Opportunists From the Israeli Center Add to Bennett's Woes

The extortionist du jour this time was Michael Biton of Benny Gantz's party; at least Gantz backtracked from his own unpleasant surprise. Meanwhile, Likud's Miri Regev played the victim like never before

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

So this is how things stand as of Thursday evening, May 26. At the beginning of the week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett bade farewell to his chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi. They had been together for 10 years, in sickness and in health, in the political peaks and valleys.

It was a rare symbiosis that survived innumerable shocks: the fall by Bennett’s party below the electoral threshold, the loss of Knesset seats from one election to the next, the plagues of Benjamin Netanyahu.

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What broke Gan-Zvi was our “government of change,” Bennett’s former chief political adviser Shimrit Meir and the move toward the center by his buddy-boss. As long as she was there in the office, closer than Gan-Zvi was to the man behind the double door (and more influential), he gritted his teeth but didn’t want to give her the victory picture. Just moments after she slammed the door two weeks ago, he did some slamming of his own.

It’s sort of like a square dance – allemande left, allemande right and swing your partner: Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of Meretz “returned to the coalition” after Yair Lapid bestowed upon her the respect and attention that she didn’t get from her party chairman, Nitzan Horowitz.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his chief of staff, Tal Gan-Zvi, this month.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

In her honor, Lapid convened a meeting where he promised to release funds from the five-year plan for the Arab community, with a symbolic addition for a hospital in Nazareth. This didn’t stop Netanyahu and his hollow mouthpieces from spreading lies about “money for the Zoabis and the Tibis,” invoking both a slur from the past that Lapid prefers to forget and Joint List legislator Ahmad Tibi. Supposedly these funds were being diverted at the expense of Israeli soldiers.

The governing coalition is indeed encountering extortion these days. Its heads hemmed and hawed regarding the funds that Zoabi requested (along with the Arab mayors who were a significant factor in her about-face), whether or not this money was actually in the original budget. But there’s nothing here that isn’t routine in every coalition.

A small reminder: After the forming of a narrow coalition in 2015, Netanyahu was dependent on the 61st vote, that of Likud’s Oren Hazan, a bit of a maverick. And in 2016, when Bibi expanded the coalition with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, he paid for the votes of members of his own caucus (among them Hazan, David Bitan and the genius of her generation, Nava Boker) with hundreds of millions of shekels disbursed according to their personal and political whims.

Bitan, for example, received nearly 50 million shekels ($15 million) and scattered it among dozens of different interests; I’ll spare you the details. The most important was a hospital desperately in need of rescue.

Twice Rinawie Zoabi spat in Lapid’s face, though even before she made her move, he would meet with her often and even offered to appoint her the Israeli consul in Shanghai. The first spitting was her announcement that she was leaving the coalition; the second was when she didn’t agree to vote for scholarships for newly discharged soldiers despite her “return” that was accompanied by a joint statement from them both.

Legislators from all the parties in the coalition have often voted for scholarships for Arab Israeli students, and they did it without causing a fuss, but the woman with a conscience from Nof Hagalil just couldn’t do something similar. Mazen Ghanayim from the United Arab List could, and he’s openly striving to topple the government.

Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi at a finance committee meeting on Monday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

When Rinawie Zoabi’s colleagues in Meretz begged her to stay in the coalition, she told them: “I’m not a good fit.” This was a touching admission, but the obvious conclusion by anyone with the least bit of integrity would have been: Hand the seat back to the party that gave it to her as a gift.

There’s no one to talk to, Meretz people say. She’s mashtooba (a wreck). That’s worse than majnoona (nuts), they explained. Well, don't ask me. I understood that there were differences of opinion; complementary the two sides aren’t.

They pleaded with her: Vote for the scholarships, what do you care? Her reply: Mazen said he wasn’t going to vote. So I will?

And yet, Mansour Abbas, Walid Taha and Iman Khatib-Yasin, the other United Arab List lawmakers, were prepared to support the bill but were afraid of Rinawie Zoabi. The thinking went, “She’s going to do a conscription-bill number on us. We supported her, she knocked down the bill, and we came out looking like fools on our home turf.”

The episode concerning the worthy bill for newly discharged soldiers (combat soldiers, lone soldiers, immigrants and soldiers from low-income families) is the best possible example of the fatal trap in which the United Arab List finds itself. When it votes for bills with a security context, the Joint List makes mincemeat of the United Arab List. When Abbas’ party votes nay or abstains, Likudniks taunt: A government with Arabs can’t work.

When this is how things look in the Arab wing of the coalition (for the most part), we can’t complain about Nir Orbach over in Bennett’s Yamina. He has a bellyache when he votes against the bill to hook up the illegal West Bank outposts to the electricity grid, and against many right-wing bills, while the Arabs in the coalition are beginning to go AWOL.

It's said that Orbach is on the brink; at any moment he could vote to dissolve the Knesset. Rumor has it that Netanyahu consigliere Yariv Levin has promised him a spot on the Likud election state.

But he’s a friend of Bennett’s, and they’re hoping at the Prime Minister’s Office that he’ll let Bennett make it through the summer session safely. This way, the next election will happen at the beginning of 2023. Who could ask for anything more?

Improving in the wrong direction

Bennett realizes what every party leader in his government realizes – it’s over. Flying through the Knesset’s hallways surrounded by bodyguards, he tosses out optimistic comments like “our situation is good and getting better.” But it’s improving in the wrong direction.

In conversations with ministers and aides, he sounds more realistic, admitting this week that he doesn't know if his government will make it to the Knesset’s summer recess, which starts on July 27.

People who have spoken with him say he has adopted a stoic approach. Que sera, sera. Not totally, of course; he isn’t throwing in the towel. But the daily crises, threats and dramas, coupled with the letters and bullets sent to his family, are taking a toll.

He doesn’t intend to play any dirty tricks on Lapid regarding the leadership of a caretaker government. Yair is a mensch, Bennett recently told someone who raised the idea. He won’t try to screw him.

Bennett's frustration is evident. The day Joe Biden announced that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would remain on America’s list of terrorist organizations (an issue settled during Shimrit Meir's last visit to Washington), the extortionist du jour, this time Michael Biton of Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party, stole Bennett's thunder.

MIchael Biton at a Knesset committee meeting in October.Credit: Knesset

Biton is a populist who took his ouster as minister without portfolio in the previous government hard. He was made chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee and has been bitter ever since.

In his great generosity, he promised not to vote no-confidence in the government. But he also won’t support its bills or oppose opposition bills. These minor matters are what will ultimately topple the government, Bennett says – the gnawing, the undermining, the poisonous dynamics.

There’s no such thing as everybody doing as they please, Bennett said. Until now, the danger came from the extremes, both right and left. Now it’s also coming from opportunists in the center.

At a meeting of party leaders this week, Bennett said that if they keep acting like there will be an election, an election will happen. Self-fulfilling prophecies aren’t a cliché.

Who was he addressing? Lieberman, who talks about stability and longevity but is deep in campaigning. See his opposition to the nation-state law, aimed at Druze voters, or the financial measures against the ultra-Orthodox that he wants in the budget. On Thursday, he posted an online campaign ad telling “our dear soldiers” about the benefits they’ll receive from the government.

Who else was Bennett addressing? Labor Party chief Merav Michaeli, who missed no opportunity last week to gleefully remind Horowitz which party is the stable one in their government. This week, she also deliberately humiliated Biton, while her aides, according to senior Kahol Lavan members, told reporters that Gantz was talking with Netanyahu about forming an alternative government.

There are no such talks, as far as is known. Nor are any likely. But when Bennett talks about the restraints falling away, he means Gantz – and not just apropos Biton. Gantz’s famous “bitterness,” evident ever since the government launched last June, undermines it, Bennett said recently. Benny needs to let it go.

Monday night, during a Knesset debate on the bill to grant scholarships to veterans, Gantz surprised Bennett and Lapid. When it was clear the government had no majority, he went to Bennett’s office accompanied by his party’s outstanding student, Eitan Ginzburg, who had searched through all the amendments Likud proposed and found one to raise the scholarship from 66 to 75 percent of tuition (not 100 percent, as Likud publicly and populistically demanded).

I’ll go to the podium and say we support this; let’s see how they respond, Gantz said. Bennett and Lapid looked at each other. Gantz wasn’t suggesting, he was telling them.

Lapid objected. He didn’t want to give Gantz this achievement, Kahol Lavan members said. But ultimately, Gantz got the okay. He went to the podium and made the proposal.

Netanyahu and his people were caught by surprise. The debate was halted, Likud’s legislators convened. Netanyahu’s office called Gantz to say the opposition leader wanted to negotiate. Gantz wisely refused to take the call. Likud members argued, realized that this forgotten amendment had trapped them and agreed.

This was a big step for Gantz and his campaign but an own goal for the coalition, which merely underscored its own disability on certain issues. Gantz will depict himself not just as the responsible adult but as the only person capable of forming a broad government.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz last year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The ultra-Orthodox who pray to him three times a day have lavished praise on him to lure him from the government. They embraced him metaphorically; Religious Zionism Chairman Bezalel Smotrich did so physically.

Gantz doesn’t intend to jump into this honey trap, inside which hides a sharp sting he has already experienced. But after the election? That’s a whole new ball of wax.

Miri’s belly

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation received a bill to stiffen sentencing for rapists. The sponsor was Likud's Miri Regev.

Instead of a maximum sentence of 16 years, she proposed life. And instead of the 20-year maximum for aggravated rape, she proposed a mandatory life sentence. Rapists should be treated like murderers.

The explanatory notes are an agonized manifesto about victims’ suffering. Rape is “a traumatic event with enormous physical and emotional consequences” that can lead to “suicide attempts, overeating, a tendency toward mental illness. ... Rape is like murder of the soul. ... The scars remain forever.” With sentimentality we didn’t know she had, Regev poured out her arguments for stiffer sentences.

Of course she demands that the government support her bill. When it comes to rape victims, there’s no politics, no coalition and opposition. Right?

Anyone reading the explanatory notes would conclude that not only is Regev’s belly aching, but her heart is bleeding for the victims. The bill is ridiculous and populist – in short, the Miri Regev we know and love.

This is the woman who depicted herself at the start of her parliamentary career as a champion of the poor but has been most attentive to the tycoons’ lobbyists.

The Justice Ministry’s legal advice department advised the committee not to support the amendment. Regev expected nothing else. Since she spends all her time trolling and cursing, she intended to use the bill, which was destined to be rejected, as a magnet for likes on social media.

Miri Regev, then culture minister, in the Knesset in 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

But as karma (and Regev’s rivals in Likud) would have it, the next day, recordings came to light in which our Simone de Beauvoir was heard dismissing rape victims. “We won’t vote for any bill!” she said.

“We’ve decided that we’re a fighting opposition and we want to topple this government! So there will be no bellyaching about the disabled and no bellyaching about rape cases, no bellyaching about battered women and no bellyaching about soldiers.”

Regev now faced a dilemma. On Wednesday, she was supposed to explain her bill to the Knesset. If she withdrew it, she would be a laughingstock. But if she brought it to a vote after her shame had been revealed, she’d be mocked for that, too.

Naturally she went to the Knesset podium and, with her typical insensitivity and vulgarity, made herself the victim. “They did an easy job on me,” she said. “It’s easy for you to campaign on Miri Regev, a strong, Mizrahi woman from Likud.”

How is it “easy” to campaign on someone so strong? Suddenly, this story is all about her, the poor thing. The bill failed, of course.

Such statements would destroy the career of almost any politician, and certainly one from the center-left. In 1998, Ori Orr, a Labor lawmaker and major general in the reserves, made racist remarks about Moroccan Israelis. He was immediately ousted from all his party positions and wasn’t reelected to the Knesset.

Expectations of Regev are much lower, as they are of fellow Likud MK David Amsalem. They can say horrifying, sickening things and emerge unscathed, embraced by their weak colleagues who fear becoming the target of their offensive mouths.

On the recording, we actually heard Likud's Yuval Steinitz outdo Regev. “Tomorrow it will be widows, orphans, the country's outskirts, a million and one disabled people, sick people, elderly people, Holocaust survivors, everything,” he said. With philosophical thoroughness, he filled in all the holes Regev had left.

The opposition voting against anything the government proposes is acceptable practice in general, even if there always used to be exceptions. What requires explanation here is the somewhat sick enthusiasm that Regev and Steinitz displayed for listing every population group that needs help and then dismissing it. What were they thinking?

“It’s not me who has to apologize,” Regev said after being caught red-handed. “The person who leaked my remarks from the party meeting should apologize.” Netanyahu has no better student than our Miri when it comes to riding roughshod over victims and then playing the victim.

But you can't have it both ways. Either you’re sensitive, in which case you’re sensitive with no exceptions and conditions, or you’re indifferent, in which case you should drop the hypocrisy.

In another recording from another meeting, Netanyahu also sounded angry at the leak, not the statements themselves. No party in the Knesset leaks like Likud.

In 2019, when the alleged Iranian hack of Gantz’s cellphone was reported, Likud ran a campaign ad saying that if he can't protect his cellphone, how can he protect the country? That begs a more relevant question: If the Likud chairman, the “former prime minister,” can’t control 28 Knesset members, how can he run a government?

The Bibi show

The public part of the Likud caucus meeting, in which the party chairman addresses the nation, is the closest thing to a parallel universe. In nearly every sentence that comes out of the man’s mouth, incitement runs riot, lies are truth, fabrications are facts, and the logic doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

On Monday, before the start of the Knesset debate on the law to provide scholarships for certain categories of newly discharged soldiers, Netanyahu spoke to the camera. “In 2016 we initiated the program Uniforms to Academia," he said – it’s catchier in Hebrew: Mimadim Lelimudim. "And every combat soldier received 100 percent toward studying for a bachelor’s degree.”

The truth: Yes, the program was born in 2016. Two-thirds of the funding came from donations and the rest from the soldier’s discharge grant, but the philanthropy waned once the pandemic started. The Bennett-Lapid-Lieberman government enshrined the 66.6 percent in the budget, which the Netanyahu governments never did. The money for the ultra-Orthodox was more important.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset last year.Credit: Emil Salman

“Instead of giving 100 percent, as we did, Bennett and Lapid are busy giving millions to the supporters of terror, to the opponents of Zionism,” Netanyahu added.

The truth: The people who oppose Zionism (or at least have reservations about it) are the ultra-Orthodox – mainly the Ashkenazim. They're the allies, or the “natural partners” in Netanyahu’s bloc. But they're Jews, so it’s okay.

The “supporters of terror” are Arab Israelis, to whom Abu Yair promised unimaginable munificence on the eve of the last election. But let's not be naive. Bibi is talking about the Arab lawmakers.

The truth: Not one of them has been arrested, suspected, indicted or convicted of a terror offense. But an intended cabinet member in a future Netanyahu government, Religious Zionism's Itamar Ben-Gvir, has been convicted of possessing propaganda for a terror group and of supporting a terror group.

Baruch Marzel, left, Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Michael Ben Ari at an Otzma Yehudit meeting in 2019.Credit: David Bachar

Another intended cabinet minister from that party, Bezalel Smotrich, has been jailed for 21 days on suspicion of activities whose difference from terrorism is very slim. But it’s Jewish terrorism, so it’s okay. These are our guys.

“I’ve done the calculations,” the opposition leader said. “Every hour of Bennett as prime minister is costing taxpayers 10 million shekels.”

Interesting, could we see the Excel sheet? And this is still without Netanyahu's pet project Wing of Zion, Israel's extravagant equivalent of Air Force One, which seems to be permanently grounded.

“You don’t have 50 million for soldiers,” Bibi thundered. “That’s the amount that has been wasted on Bennett’s private home in Ra’anana!”

The truth: The home hasn't been renovated for 50 million, or 5 million or 500,000, and certainly not for the insane amounts spent on Netanyahu's villa in Caesarea.

The climax came when the prime minister, during his 12 straight years in office, bewailed the housing prices, the food prices and the overall cost of living. It appears he fully believes everything he says.

This seems worrying, pathological. Seems, of course, without saying anything about mental illness. After all, that's why former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been sued by the Netanyahus.

Napoleon defined history as “a set of lies agreed upon.” Netanyahu is surely on board with that, not to mention the ego and lack of inhibition.

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