). And it’s not just LIikud’s Gideon Sa’ar in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, who has been explaining with cold logic the chain of the government’s failures. And it’s not just Likud MK Michal Shir, who wrote a letter to Netanyahu demanding that he get over himself and stop blaming the whole world. (And in response she heard from Likud MK Shlomo Karhi.)

No, the problem is getting worse. Even our old friend, Likud MK David Bitan – a former coalition whip and Netanyahu enforcer plagued by bribery suspicions – tweeted a week ago: “Another low point for Likud.”

Bitan is a dead horse from the public perspective but in the Knesset he’s well-liked and admired and in Likud he still has troops. Then there’s Gila Gamliel, for whom Netanyahu kicked Zeev Elkin out of the Environmental Protection Ministry and who declared this week about Zohar that she has stopped “responding to what comes out of his mouth.”

Indeed, three weeks ago Zohar threatened to fire Yesh Atid-Telem’s Ofer Shelah from the chairmanship of the State Control Committee; last week he strutted his bullying stuff against Shasha-Biton (who totally ignored him). And this week he advised Netanyahu to “consider” firing Finance Minister Yisrael Katz after Katz charged, in front of the cameras at the Knesset Finance Committee, that family interests were behind Zohar’s zealous lobbying against the closing of event halls during the coronavirus pandemic.

With all the threats and showing off, Zohar is forgetting that he has a coalition to manage. His most searing failure happened this week in the Knesset in the vote on the bill banning LGBT “conversion therapy” – the bill proposed by Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz (joined by a similar proposal by Labor’s Merav Michaeli) passed. The Kahol Lavan legislators voted in favor, revenge on Likud for its support of a probe into judges’ alleged conflicts of interests.

But the problem actually was with the ruling party itself. Of its 36 legislators, only 14 voted against the “conversion” ban. Two even voted for: the openly gay Ohana (in a rare moment of probity) and Michal Shir. Deputy Knesset Speaker Sharren Haskel, who chaired the session (and like Shir is a Sa’ar supporter), abstained.

Others simply made themselves scarce, headed, incidentally, by Netanyahu. He fled again. Katz and Gantz, the education minister, hunkered down just outside the Knesset hall. Out of shame, other lawmakers and ministers simply didn’t bother to show up.

Likud legislator Nir Barkat in Tel Aviv in March 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

But secular MK Nir Barkat, a “liberal” only when it suits him, voted against the ban. Barkat, who aspires to be prime minister, realized back when he was Jerusalem mayor that the way to Balfour Street passes through the ultra-Orthodox. He hopes his potential partners will remember this vote against this bill for criminal psychological torture. They won’t remember, but the rest of us should.

The Likud caucus in the Knesset is crumbling. It’s rotting from within, wallowing in hatred and the settling of accounts. A blatant ignoring of the will of the leader like the one that occurred Wednesday afternoon can’t be attributed only to Zohar’s scant abilities.

Netanyahu successfully rode the wave of fears and uncertainty that swept over the country and the world. He was at his best when he appeared nearly every evening in front of the cameras, sowing fear and claiming that “not since the Middle Ages” has there been anything like the coronavirus. Now, when Israel is shamed and nearly shunned because of its handling of the pandemic, his weakness has been exposed to the eyes of the world.

The demonstrations aren’t ending; the protest is authentic. The polls indicate a steep drop for Netanyahu and Likud; he’s exposed in his nakedness. He’s no longer considered a magician, a king or a messiah – except among the ridiculous fringe.

Lieberman’s choice

The opinion polls in recent months weren’t very flattering to the center-left parties, which actually were slaughtered. The right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc (without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu) held 63 or 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Likud did four times better than Kahol Lavan.

But in the past two or three weeks, when the spin and boastful speeches no longer concealed the disgraceful failures, Likud tumbled. The bloc shrank to 61 seats, with the other bloc at 51 seats. Yisrael Beiteinu held steady at eight.

Tel Aviv University’s Camil Fuchs, the Channel 13 pollster, was disturbed by the number of respondents who replied “don’t know” to the question “Who would you vote for if an election were held today?” The share of “don’t knows” among center-left voters was far larger, tipping the balance to the right.

Avigdor Lieberman at a meeting of legislators of his Yisrael Beiteinu party, June 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

You don’t have to be an expert in interpreting public opinion to understand the massive segment of voters who feel that their votes were kidnapped by Kahol Lavan and subjected to an indecent act.

Regarding the inter-bloc balance, the figures reveal a 56-56 tie, with eight for Yisrael Beiteinu. Readers Netanyahu and ultra-Orthodox leaders Arye Dery, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni please take note: It’s highly likely that Lieberman will determine who will be prime minister. Even if his strength diminishes by a seat or two, the key to Balfour will remain in his hands.

Fuchs told me this week his numbers have been coming in the same all month. He also made clear that his findings are precise regarding only the blocs, not the size of the specific parties.

So it’s clear: Netanyahu, Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem will be on Lieberman’s grill. The chance that he’ll anoint Netanyahu is below zero, but that won’t make Lapid or Gantz prime minister. It’s reasonable to assume that Lieberman will call for a coup among Likud legislators: Kick Netanyahu out, choose a replacement and we’ll form another unity government, headed by you.

Last time this didn’t work out. Next time, who knows.

Fictitious fly on the wall

Twenty years after Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak’s disastrous Camp David Summit, Danny Ayalon sent out a series of nostalgic tweets – in English – about the historic event. Ayalon, who would go on to be deputy foreign minister from 2009 to 2013, calls himself “a member of the Israeli negotiating team” back in 2000.

In sharing his ostensible vivid memories, he focuses on a dramatic occasion at the prime minister’s quarters, when Barak called together the negotiating team and announced that he intended to put East Jerusalem on the table, including three-quarters of the Old City and joint sovereignty on the Temple Mount.

Danny Ayalon arriving at a Jerusalem court, May 4, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman

“You could see the tears in his eyes,” Ayalon recalls emotionally. He describes crowded meetings with Clinton and quotes things that were said in the most intimate forums. What can we say? It’s fascinating, even though things in a similar spirit have been written in any number of publications over the past two decades.

There’s just one problem: Ayalon wasn’t there. I was told this by two members of the delegation, who unquestionably were there. In no reliable report from the period can Ayalon’s name be found, even if you pour lemon juice on the pages. On the State Department website, where the names of the members of all the delegations are listed, he doesn’t appear at all.

So I phoned Ayalon. “Are you sure you were there?” I asked. He laughed. “Of course. I came and went,” he said. “At that time I was the deputy to Zvi Stauber,” Barak’s political adviser, who wasn’t present at the summit either. “I handled paperwork.”

“How come you aren’t seen in any picture from there?”

“I really didn’t stand out,” he said. “I wasn’t into photos. I was a fly on the wall. I was at all the most sensitive meetings, at the Wye summit” – which was two years earlier, with Netanyahu as prime minister – “and at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, and I was with Barak in Paris.”

Let’s return for a moment to Camp David, I proposed. Were you really present at the meeting with Barak when he announced his intention to offer East Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat?

Ayalon giggled again. A strange giggle. He muttered something and tried to change the subject.

“A just man lives by his own faith,” the saying goes. Ayalon is a private individual today. He’s allowed to live by his own faith and tweet whatever he wants.

Still, two comments. 1. The title of his Twitter account, which is aimed at readers of English, is “Truth about Israel.” That’s it – there’s no punchline. 2. He describes irrepressible tears in the prime minister’s eyes. We’ve known Barak as a politician for three decades now. It’s hard to imagine this sphinx shedding tears. In any situation.

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