Analysis |

Israel's Government Is Rotting Away, but a New One Isn't Looming

The prisoner's dilemma and lofty promises offered to Idit Silman and others are tall tales ■ Netanyahu is right that the coalition's days are numbered, but not one public opinion poll shows that he has a government

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Illustration: Amos Biderman
Illustration: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Over the past few weeks, emissaries from the Likud and Religious Zionism parties have been confronting three Yamina lawmakers with the political version of the prisoner’s dilemma. The message Idit Silman, Abir Kara and Nir Orbach were getting from Likud’s Yariv Levin and Bezalel Smotrich was simple: “We have one Knesset member in our pocket. We are now in talks with three more. The first to jump will win the deal of his life. The one who comes next, we won’t need. We’ll have 61 [votes] to dissolve the Knesset. So it’s worth your while to move fast.”

Ultimately – or at least for now – Silman was the only one to believe this tall tale. Why a tall tale? Because if opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu really had another defector, he would have waited quietly until the end of the Knesset spring recess and then, as he loves to do, he would have stunned the political world by pulling two rabbits out of his hat at the opening of the summer session and toppling the government. Now you see it, now you don’t, presto chango.

Levin and Smotrich booby-trapped Silman twice. After she realized that she was the first pigeon, they promised her that within eight hours, max, the next one would fly out of the coalition nest. By the time these pages went to press, 36 hours or maybe more will have elapsed since Silman’s announcement in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, and we’re still waiting for Godot.

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In Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s inner circle, they are hoping that Silman isn’t yet a done deal, that they can bring back the recreant. Somebody suggested that they offer her her heart’s desire, the Health Ministry, and ask Nitzan Horowitz to move over to some other ministry. Throughout its history, Meretz party ministers have made painful concessions. Shulamit Aloni was compelled relinquish the Education Ministry in Yitzhak Rabin’s government to her colleague Amnon Rubinstein, who was less inimical to Shas. Yossi Sarid along with all of Meretz resigned from Ehud Barak’s government because of an internal struggle with that same party. But at the moment, people close to the prime minister are saying that moving Horowitz isn’t an option. We’ve steadied the ship and have prevented anyone else from jumping off.

Of course, another departure could happen at any moment. But for now we are left with Silman or, to be precise, the Silmans. Idit and Shmulik are a fairytale couple. Attractive and pleasant, she is ambitious, aggressive and cynical, always with an eye on the next position. He is the engine, the brain, the whisperer and the pot-stirrer, a helpmeet of the dangerous sort: He thinks he understands politics, but he hasn’t a clue. Likud is teaching them both a lesson. Primary school, not even high school. They are so naïve. They are convinced that the world is at their feet, but they are living a fantasy. She will be appointed health minister just like Moshe Kahlon was named chairman of the Israel Lands Authority, Moshe Feiglin became a key economic minister and Nir Barkat was sworn in as finance minister – all false promises generously scattered over the years by the seducer.

Idit Silman and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in November.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Maybe – just maybe – she will get the guaranteed slot on the Likud slate for the 25th Knesset in place of Orly Levy-Abekasis, who in a similar case of seduction defected to Likud two years ago from an alliance with the Labor Party. Today, she is dispensable. One opportunist devoid of ideology replaces another (perhaps Likud should have a dedicated slot on its slate for this special breed of politician).

No one will give Silman the time of day. They will scorn her, the way they scorn Levy-Abekasis. Even the promise of the reserved slot is written on ice. An absolute majority of the Likud lawmakers are opposed to reserving a place for her. They don’t intend to make life easy for Netanyahu. It’s true that now he is riding high, but in the party’s institutions he has grown weaker over the past year. Not everything he asks for he gets.

Incidentally, the prisoner’s dilemma move was applied a second time, in an emergency procedure, even after Silman’s resignation became known. On that same frantic morning, the Levins and the Smotriches made urgent calls to Orbach, Kara and their Yamina party colleague Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. “You have half an hour to sign, don’t miss the opportunity.” Shaked, the most experienced of the three, took preventative action. “Tell me,” she said to her two colleagues, “are we idiots? They’re going to mess around with us? Let’s put our heads together and think what to do.” That’s what happened.

With Bennett’s agreement (people close to him are even saying it was his initiative), the three met in the Kirya government compound in Tel Aviv and decided to adopt a policy of all for one, and one for all. In effect, this is a kind of subsidiary caucus of Yamina, like the Caucus B back in the merry days of Mapai, the major precursor of today’s Labor Party. Only in this case, they are the majority vis à vis the leader and for all practical purposes they are really Caucus A. They can dictate moves to Bennett, prevent him from veering off in unwanted directions, threaten and extort him. Orbach has already submitted a list of demands. Apart from their party colleagues Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana and MK Shirly Pinto (and maybe our Father in Heaven, though apparently a bit less so there), Bennett has no one to lean on at present.

Breastbeating

At midnight on Wednesday, at the end of the most challenging day of the 300 he has been prime minister, Bennett had a few moments for some phone calls. He chose, perhaps unconsciously, to use terminology from the field of trauma medicine: “We applied a tourniquet,” he said. “We stopped the bleeding.” His images are apt. The coalition was subjected to an assassination attempt. Its condition is critical and unstable. It was important for him to express empathy for Silman. Secular people don’t have synagogues, he said. People don’t understand what she and her husband went through, what Orbach is going through. Shmulik came crying to me that people sent by Netanyahu threatened to fire him from his job, emissaries from Smotrich came to his children’s schools. A person has to be superhuman to cope in face of such inhuman pressures. It’s odd that Silman chose to join the mafiosi who subjected her to violent extortion.

At the caucus meeting he convened at his office at the Kirya, with kebabs and various other meats ordered in, he told those who remained about his diplomatic achievements: how, in the meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden he succeeded in talking him down from the idea of the consulate in East Jerusalem. I wasn’t able to talk about it, but it’s got my name on it. And don’t believe the foolishness to the effect that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and I committed to “no surprises” with regard to Iran. At that same meeting, when Biden asked us not to surprise him in Iran, I said to them, to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, that I can’t commit to that. You aren’t always going to want to know what we’re doing, I said. We’ll update you on general issues.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a press conference in the West Bank, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

And has anyone even noticed that the nuclear agreement between Iran and the powers hasn’t been signed yet? Yair and I have put up a tremendous fight. We identified a crack and we entered into it.

The self-panegyric achieved the opposite effect. It only demonstrated to his party colleague the extent to which their chairman is hovering pleasurably at diplomatic altitudes, far aloft from the gritty soil of political reality. He is indifferent to what is distressing them and deaf to their cries for help. He is glorying in his successes, intoxicated with his status, with the international flattery, while they and their families are getting excoriated in their neighborhoods and at their synagogues.

Everything you’ve said doesn’t help me, cried Orbach. On the one hand, I can’t trumpet your achievements. On the other hand, you’re standing next to Blinken at a press conference and saying “West Bank.” How can I explain to my friends that my prime minister, my party chairman, is beginning to use an expression that have never crossed my lips? Or when Blinken talks about “settler violence,” and you don’t even react?

Bennett listened and said nothing. But, to be fair, when Blinken said what he said, Bennett was busying himself with his papers. It is doubtful that he was paying attention. However, he certainly did know what he himself had said. His speech was written for him by his very influential diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir. He chose to stick to her wording. Two words that interested nobody, the essence of which changes nothing (even Netanyahu used the words in the past but what is permitted to Netanyahu is prohibited to others), they drove his Yamina colleagues crazy. Shaked went into overdrive, demanding that Bennett release an immediate clarification. He brushed her off.

Orbach, Shaked and others in Yamina are blaming Meir for Bennett’s “centrification” or (woe betide us) “leftification.” In his wrath, Orbach refused to take a phone call from the adviser this week. And, not only them. Others in the Prime Minister’s Bureau, like Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo, are often in despair over the Bennett-Meir axis, which is preventing the prime minister from dealing seriously with domestic politics.

At least in the case of the members of Yamina, aiming the arrows at the diplomatic wing of the Prime Minister’s Office is not serious. The guy who is sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office is 50 years old. No longer a child. His views are formed, he understands matters and acts responsibly and with discretion. Heaven help us – and the country – if the Naftali Bennett of March-April 2022 were the same flustered creature of February-March 2021, the one who rushed from studio to studio, signed documents in a crazed way, scattered empty promises not to be in a government with this one and that one and to boycott whoever or whatever.

Back to the Kirya meeting. Orbach asked him: When I read in the media that you are seeking a different constituency, a kind of center-right, where does that leave me? What will happen to me? You promised me that this government would be no less rightist than the last one. It isn’t.

I admit, said Bennett, I have neglected you, all of you. I was drawn into the role of prime minister and I forgot the base. The coronavirus, omicron, Gaza, the wave of terror attacks, there was always something more urgent. Now I’m with you. I am all-in on your side. Wait and see, things will happen leading up to the Knesset summer session.

I have been super-sensitive and considerate towards the coalition’s left wing, whereas to you, my friends, I set a very high bar: Be considerate, avoid schadenfreude. All the talk about the Western Wall access, trains running on the Sabbath, chametz (foods ritually prohibited during Passover) in the hospitals, it’s no accident that these things don’t appear in the coalition agreement. There would have been no agreement on them. They are good partners, the left, but they don’t understand what our side is going through.

The fleshpot syndrome

“When we aren’t united, we get this failed and dangerous government,” opposition leader Netanyahu intoned (and sniffled an coughed all at once, in a legacy left to him by the coronavirus) at the right-wing demonstration in Jerusalem on Wednesday. This was the Kleenex speech. The very fact of his presence there was a surprise. Netanyahu sees to making demonstrations happen but doesn’t participate in them. In 2015 he participated in an election rally of the right, mainly out of a fear of losing. But that wasn’t a demonstration. Even when he served as leader of the opposition to Ehud Olmert’s government, he took care to set the street on fire but to keep away from it. He avoids being caught in a filmed situation facing his inflamed supporters, some of whom are waving disquieting placards and shouting racist slogans. In short, Netanyahu wants no repeats of the extremely ugly demonstration against Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo accords at Zion Square in Jerusalem in October of 1995.

When he promised that he would come to the Wednesday demonstration, he apparently knew that he would be coming to what would in effect be a (premature and partial) victory party. The falsehoods in his speech were scattered generously, like the words at the start of the previous paragraph here. What connection does he have to unity? Who is he to hand out grades for proper governmental functioning? Netanyahu is a constant horror show of a huge and bubbling fleshpot, inside of which is only moldy tofu. Maximum boasting on minimum doing.

His recent moves have been aimed at only one goal – accumulating enough political strength to improve his position in advance of a plea bargain in his trial or, alternatively, to bring him an election victory and the formation of a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox, messianic, nationalist, racist government that will attack the court system like a feral dog. His feet were planted opposite the government complex in Jerusalem, his head was in Maasiyahu Prison.

The continuation Shlomo Filber’s testimony in court this week contributed to that. The self-righteous and whiny witness for the prosecution buried his former boss like a donkey’s carcass while weeping crocodile tears. The politicians are divided over what to conclude: Will the worsening of his position cause Netanyahu to renew negotiations with the new attorney general for a plea bargain, or will he set his sights on the ballot boxes? For the fifth time.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a right-wing rally in Jerusalem, on Wednesday.Credit: Menahem KAHANA / AFP

There are those who have forgotten what we were spared when this bunch was booted from office. How many malfunctions have been set straight, how much damage has been prevented. The state budget was approved and Israel is enjoying prosperity that has reached a 21-year record. The battered court system has been healed. The incitement and the toxic discourse that spread from the corridors of power and was amplified in the social networks and in the streets have stilled. Disappeared. They remain the province of the Bibi-ists in the networks and in politics.

“Let us set aside the residues of the past,” exhorted Netanyahu with false pathos, as he called upon the rightists to “come home,” to the bosom of the nationalist camp. Let him set himself aside, and we’ll see what happens. But it’s still not possible to take from him what he has. He never gives up, he never surrenders. The man is capable of anything, including, if need be, courting United Arab List chairman MK Mansour Abbas again, going down to the Negev, sitting cross-legged and pouring coffee, promising billions, mentioning that he and he alone is the original Abu Yair.

On the scale of political repugnance, we are seeing one thing more disgusting than Silman’s move – the cloying compliments, the sweet talk from her biggest vituperators, persecutors, slanderers and harassers. This is a new kind of political Stockholm Syndrome – abject devotion to the bullies who made her life a misery, who have turned her into doormat on the way to becoming a marginal and ephemeral political episode. Ironically, the praises heaped upon her by Netanyahu, Smotrich, Arye Dery and the rest of the hyenas have been more nauseating than the invective aimed at her previously.

Netanyahu was right about one thing: The days of the current coalition are numbered. And yet, not a single public opinion poll shows that he has a government. He is liable to bring about a scenario in which Yair Lapid becomes the prime minister in not only one transitional government but in another and another, if we return to the exhausting rounds of elections at the end of which there is a coalition dead end. Netanyahu doesn’t really care about that: The chaos, as usual, is the Likud chairman’s most faithful servant. When he goes, that will also end.

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