Analysis |

As Bennett Leads the Fight Against COVID, His Arab Coalition Partner Suffers a Worrying Symptom

The crisis over the bill to connect unrecognized Arab homes to the electricity grid won't break up the coalition, but it signals a weakening of Mansour Abbas' standing

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

As is the nature of nature, omicron continued to infect most of the cabinet ministers’ schedules this week. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s fundamental forecast about the threat of the variant’s spread was correct. In contemporary jargon, he identified “the event” in time. Besides which, he is well-versed in the material, yet by the same token also frenetic and often impulsive. As though he hasn’t fully internalized the difference between being in the opposition, or being a decisive journalist, and being prime minister. That was clear in the first, panicky news conference a month ago, and in the wristbands-in-shopping-malls farce.

He doesn’t possess the political clout to dictate measures. He doesn’t want to waste the little credit he has in this realm to impose measures, for fear that the omicron wave will turn out to cause few deaths and little severe illness, in which case he will be accused of being hysterical and losing it.

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From the other side, there is also frenetic creativity, albeit not very smart, in regard to other possible measures – perhaps of a kind that his political allies will be able to swallow more easily. The decibel meter on this subject sometimes climbs to a colorful cacophony: Green Pass or Deep Purple. Rewards for the vaccinated, or tough sanctions for the unvaccinated and the unvaccinators. A vacation day for children, or monetary incentives for parents. In the final analysis, all that remains is to pray that the not-very-responsible forecast by Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman (and others) about the weakness of the variant and the wave of infections it will generate turns out to be accurate.

Between the nuclear conversation with Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, and frequent meetings with Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the country’s top public health official, Bennett continues to hold on to the government by the skin of his teeth. The tension within it simmers constantly on a medium flame. A well-known land mine is the electricity bill, deliberations on which will continue next week. No, it won’t break apart the coalition; it will overcome that obstacle, too. But the crisis of trust and the bad blood between Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) and the bill’s sponsor, Walid Taha (United Arab List), are symptomatic of a worrisome problem that has been detected in the Arab party: the growing weakness of its leader, Mansour Abbas.

There is no Arab politician in Israel today who is more relevant than Abbas. He’s at the center of public debate. He’s interesting, he’s a groundbreaking figure. In no poll does his party fall beneath the electoral threshold (which it barely managed to cross in the last election). He’s the bearer of good news in the 2021-22 state budget for his constituents: a five-year plan amounting to tens of billions of shekels in spending for Arab communities. But none of this creates a homogeneous group of lawmakers that stands behind him. It’s looking increasingly like a branch of the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses.

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting this week.Credit: Emil Salman

Abbas, a senior cabinet member tells me, is “a rare person, a historic figure. But Taha and lawmaker Mazen Ghanayim aren’t on the same page with him. They feel no commitment to him. Their vested interests aren’t compatible with his. He wants to integrate, to become part of the Israeli establishment; they are opposition people in their souls, they don’t understand what a coalition means. In body they are with him, in spirit they are with the Joint List.”

“Not on the same page” is an understatement. Those two MKs aren’t even in the same library. Taha violated agreements with Shaked and reopened the wording of the legislation. Ghanayim, who intends to run again for mayor of Sakhnin in two years, is openly defiant toward the coalition. This week he met with a released prisoner, Sheikh Raed Salah, a well-known supporter of terrorism and a serial inciter. Abbas, in contrast, said in an interview at a conference organized by the financial newspaper Globes, that “Israel is a Jewish state and will remain one.” The attack on him by the Joint List was brutal. On Wednesday he was also condemned publicly by the other Abbas: Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

Every such remark, such as Abbas made courageously, without blinking and unapologetically, unleashes a tidal wave of fury in the Arab political arena. Less so on the street. In the meantime, he’s watching the storm raging around him with realistic, tranquil eyes. He has no other country, as the saying goes. He has to ensure that the experiment into which led his party will succeed. He’s aware of the implications of failure – both for him personally and for the society one segment of which he represents.

The longer the life of the Bennett-Yair Lapid government persists, the more Abbas is coming to realize that the alternative he chose wasn’t right for him. He’s a member of a coalition of gambles; more precisely, of willy-nilly gamblers. From Bennett and Shaked to lawmaker Nir Orbach (Yamina); from Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar (New Hope) to the last of the United Arab List’s legislators. From the moment the bet was placed, the players, including Abbas, have no choice but to go all in.

United Arab List chief Mansour Abbas in the Knesset this week. Credit: Noam Moskowitz / Knesset

Orthodox culture

The resignation from the Knesset without opprobrium, but also with no flags waving, of the serial criminal Arye Dery, until the next election or for all time, is part of a “wiping clean” process by the attorney general. On Avichai Mendelblit’s desk are two more cases involving lawmakers: Yaakov Litzman (Agudat Yisrael/United Torah Judaism) and David Bitan, the lawmaker whom everyone loves to like, from Likud.

Following a problematic hearing, the attorney general apparently doesn’t intend to make Litzman a very generous offer. In the coming weeks the veteran 74-year-old politician will also be required to pack his stuff and his photo of the Gur rebbe and go home, probably for good. What this means is that the two major opponents of the government in the Haredi parties (of the leaders of the three Haredi parties only Moshe Gafni, head of Degel Hatorah/United Torah Judaism will remain) will disappear from the parliamentary arena almost simultaneously.

Instead, Shas and Agudat Yisrael will be run, at least in the Knesset, by more pragmatic lawmakers whose hatred for the leaders of the coalition isn’t as incandescent as that of Dery and Litzman (both of whom take pride in snubbing their rivals); in part they don’t understand the meaning of the canine loyalty to Benjamin Netanyahu the whole weird way,

Shas Leader Arye Dery in the Knesset last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The result might be to create a different atmosphere between the sides. Not an alliance, not a hookup, but at least a calm dialogue, free of the path of imprecations and insults that the two leaders have followed since their political world came tumbling down.

Not a silent night

The two dates that are currently being hashed and rehashed in the media are the six-month anniversary of the government, and of course the dreary summing up of the outgoing calendar year. But another important date has been completely forgotten: December 22, 2020. Exactly a year (and two days) ago, the so-called night of the parking lot unfolded in the main Knesset chamber. The term refers to a number of lawmakers from Likud and from Kahol Lavan who breached party discipline and thereby defeated a bill that was intended to prolong the life of the terminally ill Netanyahu-Benny Gantz government.

The election was held 90 days later. On June 13, Benjamin Netanyahu handed the keys to Naftali Bennett, who still gets up every morning and checks to see that it’s not all a dream. The word “dramatic” and its variations has been cheapened quite a bit in the past few years, together with its annoying pal, “amazing.” But that night was dramatic in every sense of the word. The void below Netanyahu and Gantz (who yet again yielded to the temptation to believe the arch-con man) came into full view. They were caught in a spiderweb that had been woven secretly from the bureau of the leader of the opposition in the Knesset and from an apartment in Tel Aviv. It was the first political cooperation between Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Gideon Sa’ar (“the day on which Gideon and I merged into one person,” in Lapid’s literary lingo).

Sa’ar, then a politician-in-exile who had left Likud and the Knesset two weeks earlier and had founded the New Hope party, navigated the moves of those who in the days ahead would be given slots on his party’s list. Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel from Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party voted against extending the government’s term; Yifat Shasha-Biton, Sharren Haskel and Michal Shir (all from Likud) didn’t enter the chamber and put their mobiles on flight mode. Sa’ar and Lapid maintained online contact with the three Kahol Lavan lawmakers who entered into a conspiracy against Gantz: Ram Shefa, Miki Haimovich and Asaf Zamir. Shefa hid out in his car in the Knesset’s parking lot. At the moment of the vote the three burst into the plenum and declared: Nay, Nay, Nay. The result: 49 Nays, 47 Yeas.

It was history, which is written every day. And apropos parking lots: However, uh, “amazing!” it may sound, drawing a pistol at parking lot attendants, along with the hysterical screams he uttered, wasn’t the most appalling thing that lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionism) did this week. A day earlier, in an interview with Srugim, a religious website, the Kahanist said, referring to the latest series of terrorist attacks: “The event must not concluded without the government taking revenge. Targeted assassinations have to be carried out. ... Not only in Judea and Samaria, also in Ramle and Lod.” If I were the public security minister, he added, I would do it.

Religious Zionism lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir during a demonstration in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod this month.Credit: Hadas Parush

In the past few years, the Netanyahu years, the bar of public shock and nausea has fallen lower than a split by a Chihuahua. People are tired even of being shocked by Ben-Gvir. But still. A Knesset member, the ally, loyal partner and key member of any future coalition headed by the leader of the opposition, suggests that the state should assassinate Israeli citizens without a trial. Combat soldiers in uniform will show up at their homes and execute them.

Let’s say that the right wing-Haredi bloc somehow manages to scrape together 61 Knesset seats in the next election. Ben-Gvir will be appointed a cabinet minister, no question about it. If he insists on the public security portfolio, he’ll get it. No question there, either. This is a meaningful reminder of how the parking lot heroes of a year ago spared us the antihero of the parking lot this week.

Bibi on the balcony

In his years as a politician and statesman, Netanyahu forged his glory, which is real in part and exaggerated in large part, as Israel’s defender among the nations, a patriot and warrior for his country. He did this on the media battlefield, on the diplomatic front, in Congress, at the United Nations and in meetings with dozens of leaders. Even his adversaries admitted that Israel has no better defense counsel than Bibi, no presenter more articulate.

A week ago he uploaded a video that was shot on the Knesset balcony. In his polished American English he chose to tell the world about the decline of Israeli democracy. He said "the current Israeli government wants to pass three laws which will extinguish three basic freedoms in a democracy," and elaborated: a law to prevent anyone accused of criminal wrongdoing from forming a government, a law to prevent incitement on social media, and a law to let a police officer conduct a search without a warrant in very exceptional circumstances. (Netanyahu’s description of the three bills was warped; we’re used to that, because he does it in Hebrew, too.)

The first bill hasn’t yet reached the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. In every objective survey it has huge support, including on the right. The two other bills definitely should be subject to a public debate. Netanyahu explained his (legitimate) opposition to this legislation many times in the Knesset, in meetings with the other Likud legislators, and on the web. This is the first time he has exported his anxieties for international consumption.

Ashen gray, head bowed, eyes darting as if at any moment the Stasi would descend on him and throw him into solitary, he struggled to find the right words for the looming horror. "This is not even a slippery slope, it’s a chasm, it's a Grand Canyon, with the rights – the fundamental rights of democracy – just buried, floating down the stream and disappearing."

And in case anyone mistakenly thought he only worried about Israel’s soul, he immediately made clear that his concern was for the enlightened world. "I think this will affect all other democracies," the dissident, the Greta Thunberg of civil rights, warned, adding: "All of you who share these values, speak out before it's too late." As Benny Begin said in response in the Knesset: “And the whole universe shall be appalled, and the institutions of the land shall tremble.”

Netanyahu seems to be in a psychotic state, as if he’s under the influence of hazardous substances. You have to see it to believe it. As long as he’s bad-mouthing the government in Hebrew, so be it. Only his blind followers believe that Israeli democracy is in danger today and not when he was in power, not if he had been able to form a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government whose raison d'être would have been undermining the remnants of the rule of law and sparing him from his corruption trial.

But who in the Western world will buy this pile of BS? Who is he aiming at? Not at his base, that’s obvious. The European Union? The Biden administration? The Democratic Congress? What, they don’t know who he is, what he is, who his allies are? Even Donald Trump has turned his back on him. Does he want the United Nations to send in inspectors? Maybe NATO or the International Criminal Court?

Every madness has its method, but it’s not clear what Netanyahu gains by depicting Israel to the world as an emerging dictatorship. Something basic has gone wrong in the machine. The loss of power is driving him over the edge. The removal of the security protection for Sara and Yair has ripped away the vestiges of sanity in the house. He’s off the rails, Likud legislators tell me. He’s on the verge.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at a meeting of the Likud caucus this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A dash of Stalin

Apropos dictatorships: On Wednesday, Netanyahu sat in the Knesset fidgety as a general who’s getting disastrous reports from the front. He shouted into his phone at the Likud floor leader, Yariv Levin, who refused to upload a post shaming Likud legislators who didn’t show up for votes. (Levin cracked under the pressure and obeyed.)

Then he scolded Ofir Akunis, one of the shamed, for being late to an earlier vote. Betwixt and between he shouted at the MKs next to him that he couldn’t understand where their missing colleagues had disappeared to.

Netanyahu sits less than two feet behind Intelligence Affairs Minister Elazar Stern, who found it hard to concentrate and moved to the far side of the government table, next to the affable Meir Cohen, the labor minister, who's from Stern’s Yesh Atid party. “I couldn’t stand his shouts,” Stern told him. The members of the coalition watched the show with pleasure.

The reason for the unhinged behavior actually lies at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv. In August 2020, the Likud leader ordered the party’s director general to delete 7,000 members from the computer system on suspicion they were “new Likudniks” – that is, anti-Netanyahu. The group that was removed appealed to the Likud court, but because of the pandemic, the deliberations dragged on.

It turns out that in Likud too there’s a delay of justice. The verdict was finally handed down Wednesday: Those who were deleted shall be reinstated on the party slate with their original seniority. This latter aspect is critical because you have to be in the party for a certain period to vote or be elected to a party post.

The verdict took an implicit swipe at the party’s leader: “If there is indeed an existential threat [to the party], it requires serious and thorough handling that cannot be substituted by tweets.” In the 16 months since August 2020, Netanyahu didn’t appear once at the court, not even by Zoom. He expected the judges to do what he asked.

But he had plenty of time to tweet against the “new” party members. “They're extreme leftists acting as Trojan horses to crush Likud from within …. Some of them were the leaders of the Black Flag movement” against Netanyahu that formed last year. There was other such baseless defamation.

The extremism of these "new" party members, a Likud MK explained to me, is seen in one thing: They won't vote for Netanyahu in the primary for party leader, and they won’t vote for his candidates. He’s carrying out a Stalinist purge. Whoever doesn’t support him is kicked out. It’s not clear how he thought that any judicial forum would back up such a thuggish move.

Before the court announced its ruling, Netanyahu shared a post of a friendly journalist against Likud's Yisrael Katz and Nir Barkat, who are supposedly helping the new Likudniks. Later he assailed Katz in a post of his own: “I expected all the members of the [Likud] movement to work with all their might against them, to work for their expulsion from the movement. Everyone did so except for Yisrael Katz, who to this day is still working the opposite way.”

Likud's Yisrael Katz in October. Credit: Moti Milrod

The attack on Katz belongs to the earlier rubric of derangement and loss of control. The unfortunate, loyal Katz, who has yielded countless times to the will of the emperor, was gaslighted because he didn’t block the verdict (whose details, including the barb, reached Netanyahu the day before it was published). A Likud source said Bibi went wild. And on whom did he vent his fury? On Katz, chairman of the party’s secretariat.

It’s incomprehensible, even in Netanyahu’s terms. Twice two couples, Bibi and Sara, Yisrael and Ronit, went on a double date, once in the Katz home in Moshav Kfar Ahim in the south, once to a restaurant. (There’s no chance they would be invited to Caesarea, it’s a forbidden city.) The feeling was that Netanyahu was crowning his successor.

Bibi's gopher, David Dirty Mouth Amsalem, for whom the boss’ messages are God’s word, rushed to declare that Katz was the successor. Suddenly, a sharp twist in the plot. The crown prince wasn't only a collaborator of lefties, he was a traitor “scrounging votes in the primaries at the expense of the country and the movement.”

The slackening in the Likud leader's standing isn't blatant. In most places it’s hidden from the eye. But it’s visible. The Likud MKs who skip votes and the swipe at him in the court verdict are also things we haven’t seen in many years.

The MKs see the polls, which continue to reflect a clear-cut situation: Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 of the Knesset's 120 seats, and nowhere on the horizon can Likud form a government. (Barkat, according to a survey in the daily Maariv, would win fewer seats as party leader but could easily form a government.)

And the leader? He’s continuing on the same path: Except for Levin, he's relying solely on his legions of hooligans on the backbenches whose whole essence is kowtowing to him, bashing others and undermining reality.

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