Analysis |

A Celebration of Bibi-ism in Likud

Before the primary, what really matters is how close you are to Netanyahu, as TV star Bismuth flatters, Gilad Sharon fights and Danny Danon spreads a wide net ■ On the left, Michaeli discovers the limits of power ■ Despite Bibi's claims, Russia's attempts to shut down the Jewish Agency are nothing new

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

One should not scoff at the democratic process that Likud will conduct next Wednesday. Primaries for a party’s Knesset slate are a rare sight on the Israeli political landscape. Contrary to the mendacious mantra that is recited by the Likudniks: “We are the only ones who ...”, there are three other parties that allow their members to choose the names on their respective slate of candidates: the Labor Party, Meretz and Religious Zionism. True, the end product of the ballot boxes isn’t always better than the one drawn up by a random party chair at their kitchen table – although here, too, accidents can happen – but that’s the price of the system. It’s also the only day the chair, however powerful, has no control over the process.

The “celebration of democracy” in Likud that we’ll be hearing so much about in the coming days creates a great paradox: So-and-so wins a high place on the slate. Tens of thousands of party members marked his name. That evening he is carried through Expo Tel Aviv on the shoulders of his supporters. The next day he’ll give interviews to the media. What portfolio would you like, they’ll ask. Foreign affairs? Finance? Defense?

MK Amir Ohana at a Likud primary event in 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

That’s a question from a different era, an era in which the selection of candidates meant something. The degree of grassroots trust for a politician is supposed to give them power, status, gravitas. The leaders of the ruling parties in the past respected to a certain degree the vox populi, of the people, the passions of their members, when handing out cabinet posts. Not always, by the way. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin gave the finance portfolio to the MK who was 15th on the Labor slate (Avraham Shochat) and the position of Knesset speaker to No. 16 (Shevah Weiss), long-standing members of his camp. In 1999, Ehud Barak looked at the top of his One Israel ticket and then gave nearly everyone on it the portfolios they didn’t want. In 2003, Ariel Sharon made Ehud Olmert, No. 32 on the Likud slate, deputy prime minister and minister of industry, trade and labor – the expanded TMT portfolio – and we all know what happened. There’s no lack of examples. For the party head, primary results are a recommendation, not an order.

This applies to Benjamin Netanyahu as well. It’s even easier for him than for his predecessors. He exercises his power as the undisputed leader of his party. The tremendous power he has accumulated in recent years, with the help of his soldiers in the media, social media and other dubious avenues, completely negates the importance of the primary. And regardless, the power that he holds paralyzes Likud’s “senior figures” with fear. Every momentary step out of line, every fleeting flicker of independence, is nipped in the bud.

It’s happened more than once in the past few years. Yuli Edelstein announced a challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud: “He cannot form a government,” he explained. We weren’t surprised when he backed out even before registration began. Yisrael Katz was caught here and there saying he was undermining the emperor, and was struck silent overnight. Nir Barkat made a stir, and then withdrew into his shell like a snail. Remember Avi Dichter, a storied chief of the Shin Bet security service? As a cabinet member in the Olmert government, he wasn’t afraid to speak out against him in regard to the criminal investigations against the prime minister. Today he looks terrified, as if he’s seen a ghost. They have all been neutered, silenced, by choice or necessity. None of them has an independent opinion that contradicts the Bibi-ist talking points. And if one does, it’s expressed in a low whisper.

So what does it matter if you end up in the top five, or in 15th place? The last time Netanyahu formed a government, in June 2020, he passed over three who were elected to the top 10: Gideon Sa’ar, who dared to run against him; Dichter, because Netanyahu smells weakness and enjoys exploiting it; and Barkat, whose well-funded campaign, meant to position him as heir to the throne, was a joke in the eyes of the Netanyahu family.

MKs Miri Regev, Ofir Akunis, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yariv Levin at a Likud event in May.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

David Amsalem, Amir Ohana, Eli Cohen, Tzachi Hanegbi, Yuval Steinitz – all of whom starred in the next group of 10, light years behind Barkat, Sa’ar and Dichter, all received cabinet appointments. It will happen this time, too, if Likud returns to power. The “grassroots” doesn’t matter. The diktat of Sara and Yair Netanyahu beats the tens of thousands of party members who will take the trouble to report to the polls, in the delusion that they are “influencers.”

The Bibi-ist wave that in the past few years swept over a party that once fizzed with opinions, streams, ideological disagreements between moderates and extremists, conservatives and liberals, Greater Land of Israel adherents and supporters of a diplomatic solution. Everyone is a Bibi-ist now. The only differences are stylistic. Amsalem, Galit Distal Atbaryan, Shlomo Karhi – it goes without saying that they are diehard Bibi-ists. But what about Edelstein, who refused to implement a High Court of Justice ruling on the grounds of it being “totally illegal,” or Yisrael Katz and Yoav Gallant, who are threatening the Arab minority with a second Nakba if they misbehave. Or Hanegbi, who speaks of the justice system as he never did before? How are they any less infected by malignant Bibi-ism than the gang of raving, insulting and threatening rioters? One can be a Bibi-ist without screaming and shouting and groveling at the leader’s feet, just as one can be a Kahanist without hanging a picture of Rabbi Meir Kahane in the house.

The sad thing is that there are good people in Likud. Deep down, they are profoundly disgusted that the party has become an extension of Balfour/Caesarea. They fear for the future of the state under Netanyahu, fears which are not far from those of members of Yesh Atid. Deep down, they think that when all hope is lost, they’ll find their lost backbone. In practice, they have incorporated into their DNA the primary genetic code of the leader: survival at any cost.

Sharon, Danon and Bismuth

One of the most interesting people running for Likud’s national slate is Gilad Sharon, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s son. He made the non-obvious choice to play in the big leagues rather than running in the Negev District, where he lives.

Shlomo Karhi entered the Knesset from that district in 2019 with just 594 votes. (Edelstein won 37,524. On Wednesday, we’ll find out how much his ephemeral challenge hurt him.)

The risk of being crushed in the national list’s Death Valley is large, but so is the achievement of being elected on it. Sharon, who pushed his father to evacuate settlements in the heart of Arab areas, has never regretted it. That’s a position that requires courage in Likud.

He made a major contribution to ending the Gaza chapter of the Israeli occupation’s march of folly. Seventeen years later, the (relative) Likud consensus still considers the pullout a failure. The lives of the children, women and men who would otherwise have been killed by terrorists don’t matter when rightist politicians gather to mourn the “uprooting.”

The elder Sharon dismantled Likud in November 2005 and founded the Kadima party. He was sick of Likud’s extremists; of Netanyahu, who undermined and incited against him; of the deteriorating language; and of interference from the Likud Central Committee, which then still held regular meetings. Yet compared to today’s jungle, Likud back then looked like the House of Lords.

The elder Sharon had many admirers, but he loathed cults of personality and kept away from fawners and bootlickers. He was a complete cynic and a political backstabber, but he valued critical professionals over mediocre yes-men. He sanctified statesmanlike behavior. His word was his bond.

Gilad Sharon at a Likud event in April.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Likud model 2022 (henceforth, Bibistan) is, from floor to ceiling, everything Sharon loathed. In 2019, Netanyahu refused to truncate the minimal membership time so the younger Sharon could run in the Negev District. Now, the road is open to him. He’s navigating between the remnants of the Sharon camp and the mainstream right on one hand, and the members who have never forgiven him for the disengagement on the other.

If elected, he’s the only one of the new or new-old candidates who can be expected to demonstrate some independence rather than becoming Netanyahu’s trampled doormat. He’s crisscrossing the country to find independent voters. But party veterans put his chances of placing high enough to have a realistic chance of entering the Knesset at low to nonexistent.

The prevailing view in Likud links Sharon with Danny Danon. The working assumption is that only one of them will get elected, and it will be the latter.

Danon was a thorn in Netanyahu’s backside, so Netanyahu exiled him to the United Nations in August 2015. But he remains a skilled political animal. His web extends throughout the party, and he has considerable power in deal-making. During his years in New York, he never forgot his friends and never let them forget him.

Danny Danon in 2019.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

Boaz Bismuth is also sparking some interest. The narcissistic television panelist with the cumbersome speaking style, who served as a regular comic interlude between analysts on the Ulpan Shishi program and set new records for saying nothing in many words, is now seeking to reap the reward of his years of flattering the leader. As the former editor in chief of Netanyahu’s one-time house organ, Israel Hayom, and a pundit on Friday evening’s most watched program, he enters the race with maximal name recognition.

Bismuth submitted his candidacy just 10 days ago. Like Sharon, he courageously decided to run for the national list. Some Likud sources say Netanyahu isn’t exactly wooing voters for his loyal mouthpiece.

Some new Likud faces may well enter the Knesset if the party picks up more seats, as polls predict, and because some of the regional representatives have been pushed farther down the ticket. But even for “stars” like Bismuth, it’s a difficult mission.

High crimes and misdemeanors

Leaders of the anti-Netanyahu bloc are watching Likud’s district races closely. They include an impressive number of, shall we say, colorful characters. (Not) some of our finest.

In the Tel Aviv District (the 38th spot on the ticket), the leading candidate is David Laniado, who was once convicted of breaking into homes and assaulting a woman. MK David Bitan, who is on trial for bribery, and Arnon Giladi, Likud’s south Tel Aviv strongman who is up to his neck in criminal affairs, both supported Laniado. But on Thursday the party’s election committee disqualified his candidacy.

In the Shfela District (the 19th spot), one candidate is David Sharan, who has been charged with taking bribes, breach of trust and money laundering over alleged improprieties in Israel’s acquisition of submarines and missile ships.

The Coastal District (the 29th spot) has Yoni Giorno, who was convicted of attempting to kidnap a woman.

And the Judea and Samaria District (the 42nd spot), whose representative probably won’t make it into the Knesset, stars Gershon Mesika, who escaped serious charges in the Yisrael Beiteinu corruption case by the skin of his teeth and turned state’s evidence.

Arnon Giladi, former deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, in court in 2018.Credit: Meged Gozani

Benny Gantz, Gideon Sa’ar and Yair Lapid are hoping all of them win in the primary. They'll receive the massive coverage that Likud’s campaign will deny them.

What’s the potential for damage? Apparently not great. When the party is led by Netanyahu, with his closet full of skeletons, why should anybody get excited over the minor criminals?

His problem will be if they get media interviews and tie their battles to clear their names with Netanyahu’s battle against the legal system. Here there’s no room for multiple messages. Facing the “deep state,” there’s room for only one persecuted victim. Or two at most if Netanyahu gives one of the ticket’s reserved slots to retired general Gal Hirsch, for whom the party has considerable sympathy.

Speaking of criminals, it will be interesting to see what becomes of Haim Katz – but not, heaven forbid, because he confessed in December to “conspiracy to obtain a legitimate end through illegitimate means.” (He received a suspended sentence and a fine.)

It’s not clear why this veteran legislator is even running again. In November, immediately after the general election, he’s due to become chairman of the Jewish National Fund under an agreement between Likud and Labor. His rivals are telling voters, “Why waste a valuable vote on somebody who won’t even attend the opening Knesset session?”

And another interesting question: What will happen to Bibi’s most thuggish supporters, the ones who turned the Knesset into a verbal sewer – Karhi, Galit Distal Atbaryan, May Golan and former MK Osnat Mark, who wants to return? Will voters reward or punish them?

The prevailing assumption is that most of them will be rewarded. But sometimes the collective wisdom of party members works against their leader’s desire to surround himself with loudmouths.

Meanwhile on the left

A day before the Likud primary, the far more modest Labor Party primary will take place. Eight Laborites are competing for the four slots with a decent chance of making the Knesset. All of Labor's current legislators and cabinet members are vying, as well as new-ish faces such as Yair Fink, Tomer Avital and Gil Beilin.

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai, 68 and 75 years old, respectively, are running again. Competing against them are members of the young generation: Ram Shefa, Emilie Moatti, Gilad Kariv, Naama Lazimi, Ibtisam Mara’ana and Efrat Rayten. Lazimi and Fink both worked for Shelly Yacimovich in the Knesset; this is something of an advantage in the primary and a huge disadvantage in Labor chief Merav Michaeli’s office.

Shefa and Rayten are Michaeli’s favorites and her unofficial recommendations. When I stated this fact two weeks ago, I was told that Michaeli was angry. Me? Favorites? And now the final candidate slate for the primary has been published. Instead of alphabetical order, the names appear in a “random order,” the party spokesman said. The first names on the list are Shai, Rayten and Shefa.

Labor MKs Efrat Rayten and Ram Shefa at a campaign event in Tel Aviv last month.Credit: Moti Milrod

This week Michaeli learned a searing lesson on the limits of power. After easily defeating party Director General Eran Hermoni, who ran against her for leader of the party, she submitted to the convention a proposal to eliminate the position of director general. This was a bullying, arrogant and insolent move. She lost, big time.

In the days before the vote, most of her caucus warned Michaeli not to go there. She didn’t listen. In the past, bigger people than Michaeli tried to eliminate the director general position (which is indeed unnecessary) and fell on their faces. The members of the convention, who usually pass everything Michaeli wants, don’t like to become tools in the hands of the party chief. They admire her for reviving Labor in the last election, but they’re not imbeciles. They know vengefulness when they see it.

And as Michaeli wipes the egg off her face, Zehava Galon is trying to be Meretz's Michaeli – and is learning anew every day that someone has changed the rules. A race for party chief like the current one has never happened there before.

Yair Golan has brought with him, it’s not clear from where, a style only known in Likud: slander and anonymous text messages. Every interview, and he gives lots of interviews, is rife with attacks on Galon, while she never mentions him. Their strategies are clear: He's trying to get her down into the schoolyard and fight it out. She's ignoring him so as not to empower him. She has no interest in sloshing around in the mud with anybody except Netanyahu and the far right.

Labor chief Merav Michaeli at a conference in Jerusalem last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In the past quarter-century, since the retirement of founder Shulamit Aloni, six people have headed Meretz: Yossi Sarid, Yossi Beilin, Haim Oron, Galon, Tamar Zandberg and Nitzan Horowitz. The races never got personal, so they were boring. There was no meat, no blood.

This was also the case in the vote for places on the slate. Galon ran several times, both for the leadership and the slate, including against Ilan Gilon, her stubborn ideological rival. Neither said a bad word about the other. He talked about himself, she talked about herself.

Golan definitely talks about himself, but he also shows disrespect for his rival. “Zehava’s ceiling is the floor as far as I'm concerned,” “She prefers a small, weak Meretz,” and his favorite one: “She has a problem with the concept of Zionism.”

On Thursday the following message landed in Meretz members' phones: “Which statement do you agree with? Zehava Galon’s statement that Meretz is not a Zionist party, press 1. Yair Golan’s statement that Meretz is a Zionist party, press 2.” This is already a blow below the belt.

Galon has never said that Meretz is a non-Zionist party. She has said a number of times that “Meretz is an Israeli party, an open home for Zionist men and women like me, as well as for Arab members.” This formulation far from reflects the things Golan has put in her mouth.

It hardly bears mentioning that the vast majority of members and supporters of Meretz consider themselves Zionists. Golan is playing dirty in a party that takes pride in being purer than snow. Many are turning up their nose.

But the people following Golan are saying that this is exactly what Meretz lacks, that in these times even a party considered vegetarian needs a killer instinct, Zionism or no Zionism.

The obsolete Jewish Agency

The Israeli delegation that was sent to Moscow to handle the Jewish Agency crisis returned to Israel midweek with no news. At this stage the event is with the courts. A lower court is deliberating on the work and license of a Jewish Agency emissary in Russia. This isn't expected to end anytime soon. In the meantime, the Israeli government has a lot to do.

Last week Netanyahu released a video in which he says the crisis is the result of Lapid’s irresponsibility and inexperience. The message was that Lapid’s statement against Russia's aggression in Ukraine has messed up relations with Vladimir Putin, who's taking revenge on us by laying a heavy hand on the Jewish Agency in his country.

Sometimes a little perspective doesn’t hurt. The Jewish Agency’s problems in Russia didn’t start today. A faithful reader has shared a photocopy of a letter sent on April 12, 1996, to Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The sender: Yaakov Kedmi, the head of Nativ, a government agency that encourages immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union. The subject: “Revocation of the License for Jewish Agency Activity in Russia (Diplomatic Aspects).”

In his letter, Kedmi laid out what he believed were Russia's motives (back in Boris Yeltsin's day) to halt the Jewish Agency's operations. “It's impossible to view their action against the Jewish Agency only as a technical measure and ignore the entirety of relations between Israel and Russia,” Kedmi wrote.

He advised Peres to take up the issue and not leave it to the Jewish Agency chiefs or bureaucrats. He added that the Russian regime was trying to pressure the Israeli government via “the Jewish factor.”

Another letter to Peres, not from Kedmi, stated: “An official element in Israel is sending the message that the State of Israel is not interested in the continued activity of the Jewish Agency.”

Back in 1996, it emerges, there were already Israelis who thought that this organization was unnecessary, and that the Jewish Agency has its highs and lows in sync with Russia’s international interests.

The difference is that today the work of the Jewish Agency's emissaries can easily be done online. Even the most remote cities in Russia have Wi-Fi. It’s possible to communicate with the Jews, help when they’re in distress and send them money in a second.

Ah, but the jobs, the cushy salaries and the perks. And the best part is that an emissary isn’t evaluated by results. Even if he or she doesn’t bring a single immigrant to Israel, the salary will arrive.

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