Analysis

Netanyahu's Singular Knack for Turning Friends Into Bitter Enemies

The most optimistic scenario Netanyahu's rivals can envision ■ The only politician daring to bring up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this election season

Illustration: Netanyahu and the former allies whom he turned into enemies, their heads shaped like firebombs.

With 30 days remaining until the election, an interim summary seems fitting. Here’s the thing: In no poll does the bloc of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties reach the lifesaving threshold of 61 Knesset seats that would be willing to deliver immunity from prosecution to the prime minister. Avigdor Lieberman is holding steady at a predicted 10 seats, stable as the very bedrock of existence for anyone yearning for the fall of Benjamin Netanyahu. The two big parties, Likud and Kahol Lavan, are hovering at around 30 seats each. For the ruling party, that means a loss of about nine seats, including some of those reserved for Kulanu, whose place of final rest within Likud is unknown. Kahol Lavan is showing a loss of “only” five-six seats, some of them to Lieberman, the rest to other parties in the center-left bloc.

In this state of affairs, if the election had been held this week, the country would have been hurled into unprecedented political and constitutional chaos, not least because of Netanyahu’s precarious legal situation.

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Kahol Lavan has effectively given up on victory, in terms of being able to form a government under its leadership. The most optimistic scenario they can come up with is a national-unity government headed by Netanyahu’s successor. Accordingly, when party leader Benny Gantz, in an interview, mentions something like that unwittingly, before rushing to correct himself – he is speaking the truth. It’s all quite charming, actually: He’s such a decent fellow that telling a lie, which slides trippingly off the tongue of veteran colleagues in the political realm, is hard for him.

Likud’s troubles lie primarily on the Russian front, where its efforts are not bearing fruit. Lieberman, as said, is not dropping below 10 seats; on a good Election Day, he could get 11 or maybe 12. But even less than that would be enough: It is he, apparently, who will decide, who will call the shots, who will navigate.

By contrast, Gantz is waging a battle mainly against self-inflicted damage stemming from his frequent political pratfalls and slips of the tongue. And Netanyahu, who is experienced enough not to fall into self-made traps, is fighting external foes – from both the right-wing and center-left camps. Still, it’s worth taking note of a fascinating situation: Everyone who is challenging him, and even endangering his tenure, had a senior position in one of Bibi’s bureaus sometime during the past two decades.

To wit: Avigdor Lieberman was director general of the Prime Minister’s Office at the start of Netanyahu’s first term, between 1996 and 1997. Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett served, respectively, as bureau chief and chief of staff during part of Netanyahu’s period in the opposition, between 2006 and 2007. Each of them could today be a rank-and-file Likudnik, if Netanyahu had been looser, more inclusive and embracing, the manner of their departures and the relations that developed afterward between them and their former boss weren’t saturated with bad blood, vengefulness and hatred – especially on the part of the Netanyahus. Yes, it’s he and she, two for the price of one.

Shaked, for example, longed to join Likud after the election this past April. She would even have made do with 10th place on the slate. Flying in the face of common sense, however, the residents of Balfour Street vetoed the idea. Today the Lady and her husband are busy trying to shrink the Yamina party (formerly the Union of Right Wing Parties), scurrying about in a frenzy and warning people – just whom, it’s not clear – that Shaked and Bennett (who also sees his place in Likud, but has been blocked) will settle accounts with the Netanyahus in the post-election consultations with the president.

Netanyahu with Hauser and Hendel, in 2011.
Tomer Appelbaum

Individuals good and less good; capable, talented, believing individuals, came to contribute and to help, but left Netanyahu hurt and scarred, and became political rivals seeking revenge. Among them are former cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, and Yoaz Hendel, the prime minister’s former director of communications – both of them members of Kahol Lavan today.

Political scientists will one day ask how any individual, politician or leader of any kind could be capable of creating, from within his close inner circle, such bitter enemies, people who are now determined to liquidate him politically and remove him from public life. It’s a trait never seen before in any prime minister of Israel, including David Ben-Gurion (whom Netanyahu recently passed in length of tenure) or perhaps anywhere in the world.

Former Netanyahu aides who have become ticking roadside bombs can also be found outside the political arena: Three state witnesses are awaiting their day in court – and if and when that day comes, their testimony could determine the premier’s legal fate and perhaps even send him to prison. Yes, in the chaos of the April vote and the upcoming do-over election, we’ve almost forgotten about our dear old acquaintances Shlomo Filber, Ari Harow and Nir Hefetz. They were all his sons, all of them knew his secrets, and all of them, willingly or because of coercion, rose up against him.

‘No principles’

The spasm of rage that erupted this week among the prime minister’s confidants toward Ayelet Shaked, and the rash of briefings that slammed her (“the new Tzipi Livni”), were distilled in one sentence attributed to Netanyahu by Kan News reporter Michael Shemesh: “She has no principles – she is liable not to recommend me [in the consultations with the president] after the election.”

This is Bibi at his best. Because, after all, what is a “principle” to him if not a recommendation that he should form the next government? Is there anything more principled in the world? When he ignored Shaked and Bennett after the 2013 and 2015 elections, didn’t call them and left them for last in the coalition talks (in 2013, he even waited until he had signed a coalition agreement with the “old” Tzipi Livni) – that was a principle. When, at his wife Sara’s command, the two legislators were not allowed into the official residence or onto the prime minister’s plane – that was a principle. When Bibi and Sara demanded that the Walla news site publish disgusting calumnies about Shaked and about Bennett’s father and his wife – what was that if not pure ideology?

It’s hard to find sweeping support in the top ranks of Likud for a tactic that targets Shaked directly; a majority of the party’s senior figures did not volunteer to go on the air and savage her. Finally, Miri Regev was delegated to lambaste her. Then after a round of interviews and 24 hours of adrenaline rush, the urgent order came from election headquarters: Cease fire!

“She’s caused us enough damage,” one of Regev’s colleagues said of her.

Ayelet Shaked.
\ Moti Milrod

The prevailing view is that Regev, who is a friend of Sara, was carrying out the latter’s orders; after all, no command from the prime minister’s wife is too trivial for her. In her vulgar style, Regev accused Shaked of no less than “opportunism” because she wanted to return to Likud, where she began her political career. Only a person totally lacking in self-awareness – that is, someone like our culture and sports minister – is capable of coming out with a remark like that when there are still politicians living among us who were around in 2008, when Regev herself, after retiring as spokeswoman for the Israel Defense Forces, dithered over whether to join Labor or Likud.

Shaked shot back: She claimed that it had actually been Regev herself who blocked her attempt to join Likud after the last election. (In fact, Minister Gila Gamliel also did some work in that regard.)

As noted, not all the ranking figures in Likud were overjoyed with the line taken against Shaked. For her part, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, the favorite daughter of the religious-Zionist movement, sent a warning message to whomever she sent it to, to get off Shaked’s back, and immediately. The religious right hates attacks on its leaders, certainly one as popular as Shaked, Hotovely insisted.

I asked her how she reconciles that message with her own harsh words against Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina/National Union), following his recent burst of curses against the prime minister and the Supreme Court. “My criticism of him was justified and substantive,” replied Hotovely. “He went too far. But among my public, the attacks on Shaked generate a reverse effect. Our rival is Kahol Lavan, not the religious-Zionist movement.”

Whether by chance or not, the order to hold fire was issued to Likud representatives about two hours after Hotovely sent her message.

Occupational procedures

For 70 days and more, we’ve been mired in this sweaty, sticky election campaign. The jellyfish floated into the beaches and out, but one issue hasn’t yet surfaced yet on our shores: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its implications for Israeli democracy. No one seems to be interested: not the Leader and not the frightened wannabe rivals. Benny Gantz and his coterie of fearless generals won’t dare lay on the table a plan to curb the rush toward either a binational state with a Palestinian majority, or an apartheid regime.

This week Ehud Barak, No. 10 on the Democratic Union slate, was a guest at a conference of the Council for Peace and Security. He presented a detailed diplomatic-security blueprint, one that has to be supported by anyone who’s against one of the two options mentioned above. Its gist: a move toward a comprehensive, regional settlement, and negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on a two-state solution. If that option fails, Israel would unilaterally demarcate a border that would encompass the main settlement blocs, and allow the 17 percent of the West Bank settlers who live in isolated communities to leave their homes within the framework of an “absorption, evacuation, compensation law.” That’s it, in a nutshell.

Ehud Barak.
Moti Milrod

Barak is part of a niche Knesset slate that describes itself with a pride that’s unknown in these parts as “left wing.” He can allow himself to talk about the damage of the occupation and to call the isolated hilltop settlements that were planted as peace-scuttling land mines by their name: harmful to the security of the state.

In these vacuous, dry, gimmick-laden days, replete with noisy, childish outbursts – at least Barak took the trouble to present a serious plan that in our toe-the-line times could even be considered courageous.

The day after the conference I asked him whether, if a broad coalition is formed, his party will want to be part of it. “They won’t need us,” he replied realistically. He admitted that a unity government might be the only formula by which to avoid a third election within a year, but added, “Benny [Gantz] is not fighting, not making an effort. He sounds like someone who longs to crawl into one government with Bibi and Lieberman. That’s capitulation, surrendering without a fight, in an election that could prove fateful.”

Lieberman today is the bon ton of quite a few voters who previously supported center-left parties, I told him. “They are blind and stupid,” he declared.

In Barak’s assessment, if Netanyahu doesn’t have the support of 61 MKs, his path to either a plea bargain or a trial will be short. If he gets the 61, he can obtain immunity in the Knesset. “That’s the law,” I said.

“Yes. It’s all legal,” Barak replied. “Even the dishrag [his term for the newly elected state comptroller, Matanyahu Englman] was elected in a legal procedure by the Knesset, and the government of Poland was also elected legally and dismissed its Supreme Court under the law.”

We talked about the gloomy situation in the left-wing camp. “Most of the public is now in the Greek islands,” he said. “The brunt of the campaign will take place in the final three weeks. We’ve only just started.”

Bad manners

“Bezalel Smotrich is not Hanna Bavli,” said Bezalel Smotrich – referring to Israel’s Miss Manners – as he offered a clarification at Bibi’s behest after insulting the premier in the wake of a Nazareth District Court ruling this week against gender separation at a public event.

Bezalel Smotrich.
Moti Milrod

Smotrich has been a minister for barely two minutes and is already speaking about himself in the third person, like a soccer player from some lowly league. Were it not for his Knesset immunity, the guy would have been detained and charged with contempt of court (article No. 255 of the Penal Code) for calling Judge Yonatan Avraham “moronic.” It’s a felony that carries a three-year jail term.

Using the name of Bavli, the late high priestess of etiquette, as a mirror image for his verbal hooliganism and his vulgarity is, as they say, something “for the Pantheon.” As though there are no interim levels between Smotrich and her. Either your average lowlife – or a national icon and embodiment of elegance.

We’ll mention only that Smotrich was arrested in the summer of 2005 on the suspicion that he and others planned to pour hundreds of liters of fuel and scatter spikes on Highway 1, in protest of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. It’s not likely that Mrs. Bavli was hiding a collection of spikes in her home between the porcelain cups.

Smotrich was remanded in custody by three judicial instances, and maintained silence during his interrogation. He was not indicted for one reason alone: to avoid revelation of the identity of a Shin Bet security service source among the “hilltop youth” in West Bank settler outposts. It would be interesting to know what Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman thinks today when he briefs the security cabinet, of which Smotrich is a member, on information received from his organization’s Jewish Division, which is responsible for tracking down homegrown elements involved in domestic terror and sabotage.

Possible contender

The distress that gripped senior Likud figures who expected and longed in vain to see their colleague Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security, pack his bags and head for New York to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, was mingled with satisfaction at the attorney general’s decision to put Haim Katz, the minister of labor, social affairs and social services, on trial.

The one who’s staying would have vacated two ministerial portfolios – Erdan is also strategic affairs minister – and, of course, a place in the security cabinet. The one whose indictment obligates him to resign will vacate only one ministry. Well, that’s something, too.

The mood among those who waited for the juicy inheritance, or parts of it, can be gleaned from the echo of the following conversation, which took place a week ago, during an election-campaign meeting with the prime minister.

Gila Gamliel, the social equality minister, expressed dissatisfaction that there is only one woman, Miri Regev, in the first 10 places on Likud’s Knesset slate. She herself had been in 10th place but slid down to 11th when Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, rejoined Likud and was placed in the fifth slot. “If Gilad [Erdan] would go to the UN already,” Gamliel grumbled, “there would be two women in the top 10.”

Erdan, who never had an operation to lengthen his outrage fuse, snapped back: “Tell me, aren’t you tired of salivating over my job? Wherever you go, all you talk about is my trip. I’m far from sure you’ll get an upgrade if I go.”

“I’m far from sure that I want your ministry,” the social equality minister shot back.

It took Erdan months before he announced, last Wednesday, that he has decided not to leave town. Reason: He wants to remain in the trenches and help Likud in the election.

During the period since Erdan was offered the UN posting by Netanyahu, a series of events occurred that are not entirely clear: At one point he didn’t want the job, at another point Netanyahu cooled on the idea, and so on. The last word was Erdan’s.

It’s impossible not to attribute his decision to Likud’s situation in the polls. Without the 61 seats that will enable Netanyahu to form a government, seek immunity (if his arguments in his pre-indictment hearing are rejected), or continue to serve under an indictment – his fate will be dire. Nothing good will threaten him, in Lieberman’s phrase. A Likud primary could be held as early as October-November, even before the gong marking the deadline for forming a new government is heard.

It’s only natural for Erdan to want to be here at that dramatic moment – which he and others thought would never arrive: when the glass ceiling is removed, the cords snap, the rope frays and a new Likud leader is chosen. He will undoubtedly be among the contenders. Better to be here and join the race for Balfour Street. If he’s chosen, great. Paradise. If he loses, there’s the chance that the ministry he’ll be offered by the winner – on the assumption that Likud continues to be the ruling party – will be a notch above the two portfolios, one real and one fictitious, that he holds today.