Analysis |

This Weekend, the Netanyahu Family Is Set to Decide if Israel Is Going to Election

The PM's nemesis Naftali Bennett isn’t the only Israeli who believes that the country is only a fifth priority, maybe a fourth priority, for Netanyahu, his wife and son

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The decision to send Israel down the rabbit hole of a fourth general election in a year and a half could come this weekend, either at the prime minister’s residence or at his private home in Caesarea, when Benjamin Netanyahu sits down with his darling wife and eldest son. Some might say this is imprecise: When two people constitute a majority, the third person is just sent to do the job.

Issues like the national interest, the people’s welfare, a revived economy and even compassion won’t be on the table. In the world of this triumvirate, nothing is sacred but violent, democracy-killing attempts to save him from his corruption trial.

PODCAST: Inside Israel's no-change, no-cost peace deal with the UAECredit: Haaretz

And of course they’re saving themselves from leaving the prime minister’s residence in November 2021 as part of the rotation agreement with Benny Gantz. Just this week the former Gaza settlers marked their uprooting from their pleasant villas. The Jewish people can’t absorb the uprooting of yet another Jewish family, this time from a nice Jerusalem neighborhood.

If Netanyahu does opt for an election, it won’t necessarily be because he believes he can bring in the 61 Knesset seats needed for his bloc to form a government without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. This didn’t happen the last three times. But he’s fairly certain that no one else will be able to form a government either. So he’ll remain a caretaker prime minister forever and drag Israel into a fifth election (or somehow annex parts of some other party to Likud).

A weakened police commissioner, acting state prosecutors – anything is better than strong and independent law enforcement chiefs who would keep pawing at the soiled garments of someone who already has serious indictments against him.

The “deadline” has been postponed until this Monday, August 24, the 100-day anniversary of the birth of the government, which could also become the day of its demise. If the life-extending legislation proposed by MK Zvi Hauser isn’t passed, the Knesset will dissolve automatically. It will fade away like a bad dream – ahead of an even worse reality.

Whether the madness is realized or postponed by a few months, we mustn’t let the truth disappear into Likud’s propaganda swamp: 100 percent of the blame for yet another election would be on Netanyahu.

It’s frustrating to hear and see in the superficial (or biased) media nonsense that “the two sides are quarreling over the national budget and appointments,” as if this weren’t merely an excuse. In the name of unholy balance, the media grants equal time to the crook, to the serial violator of the coalition agreement – not only its provisions but also its spirit – and to the decent, naive partner.

For Netanyahu, every agreement is infrastructure for its violation. Every contract is the basis for a unilateral, rapacious cancellation. This extreme episode with Gantz’s Kahol Lavan must teach every political player a lesson, someone like right-winger Naftali Bennett. After the next election, it’s he who could get from Netanyahu a proposal to rotate the premiership.

Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Ben-Gurion International Airport, August 17, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Ultra-Orthodox in the catbird seat

The only lucky politicians who haven’t yet met up with this dark side of Netanyahu are the ultra-Orthodox. It works the opposite way for them: Every agreement is a basis for an upgrade. They get everything they want and a bit more.

Okay, this is understandable – Netanyahu doesn’t have other allies. He has quarreled with Lieberman, Bennett, Kahol Lavan, opposition leader Yair Lapid and his sidekick Moshe Ya’alon. They all hate him and wish he’d disappear.

The ultra-Orthodox, who saw Netanyahu decisive and merciless in the first wave of the coronavirus, are now rediscovering their benevolent and fawning partner of yore. When Gantz entered the unity government as “alternate prime minister” and defense minister, he depended in part on Interior Minister Arye Dery’s “guarantee” that the agreement would be upheld.

Gantz, who chose to believe him, should ask former Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog where Dery’s promise to make him prime minister is buried.

So as the second wave is upon us and an election is the only thing on Netanyahu’s mind, the ultra-Orthodox are denuding the shelves of his political supermarket. An airlift of yeshiva students from the United States? Check. Four hundred million shekels ($120 million) for Torah institutions as the rest of the education system collapses? Check. No lockdowns in contagion hot spots in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods? Check, and the checks keep getting written.

Incidentally, Netanyahu also wants to allot another 300 million shekels or so to religious-Zionist institutions – in cash, to stanch the bleeding of Likud voters rightward to Yamina. Generous.

And still, the ultra-Orthodox don’t want an election. In private conversations, the heads of United Torah Judaism, Construction and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee chief Moshe Gafni are worried they might be harmed at the polls. Voters are angry at them because of the coronavirus – the lockdowns, the stigmas and the ignoring of their living conditions that turns a quarantine into a hatchery for the coronavirus.

The feeling is that their representatives in the Knesset and the cabinet aren’t fighting hard enough for them.

Demonstrators wear masks depicting Netanyahu and Gantz during a protest near the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, August 8, 2020. Credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

This is also the case in Dery’s Shas, which gained strength in the last election but whose Knesset seats are vulnerable. A dire economy, which first and foremost is affecting poorer people, could keep some of Dery’s voters home on Election Day or move them to other parties.

Back to Kahol Lavan. The sobering-up there is complete – but belated. What every political observer has understood since Day One of the government, they’re only realizing now: Netanyahu never imagined letting go of his Balfour Street residence. It was deception.

The most disappointed person in Kahol Lavan is Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi because he pushed most enthusiastically for a unity government, sincerely believing in the prime minister’s intentions and the strength of the agreement. What he has experienced on his own skin in the 100 days of this endeavor has caused him to loathe Netanyahu deeply. Gabi is emotional about Bibi, even more than Benny is, people in the party say.

Kahol Lavan will have a hard time in a new election. Though it seems the bleeding of voters from the party has stopped, even if it wins 12 Knesset seats, what will that provide other than a decentralization of power in the center-left camp that’s facing one big Likud?

At the moment, it’s not in the cards that Gantz and his partners will join up with their ex, Lapid; maybe there will only be a reshuffle in the leadership, with Gantz trading places with Ashkenazi, or a new star – known or unknown. Prof. Ronni Gamzu – yes, our Ronni, the coronavirus czar – believes he’s an excellent candidate for this, according to sources who know him.

Lapid, meanwhile, keeps on working, though he hasn’t yet created the momentum in which the graph of projected votes is stealthily creeping upward. Like Netanyahu’s physical excursions (on Wednesday, to the Mahaneh Yehuda Market in Jerusalem once again), the opposition leader is in campaign mode. This week Lapid went back to focusing on voters from the former Soviet Union, whom in every election he tries to lure from Lieberman and Likud. (This worked for him in 2013; since then, less so.)

When he arrived for an interview at Russian-language Channel 9, they told him that all of a sudden Likudniks are showing up there, too, the ones they only see at election time – not only Higher Education and Water Resources Minister Zeev Elkin but also Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. And in addition to these Ukraine-born Likudniks, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana is showing up, too.

This isn’t surprising. Netanyahu has made up his mind to wipe Lieberman out at the ballot box and get rid of his biggest political nuisance – the only leader on the right who has declared a divorce and proudly calls himself the project manager for removing Netanyahu.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset, August 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

A little revisionist history

One of the problems with Netanyahu (and not the worst of them) is that in his old age his tendencies to exaggerate and fantasize have increased extraordinarily. These traits, in addition to his tendency to lie beyond recognition and aggrandize himself something awful, are giving rise to an extreme revision of history.

This is the famous madness playing tricks on his mind; a middling prime minister in reality, a revolutionary king in his imagination. These delusions also lead to imbroglios.

This was the case when, in an interview with an Arab television channel, he described the United Arab Emirates as a liberal democracy (and soon removed the evidence from his Facebook page). Or when he waxes about the “peace in exchange for peace” he’s making, as opposed to the dwarves who preceded him and made peace in exchange “for territories and tears” (Menachem Begin) or “for terror attacks” (Yitzhak Rabin) or “for missiles” (Ariel Sharon).

So many crude lies and sick distortions in one tweet. So many delusions of grandeur and narcissism in one man. The above post appeared on his Twitter account after his big lie was exposed in a Donald Trump press conference at the White House. Trump, in his inane but sometimes refreshing directness, simply acknowledged that the deal to sell planes to the Emirates, a country with “a lot of money,” is absolutely real – contrary to the hysterical denials by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The story of the “peace” with the Emirates is a dizzying example of the speed at which the glory of the world passes. The prime minister’s tremendous achievement was demolished in record time. One effective campaign he spearheaded as opposition leader against Rabin bore the headline “Don’t give them guns.” And now, after releasing terrorists and strengthening Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip, he’s giving them not guns but stealth fighters, weapons systems and the most advanced combat and intelligence machines in the world.

From the start, Netanyahu lied about the planes. He told people his position on sales of smart weapons to Muslim countries hadn’t changed. Incidentally, he brought up the subject at his own initiative, even before the deal was exposed by Nahum Barnea in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Only in retrospect, some of his interlocutors have told me, did they understand: He had a huge lump of butter on his head and should have known better than to go out in the sun. He was just trying to preempt the heat he knew was coming.

The man who sneaked behind the back of the defense establishment and approved Germany’s sale of submarines to Egypt (on the grounds that “a secret” prevented him from updating the defense minister, the navy chief and the overall military chief) did it again – this time in the air, this time claiming he didn’t share because he was concerned about leaks.

Netanyahu isn’t the first to manage dramatic moves in a crooked way. Rabin didn’t let defense officials in on the discreet process he conducted in Oslo; he did so only very late – too late. And Rabin, in the battle for credit and the bottomless hatred between him and Shimon Peres, kept his foreign minister in the dark about his talks with Jordan’s King Hussein.

But Netanyahu’s pattern, centralist on the one hand and fraudulent on the other, is far more disturbing – both in the submarine affair and in the crooked trajectory with the Emirates, a move that has mainly served Trump and the U.S. economy, including his cronies and son-in-law Jared Kushner, the chief macher. And after all, Netanyahu isn't Rabin.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in northern Israel, August 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The top cop waiting game

At the end of next month Dina Zilber, the deputy attorney general for public-administrative law, will complete her eight-year term. Her long, dry title covers a long list of responsibilities, like advice on the work of the government and security organizations, and supervision regarding conflicts of interest (an issue that’s always in the news).

About three years ago Zilber, a gifted and esteemed civil servant, found herself in an ugly dispute with the justice minister at the time, Ayelet Shaked, after implying criticism of the latter. A year later, again in a public speech, Zilber derided “the new discourse” that demands “an obedient discourse, shunned artists and a reined-in media.” She called this “wounding and scarring, marking and tagging.”

Shaked went bananas; she boycotted Zilber, demanded that she not represent the Justice Ministry at Knesset meetings and in the cabinet, and insisted that Zilber resign. To no avail. Six months later, it was Shaked who was fired, by Netanyahu.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has slated his senior aide, attorney Gil Limon, as Zilber’s successor. This is almost a guarantee that he won’t be selected. The procedure is that the justice minister brings the candidate for approval by the cabinet. At Balfour they wouldn’t want Mendelblit to decide or Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn to be involved. So in the context of our non-functioning government since December 2018, Zilber’s important post is expected to remain unstaffed until, sometime over the rainbow, there’s a functioning government.

And speaking of non-functioning, since December 2018, when the Knesset was dissolved before the first of three elections, the police haven’t had a permanent commissioner. The acting commissioner, Motti Cohen, has been Israel’s most permanent acting official.

Ohana, the public security minister, has announced time after time that soon / by the end of the month / next week he’ll present his candidate, but at the beginning of the week he retreated. “If we’re heading into an election, maybe it’s inappropriate to appoint a police commissioner at this time,” he said. Ohana is the last person you’d suspect to be interested in the word “inappropriate.”

Ostensibly, his retreat should be interpreted thus: Under the coalition agreement, the final candidate must be approved by Kahol Lavan. This party’s people in the cabinet won’t approve anyone for whom the sole criterion is a willingness to close new investigations into Netanyahu. Since no such agreement will be forthcoming, it might be that the prime minister’s residence has decided to wait with the appointment until after the election.

If a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox government is formed, the sky’s the limit. If the dead end persists and Kahol Lavan remains in the government, Cohen will remain acting commissioner. In such a situation, there’s no way he’ll open investigations even if they’re crying out to the heavens. The proof is that these investigations haven’t been opened yet. It’s doubtful they ever will be.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks at the Knesset, August 12, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

Bennett the statesman

Naftali Bennett is keeping mum. Over a week has gone by since we were informed of the death of the annexation of parts of the West Bank, and the Yamina chief, who in his eight years in politics has never missed an opportunity to give Netanyahu a right hook, hasn’t been seen in any television studio.

He has sufficed with tweeting, while his partners, Shaked and Bezalel Smotrich, are flitting from one channel to the next, lamenting over the lost annexation.

MK Matan Kahana is a man of Bennett and Shaked’s faction in Yamina and is very close to Bennett. This week somebody on Twitter charged that Yamina, despite the buckets of spit Netanyahu is dumping on it, will once again recommend to the president that Bibi be asked to form a government after the next election. But this “isn’t going to happen again,” Kahana wrote in reply.

This isn’t a slip of the keyboard. Opinion polls are giving Yamina 18 or 19 Knesset seats, three times its current showing. It went into the current Knesset with six seats, which shrank to five after the defection to the governing coalition by Rafi Peretz, an opportunist who underwent accelerated conversion therapy with Netanyahu to become the minister of Jerusalem affairs and heritage.

The leap in the public’s affection, including the numbers on his suitability to be prime minister, stems from the change in Bennett’s agenda: Things like the coronavirus instead of territories and security issues.

Now, when Yamina’s darling – the annexation – takes a bullet between the eyes and Bennett stays mum, it’s clear he’s in a different state of mind. Bennett’s next election slate is currently being finalized and will look different: Mostly secular, less nationalist and very far from the Smotrichesque, messianic, Arab-hating and homophobic stream. Smotrich is a big headache for the senior partner.

Netanyahu suffers from a certain shortsightedness when he automatically includes Bennett and Yamina in his bloc. What Kahana wrote, Bennett is saying in conversations with associates. The ritual in which Yamina rushes to the President’s Residence to declare support for Netanyahu and later reiterates the move in signed loyalty oaths may not be relevant anymore.

Netanyahu’s failed, egomaniacal functioning in the coronavirus crisis, which Bennett is calling a disaster, disqualifies the prime minister in Bennett’s eyes from a leadership role. Bennett, too, now believes that the country is only Netanyahu’s fifth priority, maybe fourth.

Yamina chief Naftali Bennett speaking at the Knesset, August 2020.Credit: Adina Valman / Knesset

In a conversation with an associate, he compared Netanyahu to an uncongenial, capricious bus driver who for about a decade did his job well and brought his passengers safely to their destinations. In the past year the driver has totally lost it. He’s driving the bus to the abyss. The passengers who want to stay alive must save themselves.

Netanyahu’s shortsightedness and the emotions at home that dictate his actions regarding Bennett and Shaked have gotten him making decisions about them that this time might smack him in the face. He didn’t bring them into his current government because his wife demanded vengeance. And what has happened? On the outside, Bennett has become a hit. If Netanyahu had brought him into the government and put him in the limping Health Ministry, Yamina probably would be doing much more modestly in the opinion polls.

After the April election last year, when the far right didn’t make it into the Knesset, Netanyahu swiftly booted its people from the education and justice ministries. Why? The explanation can apparently be found in the previous paragraph. When Netanyahu was compelled – alarmed and frightened – to appoint Bennett defense minister, he made a joke of it at an election rally. The activists didn’t laugh.

Bennett’s interlocutors believe that in his view, the cup of poison has overflowed. Now his mission in life is to build a barrier against Netanyahu, the vote vacuum cleaner who time after time has sucked away Bennett’s voters. Bennett’s working hard on the “how” in long nights poring over the data.

So I asked Bennett’s people: Why has he been silent about the stolen annexation and the F-35 deal with the Emirates? “The following has to be the government’s policy for the coming year: Defeat the coronavirus.”

Bennett, too, talks about the insanity of another election. This line is helping him come across as the responsible adult and someone who hasn’t been dazzled by the wealth of possible Knesset seats.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a politician – however responsible and concerned he may be – watching his stock soar to fantastic heights and not wanting to make the exit of his life. And as we well remember, a lot of time has gone by since Bennett’s last successful exit.

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