Analysis

In Netanyahu-Gantz Government, Experience and Talent Are a Drawback

Veteran politicians have been sidelined in favor of sycophants in the past, but a situation like that of Netanyahu and Gantz's bloated new government has never been seen before

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in of Israel's 35th government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 17, 2020
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in of Israel's 35th government, on Sunday. Probably none of the 19 people he appointed as ministers is satisfied.Credit: Adina Valman/Knesset Spokesperson's Office/AFP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Israel has seen a few overweight governments in its 72 years, but there has never been anything like this: A body so obese that it can only be weighed on an industrial-grade scale. Ministries have been divided and re-divided, others were invented, but never in such quantity and with such creativity. We’ve also seen ministers given portfolios for which they were far from suited, but we’ve never encountered this type of contempt.

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Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown Credit: Haaretz

Veteran, experienced people have been marginalized in the past in favor of close associates and sycophants, but a situation like this – in which four of the first 10 MKs on the Likud ticket, who reached that status after difficult and expensive primaries, find themselves outside the cabinet – has never happened. They are paying the price on behalf of those ranked after them, but who were smart enough to curry favor with the monarch. And of course, we have two prime ministers and two prime minister’s offices.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s fifth government will be remembered as the first Balfour government – even more ridiculous and unappetizing than the Lady's cookie cake, and equally hard to digest. On Sunday the man at the helm, who prides himself on his exceptional management skills, finished a chaotic and grotesque process of appointments with great difficulty. He changed direction midstream, like a boat whose steering wheel is spinning wildly in the hands of a drunk skipper.

Not a single one of the 19 ministers he appointed – except perhaps Amir Ohana (the new public security minister) – is satisfied with the job he or she got, especially after the degrading process they had to undergo. Almost none of them ended up in the rubric designated for them at the start.

Where should we begin? The possibilities are endless. Nir Barkat, for example. A week before the March election, he traveled to the United States, and returned in haste without even leaving the airport at the prime minister’s request so that he could be declared the presumptive finance minister. Since that portfolio has remained in Likud’s hands and was Netanyahu’s to assign, the conclusion must be that he never planned to keep that promise.

That emergency landing became a forced landing on Sunday. Barkat's grace had faded in the Balfour residence, despite the great effort he made to display his linguistic prowess to its inhabitants, whether it was the naming of an interchange after the prime minister’s father, or public flattery of wife Sara, as was required in recent years.

Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during the swearing-in of Israel's 35th goernment at the Knesset, May 17, 2020
Sara Netanyahu at the swearing-in of the new government in the Knesset, Sunday. His public flattery of her did not help Nir Barkat get a ministry.Credit: Alex Kolomiensky

Now Barkat, former mayor of Jerusalem, will share the back benches of ordinary MKs with the likes of Gideon Sa’ar. Both, according to the polls, are leading candidates to succeed Netanyahu – a source of great motivation, of course, for someone who doesn’t plan to allow anyone to succeed him to leave them in the dust. Netanyahu is apparently also counting on the fact that Barkat’s brutal attacks on Sa’ar won’t be forgotten and thus these two powerful men will remain divided while he, as usual, will rule.

Let’s move on to Avi Dichter. For two years he’s been ingratiating himself with Netanyahu in the hope that he will finally get a seat at the cabinet table. Like Sa’ar and Barkat, he was ranked in Likud’s top 10. During the election campaigns, he was one of the few up there who got involved in the affair of the “video” of Benny Gantz that ostensibly “got to the hands of the Iranians.”

That’s how low the former director of the Shin Bet security service sunk, in the hope that the ruling triumvirate on Balfour Street would put a check mark next to his name. But it didn’t work. His refusal to fight and incite against the Supreme Court, in the style of party colleagues like Yariv Levin, David Amsalem and Amir Ohana, came back to haunt him.

Speaking of Amsalem, he’s not satisfied, either. His plan was to get the Jerusalem Affairs portfolio, distribute budgets in the city and run for mayor in three years. But Netanyahu preferred outgoing Education Minister Rafi Peretz, whose wife, Michal, is a close friend of Sara’s. Amsalem, who is now the minister who liaises between the cabinet and the Knesset, was compensated, of course, by means of a series of ministerial assets that were broken off from other places – first and foremost the Government Companies Authority, which is an integral part of the Finance Ministry.

This was an act of strategic significance: The minister in charge of this authority signs off on the appointment letters of every director of a government company, and there are thousands of them. The power accruing to this position is huge. The experienced Yisrael Katz, the incoming treasury minister, knows how to appreciate power and leverage. He expected that the authority would remain in his ministry, but discovered that Netanyahu had other plans: to make sure that the signatory power would be in the hands of his crony Amsalem, so that the last word would be his, Netanyahu’s.

Likud sources say Katz was furious: He will slash budgets, issue decrees, act with brutality; he will be the bad guy in the coming years. And who will benefit? Amsalem ... err, Netanyahu.

Onward: Tzachi Hanegbi, a former cabinet minister who always knew how to preserve a semblance of statesmanship and moderation (he’s also the longest serving MK in the Knesset, since 1988). He also got a dose of humiliation. The Family is not pleased with his evenhanded, responsible style in media interviews.

The same goes for Yuval Steinitz, who by the skin of his teeth (and as the story goes, after some emotional scenes in the Balfour residence), was left with half of his desires fulfilled. The admired, veteran and loyal minister woke up on the hottest day of the year thus far to find that his water had been cut off. The supply had been diverted to Zeev Elkin, who was named minister of higher education and water resources – a weird combination that even satirist Ephraim Kishon couldn’t have come up with.

Elkin hadn’t even asked for a promotion, despite his seniority, skill and popularity. He asked Netanyahu to leave him in the Environment Ministry. But there won’t be any satisfied customers here, not in the fifth Netanyahu government. That portfolio was wrested away from Elkin at the last minute and given to Gila Gamliel, who from the beginning had been marked as a target (perhaps because she has close ties with President Reuven Rivlin). She barked, Netanyahu got scared and backed off.

Crooked construct

This whole construct is crooked no matter how you look at it, but Benny Gantz is also responsible – and not just regarding the number of ministers, which fueled Netanyahu’s burst of creativity. People like Eli Cohen and Orit Farkash-Hacohen, two people from the realms of business and management, ended up in security-related ministries: Intelligence Affairs and Strategic Affairs, respectively. Two unsuited ministers in two ministries that were created for nothing and to do nothing, but apparently will never be shut down.

Benny Gantz at the swearing-in ceremony of Israel's 35th government in the Knesset, May 17, 2020.
Benny Gantz at the swearing-in ceremony of Israel's 35th government in the Knesset, May 17, 2020.Credit: Alex Kolomiensky/Reuters

But Netanyahu has lost no few points in this saga. Even his most rabid supporters in Likud aren’t excited by what they’ve seen or by what they’ve gotten. Not only is control being shared now with the center-left, after the 11 years of absolute control; not only in another 18 months (in theory, blessed are the believers!), the prime minister will be Gantz; and not only is the government agenda less right wing (reforms aimed at undermining the Supreme Court will not be realized) – but Likud, with the highest number of MKs since 2003, is being forced to suffice with ministerial leftovers.

It was the ministers of that largest party, the ruling party, who climbed up to the Knesset podium all bent and puffy-eyed to swear allegiance Sunday, while the rookies of Kahol Lavan, whose baby teeth have yet to be cut on even one bill, got operational portfolios, most of them statutory.

So it was with the defectors, from various parties. The number of those in the cabinet could fill a wing in military Prison 6. Cabinet seat thieves – from Yoaz Hendel and Pnina Tamano-Shata to Orli Levi-Abekasis and Rafi Peretz – are barely worth their raised hands.

No one in Likud thinks that the veteran ministers who were left out are less talented than people like Amsalem, Ohana or Ofir Akunis. In the fifth Netanyahu government, with the prime minister's trial beginning next week – experience, status and talent usually work against you. Barkat, Dichter and Gilad Erdan have learned this the hard way. The latter, we have probably already forgotten, was banished to serve as U.S. and UN ambassador.

Incoming Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during the swearing-in of Israel's 35th government, May 17, 2020
Benjamin Gantz, left, with Benjamin Netanyahu, at the swearing-in in the Knesset, on Sunday. Two prime ministers and two prime minister’s offices.Credit: Alex Kolomiensky

On Sunday, we discovered that this came about after Gideon Sa’ar, the seasoned, presentable and senior Likudnik who sinned the terrible sin of running for the party's leadership, refused the offer to go to America. In his refusal, Sa’ar declared the convenient exile of Erdan.

Because there is no logical way to interpret the grotesque politics we have seen, we can only quote the explanation provided Sunday in a radio interview on the subject by the new minister for all sorts of things, David Amsalem: “It’s like there used to be a family doctor, and today they cut it back to all sorts of responsibilities.”

Next week, when Amsalem goes back on the air for more interviews to strike back, because Netanyahu’s trial is starting, he will certainly be just as coherent and logical.

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