Netanyahu Lost Big This Week. Here's What It Means for the Next Government

After losing the battle for the attorney general's heart, Netanyahu is finally focusing on Election Day. But after Likud's primary, it's clear that even his loyalists no longer fear defying him

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Illustration. Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu board up the door to the PMO, but Gideon Sa'ar enters through the window.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Likud loyalists proved this week to Benjamin Netanyahu that there’s a limit to everything. They put a stop to accommodating his caprices. True, he is their leader, he is dear to them, he routinely leads them to power, and they are grateful for all that. They let him reserve three spots for candidates of his choosing on the party’s Knesset slate; they would have given him a fourth.

However, at the same time, he discovered that they are not a flock of sheep that take fright at every passing barking sheepdog and skitter submissively into the pen. They have a sense of responsibility. They possess collective wisdom and they have a measure of independence not shared by many Likud MKs and cabinet ministers.

Last week, this column posited three yardsticks for measuring the success of the primary, from Likud’s perspective: 1. Miri Regev would not win the top spot; 2. The top 10 would be “respectable”; 3. Oren Hazan would be booted out of the Knesset.

The voters passed all three tests. In a dignified procedure they forged a slate whose display window does not shame Likud. They placed the sane, experienced candidates at the top, and showed Hazan that there is stimmung and there is abstimmung, as Ze’ev Jabotinsky noted: public mood versus the vote.

In the realm of the selfie, Hazan is king. Everyone is dying to have their picture taken with him, they wait in line, go cheek to cheek and hurry to upload the result to Instush. But when they check off the names of their 12 preferred candidates on the ballot, they distinguish between a harmless prank and the disgrace inflicted by this man on the parliament and his party over the past four years.

The case of Gideon Sa’ar offers further proof of the independence of the party’s rank-and-file. Sa’ar emerged from the saga of the primary strengthened in terms of three parameters. Thanks to Netanyahu, who hounded him with no proven cause, he got a public tailwind and was effectively marked as the leading candidate for the morning after. Sa’ar received party backing by placing in the top five after four years outside the political arena. And he has clout in the Knesset faction. He’s come in from the cold to the House, now with the backing of new MKs who owe their impending election to him and to his ally, Labor Minister Haim Katz. Netanyahu cautioned against the formation of a “Katz-Sa’ar camp” within the Knesset faction – but that’s what he got.

The ultimate proof of the prism through which Netanyahu’s bureau views Sa’ar was provided this week by the spokesman for Likud’s information team, Erez Tadmor. “Everything is fine,” he replied reassuringly, when asked in a TV interview what he thought of this week’s developments. “We’ve seen it before. There was Begin-Tamir, Shamir-Peres, Peres-Rabin, Shamir-Levy.”

Unwittingly, he cast Sa’ar in the role of legendary leader such as the latter would not dare attribute to himself. For that slip of the tongue, Tadmor is liable to pay.

Netanyahu relaunched his war against Sa’ar a day and a half before the primary in a ludicrous interview on the Likud TV channel (on Facebook). His aim: to push the prodigal son into the middle of the second group of 10. If Sa’ar had ended up there, between Tzachi Hanegbi and Ofir Akunis, Netanyahu could have dismissed him as passé, a bluff, a balloon, an invention of the leftist media.

But the party voters had other ideas. Nor did they go along with Netanyahu when it came to the candidates he was stumping for. All his endorsees in the various geographic districts lost to their rivals, who included such Sa’ar and Katz loyalists as Michal Shir, Pinhas Idan and Eti Atiya. Some Netanyahu, Sr.-Netanyahu, Jr. recommendations were soundly defeated, finishing third or fourth in their races.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks at the Cybertech 2019 conference in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2019. Credit: \ Amir Cohen/ REUTERS

Moreover, some of the politicians most closely identified with the prime minister, those who gave of themselves and humiliated themselves in the media for his sake, were downgraded to marginal slots or bumped from the slate altogether. David Bitan, for example. By the way, he and the other David – Amsalem – cooperated in this race with the axis formed by Sa’ar and Haim Katz: The two Davids received backing from them and also gave support – for your information, Reader Netanyahu.

That says something about the next term. When the final indictment from the attorney general is a question of when and not if, those folks might reconsider their attitude toward him. They might even transfer their unreserved loyalty unreservedly to others. In this connection, it’s worth noting that Ministers Gila Gamliel and Miri Regev both declared that they had included Sa’ar on their ballots, despite Netanyahu’s veto. If that’s not a poke in the eye, what is?

Regev made it to fifth place, but for her that’s something of a defeat. She did better in 2015, when she was just an MK (backed by Sa’ar) and not the most prominent and headline-making minister in the government, in fact a symbol of that government and its term of office. Her circus-like, raucous mobile studio, the hot air and the phone calls and the cheap, crude, last-minute gimmicks (“The New Likudniks are taking over Likud like the Sudanese in south Tel Aviv”) didn’t win her first place, which was her goal.

Again, voter wisdom prevailed. At weddings, people huddle around her, take selfies with her and kiss her, but when they cast their ballots they are very, very careful.

On Wednesday evening, after the final results of Tuesday’s vote were known, Netanyahu called some of those who were chosen, among them former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and cabinet minister Yoav Gallant, who switched to Likud from Kulanu, to congratulate them and promise his cooperation. No need to say whom he didn’t call.

Which brings to mind a story. In the summer of 2014, Reuven Rivlin defeated the prime minister in the race for the presidency (and that’s not a slip of the pen). Amid the conniption fit that Netanyahu and his wife had in the weeks before the vote in the Knesset, Bibi tried, among other ploys, to annul the institution of the presidency; alternately, he suggested to then-President Shimon Peres an extended term of office; he sent envoys to Eilat to try to coax Yuli Edelstein, who was vacationing there, to enter the race; and, an hour before the deadline for submitting candidates, he implored Elie Wiesel, who did not hold Israeli citizenship, to announce that he was willing to accept the mission. All of them turned him down.

After he was elected, Rivlin met with Netanyahu and told him what he thought of him. At the same time, they decided to put everything behind them. The next day, Sara Netanyahu called the First Lady, Nechama Rivlin. “We backed you all the way,” she said, sweetly. “Don’t believe what they say in the media.”

Given that precedent, maybe Geula Even-Sa’ar will also get a call soon.

Three post-primary comments

1. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the symbol of statesmanlike behavior in Likud (apart from a snafu or two), received a safety net from party voters, who elected him to first place on the list. Edelstein was concerned that Netanyahu would want to remove him as Speaker, as he did with Rivlin in 2013. The massive vote of support for him will make it harder for Bibi to do that.

Like Sa’ar, Edelstein profited from the premier’s attempt at political liquidation. The leak to Israel Hayom, the freebie daily in the service of Balfour Street, to the effect that Edelstein wasn’t on the party leader’s list of recommended candidates, stirred a counter-protest: People came to Edelstein’s aid; they were affronted on his behalf and they voted for him.

2. In the past four years, Netanyahu has made a habit of abusing and humiliating his cabinet ministers, as he did with the Knesset Speaker during the live broadcast of last year’s Independence Day torch-lighting ceremony, with the vocal support of Miri Regev. Netanyahu punished Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (known on Balfour Street as “the traitor”) by way of prolonged, furious disregard of him in return for the police investigation launched against him (Erdan holds ministerial responsibility for the Israel Police) and for the establishment of the public broadcasting corporation. And Bibi almost fired Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz over the crisis involving work on the Tel Aviv light-rail project on Shabbat.

Paralyzed by fear of the electorate, these “senior” figures could only grin and bear it. In the coming term, with Netanyahu’s days numbered and his leverage diminished, and with the race for a new Likud chairman looming – they might discover that that long bone attached to their skull is in fact a backbone and, who knows, maybe they’ll even learn how to use it.

3. One popular form of amusement today is to try and figure out who will get which ministry in the next government, on the assumption that the current prime minister will head it. In a narrow coalition of right-wing and Haredi parties, Netanyahu will not be free to act as he pleases. He’ll need every vote he can muster in the Knesset. If he wants to dump Sa’ar and Katz, he’ll encounter them in votes in the plenum. Should he succeed in forming a broad coalition, of 70-75 MKs, with Benny Gantz or with Yair Lapid, he’ll be happy to skip over his Likud rivals when it comes to giving out ministerial portfolios and offer them the chairmanship of parliamentary committees.

Benny Gantz visits a market in Rishon Lezion, in central Israel.Credit: AFP

You don’t need a weatherman

Some ministers reported this week, following cabinet and security cabinet meetings, that the prime minister was in a sorry state of mind – jumpy, unfocused, gloomy, short-tempered. Very uncharacteristic, they said.

The analysis was the same on all sides: The penny dropped for him at the end of last week. Bibi realized that he has lost the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit. The letter the latter sent last Friday to Netanyahu’s lawyers – informing them firmly that he rejected their request that he wait until after the election before making his decision about whether to indict the premier in the various cases against him – clearly showed the gravity of the prime minister’s situation.

Until that moment, his campaign had focused on Mendelblit. His video clips dealt exclusively with the hearing, the hearing, the hearing. He wasn’t occupied with the election, only with himself and his fate.

After the train left the station, as it were, the strategy was revamped. The issue of the hearing – during which the accused’s lawyers will have the opportunity to make their case to the attorney general before he makes a final determination as to whether to indict – vanished abruptly from the agenda. Billboards of Netanyahu and Donald Trump appeared on the Ayalon Freeway in Tel Aviv, and at the entrance to Jerusalem. Now, his gaze is focused on Election Day, April 9. He needs a clear-cut Likud victory, but also a strong right wing-Haredi bloc of at least 65 MKs.

The Haaretz poll published this week gave that bloc 64 MKs. The right is getting stronger, reflecting the first time the establishment of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s new party. For now, at least, their move looks like it will maximize the flow of votes rightward. So far, no significant event other than the creation of Hayamin Hehadash has changed the balance between the blocs: neither the investigations, Gantz or Gantz-Ya’alon.

On the other side, the mutual probing between Gantz and Lapid continues. The latter hasn’t yet given up his dream of being No. 1 in that hookup. Which isn’t going to happen, of course. MKs in Lapid’s party would be happy if he made the leap. They are more concerned about their own fate (and that of the country, they will say) than they are about the honor of their leader. The final date that a merger can take place between Hosen L’Yisrael and Yesh Atid is February 20, just 12 days from now. At this stage, one thing can be said for certain: A partnership will occur only if Lapid agrees to be No. 2.

It was the same with Moshe Ya’alon. For weeks, he insisted on being the leader. But once he woke up and smelled the coffee, he made the logical decision and agreed to play second fiddle to his former Israel Defense Forces subordinate. He’s still having a hard time digesting that; indeed, since the launch of their new party, Ya’alon has been promoting mainly himself. In Hosen L’Yisrael, they’re smiling tolerantly: They know its hard to take orders from a man who was once chief of staff to your defense minister.

The prospect of Gantz getting the nod to form the next government from President Rivlin – his friend, with whom he remains in close touch – is no more than theoretical, for now. The numbers just don’t add up. One opinion making the rounds in the political arena is that neither he nor Lapid, who now looks even less relevant, is out to supplant Netanyahu. Instead, it’s more likely that they their goal is to enter his coalition. Both of them, or one of them, will take senior portfolios, and wait patiently until Netanyahu’s hearing comes to an end.

If and when the indictment is handed down, they will make their move – resignation from the government, which would mean Netanyahu’s political demise. And which would also mean another election in about a year. Likud will go into a tailspin; the primary for its leader will be rough, bitter and divisive. The ensuing chaos will be the opportunity for Gantz and Lapid to come into power.

Disengagement debacle

Netanyahu’s reaction to a vague statement by Gantz in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday – that Israel needs to strive to end its rule over others – was Pavlovian: “He will undertake a second disengagement, in Judea and Samaria!”

The accused, however, responded by reminding the prime minister of his own three votes, in the government and in the Knesset, in favor of the original withdrawal, in 2005, from the Gaza Strip. Just before the evacuation took place, Netanyahu resigned from the government in a panic after someone whispered in his ear that according to one survey, Uzi Landau, at that time his hawkish colleague in Likud, would defeat him in the next Likud primary.

The fact is that Netanyahu, who was at the time finance minister in the government of Ariel Sharon, didn’t only vote in favor. Everyone knows that. He also drew up, with his own brain, pen and hands, the relevant cabinet resolution.

In May 2004, after the Likud rank-and-file voted against the “disengagement,” an ideal foundation seemed to have been created in the party to torpedo the move. Sharon declared that he couldn’t care less what party members thought, that he intended to carry on with the plan. The Likud ministers found themselves in a quandary: Do they act against the party’s will, or act against Sharon?

Netanyahu made his choice. He went along with the prime minister and with the pullout. A few days after the LIkud referendum, Sharon informed him that the cabinet would vote on an “amended” plan for the evacuation, a sort of lip service intended to placate the opponents.

On the eve of the decisive cabinet vote, on June 6, 2004, two lawyers – Dov Weisglass, who was Sharon’s bureau chief, and Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s adviser – huddled in a side room. Netanyahu came in every so often, adding comments and corrections of his own.

The heading of the resolution: “Amended disengagement plan – continuation of discussion. Resolution No. 1996.” Fourteen ministers voted in favor, including Netanyahu; seven against.

Walking dead

Next week, some 60,000 members of the Labor Party will elect the party’s Knesset slate. There’s so much sadness and melancholy in that sentence. And no Schadenfreude – either among those in the same camp or among the rivals on the right. To watch the Laborites choose their representatives, to see them using all their time and money and taxpayers’ money in an effort that will be pointless for a majority of them, is like watching a group of homeless people donning their best rags before heading in for lunch at the soup kitchen.

Around 70,000 people turned out for the Likud primary, almost 60 percent of the eligible voters. The meager interest that the Labor primary is generating in the party that not so long ago ruled the country, promises a far lower level of participation. There are no glittering names. Labor used to be the destination of outgoing IDF chiefs of staff and generals, right after they turned in their gear. Today they’re all in Hosen L’Yisrael and Yesh Atid, with one in Likud.

“What difference does it make?” is the phrase most heard in Labor. So, we hold a primary. So, Itzik Shmuli gets chosen for the top spot. He’s a consensus candidate (and not only in Labor, by the way).

He’ll be followed, in whatever order, by Shelly Yacimovich, Stav Shaffir, maybe Amir Peretz and Omer Bar-Lev. Or someone else. What does it matter? Labor, averaging six Knesset seats in the polls (five in the Haaretz poll this week), is doing a countdown to its own demise. Benny Gantz doesn’t want them. A merger with Meretz, which is enchanting certain circles in the media, could end up as a double suicide. Labor’s rank-and-file will never cast their vote for Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg, if she heads the new union. She doesn’t speak their language; she is indigestible. Meretz’s rank-and-file – the party is polling four seats right now, the minimum needed to enter the Knesset – will never cast their vote for Labor leader Avi Gabbay, who is completely alien to them.

So if not Gabbay and if not Zandberg, who would lead the party? Maybe Yacimovich, who has expressed unequivocal support for the merger, if the polls show it isn’t a losing proposition.

If nothing else happens in the meantime, Labor is a dead party walking. The day is fast approaching when its members will be forced to do the unthinkable: to launch what’s known as a “gevalt campaign,” an SOS cry for support, in the face of extinction.

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