Analysis |

Netanyahu Promised Defectors, but Bennett's Team Came Out on Top This Week

Likud members started calling dibs on portfolios, but the coalition revived as Yair Lapid got the United Arab List back on side for the Knesset's summer session

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas at the Knesset this week.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas at the Knesset this week.Credit: Noam Moskowitz/Knesset
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

At midday Wednesday, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu took to the speaker’s podium in the Knesset chamber to take note of the day as “commemorating Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl and his activity.” The festivity of the occasion was not evident in his demeanor. He looked like someone having a tantrum: He shouted, he snarled, his fists pounded the table, he slammed into “Bennett, Lapid and Gantz” and for the zillionth time waxed nostalgic about his speech in the U.S. Congress in 2015. ("Against an American president!")

His agitation was in marked contrast to the amused serenity projected by the cabinet ministers. They knew, just as he did, that soon United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas would show up in front of the reporters, lift the crisis of the suspension of the list’s participation in the coalition and put an end, temporary but cruel, to the victory laps by the Likud chairman and his colleagues. For that reason, the latter was not solicitous of the honor of the members of the United Arab List faction, at whom he thundered “supporters of terror!” (The Hebrew acronym of their party, Ra’am, is felicitously also the Hebrew word for “thunder.”) “A government that depends on the Shura Council” – the council of religious clerics that advises the UAL on matters of policy – Netanyahu spat out contemptuously, as though he himself hadn’t been hoping for what they would say this week.

If it hadn’t been Netanyahu, we would have pitied him. Exactly six weeks ago, after Yamina MK Idit Silman’s resignation from the position of coalition whip, there was a rally at the government compound in Jerusalem. The original pretext for it – a call for the restoration of national security – became what media people were calling “the first election campaign event.” The leader of the national camp rejoiced on the stage. Likud MK Yoav Kisch, who slowly but surely is taking the place of former MK Yosef Ba-Gad from the now defunct far-right Moledet party as the Knesset clown, danced around and capered at the foot of the stage. Israel had counted 11 dead in three terror attacks in the two weeks preceding that demonstration, the slogan of which had originally been “Israel is bleeding – we will bring back security,” but Kisch didn’t allow sadness to still his dancing feet.

Days went by. The additional, wished-for defector tarried. The leader of the opposition headquarters applied poor man’s psychological warfare. From time to time, one of the soldiers was dispatched to the media to promise a surprise. MK Ofir Akunis, for example. About a month ago he was interviewed on one of the channels and, with a glowing look on his face, promised with his characteristic pomposity that “next week” there will be an earthquake, after which the coalition would also lose its 60th Knesset member. Equally, he could have looked under his pillow for an MK left to him by the defector fairy.

Okay, so that’s Kisch and Akunis. Netanyahu himself promised, and promised again, on the eve of the Minouna celebration for example, that in a certain number of days the ceremony will have ended, we will sing the national anthem and we will inaugurate the annoying election studios on the television channels. At the beginning of the week, at the opening of the session, he wanted to explain the justifications for the no-confidence vote in the government, an infrequent event in and of itself. It sounded like a coronation speech. “Naftali, it’s over,” he addressed the prime minister’s empty chair while the latter was quietly busy sewing up the final paragraphs in the agreement with Abbas.

During this past week, matters sailed off into the realms of satire. Likud lawmakers had already picked out their ministries in the next government. MK Dudi Amsalem announced that he would “insist” that the justice portfolio be in the hands of Likud and “insist” that he become the minister because only he can “implement the necessary reforms.” It’s not clear what that bully has to offer the law enforcement system. Maybe a prohibition on selling arak to Supreme Court justices. And while he was blathering on, a competitor arose: MK Galit Distel-Atbaryan confessed to the “fantasy,” as she defined it, of being appointed minister of justice. The last time she chose to share her innermost thoughts with the public, the unforgettable post came into the world about “Matan Kahana’s long legs,” the musing on which she found so distracting that it was hard for her to write her maiden speech in the Knesset. It is good that she spared us the way she managed to free herself from the distraction. Doesn’t matter. She can in any case add the title of minister to her renovated curriculum vitae, along with the Sapir Prize, or Prizes, for fiction she claims she has won and the position of chief digital editor at the Kan Israel Broadcasting Corporation.

A good start

There is no cliché too superfluous to describe how Netanyahu and his people behaved: They hitched the cart before the horse, they leaped before they looked, they divided the spoils before they were victors, etc. Admittedly we in the media were also mistaken and expected that after Silman’s resignation, the end of the government was nigh. But who are we compared to the most skillful politician on the playing field, the chess master who can say checkmate in three moves, King Bibi, as Netanyahu is known to his fans.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the opening of the Knesset summer session on Monday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This doesn’t mean the situation of the coalition is paradise. It is still on artificial respiration. Every week will bring with it a new struggle on the slope of Givat Ram. There is no dearth of challenges. In the United Arab List they have given the government a second chance; will they give it a third? In Yamina they are having a hard time digesting the increasing dependence on the Arab party and its Shura Council. They are having an even harder time with Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s willingness to rely on part of the Arab-majority Joint List in the Knesset. All in all the reins are pretty loose, but the chariot is still whole.

Housing and Construction (and Jerusalem Affairs) Minister Zeev Elkin was recruited again to the coalition guard after having been distanced from the chamber towards the end of the previous session. The minister responsible for liaison between the government and the Knesset, among his other roles, presided this week over about 25 or 26 victories in votes, as compared to one loss, caused by Meretz MK Yair Golan’s love of interviews, even on obscure afternoon broadcasts. Elkin (New Hope), with the help of deputy coalition whip Boaz Toporovsky (Yesh Atid), sewed up whomever was necessary from the opposition benches, for each vote separately.

Precisely the week in which they predicted the government would start the countdown to its end was one of its most successful. Elkin isn’t promising – himself, or Bennett and Lapid – that the worst of all is behind them. He believes that in the coming weeks at least, it will be all right, and if external events don’t rear their ugly heads – security incidents, for example – the summer session will go by safely. In the meantime, he is expecting Bennett to supervise his own backyard.

Elkin told someone that in the late evening hours of April 5, the day of Silman’s resignation, Bennett phoned him and reported that the bleeding had been stanched.

“Don’t talk to me at night, talk to me in the morning,” the former Likud minister told him. “You talk to your Knesset members in the evening, and you go to sleep. Bibi talks to them at night.”

And Netanyahu, what will happen with him? If he doesn’t succeed in dragging us into an election no later than the beginning of 2023 – and this is his vision for the country, an election – the plea bargain he has supposedly abandoned will return, at least theoretically. Likud MK Yariv Levin told Channel 13 this week that Bibi has promised him that this is it, there isn’t going to be a deal. The Bibi-ists celebrated Shlomo Filber’s acrobatics that lacked all credibility in the courtroom this week. But make no mistake, a deal is definitely on the agenda.

To improve his situation in advance of a future arrangement – or, alternatively, to carry out a legal putsch against the court system – he absolutely must be the prime minister. Really, not in his dreams, not in the exhalations of his servants, not in the WhatsApps from Chani Bleiweiss, his secretary at Metsudat Ze’ev, the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv.

This week an invitation came to me from Bleiweiss’s mobile phone that had been intended for a woman named Elizabeth. “This is Chani from PM Netanyahu. I wanted to invite you to the memorial for Mrs. Netanyahu’s mother and to the memorial for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s father.” (Then she notes the date, the place and the time. And still, the formulation is official; Bibi is always “Prime Minister,” with the lady at his side. And the sea is the same sea.)

Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset this week. Credit: Noam Moskowitz/Knesset


Netanyahu (also) erred by underestimating the coalition leaders’ desire to survive and ability to do damage control. They put up the fight of their lives. Immediately after Silman’s departure, Bennett made time to deal with the two immediate suspects in his own Yamina party, Abir Kara and Nir Orbach. With the opening of the new Knesset session this week, the former got a billion shekels ($290 million) in grants to compensate businesspeople for losses during the omicron variant of the coronavirus, while the latter will soon get 4,000 new homes in the West Bank, which were approved on Thursday. Shirly Pinto, who also whined a bit, passed a bill important to her this week as well.

Coming next: During the Knesset’s recess, MK Amichai Chikli was very belatedly deemed a defector. Silman observed and got the message. To see her this week in the Knesset was a pathetic sight. She seemed lost, like someone crying for someone to find her a good home. She even participated in a meeting of Yamina party MKs, a disturbed occurrence in and of itself. But during three days of parliamentary activity, she didn’t vote with the opposition even once.

During the first two weeks of April, she felt like she was on top of the world. She was flattered and fawned over by Likud, by rabbis and their wives and by all kinds of people like Bezalel Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. But now, she’s in no man’s land. The Knesset knows how to give someone the cold shoulder with lightning speed.

Most of the work with the United Arab List was done by Lapid. Two weeks ago, at the height of the tensions on the Temple Mount, most senior members of the government thought UAL was out. But Lapid sought an urgent meeting with the prime minister’s aides. “I want to take over dealing with UAL,” he told them. “You’re trapped by your party. I have no such problem.”

Bennett and his aides debated, but they realized that this made sense and agreed. Lapid’s machine sprang into action. His people began mapping out every government project relevant to the Arab community and identified many achievements by UAL that hadn’t been marketed properly, if at all.

It’s not every day, someone involved in the issue told me, that a political party uses its coalition funding to build a cultural center in the Negev Bedouin city of Rahat at a cost 40 million shekels, but almost nobody has heard about it.

At the end of the mapping process, Lapid sent the director general of the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office (there is such an office, and such a person), Naama Schultz, to present the findings to UAL lawmaker Walid Taha at his office in Kafr Qasem. “Look outside for a moment,” she urged him. On the street outside, a road was being repaved. “Do you know that this repair comes from the budget you passed?”

New Hope's Zeev Elkin at the opening of the summer session.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Taha knew, of course, but his town didn’t know. He didn’t market it, and therefore didn’t reap any political capital.

The three new industrial parks in Kseifa, Umm Batin and Tel Sheva were a similar story. Schultz managed to prove to Taha – a tough nut, as everyone knows – that UAL’s successes weren’t merely theoretical or in the future or on paper; some were already concrete. They had simply slipped under the radar. We’d be happy to help you with this too, Lapid’s people told their colleagues from UAL, but give us something in exchange.

Abbas wanted to continue the party’s suspension of its membership in the governing coalition for another week so as not to look ridiculous. A suspension while the Knesset is in recess is no different than plastic fruit: It looks pretty and whets the appetite, but it’s fake.

It has to stop now, Lapid replied. If you aren’t back in by Wednesday, a bill to dissolve the Knesset will pass its first of four required votes. If that happened in another month or two, on the eve of the next recess, we’d be able to survive it. But I’m not willing to have the session begin with the dissolution of parliament hanging over my head.

Moreover, he told Abbas, Netanyahu promised the media that the government had effectively already fallen. If we defeat them at the very beginning, we’ll take the wind out of their sails.

Abbas not only agreed, but at a press conference in the Knesset, all three of his party’s other MKs stood beside him – including Mazan Ghanayim, who had said prior to a meeting of the party’s Shura Council that he would recommend quitting the government. Bennett, in his office next door, breathed a sigh of relief.

Not only did the UAL return to his bosom, but its leader didn’t try to appease the rival Joint List, didn’t try to prove he was more nationalistic than Joint List’s leaders, but focused on civic issues, didn’t mention the Temple Mount and, the cherry on top, mocked Netanyahu and threatened to reveal correspondence that would embarrass him. It’s not pleasant to wait for the Shura Council’s decision, Bennett told his people, but ultimately, I decide policy, while the council decides whether UAL will stay in or not.

In retrospect, Abbas had no choice, and apparently even the radicals in his party realized that. What would they be quitting over? Tempers on the Temple Mount had calmed after Ramadan, as expected. Who would even remember the unrest if a new election took place in another 100 days, at the earliest?

Idit Silman at the opening session.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The suspension didn’t help UAL in the polls. In one poll, it even fell below the electoral threshold. Some pollsters said this wasn’t a blip, but a trend.

Had it quit, the party would have contributed to the (false) narrative of its rival, the Joint List, that this government is even worse than its predecessors. It would have lost twice over, and it would have been doomed to return, with tail tucked and on terrible terms, to the very joint ticket it left more than a year ago. You don’t have to be a seasoned politician like Abbas to read the map of this situation.

Suspicious signs

At the end of the cabinet meeting, Bennett gave the ministers a gift: “The Jewish March of Folly” by Amotz Asa-El. The book explores the civil wars in Jewish political history, from the period of the biblical judges to the Roman conquest of Israel. It denounces the leaders who reveled in these internecine conflicts, or at the very least didn’t do enough to prevent them.

“Together, we will protect our third home,” Bennett wrote in his dedication, using the Hebrew term that also implies that the State of Israel is similar to a Third Temple. Bennett’s Yamina party paid for 26 copies of the book.

This was on Sunday. Last weekend, Bennett was busy putting out the fire after associates of his told Haaretz that there was an 80 percent chance the government would only last another month or so.

The key issue was how to stay on as prime minister of a caretaker government until the next election. The answer: if the left wing of the coalition is the side that brings down the government. Ministers called him, wrote him, asked “why now?” – and he talked to them to calm things down.

But faces were gloomy around Lapid. The assumption is that the foreign minister won’t enter the Prime Minister’s Office by the high road; that is, not via the rotation of the premiership scheduled for August 2023.

United Arab List leader Mansour Abbas during a press conference at the Knesset on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Lapid’s people are now reading that Bennett is having sacrilegious thoughts. On Tuesday, Haaretz’s Michael Hauser Tov reported about a meeting Bennett held on this topic with his close adviser Aron Shaviv.

Other signs are getting Lapid’s people to wonder about Bennett’s intentions. Lapid’s own close adviser, Hillel Kobrinsky, has told Bennett’s people: Calm down, what you’re doing isn’t flying under our radar. Don’t forget that we know how to do politics, too.

This front has quieted down for now. Lapid is the one who built this government. He’s no less responsible for it than Bennett (and in most ways, even more so).

Even when the background noise isn’t to his taste, Lapid doesn’t lose sight of the main target: keeping the government together, because the alternative is nothing less than a national disaster. United Torah Judaism’s Yitzhak Pindrus dreams about blowing up the Supreme Court, while Religious Zionism’s Simcha Rothman, a member of the Judicial Appointments Committee, sits next to him and laughs.

Netanyahu is bent to get the job done through a long list of new laws and regulations that will root out the power of the attorney general, the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Supreme Court – and rescue him from the jaws of justice.

Under Netanyahu, far-rightists Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and Avi Maoz will have the last word. Ilana Saporta Hania, the brainwashed Bibi-ist retiree who is suspected of sending threatening letters with bullets to the Bennett family, will be a cultural hero. Maybe she’ll even be invited for a visit to the prime minister’s residence.

Bibi-ism is terror against statesmanship, Israeli democracy and sanity. And as the sane right knows, you can’t let terror win.

Uncouth birthday

On the morning of April 5, just after he learned that Silman had defected from the coalition, Moshe Gafni spoke with a confidant. “The opposition has to do some soul-searching too,” he said.

The head of the United Torah Judaism party sounded excited. He, like many others, was under the impression that Silman was the swallow heralding a total collapse on the right – leading to the dissolution of the Knesset.

“Say it on the radio,” the confidant proposed, so Gafni did. In the office of the opposition leader, the words were interpreted as a recommendation to Likud legislators to rush to replace Netanyahu with a candidate who could form a new government in the current Knesset: Yuli Edelstein, Nir Barkat or Yisrael Katz.

Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism speaking in the Knesset in February.Credit: Danny Shem-Tov/Knesset

Gafni’s disgust at the idea of an early election coincides with his foul relationship with the person pushing for an election. This ultra-Orthodox legislator, who knows the Israeli economy well after so many years heading the Knesset Finance Committee, is aware of the damage another election would cause the economy.

But his main consideration is political: United Torah Judaism is going trough a crisis. Yaakov Litzman, who has announced he will resign from the Knesset, hardly exists anymore. Gafni, who celebrated his 70th birthday this week, isn’t in great health after a heart attack. The party’s younger voters, who are more religious Zionist/ultra-Orthodox than ultra-Orthodox, are drifting to Smotrich – and their knight in shining armor is Netanyahu because of his war against the judiciary.

Gafni thinks that in a fifth election, the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc still won’t capture 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Israel will be dragged into a sixth election campaign with Lapid as head of the caretaker government – who to strengthen his electoral hopes would return to his former glory as an anti-ultra-Orthodox nemesis, something he has neglected over the past year.

In the quadrangle of Netanyahu and the heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Gafni, the leader of the Degel Hatorah faction, was always sort of an outsider. But Arye Dery felt at home in the prime minister’s residence, as did Litzman at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Gafni and Netanyahu never broadcast on the same frequency. The former was always more suspicious of the latter and respected him less than his colleagues and voters did. Netanyahu ignored Gafni a bit, disrespected him a bit. Now Dery is no longer in the Knesset, Litzman is on his way out with an indictment, and who’s left?

After that radio interview, Gafni was summoned to Netanyahu’s office. The conversation wasn’t an easy one, people close to Gafni say. Heavy pressure was applied, and in the end, he was convinced to release a statement with a partial correction. Still, his opinion hasn’t changed; it has only strengthened.

All the same, he won’t lead a rebellion against Netanyahu, he doesn’t have the divisions and energy needed. He’ll take an election in stride, but if after an election they don’t find 61 MKs, Gafni will be in trouble – many politicians believe he’s ready to join a governing coalition with Lapid if he has no other choice. His problem is his right-wing voters.

Which is what leads us to the bizarre show this week in the Knesset. Everything is related in the end, even if we can’t see the strings being pulled. United Torah Judaism MKs celebrated their Moshe’s 70th birthday. MKs from Lapid’s Yesh Atid party were also invited, including their leader. He brought with him Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy.

The birthday boy sat on his throne; at his right and left sat legislators from his own party, and from Yesh Atid! Lapid stood in front of him, the tails of his suit jacket grazing the beard of Litzman, his sworn enemy, and showered Gafni with ridiculous compliments: “You’re a good soul, a good man, you know how to handle disagreements. Even when I don’t agree with you, I respect your opinion and listen to you.”

Some wondered whether the tension between the two prime ministers contributed to Lapid’s show of affection for Bennett’s greatest detractor. Bennett wasn’t invited. Dery, in a room nearby, reported on what was going on and forbade the legislators from his party to attend. Ayelet Shaked peeked her head in from the door, saw what she saw, and left.

Except for the uncouthness of the birthday boy – somebody else would have stood up – the hearty descriptions brought me back to the Gafni we all knew over the past year from his speeches and interviews.

Bennett has never insulted Gafni, who has had plenty to say about Bennett: “A murderer who causes people to die from COVID. … Betrayed Israel. … Lives in the jungle … a worthless piece of … an embarrassment.”

“A good soul” doesn’t seem quite on the mark. Gafni doesn’t want Lapid as prime minister; that’s certainly clear, as is his opinion of Bennett. And if Netanyahu goes, Gafni won’t shed a tear.

In his reflections there, under Lapid’s talking head, Gafni certainly continued to fantasize about the scenario where he crowns Benny Gantz the unity prime minister and returns to head the Knesset Finance Committee, which he loves so much. Spoiler: It won’t happen.

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