Analysis

As Netanyahu Begins His Third Campaign, Rivlin Readies the Ejector Seat

Netanyahu is racing against the legal and political clock while trying to hold fast to power, but Gantz won't be able to get rid of him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz meet with President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence, September 24, 2019.
Haim Zach / GPO

Benjamin Netanyahu sees the recent election as an unfortunate mishap. He mentioned this several times in group and one-on-one meetings with people from his rightist bloc. The picture is clear to him now: He knows what went wrong on Tuesday, September 17, where his campaign headquarters erred, who screwed up, who disappointed and who fell asleep on his watch.

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He believes that another round could be good for him. Lessons will be learned, conclusions will be drawn, things will be put right. All will be fixed. The speech he made on Wednesday at the President’s Residence when accepting the mandate to form a government could, in the not too distant future, turn out to have been the launch of Likud’s third election campaign – a phrase that arouses horror and disgust – this year.

>> Read more: Netanyahu's mandate is meaningless, but he will continue campaigning | Analysis ■ Another election is a real possibility: We must prepare for it | Opinion

Like a skilled pastry chef, he poured into the saucepan all the ingredients he will use in the campaign: On the one hand, there’s Iran, “preparing the nation” for the major war and crafting a budget that will meet all the challenges. On the other hand, there is unity now, immediate reconciliation and mending the rifts. Where were all these threats hiding when he wrote an article for his house newspaper Israel Hayom headlined, “Anything but unity”?

Butter could not have melted in the mouth of the man standing there, who just a moment earlier had conducted a concert of inecitement, lies, hatred and racism that will be remembered as an eternal disgrace in the history of election campaigns in Israel, and was now preaching peace, equality and brotherhood. We blushed for him. He is not able to do this anymore, and not only because of the thick layer of makeup smeared on his face.

The president, Reuven Rivlin, has never excelled at pretending. His face has always revealed his feelings. Had he chosen to become a professional poker player, he would have been bankrupt by now. As he stood there on Wednesday evening alongside the candidate he chose to form the government and listened to what he had to say, Rivlin hung his head low and pursed his lips. His face showed endless sorrow, and most of all despair.

By the end of this past week, Rivlin’s heroic and super-activist efforts to head off the roller coaster barreling towards the abyss had failed. It wasn’t festiveness that prevailed at the event at his official residence, rather sourness and gloom. No wedding is going to come of this but instead a clash with a fair likelihood of plunging the country into the very same election campaign he pledged to prevent.

Netanyahu, who in the past never had qualms about any slander or libel he could use to brand the president as a subversive who “would do anything” so as not to task him with forming a government, accepted the mandate (for the third time in five years). Common sense and arithmetic necessitated this, not to mention that the other side did not go to any lengths to challenge it.

In Kahol Lavan they went for the second-in-line tactic from the outset. “I know that you people in the media aren’t pleased with us,” one of the top people in the party told me, “but what would we have gained by going first? After all, in actuality we have only 44 recommendations that are relevant for forming a government. We would have tried to set up meetings with Litzman, Dery, Shaked and Bennett,” he said, enumerating the leaders of the other parties in Netanyahu’s rightist bloc, “but they wouldn’t have bothered to come or else they would have showed up, sipped some coffee and as they left told reporters that they are committed to [Netanyahu’s] bloc.

“We would have been made fools of, become a joke. At the end of the 28 days” – the amount of time allotted for efforts to form a government – “we would have remained exactly where we had started: Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union. You would have slaughtered Benny Gantz. You’d be saying he’s a loser, that Bibi would have formed a government long ago. If we have a single drop more of a chance, theoretically, it’s in the second round.”

Ejector seat

Rivlin’s proposal for unblocking the malignant clot in the arteries of Israeli politics was indeed “revolutionary,” as he called it before the election. The drama wasn’t in the dry provisions that require amendments to legislation but rather in the implicit statement that accompanied them: For the first time the president of Israel, the symbol of the state and its dignity, is stating that from his perspective a prime minister who is under indictment cannot remain in the position. He can keep his title but he will have to deposit the running of the state into someone else’s hands.

The provisions of the proposal were aimed at softening as much as possible the fall of the prime minister from the heights of the leader’s chair to the lowly bench of the accused. Extending the period of incapacity, i.e. inability to perform one’s duties, from 100 days (at the end of which the incapacitated prime minister is required to resign) to an unlimited amount of time was aimed not only at the ears of the individual in question, but also to the lady and the son on Balfour Street.

As long as the husband and father is the prime minister, even if only in name, they will not have to leave the official residence with its peeling paint, cars and bodyguards, “house father,” “house mother” and the crew of workers that continues – as has emerged from testimony reported this week – to suffer at the hand of the lady of the house. There are personality traits that no court ruling or fine can alter.

At the same time, the provision on elevating the status of the deputy prime minister to acting prime minister, with all the attendant authority, is supposed, Rivlin hoped, to compensate the members of Kahol Lavan for the public price they would pay after having thrown into the garbage their two main commitments: We will not serve in a government under Netanyahu, and we will establish a liberal unity government.

Look, he said to Kahol Lavan in effect, I’m putting Netanyahu into the ejector seat. The date of his ejection into the legal stratosphere will be determined by the attorney general. That is, with regard to the main issue from your perspective – you will have won. He is serving on borrowed time. And for the rest, be so kind as to compromise.

As of now, they aren’t headed that way.

Who is the boss?

On Wednesday evening the heads of the two largest parties came to the president’s official residence. By arrangement, they met in the foyer that leads to the president’s office and intended to mount the stairs to the floor of the living quarters, where Rivlin awaited them. An eye witness described the scene: They both began climbing the stairs, side by side, to the second floor. Right at the start Gantz placed his hand on Netanyahu’s shoulder, gave him a quick hug and they went the rest of the way like that, with Gantz’s hand on the shoulder of the man who had called him the worst, most insulting things.

It turns out that Gantz is like that guy from Petah Tikva in the Gashash Hahiver skit: impossible to insult and impossible to sadden. From his perspective, everything that was said, by both sides, was for the sake of the campaign.

This physical gesture is the best possible embodiment of the difference between Gantz and his three companions in the cockpit. When he founded the Israel Resilience Party in December of last year, his hope was that it would garner enough votes to compel Netanyahu to appoint him as defense minister. The devil stepped in, and Gantz did too well. With the electoral success also came the obligation to the voters.

If it were up to him, we would now be in the midst of energetic coalition negotiations to implement Rivlin’s proposal. Gantz was already prepared on Monday, after the first tripartite meeting at the president’s residence, to go ahead, in principle of course, with the plan that was proposed to them. However, he was shackled on one side and manipulated on the other. Yair Lapid, Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi believe it would be suicide. Without them he doesn’t stand a chance, so for now he is not following his heart.

Netanyahu’s readiness – personally and by means of his ministers Yariv Levin, Yuval Steinitz and others – to accept Rivlin’s proposal, including the incapacity provision, only reinforces the suspicions of Gantz’s three musketeers. They don’t believe a word Netanyahu says. They are convinced that he, together with his bloc, will trick and cheat and deceive to ensure that the incapacity will never come into effect.

Let us take, for example, the following scenario, which isn’t at all improbable: The agreement is signed. At some point towards the end of November or the beginning of December a unity government is formed. Netanyahu is prime minister, Gantz is defense minister and deputy prime minister. In the meantime, Trump reveals his “deal of the century,” or a war breaks out in the south, or in the north, or all of that at once.

Hang on a minute, says Netanyahu: At a time like this do we replace a prime minister? When there is a historical opportunity for peace, or alternatively when Israel is being bombarded by thousands of missiles a day, some of them precision missiles that are causing strategic damage? At moments that are critical for the nation’s future, are we going to carry out changes of government? Is this national responsibility?

After all, this is classic Bibi. How will Gantz and his companions act in a case like this? Will they quit the government and necessitate an election? When the missiles are landing all over the place, or when the president of the United States is pressing the government to start negotiating with the Palestinians? (Whose leadership Netanyahu, in his wisdom, will delegate to Gantz/Lapid/Ashkenazi to make it difficult for them to walk out of the government.) The moment they walk in, the gates of the corral will be locked to them from the outside.

But let’s suppose all that has just been said doesn’t happen. Netanyahu’s incapacity will begin. (There will be negotiations over the date of when it will go into effect. From the moment of the attorney general’s decision, Gantz will demand. No, Netanyahu will say, only after I complete the procedures in parliament to be granted immunity, which could be spread over up to half a year.)

Ultimately, there will be incapacity. Then Gantz is prime minister. Netanyahu is also prime minister with all the outward trappings. We do, after all, have a royal family in every respect. He will not keep silent, he will not disappear, he will not make himself inconspicuous. He will steer his ministers from the outside, telling them how to vote, what to oppose, what to support, when to foment a crisis, when to leak.

His dark shadow will hover over the rookie, inexperienced prime minister, who will have difficulty taking his first steps in a government and a coalition half of which is hostile to him and aiming to make him fail. Netanyahu, even from outside, while he is still “prime minister” and chairman of Likud, will exploit every moment not devoted to the court deliberations to undermining the man who has replaced him. He is incapable of doing otherwise.

This has to be Gantz’s working assumption. Not everyone is cut from the same cloth as he is. Few are, in fact. He is a good fellow. Fair, honest, loyal and still a bit naïve. He could be an ideal No. 2. But Netanyahu and his pals in Likud – that’s a whole other kettle of fish They are coming to do harm.

No man’s landscape

Netanyahu’s web of considerations is very complex. He is running the race of his life against two clocks: the legal clock and the political clock. The first is not under his control. The hearing next week will come immediately after a marathon of discussions in the Attorney General’s Office. The decision could come relatively quickly.

Even if the next election is held towards the end of January, it is almost certain that Netanyahu will go into it under indictment. And even if he wins at the ballot box, there is no certainty the president will ask him to form a government. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has already made it clear that the situation will be different then. This is a tremendous risk for Netanyahu.

Therefore, he might well return the mandate to the president right after Rosh Hashanah, and he has already recommended to Rivlin that he not hand the elegant parchment over to Gantz but rather skip straight to the last watch, those 21 days during which 61 Knesset members will be able to sign their support for a candidate to form a government. Rivlin is expected to refuse him. If Gantz asks to try, Rivlin won’t be able to prevent him from doing so – even if his chances are slim to nonexistent.

Those three weeks are the no man’s land towards which the political system is marching, or stumbling. In all its 71 years, Israel has never experienced this. Heaven preserve us from the quantity and the frequency of the spin, false rumors, trial balloons and smoke bombs that will fill our days, from morning till night.

The period of time after that, when we go into an election if an agreed-upon candidate is not found, will be the test of those who are called the Likud’s “top people.” Will they once again hang down their heads, hunch their broken backs and follow the leader into what is liable to become a killing field for their party?

The alternative they face is this: Demand the convening of the party’s central committee and bring up a proposal for urgent primaries for leadership of Likud. This procedure could take place in two weeks. It has been done in the past. A second round, if required, would be held four days later. Netanyahu will run, that’s clear. The argument of his rivals will be: The man has failed twice. In May of 2019 he didn’t manage to form a government, in September he caused the loss of Knesset seats for Likud and the entire rightist bloc and now he is going to fail a third time – unless someone else who isn’t unacceptable and isn’t accused of crimes heads Likud. The party members will decide: Rule or ruin.

Belated justice

At a ceremony marking Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day in May 2016, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan delivered what has become known as the “processes speech.” Without mincing words and prettifying, he pointed to a number of phenomena that every moral Israeli with a conscience, on the left or the right, observes with dread: the racism, ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and “bestialization, self-righteousness and moral corruption,” as he put it, that have spread through Israeli society. “Processes that arouse horror,” he called them, and this is where the controversial comparison to what happened “in Europe in general and Germany in particular 80 to 90 years ago” came in.

Those words not only wiped out his chances, which had been considered good, of being appointed the next chief of staff. They also made him a persecuted man. The extreme right, which had a hard time looking in the mirror placed in front of its face, clamped its jaws on him like a starved pit bull. For many years he has been denounced and vilified, smeared with virtual tar and feathers. His history gets rewritten and lies are spread about him.

This week Golan came to the president’s residence together with the delegation of Labor-Gesher members to recommend their candidate for prime minister. Rivlin turned to Golan and addressed the following words to him: “As a member of the second generation of Holocaust survivors, I sincerely would like to apologize on behalf of everyone who is a citizen of the state of Israel and knows about your efforts. … You are one of the best of our sons regardless of your political positions. I am proud that we have such a son.”

Golan, say people who were in the room, went pale and trembled with emotion. It turns out that he and Rivlin are old friends. The president became acquainted with him in the course of his many visits to the Israel Defense Forces during the past five years, when Golan accompanied him. They would have long philosophical talks but they also discussed military topics. Rivlin sees him as a military strategist. He has told of insights he has taken from Golan to foreign leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It would not be an exaggeration to say the president loves him like a son.

Rivlin witnessed from close up what happened to Golan in the past three years. He was pained to the point of tears. He was just waiting to do public justice to the officer he loves (who is now in the reserves). And when the opportunity arose, he did not weaken his words. And just exactly as happened to Golan at that ceremony, Rivlin got carried away by his words when he said to him, in front of the cameras, that his apology was “on behalf of everyone who is a citizen of Israel.”

This is where he erred. In all likelihood, at least half of the Israeli public doesn’t believe Golan deserves an apology. This is one of those cases in which someone who in his official role represents the Israeli public as a whole should have confined himself to a personal apology.

With a few words, Rivlin strayed this week. With a few words, Golan strayed three years and four months ago.