Analysis

Netanyahu Cracks Down on a New Threat Within His Own Party

The cult of personality around Netanyahu may soon unravel ■ Center-left party leaders are speed-dating each other - here's what will push them to tie the knot

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures, during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, July 7, 2019.
Abir Sultan / AP

The election campaign entered its wacko phase this week. The so-called bottle-cap challenge reached the prime minister who, it must be said, gave an elegant response to the video clip in which Ehud Barak unscrewed – practically beheaded – a bottle of soda water and offered it to Benjamin Netanyahu, advising him to “drink something” (and calm down). The response, live on Netanyahu’s Facebook account, was to take out a bottle of nasal spray and simply remove the cap as an act of mockery.

A little self-directed humor isn’t a bad thing in a campaign. The problem is that until now we haven’t witnessed much more than wisecracks. There’s no substance, no discussion of real issues. All we get is virulent punch-line clips, on the one hand, mainly from Barak, and live broadcasts by Netanyahu, in advance of the nightly news on television, in which he flays the media. His favorite target these days is Guy Peleg, the legal affairs reporter for Channel 12, who had broadcast quotations from the transcript of the interrogation of Hadas Klein, a key witness against Netanyahu in Case 1000, the illicit gifts affair.

Ehud Barak does the bottle cap challenge.

Netanyahu knows his electorate sees the leaking of material from investigations as malicious persecution of him, and he’s exploiting that resentment. Conspiracy theorists have even speculated on the web that it was actually people working for the premier who made the transcripts available to the reporter in question.

The most intriguing and significant developments are taking place, as always, behind closed doors, and all of them are related to “the morning after.” Our politicians are farsighted: The election is two months off, the hearing in the cases against Netanyahu will take place two weeks after that, and the attorney general’s decision is expected to be publicized before the end of the year. They understand that that’s the blink of an eye.

Hence the steady stream of – accurate – reports about talks of increasing intensity between the top ranks of Kahol Lavan, particularly its leader, Benny Gantz, and No. 4 on the slate, Gabi Ashkenazi, with senior figures in United Torah Judaism. Not only Degel Hatorah’s Moshe Gafni, but also with the head of the other faction in UTJ, Yaakov Litzman of Agudat Yisrael.

The ultra-Orthodox, who also include the Sephardi Shas party, believe that after the election a national unity government will be formed between Likud – with or without Netanyahu – and Kahol Lavan. Their nightmare scenario, which is not written in the Torah, is that they’ll be out and Avigdor Lieberman will be in. But we’re bigger, the Haredim tell their interlocutors: Even if his Yisrael Beiteinu gets 10 seats, we’ll have twice as many, at least. And we are more loyal, more obedient, less crazy than he is. Take us.

Of course the problem of Yair Lapid and the promised premiership rotation between him and Gantz exists. If the unity scenario comes to pass, and the term of office will be divided 50-50 between the heads of Likud and Kahol Lavan, Lapid will demand half of half: namely, one-quarter of a term as prime minister. Or not. Maybe he would drop the idea. Kahol Lavan’s Moshe Ya’alon was right when he said this week that among the party’s leadership, only Lapid, the beneficiary, supports rotation.

These sentiments are not unknown in Likud as well, even among the party’s senior ranks. If Netanyahu only knew what was going on behind his back, he would need not only nose spray, but far more potent chemicals, as well as cigars, whose regular supply has been interrupted by recent unfortunate events.

His ministers and MKs understand which way the wind is blowing. The unity and premiership-rotation option seems the most reasonable to many Likudniks, but not all of them agree. If we’re faced with the choice, one explained this week, of getting half a term in order to delay the inevitable as far as Bibi is concerned, or a full term if we manage to choose someone in his place – should we be following him like a herd of patsies? What’s more important, the country and Likud, or the persona?

Lieberman observed this week that Likud has been transformed from a party into a personality cult. He’s right, but when you hear these cult followers airing their gut feelings, you understand that this situation could change a lot faster than people think.

Ehud Barak.
Moti Milrod

Oron the oracle

Since resigning from the Knesset, eight years ago, Haim Oron, the former leader of Meretz, has become a high priest of the left. As one whose integrity and decency are unquestioned, he is asked occasionally for advice by dithering politicians. Early this week, Ehud Barak paid a visit to Kibbutz Lahav, in the south, where Oron lives. They met in the kibbutz dining room for a lengthy conversation.

A month ago, when it became clear that Barak was returning to political life, the 79-year-old Oron – who served as agriculture minister in his government in the late 1990s and early the 2000s – sent him a text message. Barak called. What do you say?, he asked, as is his wont. “You have two possibilities,” Oron told him. “If you want to be the center pivot, everything will fall apart; if you want to act as a catalyst, maybe you have a role this time.”

Your analysis is interesting, Barak replied (as though he had just seen the light). The question is what you’ll do with it, the experienced Oron said.

I asked Oron whether he, like many others on the left, holds a grudge against Barak, and is unwilling to hear what he has to say.

“No,” he replied. “I am not one of those who say they don’t want to have anything to do with Barak. He’s bringing his temperament to the campaign and a decisive stance on political-diplomatic issues. He thinks, as do I, that the existing situation is endangering the whole [Zionist] project. I don’t think he’ll evaporate. People in the circles I move in are taking him seriously.”

There were another 15 or so people in the kibbutz dining room at the time, recalled Oron. One of them came up to them: We won’t forgive you if you force us to choose among three parties, he told the two men.

Oron explained to me: “In the last election, people here wavered between Labor and Meretz, and quite a few ended up voting for Kahol Lavan. This time there’s a rare opportunity to establish a ‘wall’ to the left of Gantz. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with Yoaz Hendel [Kahol Lavan], who says what he thinks, and with Ya’alon, who thinks similarly but is refraining from saying so today.” Both men are on the right wing of the party, and according to Oron, “with those two and others in Kahol Lavan, we’ll get nowhere.”

Oron would like to see a single slate comprised of Labor, Meretz and Barak’s Democratic Israel, under the leadership of Labor chief Amir Peretz. In his opinion, that’s the essential formula for preventing a loss of center-left votes. He intends to work to that end with whatever strength he has left. Other initiatives to which he was party in the past, such as an attempt to establish a joint Jewish-Arab party, failed. He hopes this one will succeed. He thinks it’s critical.

Illustration: Peretz, Barak, Horowitz and Livni shake hands in various constellations.
Amos Biderman

Dating game

In the meantime, the never-ending series of meetings between party leaders – past and present – in the left-center bloc is beginning to look like a political, and debilitating, version of speed dating.

Peretz and Tzipi Livni, Barak and Peretz, Livni and Barak, Barak and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, Livni and Horowitz, Horowitz and Peretz. Sitting, getting up, leaving, returning in an endless cycle. While one is still talking another enters. Let’s hope they don’t get their dates crossed and find themselves in threesomes and foursomes, tripping over one another in a crowded elevator. Oh, the horror.

The deadline for making decisions is closer than it looks. Two weeks at most. Labor and Meretz have certain party institutions; there are rules and procedures to follow. Any decision about merging or hooking up with another party requires a debate and a vote. The deadline for submitting the slates to the Central Elections Committee is August 1.

The ball is in Peretz’s court. In the end, he will bear responsibility for whatever happens. A link-up between Meretz and Barak is impossible without Labor in the middle to dilute things. Horowitz is pressing Peretz to make a decision as soon as possible on a joint run by the two parties. Peretz is undecided. The reason: He believes he can attract votes from the right, as he did in 2006, the first time he headed Labor. He’s concerned that Meretz will scare off moderate right-wing voters and push them into the arms of Kahol Lavan.

In his close circle, some are saying: Forget it, Amir, you won’t attract votes from the right. Maybe enough votes for one Knesset seat, from the south. And they’ll go with you even if Horowitz is on the slate.

As of now, however, the Labor chairman is taking a different view. He’s commissioning polls, like everyone else. For his part, Horowitz is telling him to forget the polls, because they only reflect the current situation. If we do something new together, he’s saying, the polls will come around. Optimism will spring from the new camp, there will be an awakening – hope.

Barak is making things even more complicated. He’s a tough customer. This week he said he would have no trouble being No. 2 on a joint slate after Peretz, but no one believes him – especially Peretz, who has harbored ill will, resentment and mistrust of Barak for more than two decades.

In the end they’ll have to find a way to get along. What will bring them together under the chuppah – reserved, grumbling and sour – is a union on the right. If the right-wing parties find the formula, these men will have no choice but to come up with an appropriate left-Zionist response of their own.

Bumper car

This week, one of the leaders of the New Likud – or “N.L.,” as it’s called – was driving through the streets of Tel Aviv, when he spotted a precious parking spot. With great difficulty he maneuvered the car this way and that, backward and forward, nudging the bumper of the cars in front and behind him, until he managed to squeeze in. Pleased, he left the car and went about his business.

Benjamin Netanyahu.
Oded Balilty,AP

When he got back, he noticed a suspicious object peeking out from behind the front license plate. He pulled the unidentified item out. It was a small plastic-covered piece of metal; from it dangled wires connected to an electric circuit board and two cellphone batteries. Apparently the nudging of the bumper while he was trying to park had loosened what later turned out to be a professional surveillance device.

The fellow, who wishes to remain unnamed for now, filed a complaint with the police. When asked what he thought the motive was, he replied: It’s political. He told the police officer what has been known for some time: The N.L. is a very painful thorn in the side of Likud leader Netanyahu and his close circle. Its members – who signed up for Likud during the past few years in order “to restore the movement’s original principles” – have suffered in the past from surveillance of their activities in the social media, aimed to end their membership in the ruling party, whose chiefs view them as a threat: Trojan horses and leftists in disguise.

The prima facie criminal event described here may or may not be connected to the following story:

In the wake of the Likud primary, in February, Netanyahu discovered for the first time the effectiveness and strength of the N.L. group, some – or most – of whose members apparently don’t even vote Likud in Knesset elections. Quite a few of those on Likud’s Knesset slate owe their selection, or at least their placement on the list, to them.

In the first group of recommendees were Yuval Steinitz, Keren Barak, Sharren Haskel, Patin Mula (representative of the minorities) and Tzachi Hanegbi, who has been the N.L.’s main defender at the senior level of Likud. In the second group were Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz, Nir Barkat and Gila Gamliel. They would not have made their way into such high places on the final slate (Nos. 1, 2, 8 and 9) were it not for the organized support of about 5,600 representatives of the N.L. group who took part in the process and voted according to a list of recommended candidates.

After the April 9 election, the hysteria on Balfour Street rose to new heights. The waiting period for a large group of new N.L. members to become fully registered members of the party is about to end. In the weeks ahead, between 4,000 and 4,500 individuals from their ranks will become full-fledged Likudniks and thus be eligible to vote in the various internal party ballots. They’ll join the 6,100 who are already signed up – about 90 percent of whom voted in the last primary.

The declared position of N.L. leaders was against the immunity laws that Netanyahu hoped his new coalition, which never got formed, would push through for him. He worried that at the moment of truth, some of the MKs who owe their achievements to the N.L. would vote against the immunity legislation or join forces with other coalition parties to torpedo it. We’ll say only that his concern was not without foundation.

I spy

In the next primary, the N.L. will be a force that every party candidate will have to reckon with. “It’s already a vociferous, cohesive pressure group with a clear agenda,” a Likud cabinet minister who was not one of their recommendees told me this week. “From now on they will be present at every critical juncture with demands of their own, no less than Yossi Dagan [head of the Samaria Regional Council]. If we used to be accustomed to going to the right and asking for support, today the situation has changed.”

From Netanyahu’s viewpoint, it’s impossible to exaggerate the threat he faces from the transformation of these newcomers into a significant force. The potential implications are enormous – and not only for the next Likud slate, which will again be selected ahead of the election that will follow the September vote. In another 18 months, the Likud convention, bureau and central committee will be elected, as well as branch leaders and the party secretariat. The N.L. will play a central part in all of these developments. The central committee is about to undergo a face-lift. All the veteran members of the party are of the opinion, for example, that these young, new representatives will take control of most of Likud’s branches in Tel Aviv.

On top of which, in a certain legal-political scenario, Netanyahu might be required to step down in the near future. The Likud constitution states that his replacement would be chosen in a vote by the party’s registered members. There is no doubt that in that election, too, if and when it happens, N.L. members will mobilize in full force.

Netanyahu is less interested in what will happen afterward. After him, the deluge. But he’s still around and has no plans to leave. Accordingly, in the wake of the emergency that was declared in light of the surge in N.L. forces, the Likud directorate launched a web-wide hunt for hostile elements. New applications for party membership are not being recorded officially in the database, others are disappearing and difficulties are cropping up.

The past few weeks have seen an extensive covert operation to track down the Facebook accounts of newly registered members known to be affiliated with the N.L. Any comment they make against Netanyahu’s attempts to avoid trial, or in condemnation of his attacks on law enforcement officials, is cause for disqualification. Thirty-eight new members have already been summoned to a hearing before Judge Menachem Neeman, the chairman of Likud’s elections committee. He gets his salary from the directorate, and expectations follow accordingly.

The big plan is to get about 2,000 of them disqualified. Individuals connected with the party’s directorate are working hard to make that happen. The directorate is subordinate to only one person: the chairman of the party. More precisely: Balfour Street.

Nir Hirshman, an N.L. leader, was a contender for a place on the Knesset slate, but wasn’t chosen. “It’s not democracy, it’s ‘hunting season,’” he told me this week, referring to pre-1948 events when members of official bodies turned in activists of the breakaway groups Irgun and Lehi to the British authorities. “The directorate is after us alone. But it won’t help them. We will keep joining, we won’t fold, we won’t retreat by so much as a meter.”