Analysis |

Dynamics, Not Numbers, Will Determine the Fate of Israel's Government

Smotrich reminds us what an alternative coalition looks like ■ Netanyahu, Bennett and the two Dizengoff terror attacks ■ No more cult of personality at the Independence Day ceremony

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

After the initial shock, this week, the heads of the coalition parties met for an assessment of the situation and damage control. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pounced on the two weakest links in his dwindling Yamina caucus as though his life depended on it. Abir Kara, deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, was swathed in promises, to which Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman appended his signature. MK Nir Orbach received his pound of flesh.

For now, it appears that calm has been achieved, but this is deceptive and temporary. As long as the Knesset is in recess (which will end May 9), there is no place to rush to, or to leave. This, incidentally, is the mistakeMK Idit Silman made in her choice of timing. She has left Bennett and his partners plenty of time to put out the fire. Had she chosen instead to quit the coalition, say, at the start of the coming summer session, the pace of events might have been swift and deadly.

The problem facing Bennett and his colleagues is actually not numerical. It’s not 60-60. It’s 60 Knesset members for the coalition, 54 for the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc, and six for the Arab-majority Joint List, which consists of three distinct parties with very different DNA. What divides them sometimes overcomes what unites them. As long as one more lawmaker isn’t subtracted from the coalition and a theoretical majority for dissolving the Knesset isn’t created, it will be possible for the government to survive the votes. MKs Ahmad Tibi and Osama Saadi of the Ta’al party are practical people. Of the two evils, from their perspective, the current government is the lesser and they will prefer it. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is not letting go of them. The alternative is known, though there is a limit to what Ta’al will be able to allow themselves.

The summer session is relatively short, about 10 weeks. The seasoned parliamentarians know what to do in the tough situation they find themselves in: Non-urgent votes will be postponed; major issues aren’t on the agenda in any case; instead of laws, it is possible to fill the Knesset committees with regulations. Even in the full chamber they have not yet lost hope.Silman, over whom the sword engraved “Quitter” is dangling, will not rush to provide Yamina with the legal infrastructure needed to expel her from the caucus, which will prevent her from running on the Likud slate. And, as noted, there’s Tibi and Saadi. They are open to negotiations on specific issues. “Social” law proposals that help all parts of the population will win their support or, at the very least, enjoy their abstention. They will vote against laws proposed by the opposition that are right-wing in essence. This is also what they have done in the past.

The most important legislation of all is, of course,the state budget. Lieberman has already declared that the next one (for 2023-2024, with an accompanying arrangements law leaner than the last one) will come up in the next session. The Finance Ministry team is laboring feverishly to complete the mission.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked at an event at Ben-Gurion Airport this week. Credit: Moti Milrod

If Lieberman insists on bringing it for a vote on the target date, there is a chance of getting it passed. Possibly the loss of the 61st vote will necessitate passage of a budget for only one year instead of two. Silman will consider her moves carefully. A vote against the budget is like a vote of no-confidence in the government. She will immediately be declared “retired” and will have to wave goodbye to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise, which no one except maybe Silman herself really believes anyway, of the health minister’s post and a reserved spot on the Likud election slate.

The danger to the coalition isn’t in the arithmetic, but in the dynamic. Any random loose brick could cause a collapse of the coalition’s current, shaky edifice. For example, until when will Orbach persist in the face of the wicked, brutal campaign Netanyahu’s minions are conducting against him? And there are also two left-wing parties in the coalition. They don’t have many achievements to write home about, apart from that of establishing the government itself and kicking the aforementioned individual and his confederates out of power. If, to preserve the remnants of his Knesset faction, Bennett goes in for heavy right-wing moves, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz’s patience is also liable to snap.

Those will be 10 weeks of acutely attuned senses. Just as the dynamic – that vague concept – could play to the detriment of the coalition, it could also work to the disadvantage of the other side, that is, Benjamin Netanyahu. The expectation from him is to provide the goods that will justify the rejoicing heard in Jerusalem the day Silman pulled out. If salvation tarries and a week goes by, then another, in which the coalition isn’t shaken by yet another shock, the momentum could halt. The leader of the opposition, whose trial is continuing, will reconsider an outline for a plea bargain that he (and the Knesset) can swallow.

Speaking of salvation: It’s fascinating to follow Silman’s travels. It’s as though she has been reborn. In recent days she has been skipping among the courts of rabbis and rabbis’ wives, gathering blessings, collecting religious booklets, sunbathing in the light of the masses’ love. She is imbued with a messianic mood we hadn’t seen in her previous incarnation. (Perhaps she caught it from MK Bezalel Smotrich.) She made a speech at some event and promised, while thrilled to the hem of her head covering, that we are “moments before salvation.” Soon she will confess that she has heard voices, declare herself a Kabbalist and start giving out blessings herself.

Everything here has become Baba Buba-style, life imitating satirical art. Even the commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Samaria Brigade, Brig. Gen. Roi Zweig, in his order of the day to his soldiers before embarking on their mission to repair Joseph’s Tomb, sounded not like a military officer but like someone seeking a spot on the Religious Zionism party slate. Our troops, he declared, “are working fiercely as did our forefathers, not as thieves in the night but as the sons of kings ... to restore the honor to this land and the people of Israel.”

Elkin, come home

In the weeks prior to the spring recess, the coalition’s distress in the Knesset chamber increased. It suffered loss after loss. Coalition chairwoman Silman and her deputy, MK Boaz Toporovsky, had difficulty managing. The person who helped them and in essence had managed them until then, Housing and Construction Minister Zeev Elkin, who is also the minister for liaison between the coalition and the opposition and a seasoned parliamentarian, suddenly disappeared. From 100 percent presence on the job, he dropped to nearly zero.

Zeev Elkin speaking at a conference in Eilat in November.Credit: Itamar Saida

When asked about the meaning of his absence, Elkin replied that he had been asked by Bennett and Lapid to release Silman and Toporovsky from his somewhat controlling presence in the Knesset chamber. “It’s hard for them with you, you don’t leave them space. Let them grow feathers,” he was told.

Elkin was hurt. You don’t want me, okay, he said, and concentrated on his ministry. Even before the recess, when matters in the chamber got knotty, the chairman of his New Hope party, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, asked Bennett and Lapid to put the liaison minister back in action. They didn’t. Now they have to locate a new coalition chairperson, from the Yamina caucus – because that is what is stipulated in the coalition agreement – who will have to function in impossible circumstances. Whoever that person may be will need a responsible, experienced adult above him or her. Elkin is the man. Those who distanced him will bring him back. The question is what this will cost them. He knows how to exact a price.

The challenging appointment that was given to Silman was also a heavy stone in the sack she carried until her shoulders collapsed in the face of the Bibi-ists’ threats and the promises from Netanyahu himself. She had to mediate between representatives of the left, Arabs, center and right, and advance compromises that she paid for with her health when she herself has neither the desire nor the courage to move towards the center, as befits the position. Coalition whip is a position for political foxes, like Likud MKs Tzachi Hanegbi and David Bitan. An effective exception was Yariv Levin, also from Likud, who is rigid ideologically but pragmatic and creative politically. There is no candidate in Yamina suitable for the position, whether because of their meager political skills or their dithering over their political future. A possible effective solution would be MK Zvi Hauser from New Hope, under Elkin’s renewed supervision. This proposal has not been made openly, to the best of our knowledge. However, with Bennett’s thin and shaky caucus merchandise, he and his partners will apparently have to think creatively, also about plugging this hole.

This is no simple matter, a source close to Bennett told me. The coalition whip is the prime minister’s long arm in the Knesset chamber. To put into such a sensitive position, and at such a stressful time, someone obedient to the chairman of a different party, who might in the near future run against the prime minister, is difficult, he said. Very difficult.

Princes of darkness

On Monday, Smotrich was interviewed by the Knesset Channel. The head of the party that’s shamefully called Religious Zionism looked placated compared to his usual complaining. He sought to compliment – no, that’s not a typo – Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin for the cabinet’s decision the day before to establish new Jewish communities in the Negev.

“It’s our shame and disgrace that such a thing didn’t happen during the right-wing government,” Smotrich said. “His interviewer, Avi Blum, retorted: “So you’re saying that the current government has done something the right wing didn’t do for a decade?”

“Absolutely,” Smotrich answered.

This was tweeted by the Knesset Channel and immediately retweeted by Shaked and party colleague Yomtob Kalfon and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel. But the peals of camaraderie were quick to fade.

The following day Smotrich was on public radio, and without provocation or reasonable grounds – other than a loose screw – he announced, as if representing the Almighty, that the right-wing ministers in Bennett’s cabinet weren’t fit to enter their synagogues. They had “lied and stolen votes and sold the country to the Islamic Movement,” as he put it. But he didn’t, not this time, suggest that they be stoned.

Bezalel Smotrich meeting with legislators from his Relgious Zionism party in February.Credit: Emil Salman

His views on this issue were “the most legitimate thing in the world,” explained the Knesset’s least legitimate lawmaker, someone who was in jail for 21 days in 2005 on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks to prevent the Gaza pullout. He was accused of amassing 700 liters of gasoline and oil, not to mention an intention to scatter spikes on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. He wasn’t indicted, purportedly because the Shin Bet security service didn’t want to reveal an intelligence source.

This week, the usual storm wasn’t late in erupting. Bennett used it for his own purposes while other right-wing politicians kept mum – other than Smotrich’s party colleague Simcha Rothman, who called his chief’s comment “trivial.”

Smotrich realized he had gone too far, even by his own warped standards. He wrote a post on social media, and then another and another. In convoluted language with divine politeness, he stated that “of course, everyone is invited to the synagogues.” God be praised, the ban has been lifted.

The sorry reality is that Smotrich’s repulsive comment has been the situation on the ground for years. Anyone wearing a skullcap who goes against the Bibi-ists and Smotrich-ists knows this approach at his synagogue.

The victims include politicians, journalists and army officers. Inciters in their community force them to eat horseradish, as it were, and not just on Passover but every Shabbat. Their places of worship, their places of refuge, are brutally taken from them.

We have to thank this certified racist for repeatedly reminding us what the alternative to the current government looks like. Along with Netanyahu you would get Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir as members of the cabinet and security cabinet. You would also get all the Rothmans and Orit Strocks who defend settler violence and dream about legislation that would pose a dark threat to Israeli democracy.

The Knesset has never had such a violent and dangerous party, with two chiefs tainted by terrorist activity – one was convicted and the other came close enough. A third legislator for the party, Avi Maoz, is the personification of homophobia and dark ignorance.

Different approaches on Dizengoff

Some people are hoping for Netanyahu’s return on the ridiculous grounds that he’s the “least worst” of the politicians. They say this is particularly the case when comparing Netanyahu to the current prime minister (who is apparently the “worst worst”).

On Monday, near midnight, Bennett suddenly showed up at the Ilka bar on Tel Avi’s Dizengoff Street, which had reopened that evening – five days after the terror attack in which three young men were shot dead.

He was received well, and he stood on a chair and said a few words. “I have come here this evening to support the owner [of the bar] and the residents here,” he said.

“Good people were murdered and wounded here. ... We won’t let them, our enemy, stop our lives. We won’t let them defeat us. We’re fighting them where they are. ... With God’s help we will win. I love you all very much.” Very few people listening will vote for him; he knows that.

The Ilka bar on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street this week, back in action after the terror attack.Credit: Hadas Parush

Bennett spoke without a drop of denunciation, incitement, threats or the fanning of base instincts. He was aware of the tragedy that had occurred where he was standing, and equally aware of the mood of the people surrounding him – young secular people, cultured, liberal, not embittered with hatred and revenge like those accompanying Ben-Gvir, who had come to the same place to incite and met an angry reaction. To the locals, Ben-Gvir is the incarnation of everything evil – even, and especially, in such painful days.

I recalled a similar (and different) incident on that street more than six years ago. On a Saturday evening, a day after the terror attack at the Simta bar, Netanyahu visited Dizengoff. Before his arrival a podium from the Prime Minister’s Office was placed there.

Netanyahu delivered a horrifying speech blaming the whole Arab community for the murders by Nashat Milhem, a mentally disturbed young man, according to witnesses, from Wadi Ara in northern Israel.

Netanyahu, aiming at his base as always, depicted Arab Israelis as a whole populace of armed criminals, potential terrorists. “I will not accept two states in Israel – a state of law and order for the Jewish community, where the law prevails, and a state where the law does not prevail,” he said.

By then he had been prime minister for seven straight years, 10 years all told. In the years after his speech, he did nothing to confiscate guns in Arab towns and neighborhoods. In less than a year, the government that has replaced him has made significant strides in that direction.

In January 2016, Israel was in the middle of the “lone-wolf intifada” that took the lives of 50 people. (The embarrassing Likud MK Yoav Kisch has said there was “zero terror during our time! Zero!”)
The prime minister back then totally ignored the condemnations by the Arab community’s leaders of the terror attack; he also ignored that the attacker was turned in by his father.

Netanyahu didn’t come to Dizengoff to deter terrorists but to exploit the incident to incite his inflamed supporters. Looking at the very different occasion this past Monday, maybe it’s not so terrible that Israel has a prime minister without a base.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in Dimona this week. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Dignity returns

Aficionados of the torch-lighting ceremony (that is, nearly everybody) can be expected to experience culture shock this Independence Day eve. The event will be in a different format this year – a respite from our decade-plus of the then-prime minister and his wife Sara’s lust for glorification.

Bennett won’t be making a speech, nor will there be a propaganda film featuring the great leader. Israelis will also be spared the royal entry of the couple as a powerful spotlight follows them to their seats.

During the seven years when Likud’s Miri Regev was in charge of the ceremony, we got pure cult of personality. The well-prepared artistic performance was just a backdrop for the dozens of times the camera broadcasting for all the television channels focused on the prime minister, his wife and Culture Minister Regev.

Chili Tropper, Regev’s successor, is ushering in a subversive concept for Independence Day eve: a restoration of dignity. He hasn’t preened like his predecessor, who endlessly filmed herself informing the torch-lighters of the honor that had befallen them.

When the discussions on this year’s ceremony began, Tropper invited himself to a meeting with the prime minister. He told Bennett that he didn’t have to make a speech, and there was no need to produce a video or make a grand entrance with his wife, Gilat. Let’s give the ceremony back to the Knesset.

Bennett listened and maybe felt a little twinge in his heart, but he accepted the recommendation. The dramatic change is also expected in the stage direction, which had become a cult in its own right.

I’m not telling you how to do your work and who to focus the camera on, Tropper told the director. Act in accordance with your professional opinion. Now and then you can film the prime minister in the stands; don’t make a point of not filming him. It should all be in good taste.

The truth? I’ll miss the scandals that accompanied the ceremony and fed this column so well, ever since Reuven Rivlin and then Yuli Edelstein were Knesset speaker. Edelstein was deeply humiliated at the Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl in 2018 as millions watched the conspiracy plotted by the Netanyahus and Regev.

But Rivlin prevented Netanyahu from conquering the mount at the torch-lighting event. Several times he threatened to quit or stay away from the ceremony if Netanyahu and Sara forced themselves on it.

This, incidentally, is the reason the couple conducted the mad campaign against Rivlin when he ran for president (and won). Sara never forgave how in 2010, contrary to protocol, he invited opposition leader Tzipi Livni and her husband Naftali Spitzer to sit beside him in the front row, on the plush chairs, and asked two of his grandchildren to accept the honor of sitting in the couple’s seats in the eighth row. Ah, those were the days.

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