Two principles are competing with one another at the moment, in the context of the knottiest coalition talks ever. The first is known as JNB, Just Not Bibi, and the other is NAE, Not Another Election. They aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but they produce entirely different negotiation paths. In them, all methods are kosher and all means are on the table. Any idea, no matter how hallucinatory, can be discussed. One path will lead to the sixth Benjamin Netanyahu government, the other to the revolutionary Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government.
We’ll start with Naftali Bennett. The straddler. Between the two camps. He is not leading Netanyahu astray. If the Likud chairman is a good egg, Bennett intends to give him the necessary 61 Knesset members needed for a coalition. It is clear to him that if he does go in, induced by the sweet talk and bursting basket of goodies Netanyahu is promising, on the morning after he will find the old familiar nightmare, in spades, doubled and redoubled. Sending Bennett into a partnership, again, with Netanyahu is like inviting a carp for seder night.
Bennett’s working assumption is sober. He knows that any fissure that lets Netanyahu evade his commitments will be put to use, and that he himself will be humiliated and belittled publicly on a daily basis. That’s standard procedure. However, from his perspective, preventing the establishment of a right-wing government, on one hand, is likely to cause him long-term damage. And at the youthful age of 49, he still has 20 years or more awaiting him in Israeli politics. On the other hand, he is completely open to the establishment of a government of change/healing/union.
Bennett is taking comfort that he can’t see a Netanyahu coalition arising. And it isn’t that the man who received the mandate to try to raise one is picky about the means, civilized or dirty, open or concealed. Here is a phenomenon worth pausing over: One who doesn’t bow to Netanyahu in the political arena, along with a key witness who returns from the Jerusalem courtroom where Netanyahu’s cases are being deliberated, are both being bombarded with harassing, threatening, anonymous messages. Most peculiar. Maybe just a coincidence.
Netanyahu is in the most difficult situation he has ever faced in his coalition talks. He has had difficulties even with the 52 Knesset members who have recommended him to the president. The heads of United Torah Judaism did not make it easy for him in their meetings. They threw it at him that he doesn’t have a coalition and that they aren’t hearing from him any logical path to building one. Their chilly analysis: fifth election coming. Regrettably, those guys are usually dead right.
On now to Bezalel Smotrich. The National Union chairman is driving Netanyahu crazy. And not in a good way. Let us recall that he is the only one who waved away the leader of the national camp even before the election, at the time of the request to reestablish the bloc and the issuance of the standard loyalty oath. The ultra-Orthodox merely emptied that document of content; Smotrich made it clear that he is now a player of a different sort.
Netanyahu has never come up against a phenomenon like this. As small as Smotrich is in physical stature, his megalomania is huge, comparable in depth only to his racism. Of the six Knesset seats won by “Religious Zionism” – National Union in conjunction with a consortium of the even further-right Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties – Netanyahu holds the copyright to two of them. About 1.5 seats were brought in by Otzma leader Itamar Ben-Gvir and the rest by Smotrich’s own faction. The prime minister is fuming – where is his gratitiude? Smotrich is a dangerous, sophisticated scorpion. In his sting there is a poisonous mix of megalomania and messianism. He is also a serial stinger. He stung his former colleagues Uri Ariel and Naftali Bennett, and now Netanyahu as well. The scorpion of all scorpions is now feeling it on his own flesh.
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Smotrich isn’t alarmed by another election nor is he perturbed by the rabbinical mercenary soldiers Netanyahu is sending to the television studios and to him personally. With Smotrich, it’s principles first: a government of purely Jewish blood. No deal, not in secret and not by turning a blind eye, with our “cousins,” whom Netanyahu the humanist is now talking about at every opportunity – including on Wednesday, with his usual exploitation of his speech before Holocaust survivors for political purposes.
In other channels, too, Netanyahu is blocked. His turf for hunting defectors or luring rejectionists hardly exists. Gideon Sa’ar is getting innumerable approaches. He rejects them all outright. His party members are standing firmly in the breach. Thus, for example, an authorized emissary from Netanyahu approached ex-Likudnik Zvi Hauser, who didn’t make it into the Knesset on Sa’ar’s slate. The messenger proposed that he persuade Yoaz Hendel (in Derekh Eretz, an independent faction within Sa’ar’s New Hope) to break away in return for appointing both of them cabinet ministers.
The fear that should now be nesting within the breast of every Israeli is of extreme moves by Netanyahu. The first lockdown of the coronavirus year was the only true and total one. In Israel at that time there were few cases of the virus. The main reason for imposing it was to signal to Benny Gantz that it was an emergency situation. At the moment, it appears that only another “emergency situation” majeure will be able to convince some on the JNB side to lend a hand and give the defendant a government.
The reconciliation cabinet
The simultaneous talks, outside Netanyahu’s mandate, between Lapid and Bennett have been underway all along. In the room sit advisers Shalom Shlomo and Tal Gan Zvi on Bennnett’s behalf, along with Ayelet Shaked’s adviser Gil Bringer, an uncompromising, ideological man of the right. His presence makes one wonder about the extent to which Shaked is at all prepared to let Bennett reach an agreement with Lapid. On behalf of the Yesh Atid chairman, the talks are being conducted by Hillel Kobrinsky and Dani Veseli. Most of the work has been along the axis of Shlomo and Veseli, who have known each other well for years. A year ago, Shlomo was one of the negotiators for Kahol Lavan, on Gantz’s behalf.
Everyone is still having a hard time seeing how such a heterogenous government would function. Three right-wing parties (Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu), two from the center (Yesh Atid and Kahol Lavan) and two from the left (Labor and Meretz). Lapid and Bennett agree: There will be a mutual right to a veto on all controversial issues. Bennett will relinquish the deciding vote. No one will surprise the other partners in a proposed law, for example.
However, as we know, there are other tools. From cases like an explosive High Court of Justice ruling that necessitates Knesset legislation or government action, to a single individual, Netanyahu, whose highest medals in politics were for the two times he served as leader of the opposition: opposite Yitzhak Rabin and opposite Ehud Olmert. He will embitter his rivals’ lives, be more unrestrained, violent and dangerous than ever as he sees the legal hourglass running down.
The talk about a short-term government has been abandoned. The sides are talking now, at Bennett’s request, about a real unity government that would function for a full term, four and a half years. He and Lapid will continue to talk during the next 24 days, until the end of Netanyahu’s mandate. It has been made clear to them that if Netanyahu fails and they ask President Reuven Rivlin to grant one of them the mandate, (Bennett, most likely), they will have to show Rivlin convincing evidence that the roast is in advanced stages of cooking and not just defrosting on the counter top. Otherwise, the president will send the decision to the full Knesset.
In their meeting, Bennett tried to draw up a scale for Lapid. From 1 to 10. Ten is extreme right, said the chairman of Yamina to the chairman of Yesh Atid, and 1 is extreme left. Gideon and I are 7.5 to 8, you are 5.5, Labor is 4, Meretz is 3 and so on. And what does this math mean? I want a government at 6, declared Bennett. We will focus on the economy, in mending the rifts in society, in building infrastructure. We won’t go too far to the right and of course not to the left. It’s true that I have only a measly seven Knesset seats but I will be representing the national camp.
Now that the term “reconciliation cabinet” has become a sad joke, one of the many produced by the Netanyahu-Gantz coupling from hell, a golden opportunity has fallen into the hands of Lapid and Bennett: to establish precisely that. In practice. Without a clause in the coalition agreement, and without a ministerial committee that will be called by that name and never convene. (It has never occurred to Netanyahu to “reconcile” with anyone.) Simply to sit together, right, center and left, and talk. Without provocations and without piling up endless obstacles. To talk like sane, rational human beings, without sinister ulterior motives. To act in accordance with what is shared and to set aside the controversies, at least for a while. To let the country breathe and calm down from the din of the generator that never stops. To give it a vacation from the violent, rending grip of Israeli society.
Bennett and Lapid are two youngish politicians who embarked on their careers in the same year, 2012. Both have experienced failures in merger and coalition agreements. Both have been badly burned, electorally and politically, by partnering with Netanyahu and Likud. And neither is listening to two responsible adults, Gideon Sa’ar and the third-ranking member in his party, Zeev Elkin.
The latter two have internalized their role, the limits of their power and the commonality of their goal. They are prepared to serve as mediators, arbitrators, fetchers and carriers. If only there will be anything to carry. Arik Sharon and Netanyahu listened to them. Bennett and Lapid, not so much.
Instead of going into a room on the morning after the election, they met for the first time only 10 days later, on Saturday evening, just hours before going to the president. Bennett preferred to set out for a long hike in the desert. He communicated between the wadis by WhatsApp in truncated conversations, with the wind whistling in his ears. This isn’t how an ambitious politician who wants to be prime minister behaves. Would Netanyahu dare to cut himself off from civilization after an election? And leave the arena to his rivals? The conniver of Israel will neither sleep nor slumber, until the last of the agreements is signed.
Ten precious days were wasted. It is not entirely clear why and who is at fault. In that time, with strenuous work, it would have been possible to have produced at least the infrastructure for the most eclectic, variegated coalition ever established here. Bennett is scared by it and at the same time wishes for it. On one hand he is liable to fall hard and quickly. On the other, he could become the first prime minister in Israel to rewrite our political history.
Lapid and Bennett are talking now, at Bennett’s request, about a real unity government that would function for a full term – four and a half years.
I wanted to, Lapid says. I came to Bennett clean, with all the best intentions. But Naftali climbed Masada and disappeared. It was impossible to communicate with him.
Bennett’s people, however, say that it was Lapid who dragged things out. When Naftali was already on vacation, Yair sent him a brief WhatsApp message: “Bro, when you get back, we’ll meet up.” There certainly didn’t seem to be any urgency.
The first meeting between the two, set up by Sa’ar, was good. You’ll go first as prime minister, Lapid said to Bennett. But the momentum wasn’t taken advantage of. The deal got stuck. Lapid is convinced that a carpet bombing of right-wing WhatsApp messages gave the Yamina chairman strong doubts.
We agreed to nearly all of Naftali’s demands, except for giving him a “double vote,” which is absurd, Yesh Atid people say. But he cut off contact. Bennett wanted us to recommend him to the president to form a government. We said okay, just promise that from the moment you get the mandate, no talks with Netanyahu. He refused to promise, though that was fair. After all, someone like Bibi would have sworn by all that is dear to him, taken the mandate and run off to do dirty deals.
In response, Bennett’s people say: In the brief span of those two days, we couldn’t commit to anything. Nothing had even reached the half-baked stage. And if a government wasn’t formed in the end? We would have crawled back to Bibi totally wiped out with our base.
It’s possible to understand Bennett. It’s also possible to understand Lapid’s reservations about recommending Bennett to the president without any guarantees. Things limped along and the clock ticked toward Monday at the President’s Residence. Sa’ar and Elkin tore out their hair. They had hoped that by Monday afternoon the picture would be clear and New Hope would come to Rivlin with a position: Lapid or Bennett, whatever had been agreed.
We can’t please more than two candidates, Sa’ar said. Have you agreed yet on half and half? And with Bennett first in the rotation? So hop to it – get back to work.
That didn’t happen. New Hope was humiliated. This doesn’t suit Sa’ar, who has never been one to abstain. He thinks Lapid should have pushed Bennett into the fire and recommended him without a full agreement. He should have convinced the others in the anti-Netanyahu camp and stuck Bennett with the mandate – thus either him or Netanyahu, or a fifth election in two and half years.
Lapid didn’t want to take the risk. Incidentally, it’s quite possible that Bennett didn’t want it either. It’s more convenient for him that Netanyahu try his luck and fall on his face – and then Bennett will rush in to save the nation.
Mistake at the lake
Back to the President’s Residence. The clock struck 4 P.M. Half the parties had already come and gone. The tally showed 52 recommendations for Netanyahu, 45 for Lapid and seven for Bennett (including the slates that hadn’t yet arrived at the residence but whose recommendations were known). Still to show up were the Joint List of Arab parties, New Hope, Meretz and the United Arab List.
In Sa’ar’s party the debate continued – whether to recommend Lapid or Bennett, or abstain. In the Joint List, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi found themselves in distress. If Sa’ar gave Lapid his six votes, the numerator would rebalance at 51. Then recommendations from Odeh, Tibi and Osama Saadi from within the Joint List would put Lapid ahead of Netanyahu. That was the plan, but the schedule for parties to meet with Rivlin ruined it. They would be arriving before New Hope.
Rivlin sat in his office with his people. Someone came in and informed them that Tibi had phoned and said that the members of his slate were stuck at the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, and were asking to switch time slots with Meretz. Silence reigned in the office. “Where are they stuck?” Rivlin asked. “At the Kinneret,” came the reply. “The Kinneret,” he muttered. “Tell them it’s okay. We’ll make the change.”
All the rest is known. Meretz recommended Lapid, as it had promised. New Hope didn’t recommend anybody. Rivlin, who had hoped that this moment would never come, realized that this time too all roads led to Netanyahu, for the fourth time since 2015. His stomach turned. He had been so worried about this moment, when all other roads would be blocked.
The meeting with Sa’ar’s people became a farce. Elkin and Yifat Shasha-Biton suggested that Rivlin arrange a meeting between Lapid and Bennett before he made his decision. Enough of this messing with me, he scolded Elkin. Evil people are accusing me of plotting conspiracies. I can’t intervene only on one side of the political map.
So they asked, if the request comes from the two of them for you to postpone the decision, will you consider it? Maybe, Rivlin said. Let it come first.
But that didn’t happen. The two bridegrooms didn’t see any point in it.
Lapid rhetorically asked someone what he could have done in six or seven hours. Could he have set things straight with Bennett, then brought in Odeh, Tibi, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, Labor Party chief Merav Michaeli and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, and convinced them all to recommend Bennett?
The next day the 24th Knesset was sworn in. We’ve seen more optimistic funerals. Bennett delivered a speech that redefined pomposity for all time. There were a lot of meaningful silences, piercing looks and bleak analogies from the Second Temple period.
“I could have been prime minister, but I won’t relinquish my principles,” Bennett said. What principles? During his election campaign he went on and on about how if an issue wasn’t about Israelis “earning a living” during the coronavirus crisis, it “wasn’t interesting.” In his speech, he used the terms “right-wing” and “national” more times than during the 100 days of the campaign.
This guy is supposed to be the prime minister of a real cross-the-board unity government? He’s the one to lead a real coronavirus government that would take Israel out of one of the worst crises in its history? So let him talk in that spirit. What are left and right these days? Where’s Lieberman? On religion and state he’s on the left. On the economy he’s on the right. And where’s Gantz, who considers himself center-right? And Lapid?
And if it’s a matter of national values, what isn’t patriotic about Gantz, as well as Michaeli and Omer Bar-Lev of Labor and Horowitz and Yair Golan of Meretz? Unless what he means is nationalism, fascism, the desire to expel the Arab community and return to the Dark Ages. He’ll find this in the many flavors of Messrs. Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz on the loony right.
After that speech, Lapid said to his people: Did you hear Naftali? That’s the answer to the question of why I couldn’t give him the mandate, even though he’s a decent guy.
The presidential guard
According to the editorial in Haaretz on Wednesday, Rivlin should have resigned. He should have done exactly what’s expected of a soldier who receives an illegal order. The editorial didn’t say what would have happened next. Well, I’ll tell you.
The person who would have replaced Rivlin is his deputy under the law, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, the extremist consigliere, Netanyahu’s Rudy Giuliani. Levin would have invited the boss to the President’s Residence, given him the mandate and prefaced that with a speech lauding him and vilifying the judiciary and “the reign of the bureaucrats” (as he declared at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony). In all likelihood, another editorial would have said that Rivlin had acted cowardly when he fled the battlefield.
There’s no doubt that Levin would have awarded Netanyahu the maximum extension for forming a government, even if at the end of the 28 days he hadn’t made any progress (which Rivlin won’t do).
Actually, it gets worse. What more could have happened in the last three months of the president’s term with Levin in charge? Maybe pardon Netanyahu during his corruption trial. There’s a precedent for this, in 1984 when Chaim Herzog pardoned the top brass of the Shin Bet security service in the Bus 300 affair before they went to trial.
After all, in his loathsome and scornful way, Levin has made clear his opinion of the State Prosecutor’s Office, the attorney general and the indictments. And Netanyahu has ensured that for now there’s no justice minister. That’s the minister who signs pardons.
In the absence of a justice minister, the cabinet must authorize another minister to provide an “implementation signature.” That is, Levin could pardon Netanyahu with his own signature and that of a minister who has been authorized to sign – maybe Amir Ohana or David Amsalem from Likud, or Arye Dery from Shas (to avoid accusations of a conflict of interests).
Rivlin is the president until 12 noon on July 9. Every minute he’s there, Israel is in better shape relative to the frightening alternative. And he had no choice but to give Netanyahu the mandate. With 30 Knesset seats (compared with 17 for Lapid’s Yesh Atid), and 52 recommendations to be prime minister versus 45, any other action would have been unacceptable. As for the indictments against Netanyahu, the Knesset and the High Court have often proved that salvation isn’t going to come from them.
The president’s anguish on the eve of the election was known to many people. Some suggested that he resign. The thought flashed through his mind but then vanished just as quickly. He has no regrets about his decision to skip the ceremony conferring the mandate to Netanyhau and the subsequent photo at the swearing-in.
These aren’t just emotions. The photos of the “symbols of governance” at the inaugurations have become a charade. On Monday, Netanyahu delivered one of his most horrifying speeches ever against the guardians of the law, and the next day he had his picture taken smiling alongside Supreme Court President Esther Hayut.
It’s as though there are two Netanyahus, one a rabble-rousing brute and one a legitimate leader. Maybe Hayut was obligated to be there, but Rivlin no longer is. He won’t lend a hand to an iota of legitimization for that man.