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Netanyahu Now Has Some Tough Decisions to Make

Next up for Netanyahu: appointing four new ministers, a strategic decision on whether to seek immunity and then the March election, where even greater dangers may lurk

Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu and Sa'ar
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter

There were two reasons behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on having the Likud leadership primary take place the day it did, on Thursday (December 26). First of all, by midnight next Tuesday, New Year’s eve, the prime minister must resign from the four additional ministerial posts he holds (in the health, agriculture, labor and social affairs, and Diaspora affairs ministries) and appoint successors; and secondly, two days after that, at the very latest, he has to decide whether to ask the Knesset to grant him immunity from prosecution. He preferred, correctly from his point of view, to have the primary hurdle behind him.

>> Netanyahu hails Likud primary victory over party rival Sa'ar

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The prime minister’s mentor, the late Moshe Arens, used to say: When you appoint one person from a list of 10, you create nine enemies and one ingrate. Netanyahu knows what’s best for him. As long as the appointments hung over the heads of the MKs like dog-training treats, he had the candidates’ commitment and sweeping support – whether it was willing or it was because of a promise he made to them.

On the assumption that the premier, after being reelected Likud chairman, will appoint two new ministers from Likud’s ranks (he’s also expected to appoint someone from Shas and to upgrade Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, now deputy health minister, to full minister), the embittered folks from his party will no longer be in a position to dump him. (A case in point is MK Yoav Kish, who backed Gideon Sa’ar in the primary after Netanyahu “forgot” – as he himself said – his explicit promise not to intervene in the competition over selection of a Likud Knesset faction chairman, and supported MK Miki Zohar over Kish.)

We’ll get back to the appointments later. The immunity request is a matter of strategic importance. With a single letter to the speaker of the dissolved Knesset, Bibi’s lawyers will topple the public line of defense the suspect created for himself during the three years he was under investigation. From “There will be nothing because there is nothing” (a slogan he dropped some time ago) to the bad-mouthing of the police investigators, to the lies his attorneys spread after his hearing about the “collapse of the cases,” to the reply of feigned innocence he gave to a television interviewer earlier this month: “What? No way!” Netanyahu guffawed, when asked if he would request immunity.

The potentially more significant damage lurks farther down the road – the March 2 election itself. In recent years, Netanyahu, as a suspect under investigation and interrogation, and also, lately, as a freshly indicted defendant, has provided us with countless precedents of unseemly conduct – none of which do honor to him, to the institution of prime minister or to the state.

Now another precedent looms. A candidate for prime minister who is under indictment and requests immunity for himself is something we’ve never had in these parts. It’s hard to see how he, with all his sophisticated campaigning abilities, can make this situation work in his favor.

Netanyahu at a rally held in his honor.
Netanyahu at a rally held in his honor.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

On the other hand, what is his alternative? Miki Zohar has said that if no formal request for immunity is made (if it is, it will delay the start of trial until the formation of a coalition, whenever that might be), Netanyahu is finished: His indictment would be submitted to the Jerusalem District Court, and a date set for the proceedings to begin. Thus, perhaps in the midst of an election campaign, we would witness the spectacle of a defendant standing across from his judges and declaring: Not guilty.

No matter what happens, he will not wake the “dormant votes” he often talks about, which he lacked the last time around to form a government. He’s on a sure path to a classic lose-lose scenario.

Judging the judges

In the September election, Likud, fortified by Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party and by Moshe Feiglin’s faction, lost between seven and nine seats. The voters who turned their backs were mainstream types who said: Why in the world should we vote for a person who behaves like a criminal offender, who attacks and harasses the law enforcement agencies and ceaselessly incites against its senior figures?

Those voters will certainly not cast their ballot for Likud next March – especially after the indictment, after the nauseating rally of supporters last month in the plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which had the prime minister’s blessing, after Amir Ohana, after “Investigate the investigators,” “Jail the prosecutors” and, probably just around the corner, “Judge the judges.”

Those voters will not come home when home resembles a mafia whose boss – personally or by means of his family, gofers and consiglieri – directs web hooligans and sics them on anyone who questions his continued rule: whether it’s Gideon Sa’ar and his supporters, or Attorney General Avichai Mendeblit and the state prosecutor and his team. Those voters will not rediscover the hidden light where darkness rules, where a legitimate political rival and his backers are branded traitors, doormats and backstabbers.

Gideon Sa'ar.
Gideon Sa'ar. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Netanyahu and his gang know no limits and will stop at nothing, just as there is no civil servant or state official who will not become fair game if the need should arise. The Supreme Court, too, will not escape the onslaught.

A first toxic spore of this plague appeared on Wednesday in the lead headline of Israel Hayom, a freebie collection of newsprint that calls itself a “newspaper”: “The fix is in” – that was how the panel of judges appointed by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut to hold a preliminary hearing on the petition to disqualify Netanyahu from forming a government after the election, was referred to.

Waiting in the wings

After he emerged victorious from the primary, Netanyahu can be expected to decide early next week whom to appoint as cabinet ministers in his place. The question is whom he will choose to promote from among Likud’s MKs. Five names should be taken into account: Avi Dichter, the deputy defense minister; Miki Zohar, the Knesset faction chairman; Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister; and MKs Nir Barkat and David Bitan.

Dichter and Zohar said recently on a number of occasions that they would prefer to remain in their present posts. We’ll soon know whether they meant what they said. Barkat, a newcomer to the Knesset, has been demanding a promotion from the moment he arrived; membership in the parliament is inconsequential to him. Bitan would have been appointed a minister long ago, but the indictment that’s about to be filed against him (following a hearing) will make it difficult for Netanyahu to choose him now.

For her part, Hotovely, who has been in the Knesset for a decade, longer than any of the others, is definitely expecting an upgrade. “Expecting” is putting it mildly.

The way he has treated this energetic MK to date offers something of a microcosm of Netanyahu’s world. Faced with a dilemma between appointing the most talented, most representative and most worthy person, or preferring the most aggressive and sycophantic – Bibi will generally opt for the last two criteria. Which is how, for example, David Amsalem and Ohana became ministers in the transition government.

Hotovely, however, has never embarrassed Netanyahu, has never prompted his criticism after something she said, and hasn’t caused him harm or shame, as have her two party colleagues who were annointed ministers. She does not repel voters, and among members of the religious-Zionist movement, from which she came to Likud, she is admired and popular. In the last election campaign, Netanyahu had her accompany him on visits to yeshivas and pre-army preparatory courses.

He’s aware of Hotovely’s electoral strength in constituencies that are important to him, but also of her calm disposition. If he skips over her (as he did in the past, despite numerous promises), he knows that she won’t try to get back at him. She won’t launch an “intifada” against him, as Culture Minister Miri Regev once threatened to do, should he have the temerity not to appoint her a minister.

Oh, yes, she’s also a woman. The Israeli government is the most male-dominated in the Western world. There are three female ministers (two from Likud – Regev and Gila Gamliel – and one from Kulanu, Yifat Shasha-Biton) out of 20. Utterly disgraceful. This would seem to be a time to make amends.

Parents day

Tzipi Hotovely, May 2019.
Tzipi Hotovely, May 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

In the past 10 days, Likud’s ministers abandoned their offices and affairs of state, to push themselves to the limit, and beyond, to save Netanyahu in the primary against Gideon Sa’ar. Like a chorus of cheerleaders they went from community to community, alley to alley, house to house, hard on the heels of a 70-year-old candidate whose adrenaline, fueled by his inborn fear of unpleasant surprises, infused him with frenetic energy.

At the end of last week, they were seized by panic when they learned that their dearly beloved candidate was seriously considering holding a primary for the Likud Knesset slate as well. They felt cheated, demeaned. The buzz among them was: We’re committing suicide for him and he’s about to drag us into the hell of a party primary just a year after the last one? That’s how he thanks us?

The narrative that took root was that Netanyahu wanted a primary in order to eliminate Sa’ar and his camp, or at least cut them down to size, on the next party ticket. Over the weekend, two people showed up at Balfour Street, separately: Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, Netanyahu’s campaign manager, and MK Barkat. Both of them came to make a case – each for an opposite cause. The former urged the premier not to be tempted into holding a primary for the Knesset slate, the latter pressed him to hold one.

Katz, in second place on the slate (after Yuli Edelstein) in the September election, realized that he can’t get any higher up. Barkat, who garnered the eighth spot, is convinced that he’ll do far better in the next heat, maybe even outdoing Sa’ar (fourth place) – whom Barkat views as his main rival in any post-Netanyahu contest over Likud’s leadership – and pushing him down to the lower half of the top 10.

Netanyahu heard them both out but did not commit himself. At the same time, he came under intense pressure from other ministers – Yariv Levin, Zeev Elkin, Yuval Steinitz, Gila Gamliel – not to abandon them, not to leave them at the mercy of the activists. They took advantage of every spare moment at rallies for him to try to ascertain where he, or his aides, stood on the issue.

At first Bibi said nothing, before indicating that he would soon make a decision about the party primary. Afterward, he ostensibly yielded to their pathetic cajoling and said, “Okay, I’ll speak to Michael Kleiner” – the president of the Likud’s internal court, who was to rule on the fraught issue.

But he didn’t speak to Kleiner. As long as that conversation – in which the party leader and prime minister makes it clear to the Likud court president what he must decide – did not take place, the ministers were fearful that he was pulling the wool over their eyes.

Such is the dichotomy of life with him. They support him, praise and exalt him. Yes, they will take a bullet for him. And no, they don’t trust him for a second. To them he’s a permanent suspect. As far as they’re concerned, the criminal charge “fraud and breach of trust” was invented to describe the leader in whose captivity they live.

So the hours passed and the pressure gauge shot through the roof. David Bitan was heard saying to someone: Bibi sent me to the Knesset’s arrangements committee to ask for another 15 million shekels ($4.3 million) for the party, and now he wants to spend eight million of it on a primary in order to screw me? Miri Regev’s colleagues found her to be the most panic-stricken of all. She held the most intensive talks with Bibi. On Monday, just before the party’s internal court convened, the stars fell into the desired alignment. Netanyahu joined a petition against holding a primary for the slate, announced his position publicly, undoubtedly talked to whomever needed talking to – and the judges ruled accordingly.

Rest came to the weary, repose to the hysterical. Regev was able to go back to Netanyahu’s rallies, where she’s a permanent fixture, and mumble her favorite mantra: “Likud is a family and we will not abandon our parents.”

Miri Regev, September 2019.
Miri Regev, September 2019.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Friendly advice

Avraham (Beiga) Shochat has been friends with Labor Party leader Amir Peretz for more than 30 years, from the time they served simultaneously as mayors of Arad and Sderot, respectively. Even when they held positions that invariably led to clashes between them, as finance minister and head of the Histadrut labor federation, respectively, their friendship remained solid. Twice in the past few years, Shochat actively and publicly supported Peretz in Labor leadership contests: in 2017, when he lost to Avi Gabbay, and early this year, when he triumphed over rivals MKs Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli. Other former ministers – Uzi Baram, Ophir Pines and Yuli Tamir, members of Labor’s unofficial House of Lords – also backed Peretz.

What Shochat says here, however, reflects only what he thinks.

“I read the column on Friday and was upset,” he told me this week, referring to what I wrote about the stubborn refusal of Peretz and his Gesher party partner, MK Orli Levi-Abekasis, to consider joining up with Meretz in advance of the next election. Methodical as always, Shochat said he wanted to discuss several points. First was Peretz’s contention that in the September vote, Labor-Gesher took three Knesset seats away from the right wing.

“That’s completely fake,” Shochat says, adding, “one of the most baseless things I’ve heard. He didn’t even take half a seat. I conducted a thorough check. In the April election, Labor [under Gabbay] got 190,000 votes, and the lady from Gesher got 75,000 [when they ran separately]. In September, the two of them running together got 215,000 votes – 50,000 fewer votes. Peretz got fewer votes and fewer seats than Gabbay.”

Shochat also examined the geographical distribution of about 1.5 million votes: “It’s true that in Likud-saturated places, Labor-Gesher got a few more votes, but fewer than what each of them got [running] separately in April.”

On the eve of the September election, he, Pines, Baram and Tamir made a huge effort to persuade Peretz to join forces with Meretz (which afterward morphed into the Democratic Union, in combination with Ehud Barak’s party). There were quite a few meetings at which Peretz gave them the impression that he supported their idea. A few days before he held a joint press conference with Levi-Abekasis, another meeting took place. I only want to talk to Tzipi Livni and to Orli, he told the former ministers.

“He said that Orli had hunkered down, wasn’t answering his calls, but that actually they had already struck a deal,” Shochat recalls. “He tricked us, he deceived us. I was actually pleased that Tzipi and Orli, or one of them, was going to come on board – but not at the expense of running together with Meretz. Now he’s going to run alone with Orli again, but this time the risk is far higher. If one of the two parties [Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union] don’t make it into the Knesset, there’s a high probability that Bibi will be prime minister.”

In September your party was hysterical, I remind him, but in the end it crossed the electoral threshold comfortably.

“What saved them was the final polls, on the Friday before the election,” he says. “According to them, Labor-Gesher had four seats [the minimum needed to get into the Knesset]. In my family there are 12 people who are entitled to vote. Until that weekend, only a minority intended to vote Labor. They were split between Kahol Lavan and the Democratic Union. Because of those polls, 11 of the 12 ended up voting for Peretz. That will not happen again.”

I ask Shochat what he thinks is driving Peretz. “I really don’t know,” he admits. “Maybe he wants to assure himself some freedom of maneuver after the election.”

How do you think things will turn out? “I don’t know,” he replies. “I’ve read that he’s sending emissaries to Kahol Lavan, asking them to take him.”

There’s no chance of that, I say. They don’t want to hear of him.

“They’re right,” Shochat says. “What do they need him for?”

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