Analysis

Festival of Blights: This Hannukah, Likud Contenders Will Sourly Sit Out Another Netanyahu Victory

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Gilad 'Traitor' Erdan's lose-lose situation ■ Justice Minister Ohana keeps slashing away at the legal establishment ■ Labor-Gesher stick to a campaign strategy that has already failed

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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A festival of blights: This Hannukah, Likud gears for a contentious period ahead.
A festival of blights: This Hannukah, Likud gears for a contentious period ahead.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In the winter of 1992, the Labor Party held a primary to choose its leader. Haim Ramon, then head of the party’s Knesset faction, was torn between his support for Yitzhak Rabin and his years-long alliance with Shimon Peres. He decided not to endorse a candidate. I’ll go to the beach, he said when asked what he would do on D-Day. That comment became a metaphor for political cowardice.

Next Thursday, two Likud stalwarts, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, will hang out together on the metaphorical beach, far from the madding crowd and hustle and bustle at the polling stations, during the primary for party leader. They can’t bring themselves to support Benjamin Netanyahu, who has scarred them so badly. Each in his turn has been subject to humiliation, vengefulness and unadulterated malice at the prime minister’s hands. And neither has any doubt that, for Netanyahu, he is merely a pawn on the chessboard. There to ensure the premier’s personal survival. Netanyahu will dump them faster, less elegantly and even more brutally than the way his wife Sara deals with cleaning women in the Prime Minister’s Residence.

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Pedophiles and politics: Why is an alleged child rapist still in Israel?Credit: Ep. 53

Edelstein was only recently accused by Balfour Street of fomenting an “attempted putsch” in the wake of reports (which he denied) that he was examining the feasibility of forming a government led by himself, with the support of 61 MKs.

Erdan, for his part, was described by the prime minister’s wife in one of her interrogations by the police for being an “imposter,” not a “real right-winger, [who] has come out behind the prime minister’s back ... and established the left-wing [Kan public-broadcasting] corporation.” Yet another of her totally untrue, wacky remarks – among hundreds.

Erdan’s official nickname at the Balfour Street residence is “Traitor.” The rage the building’s three denizens harbor toward Erdan was heightened when he didn’t live up to their modest and unrealistic expectations of him as the minister who oversees the police, by blocking the investigations against the prime minister.

In his speech this week, kicking off his campaign for the Likud leadership, Gideon Sa’ar made an uncharacteristic comment: “There is no one in politics for whom I did more than I did for Benjamin Netanyahu, and I don’t regret it,” he said. “He is one of the greatest Likud leaders and one of the most important prime ministers that we’ve had. I didn’t forget that truth even when he hurt me, hounded me, paid me back with pain for my good deeds.”

Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at an emergency Likud supporters' conference in Tel Aviv, November 17, 2019.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at an emergency Likud supporters' conference in Tel Aviv, November 17, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Someone said to Erdan that those lines could have been written by him, word for word. He didn’t deny it.

Still, neither he nor Edelstein are expected to come out in support of Sa’ar. Both still might one day compete for the top Likud spot. If Netanyahu wins next week and leads the party in the March election, another primary might be held within a few months. The two have no interest in helping Sa’ar to be crowned leader.

Indeed, Edelstein never even considered the idea. Erdan did contemplate it seriously, and panic broke out in Balfour, as could have been expected. On Wednesday last week, when the 22nd Knesset disbanded itself, reports streamed into the Prime Minister’s Bureau to the effect that Erdan intended to announce his support for Sa’ar. Rationally or not, the prime minister and his close circle got the feeling that the Sa’ar-Erdan axis could tip the scales, be a game-changer. That they were representatives of the (relatively) young generation of Likudniks pitted against the leader of 70-plus years of age, who failed twice to form a government and was well on the way to a third flop.

Netanyahu’s campaign staff, headed by Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, declared a red alert. Numerous emissaries were dispatched to Erdan, among them one very persuasive speaker: Netivot Mayor Yehiel Zohar, a veteran supporter and key commander in Erdan’s army of activists in the south. Zohar explained to his friend that, as far as he was concerned personally, for Erdan to back Sa’ar would be unforgivable for all eternity.

Zohar wasn’t alone in such efforts, of course. Many urged Erdan not to be a “traitor” (ironic, right?): Why go with Gideon? Soon there will be another primary and maybe you’ll want to run, yourself. If not, Gideon will need you just as much the next time around. In the world of realpolitik, stripped of sentiment and a hunger for revenge, that argument carries weight.

Sa’ar is competing not only against Netanyahu and the Likud party apparatus that is working for him (completely contrary to all the rules, which have long since ceased to exist in the party), but also against the majority of the party’s ministers, and most of all, against the prevailing atmosphere in the party: Likud folks love to feel discriminated against, persecuted, hunted. Not even four decades in power have diminished their sense of being under siege and pursued by the elites, the media, the jurists, the left.

These folks see Netanyahu, with all his legal woes, as their authentic representative, the archetypical victim. If Menachem Begin was dubbed a “Moroccan,” Bibi is the modern-day “Buzaglo”: an Israeli Everyman. Such feelings burst out at the gatherings Netanyahu has been holding a few times a day, every day. His supporters stretch their arms out, yearning both to help him and be helped by him. He’s both savior and victim.

Judicial troll

Some sources say that of all the Likud MKs and cabinet ministers, only two want to see a primary for the Knesset slate (in addition to the one that will take place for the party leadership): Amir Ohana and Miki Zohar. If that’s true, and it apparently is, there is no better proof of the ruling party’s character and of the depths it’s sunk to after more than 10 years under Benjamin Netanyahu – under his inspiration, in his spirit, according to his values and way of life.

These are two Knesset novices (both were first elected in 2015), from the backbenches, whose only purpose is to kowtow before the Boss, both of whom are absolute featherweights when it comes to public service. One is the justice minister, the other is the chairman of Likud’s Knesset faction (who, in a normal political situation, would also be the coalition whip). When you think about it, each one could have landed in the other’s job. We’d never know the difference.

Zohar, like Ohana, has a law degree; Zohar, like Ohana, feels contempt and deep abhorrence for the legal establishment, the state prosecution, the High Court of Justice and everyone involved in law enforcement. Moreover, Zohar, too, is blessed with the attribute that landed Ohana in the justice minister’s bureau: sycophancy and blind loyalty to the One On High. That is, on Balfour Street.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana at a conference in northern Israel, December 19, 2019.
Justice Minister Amir Ohana at a conference in northern Israel, December 19, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu

What difference does exist between them is in Zohar’s favor: He is less pretentious and and certainly possesses more realistic self-judgment. Zohar knows that he is perceived as a sort of court jester and that his current role is to be a full-time Bibist on the Knesset payroll.

For his part, Ohana, even at this early stage, is convinced that he is one of the best justice ministers ever to be ensconced in the ministry’s headquarters on Saladin Street in East Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago, the Likud Central Committee convened. Setting a precedent, all the members of the Knesset faction were seated on the stage surrounding the lone speaker: the party leader and prime minister. Only two of those on the stage had the honor of having their names chanted rhythmically by the audience: Netanyahu (“Bi-bi! Bi-bi!”). And Ohana (“O-ha-na! O-ha-na!”).

So how could Ohana not want a primary for the party ticket? Today he’s in 21st position, but he could get into the top 10 or close to it. In a party most of whose members now advocate harassing and baiting members of the law enforcement system, Ohana is hot stuff. The soup du jure. Where is he – and where is Miri Regev, she of the faded luster?

Everything Regev has done to great effect over the past four years to pollute Israeli culture, he has managed to do in the judicial sphere in four months. By uttering statements ranging from the lowbrow to the utterly imbecilic, not to mention a few that were genuinely, hair-raisingly scary, like: “There are [court] judgments that do not have to be honored.” Or by throwing to the dogs a senior jurist from the state prosecution, the person who was in charge of the cases against the prime minister, because of a procedural error; by firing a professional director general who served under two justice ministers from different parties, in a totally vulgar way; by appointing his cousin as bureau chief; by systematically vilifying prosecutors and investigators; and then, as the latest poison mushroom, by selecting a deputy prosecutor, Orly Ginsberg Ben-Ari, as acting state prosecutor to take the place of Shai Nitzan, whose term ended this week.

That last appointment – which in the best case constitutes a violent trolling of the system, and in the worst case smacks of suspect motives – has been blocked, at least temporarily, by the High Court of Justice. Even the civil service commissioner, Daniel Hershkowitz, a former chairman of Habayit Hayehudi who was appointed by Netanyahu in order not to rock the boat, declared Ohana’s move problematic. But that is exactly what the justice minister aimed for.

Ohana is out to defy, to sabotage, to foment disorder in his ministry’s work. He’s not after reforms or improvements – he’s after chaos. Netanyahu, and his close circle, of whom Ohana is presently the most outstanding figure, has remembered 23 years late that the judicial system needs a substantive “correction.” But it’s not revision that’s happening, it’s division. It’s the Netanyahu Division in the trenches of the judicial-political battlefield, on which Ohana is a devoted – too devoted – soldier.

After Ohana’s ugly maneuver in the Knesset, when he violated a gag order regarding the investigation of Nir Hefetz, a state’s witness in one of the cases against Netanyahu, the prime minister’s circle briefed correspondents to the effect that Ohana was going too far and that Netanyahu wanted to curb him, and see him lower his public profile. Whether that was true (momentarily) or not, since the decision to indict Netanyahu, Ohana has shifted into even higher gear. The elephant Netanyahu let loose in the china shop known as the judicial system, is kicking and pummeling with the goal of breaking everything he can. The prime minister is silent, but his circle is encouraging this activity, and his son applauds it unabashedly in the social networks.

Ohana’s rampaging, then, is deliberate. If Netanyahu is aiming at a plea bargain, ultimately, he may be supposing that the first and most important thing, in terms of the attorney general and his colleagues, is no longer to see the arrogant face and roughhouse hands of his loyalist in the Justice Ministry.

A narrow bridge

Midweek, after Labor-Gesher launched its social network campaign starring Amir Peretz and Orli Levi-Abekasis – with the slogan “the only ones for whom you count” – Labor MK Itzik Shmuli walked into Peretz’s office. “I’m happy that your strategists found the person responsible for our failure in September,” he said to the party leader, with the sarcasm of one who feels he himself isn’t counted. “But I want to remind you that I am not the person who headed the party in the election.”

It was a professional decision, Peretz said, by way of explaining why Shmuli and others in the party were being sidelined in the new campaign.

“What’s professional about hiding your most esteemed and popular MK?” Shmuli asked, referring to himself.

Peretz reiterated that surveys had been conducted.

Labor lawmaker Itzik Shmuli at a faction meeting in the Knesset, November 25, 2019.
Labor lawmaker Itzik Shmuli at a faction meeting in the Knesset, November 25, 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Look,” Shmuli countered. “I’m too busy with battles over the [government-subsidized] medications basket and over old-age allowances. I have no intention of falling into this pit and arguing with you over a place on billboards. I don’t get insulted easily, but you’re making a mistake.”

There’s something enviable about the arrogant, know-it-all behavior by the two folks responsible for Labor-Gesher’s debacle in the September election (five seats for Laborites, one for Gesher). As though they have all the cards and possess all the wisdom, Peretz & Levi opened their latest campaign this week with the same slogan that proved a disappointment last time – and with the same definitive “no” to a possible merger with Meretz/Democratic Union.

In media interviews, Peretz is explaining that the hook-up between Labor and Gesher (which means “bridge”) “proved itself” and “made the walls topple down.” Why, among the rubble, did the voters not flock to them? Because they didn’t believe that I would actually refuse to join a Netanyahu government, Peretz insists: I shaved off my mustache but it was too late. Now, after seeing that I kept my word, the masses will come.

In light of the overwhelming lack of self-awareness he displays, one feels like calling Peretz’s physician and asking him to prescribe for us some of what he’s on. He’s singing similar refrains to people who dare to suggest to him that maybe it’s worth recalculating the route. Some of them emerge nonplused from meetings with him, shaking their heads in sorrow.

In fact, Peretz did not rush to save Private Bibi – but he’s not the only politician who kept his word. Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz also stood firm and resisted temptation. Moreover, according to all the polls, next time around Labor-Gesher will be one of the satellite parties losing votes to Kahol Lavan, among voters anxious to push it over the top and give it the vital seats that will open up a significant lead between it and Likud.

“In September there was a tsunami in the direction of Kahol Lavan and we stood there with an umbrella,” says Shmuli. “That tsunami is now gathering steam. We need to think up a new, bold strategy and a smart slogan. What we had in the past is no longer relevant.”

Some former Labor cabinet ministers tried to convince Peretz not to slam the door on a merger option with Democratic Union. He showed them a poll commissioned by his campaign headquarters. If the two parties run together, both will lose: Instead of the current 11 seats (six for Labor-Gesher, five for the Democratic Union), a united slate would garner only seven or eight seats, with two or three seats shifting to Kahol Lavan and one to Likud.

That is indeed the question: to be one or to be two? There is no doubt that a joint slate will put off voters. But it will ensure that both Labor and Meretz, which are slowly but surely shrinking, will survive the March election. Don’t lock yourself in with ironclad promises, past and present senior figures are imploring Peretz. Wait, leave a narrow opening. He wrinkles his nose. There’s no one to talk to.

Balance of terror

Despite Labor-Gesher’s September crash and the polls predicting the loss of a seat, which would bring his slate to the brink of the abyss, Peretz feels that he is riding high and is behaving accordingly. Somehow, he managed to get his party’s leadership to pass a resolution allowing him to place two Labor people of his choosing among the first 10 candidates on the slate – in addition to Levi-Abekasis, two additional representatives from Gesher, Labor’s secretary-general and a Druze candidate who was “parachuted in” from the fringes on the eve of the last election. If Peretz does bring in the two new candidates, the opening 10 will include eight people whose places have been locked up in advance and only two chosen by the party’s members.

This has made it clear to Labor’s four candidates in the opening 10 (Shmuli, Omer Bar-Lev, Merav Michaeli and Revital Sweid) that Peretz is conniving to entrench his standing in the next Knesset faction ahead of God-knows-what moves he’s planning.

Amir Peretz and Orli Levi-Abekasis at a Labor-Gesher faction meeting in the Knesset, November 25, 2019.
Amir Peretz and Orli Levi-Abekasis at a Labor-Gesher faction meeting in the Knesset, November 25, 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ostensibly, they should be worried. Theoretically, so should he. If only three of those four split off from the current faction, they will take with them the name “Labor Party” and Peretz will be groping amid the ruins of Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher. He thinks he’s Rambo? Let him think again. He’s far more exposed and vulnerable than he may seem.

Peretz met this week with former Labor minister Ophir Pines, with whom he has close ties. Pines sounded angry in their conversation – not at Peretz, but at Benny Gantz. “Why,” he asked, “is the person who is leading the camp not working to advance the general interest of the camp? If the bloc is important to Gantz, then instead of standing to the side and saying that Peretz and Meretz have to merge – let him integrate Labor-Gesher into Kahol Lavan.”

Is that acceptable to Amir, I asked Pines later. “From his point of view,” he replied, “he’s more willing to discuss that than the other thing [i.e., involving Meretz].”

I told him I had checked with senior officials in Kahol Lavan and that they had covered their ears – regarding Peretz more than Labor, per se.

“Why?” Pines fumed. “What are they so worried about? Keeping the number of pilots in the ‘cockpit’ [referring to Kahol Lavan’s leaders] at four, and not five? Making sure someone there keeps his place in the opening 10? Because we are laborers? Because we are Moroccans? Why?!”

In the first election, last April, Pines recalled, Netanyahu went out of his way to promote unity among the right-wing parties. He didn’t just talk, he also acted, by saving a place on Likud’s slate for a representative of Habayit Hayehudi, Eli Ben-Dahan.

“When you’re big, your task is to carry out meaningful moves,” Pines observed. “The ultimate responsibility for the bloc rests with Gantz. Let him start getting involved.”

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