Is Netanyahu Grooming His Son to Succeed Him as His Leadership Spins Out of Control?

Netanyahu may not get another chance to form a government ■ The only voice of reason in the Prime Minister's Office quits

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Sara Netanyahu hurls a shoe at Yoav Horowitz as her husband cowers nearby.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.Credit: Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It’s amusing to watch efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to beef up and broaden the shoulders of the transition government that was created by the dissolution of the Knesset. One meeting, then another with Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, the duo from the Union of Right-Wing Parties, in an attempt to find compensation and dispensation and pacification for them – though it’s not clear for what. Instead of occupying himself with the threatening hearing that he is facing or with the election that looms, Netanyahu is playing at creating a government, scattering promises and leaks about the promotion and upgrading of five or six Likud figures, all of them his flunkies, of course. Maybe this fulfills some sort of personal need for him.

Let him enjoy it while he can. In a certain scenario, not in the least impossible, he’s liable to find himself kicked off the playing field in 100 days or so.

The election is set for September 17, and a few days later the official results of it will be known. If the Likud-Haredi-rightist bloc doesn’t garner 61 seats without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, it’s far from certain that President Reuven Rivlin will assign Netanyahu the task of forming the government again. And that’s even if the rival candidate, Benny Gantz (Kahol Lavan), has fewer MKs to recommend him and undertake to serve in his government – 48-50, let’s say (without the joint Arab slate now being cobbled together) – and Netanyahu has 60.

Well, that was our situation after the last round, following the April 9 vote. And Netanyahu wasn’t able to form a government even after using up the entire period available to him under the law: 28 days and then another 14. Rivlin, whose discretionary powers are unlimited, might well ask himself whether he should give Netanyahu the nod again, knowing that his prospects are middling, if not nonexistent. After all, Lieberman won’t back down from the conditions he set last time.

Or the now-forgotten “scheme of the century” might be implemented, in one guise or another. Maybe someone else in Likud will want to try to form a government – a national unity government, naturally, with Kahol Lavan, which will persist in its refusal to cooperate with Netanyahu, on the eve of the hearing, which is expected to produce a decision to put him on trial.

Who might that Likudnik be? The names are known: Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Katz, maybe Yuli Edelstein, who’s aiming to become the next president but might get a green light to serve as a temporary prime minister – until June 2021, when the next president will be elected (by the Knesset). Kahol Lavan is also deploying for the events to come.

A senior personage in the latter party to whom I put this speculation this week responded thus, “First we will ask for the mandate [to] form a government for ourselves. But if we don’t succeed, we will go back to the president and tell him precisely that: Any Likud candidate who is not Netanyahu or Miri Regev and her ilk is acceptable to us.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's son, Yair.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Forbidden city

In 2009, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu returned to the official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, after having vacated it courtesy of the Israeli voters. This time they were also the proud owners of a villa in Caesarea, bought seven years earlier. The law stipulates that the state will bear the upkeep expenses of the prime minister’s private home, as he might hold working meetings there, host foreign leaders and the like. The villa in Caesarea’s so-called Cluster No. 8 is a forbidden city. No one enters or leaves other than the family and technicians.

Over time, the villa became the center of the world, the work and the nightmares of whoever held the position of director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. The demands to get state funding to cover every expense, whether negligible or gigantic, multiplied like the Ebola virus and became ever more wild and uninhibited. All of them, by law, require the director general’s authorization. Rejection of a “request” from the Lady triggers an outburst of shouts, rampaging and tantrums in mythic proportions at Balfour, compared to which the background to Iceland’s song at the recent Eurovision Song Contest looks like a Monet landscape. It’s a day-to-day thing, and tends to escalate.

From an unimportant subject that until 2009 was barely noticeable among the director general’s duties, what the PMO calls “the house” morphed into a nonstop nightmare. In May 2018, the former director general, Eli Groner, announced his resignation, apparently after Sara Netanyahu tried to attack him with a pen (as reported in Haaretz by Chaim Levinson) following his refusal to green light another of her off-the-wall monetary demands.

Since no one leaped at the chance to hold the prestigious job (undoubtedly for the reasons described above), the chief of staff in the Prime Minister’s Bureau since 2015, Yoav Horowitz, was appointed acting PMO director general and held both posts. After taking over as director general, he discovered that the horror stories making the rounds in the “Aquarium” (as the office is dubbed) about the world outside the glass door were not fake news. If anything, they were too understated. This week Horowitz announced his resignation. Ministers, heads of economic institutions, senior figures in the defense establishment and top-ranking government functionaries were aghast.

When I requested a comment from the outgoing director general about his departure, he referred me to a joint statement issued by the prime minister and himself about the matter.

Over the past three days I’ve spoken to people who are knowledgeable about the life of the PMO: present and past officials, ministers from Likud and other parties, and acquaintances of Horowitz from the political arena. All of them, including bitter political rivals of Netanyahu, describe the outgoing director general as the only positive, “sane,” moral and responsible person in the area. His departure, they say, is a disaster for the country.

They pass on what they heard from him that Horowitz is forbidden to tell: that in the past year or year and a half, he has asked to resign several times. He has no strength left, he’s utterly disgusted with what went on in the office. The growing involvement of Sara and Yair Netanyahu in the state’s affairs has gone beyond all limits.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara react following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2019. Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Yair’s pals, who were put in charge of communications and the social media in both his father's office and in Likud, have accumulated disproportionate power and influence. A subculture of lies, manipulation, disinformation, contempt and vilification of everyone at whom the family looks askance have become the bon ton of the Prime Minister’s Office.

If the prime minister showed occasional signs of reservation or slight dissatisfaction with what’s gone on, he got an immediate brush-off from son Yair and wife Sara. They control him, they are managing him.

A bridge too low

The fact that Horowitz stayed on until now is a wonder in itself. He didn’t hide his opinion; he said what he thought to political friends and in working meetings in Netanyahu’s presence. He always found himself in the minority. A lone voice in the darkness. Netanyahu absorbed his criticism, which was aimed both at him and his family. Without Horowitz, he realized, the PMO would collapse.

The wonder is even greater given the fact what Sara heard for the most part from Horowitz was: no, no and again no. His stubborn refusal to accede to her requests, many of which exceeded the bounds of proper administration, drove her mad. As with others, she marked him. The poison she dripped into her husband’s ear about him finally had its effect.

In the past year, particularly since his appointment as director general and the frequent clashes with the Lady, he was excluded from the prime minister’s close circle. In the 2015 election Horowitz headed campaign headquarters, but in the election in April he was totally left out of the decision-making circle.

Horowitz’s problem, which finally tipped the balance, did not stem only from “the house.” He considered Netanyahu’s ongoing campaign against the judicial system and law enforcement, especially in the past two years, to be a recipe for the destruction of democracy. The damage already caused in a situation in which the country’s leader attacks and reviles the judicial system, personally or via flunkies such as Justice Minister Amir Ohana, Likud MK Miki Zohar and others – this damage could turn out to be irreversible. Time after time, Horowitz tried to exercise a moderating, calming influence, to explain the issues, but was rebuffed with scorn.

Appointments such as Ohana to the Justice Ministry or Ayoub Kara (Likud) as communications minister, were beyond his comprehension. A brutal trampling of every governmental norm. Horowitz is a professional who formerly managed large companies, and skills and excellence and proper qualifications are for him a necessary foundation for every system. In the reality in which he found himself, he saw that the sole criterion for promotion is sycophancy, a long tongue and abnegation in the face of the Family. If in the past Netanyahu urged his ministers to “be Kahlons” – referring to Moshe Kahlon when he was communications minister and still in Likud – as an index of accomplishment, today he expects them to be “Ohanas”: worms groveling at the feet and licking the soles of his shoes after drooling on those of Yair and Sara.

Horowitz was appointed director general last June, but signs that he was cracking were apparent even before that. He shared his thoughts with quite a few people. Last December, when the election to the 21st Knesset was moved up, he was heard saying that he would leave immediately afterward.

That information reached this column in mid-February, about two months before the election. I sent him a WhatsApp message requesting his response. Horowitz denied it. “Continuing and will continue to serve the prime minister and the State of Israel as long as I am asked to. There is no greater privilege!” he wrote me. Not very accurate, to put it mildly, but under such complex circumstances he can be forgiven.

Yoav Horowitz, right, with Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky

In the meantime, Ronen Peretz has been appointed acting director general. Readers of this column may remember the name; it first appeared here on the weekend during which the list of candidates for the position of state comptroller was finalized. Netanyahu looked high and low for people who think like him to fill that spot. An hour before the deadline for submitting names, he came up with Peretz, the deputy cabinet secretary, who is mainly his gopher and – obviously – is very loyal to Sara.

Netanyahu seriously intended to submit Peretz’s name to the Knesset secretariat (the state comptroller is elected by the Knesset), but someone warned him that even by his grass-high standards, that was a bridge too low. Peretz was dropped the way he had been raised and the name of Matanyahu Englman was submitted.

Now, as compensation for having the coveted post wrenched from him, Peretz, a Likud activist and a nice guy who is as far away from being able to handle a job of such incomprehensible dimensions as Amir Ohana is from being able to handle the post of justice minister, will serve as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

What a fascinating place the PMO is in the Netanyahu era. On the one hand it’s a godforsaken place, a grinder that crushes its staff, a black hole of insanity and wackiness; on the other hand, it’s a land of unlimited opportunities. The more meager your qualifications and the more supple your backbone, but the more total your loyalty – well, the sky’s the limit.

Animal instincts

So the PMO’s director general is leaving and the country’s most important ministry is running at a substandard level. But, hey! We have an animal rights adviser! With non-coincidental timing, the day Horowitz’s departure became known, Netanyahu chose to appoint Tal Gilboa, an animal rights activist, as his personal adviser.

“I was influenced by my family” was one reason he cites on his Facebook page. You could say that, but the decision was apparently dictated. Yes, it was a productive week for Yair Netanyahu. He finagled two personal appointments. The first most important is that of his good friend Amir Ohana, who was generously rewarded for years of groveling and parachuted into the Justice Ministry as temporary minister. The second is Gilboa, who recruited the young Netanyahu to assist her in her struggle. They share veganism and a sincere concern for animals. Now Bibi’s involved. No doubt he’ll devote lots of time to this issue, meet frequently with Gilboa and study the documents she sends him. Yeah, right.

This week part of the interview the heir apparent of the House of Netanyahu gave to Blaze, an ultra-conservative U.S. news site, was aired here. On a home field of fans, he was all smiles, exuding charm, and flattered President Donald Trump. “He’s a real rock star in Israel,” he told his hosts in the TV studio.

Probably viewers in America who aren’t familiar with the fellow thought: What a pleasant and affable young man the son of Israel’s prime minister is. Civilized, speaks fine English, knows history. They got Dr. Yair, while we, the subjects, are forced to suffer Mr. Netanyahu. There, he’s a blue-eyed darling. Here, he’s the “ugly Israeli” racist – a thug and militant nationalist who shares every obscenity that surfaces on the web. (This week he did it with a despicable post about the widow of Israel’s sixth president, Aura Herzog, who’s 91.)

The Blaze interview was part of Yair’s much-photographed encounters with Republican journalists and public opinion molders. It’s not clear what’s behind this exposure, which comes at a tricky time for his family. The Matriarch was compelled to admit to a criminal offence in the case of the residences. She will be convicted on the basis of her confession and do what for her is pure torture: write a check (or checks) to the state – the same state she’s accustomed to viewing as a dairy cow whose udders are full and available to her, with the authorization of the PMO director general or the special panel that deals with exceptional cases.

The Patriarch has lost control. His hearing will take place as scheduled, two weeks after the election. The Knesset’s dissolution thwarted the plan for a legislative blitz to hamstring the state prosecution and Supreme Court, and prevent him from being brought to trial. His ability to navigate matches that of a sailor in a boat without oars in rapids, hurtling toward a waterfall.

Are the couple, who undoubtedly understand the gravity of the Patriarch’s legal situation, preparing their son for public life? From their perspective there’s no worthier and more appropriate successor than him. With them nothing is random.

Now or never

This week, on the last working day of the 21st Knesset before the election break, rumors circulated among Likud ministers and MKs that the prime minister was examining with the state prosecution the possibility of a plea bargain. I couldn’t find confirmation of this. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, stemming in part from a disillusioned view of the suspect’s legal situation in Cases 1000, 2000 and 3000.

The state prosecution made it clear to Netanyahu’s lawyer that the hearing ahead of the final decision of whether to indict, will not be postponed. It will take place on October 2 and 3, with a possible additional session on October 10. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan must make their final decision by December 16, when Nitzan’s term ends.

All rivers run to the sea and all avenues of escape the suspect planned for himself were blocked with the Knesset’s dissolution. If Netanyahu hoped that by catapulting Amir Ohana into the Justice Ministry, he would derail experienced jurists, he got an appropriate answer Thursday from the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Esther Hayut. She called Ohana’s remarks in a Channel 12 interview in which he criticized the justice system “an unprecedented and irresponsible worldview.”

Netanyahu knows that he’s facing a trial that could end in imprisonment, if there’s an absolute conviction. “At this stage, every responsible lawyer who wants to help his client, sits down and explains his situation, the immense risks he’s taking and the implications of losing,” a very experienced criminal lawyer told me this week. “I find it inconceivable that attorney Amit Hadad, who learned everything he knows from the late Dr. Jacob Weinroth, would not be doing that with Netanyahu. This is the moment you have to focus on conditions for a plea bargain that will keep him out of jail but also out of the Prime Minister’s Bureau.”

In other words, what’s expected of Hadad is to tell Bibi: Take the money and run (with all the irony that entails). The year before his death, Weinroth tried mightily to persuade his client and old friend to cut his losses before it was too late. If Netanyahu had listened to him, it’s possible that Case 4000, the most serious of all – involving a suspicion of bribery – would never have been born.

So far, the prime minister has balked at taking that route. Maybe now, after his wife agreed to admit to wrongdoing, something will break in him, too.

Lessons learned

Avi Gabbay was a curiosity when he joined the Labor Party. He morphed into a promise, continued as a disappointment and is ending as an episode. He had the privilege of leading the party to a catastrophe in the last election. From 18 seats in 2015 (24, together with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, in the framework of Zionist Union), to six seats in the outgoing Knesset.

Part of it is his fault. Also to blame are historical and demographic processes accompanying the emergence of Kahol Lavan, which grabbed many traditional Labor votes. Gabbay finally acknowledged responsibility and did the right thing. Several MKs will contest the paltry inheritance he left: Itzik Shmuli, Amir Peretz and Stav Shaffir. Ehud Barak is still trying to figure things out; he’s examining the possibility of forming an independent party, possibly with Tzipi Livni and others, which will seek to join Labor later.

Livni’s name was mentioned this week in Labor in the same breath as Isaac Herzog, presently chairman of the Jewish Agency. Together they garnered the 24 seats. Quite a few despairing Laborites asked Herzog to consider running again with Livni and reviving Zionist Union, which Gabbay demolished when he kicked Livni out. Herzog confirmed that he has been approached, but said he is firm in his refusal.

Gilad Erdan.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Erdan’s sorrows

Netanyahu has offered Minister Gilad Erdan the post of Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations; Danny Danon is concluding a lengthy term there at the end of July. The annual General Assembly session begins in late September. Erdan is contemplating the offer. For years he’s dreamed of taking a break from political activity, which has sometimes been brutal to him, in favor of a senior diplomatic post.

He has no illusions: As long as Bibi is in power, heading the embassy in Washington – the appropriate promotion for a cabinet minister – is the exclusive preserve of Ron Dermer, who can pull strings in the White House. What’s left? The United Nations. A respectable, comfortable refuge that doesn’t wear you down.

But what was self-evident after the April election – when Netanyahu seemed to be en route to forming a coalition and to a full term in office without standing trial – became a tricky dilemma two weeks ago. As mentioned, a scenario in which Netanyahu hits a dead end in another 90-something days and the peons in Likud discover they have a backbone and show him the door to Caesarea, is not impossibile.

Erdan wants to be in Israel when the changing of the guard, which looked as though it would never happen, takes place. He plans to run for the Likud leadership in the new era. Obviously he can’t come back three months after moving to New York with his family. When Likud chooses a successor to Netanyahu, refreshes itself and gets the blood in its veins flowing again, should he be attending cocktail parties?

These are the very horns of a dilemma. To go in July and miss a possible party contest? To request a delay until after the September election in order to see what will happen? But maybe the offer will no longer be relevant. Meanwhile, the Erdans, Gilad and Shulamit, took two weeks to decide where they’re headed: into a pampered exile, or into another grinding term in the coalition, the opposition or whatever’s in between.

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