Analysis

The Only Issue Currently Preoccupying Netanyahu's Party

If ‘bad boy’ Yair Lapid keeps it up, Kahol Lavan’s demise may be a matter of time – as may Bibi’s if a certain scenario is realized

Illustration: A childlike Lapid taunts Litzman as Gantz, Ya'alon and Ashkenazi drag him away.
Amos Biderman

This whole ritual is becoming annoying: After every quarrel that erupts in the Kahol Lavan “cockpit” – and there’s no shortage of them – we get a group photo of the four leaders with artificial smiles, forced embraces, furtive glances and an ostensibly reassuring declaration – until the next blow-up.

The rift among the three political parties that make up this faction is obvious. If after the election, the members of the quartet don’t receive senior cabinet positions, the chances that the glue holding them together will continue to do so are slight. In the first place, the essence of and reasons for the genesis of this combination were based on the working assumption that it would be able to form a government. In April that didn’t happen. And then, quite rapidly, a second opportunity presented itself. If that doesn’t succeed either, then it’s goodbye.

At the moment Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid is the weak, subversive link. He’s the troublemaker. This week he once again managed to ruffle his friends’ feathers by posting a satirical campaign video called “Bibi’s Natural Partners,” in which senior ultra-Orthodox politicians were depicted as greedy for “all the money in Israel.” The clip was entertaining, the ensuring uproar was exaggerated – there was no anti-Semitism there at all – and it was all deliberately blown out of proportion by the presumed victims.

If Lapid had hoped to receive support from his colleagues, however, he got just the opposite: a scolding in the media from Moshe Ya’alon and a public reprimand from Benny Gantz. There are some who think that all this is part of a sophisticated strategy: a good cop/bad cop thing. An attempt to appeal to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s voters, while on the other hand trying to emphasize the responsible and balanced side of the head of the Kahol Lavan slate and its candidate for the premiership. It’s a cunning and clever theory, but it is not necessarily correct. It doesn’t conform to the situation on the ground.

All this time, three out of four Kahol Lavan leaders have been maintaining ties with leading and influential figures in Haredi politics. Nobody knows how the chips will fall after the election, and there is a mutual and natural desire on both sides to keep the channels open.

The leaders of Kahol Lavan Gabi Ashkenazi, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and Moshe Ya’alon near the Gaza border in southern Israel, August 6, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

What that trio is hearing from those interlocutors is the following: As long as the mandate to form a government is in the hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, we’re with him, come hell or high water. If the mandate is given to Gantz, however, it will be an entirely different story. With us, being in opposition is not an option. We can find a way to work together – just without Yair, for God’s sake, without Yair.

Lapid’s video is a symptom of the problems plaguing Kahol Lavan. After the September 17 election was announced, Gantz, Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi explained in private conversations, each in his own way, that the main conclusion to be drawn from the previous round is that chaos had prevailed in the campaign: Each party chairman had his own advisers, there were parallel campaigns, the orchestra was not in-tune. This time around, they promised that there would be one headquarters, one voice, one strategy, a uniform and united message.

Well, that hasn’t happened. Lapid is behaving like the bad boy in the group. Perhaps he is preparing the ground for leaving the alliance, and reconstituting Yesh Atid as an independent party. He seems determined to continue conducting his own independent policy, which doesn’t toe the line, and certainly isn’t coordinated with Telem, the party headed by Ya’alon, who is particularly perturbed.

On Wednesday I asked Ya’alon where they are all heading, whether they aren’t closer to divorce than to the wedding they spoke of on the eve of the last election – that is, the creation of one, single party.

One party, he said, is still on the agenda. We’ll examine that after the election. Meanwhile, he added, we agree on 90 percent of the issues and are arguing about 10 percent.

The ultra-Orthodox are not “10 percent,” I ventured. This is an issue that could be of real significance in the future. Ya’alon agreed. “The Haredi issue is too sensitive to leave to the politicians,” he said (paraphrasing Clemenceau’s line about not leaving war to the generals).

So who should deal with it? I asked.

“Leaders,” he replied. The implication was clear.

What happened to the decision you made after the Knesset was disbanded – that this time you would conduct yourselves in an orderly and united way, I asked. Lapid is not exactly going with the flow.

Ya’alon was silent and then sighed: “Write whatever you want about that,” he said, sounding as if he were gritting his teeth.

Autumn winds

Netanyahu was the last politician who should have fallen into this trap: On Saturday night, on the “Meet the Press” television program, Avigdor Lieberman, a sadistic smile on his face, made the following declaration: If the prime minister can’t form the next coalition, I will ask someone in Likud to replace him. There is no shortage of candidates, Lieberman added generously. And, like someone shooting another arrow, right between the eyes, he also mentioned a name: Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (henceforth: the Suspect in plotting a “coup,” in the language of a deleted tweet from Yair Netanyahu).

Netanyahu had three options: to ignore Lieberman’s comment entirely, as though it hadn’t been uttered, and leave it die a natural death; to instruct the Likud spokesman to publish a sarcastic response and let the matter die a natural death; or to suffer a major panic attack – playing right into Lieberman’s hands, and demanding that the 39 people on the Likud slate swear an oath of allegiance to him by means of David Bitan’s cell phone – and thus be seen as someone whose nerves are fraying and leaving the matter to hang in the air for at least three days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the site where the body of an Israeli soldier, Dvir Sorek, was found, in the Gush Etzion area in the West Bank, August 8, 2019.
Alex Kolomoisky

He chose the last option.

We are witnessing in the current election campaign a phenomenon that we haven’t been used to seeing during the past decade. Netanyahu is not determining the agenda, though this was his area of expertise. For the most part he is dragged, he reacts, he holds back rather than attack. Emotions are a poor adviser in a campaign, as any novice strategist knows, but at the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street there are signs of a total loss of control.

The conversation surrounding the premier’s post-election future – and the continuation of Likud’s hold on power – is not the main subject preoccupying party ministers and MKs: It’s the only one. Without 61 right-wing or Haredi seats, which would guarantee both a coalition and perhaps, albeit not for sure, immunity from a trial – Bibi is on the way to becoming history. Nothing will be as it once was. Even if initially he receives the mandate to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin, there is no certainty that he will receive an automatic extension, if he is in need. It is quite possible that after 28 days, the period during which he is supposed to create a government, the mandate will be transferred to another MK. Benny Gantz, for example.

Here is a scenario being raised by Likud ministers: Benjamin Netanyahu is recommended by the largest number of MKs, receives the mandate from the president, and tries to form a coalition. Without a total of 61, and without a unity government under his leadership, and following 28 days without success, he asks for an extension. The president refuses and asks Gantz to try his luck. The Likud sits down for a session of soul-searching, along the lines of “to be or not to be.” To be in the government or not? A group of MKs demands that the party’s central committee be convened immediately, to decide on a date for a leadership primary within two to three weeks’ time. It’s possible, it’s practical and there are precedents: in 2002 and 2005.

The primary IS held, a new Likud chairman is chosen. Meanwhile, after his allotted 28 days, Gantz fails. Without Haredim he has no coalition and they – in the knowledge that very soon the obstacle whose name is Netanyahu is about to be removed – wait patiently for the birth of his Likud successor.

After 28 days, according to this scenario, the ball returns to the president’s court. By law, Rivlin is allowed to wait for 21 additional days, during which “a majority of MKs is allowed to ask the president, in writing, to give the job to MK X who has agreed to that in writing …” a period of 50 days, an eternity to choose a leader for themselves who will guarantee their survival.

This is how our lives will probably look from October to December. Near year’s end, there will probably be an indictment against the prime minister if he is unable to “bring down, like a house of cards” the suspicions against him in the three pending cases (or, alternately, if he hasn’t signed a plea bargain by then that would require him to retire from politics).

The pathetic petition that Bitan organized for Bibi (under direct instructions from the Prime Minister’s Bureau, despite claims to the contrary), will return to haunt us in the final act. And meanwhile, in the words, roughly, of Ira Gershwin, “He’s got plenty of nothing.”

Tokyo in shock

A month ago I wrote here about the way the Prime Minister’s Bureau organized what seemed like a superfluous election trip for Netanyahu to India, for a meeting with his friend and colleague Narendra Modi. The idea of the visit was born after the disbanding of the Knesset, at the end of May. The prime minister wanted to arrive in New Delhi at a date as close as possible to the re-do election in Israel. The Indians acquiesced: September 9.

Netanyahu also organized a campaign-related jaunt to Ukraine for August 18, as part of his untiring efforts to bring back to Likud some of its voters who were seen to be deserting to Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – about two Knesset seats’ worth, according to estimates.

Now we will tell the tale of the trip that didn’t take place: to Japan. That trip was also born in the PMO immediately after the disbanding of the Knesset. The prime minister’s staff asked their counterparts in Tokyo for a meeting with Shinzo Abe. The Japanese were aware of the reasons, but they are a polite and civilized nation. The date was set for July 29. Prime Minister Abe cleared his schedule.

The plan was that on the way to Tokyo the prime minister and his entourage would make an intermediate stop in Seoul, where they would sign a bilateral free trade agreement with the Koreans, something that has been sitting on the shelf since the days of Ehud Olmert’s government. But in advance of the trip, there was a strike at Israel’s Foreign Ministry. As with other embassies around the world, the Israeli Embassy in Japan, which was naturally supposed to be involved in organizing the premier’s visit, was not doing any work. The Japanese mobilized to help. They took upon themselves tasks that, during ordinary times, are carried out by the representatives of the visiting country. For example, a search for rooms in a Tokyo luxury hotel, not an easy order at the height of the tourist season.

About 85 rooms were reserved, but after most of the preparations had been completed, 10 days before D-Day, the announcement came from Jerusalem: The visit had been canceled. Just like that, as though nothing had happened. Tokyo was in shock. Shock, accompanied by anger and humiliation.

An Israeli source who was in the know told me about two theories regarding the reason for the cancellation, such a short time before the scheduled meeting.

The first: Two days after July 29, the slates of all Knesset candidates had to be submitted to the Central Elections Committee. With similar timing, on the eve of the election this past April, Netanyahu canceled an “important security” visit with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, in order to personally conduct the battle for the inclusion of Itamar Ben Gvir on the slate of the Union of Right Wing Parties. Maybe this time around, he also wanted to be here at the critical time.

The second: The South Koreans made it clear to Netanyahu that the trade accord wouldn’t be signed. They did not feel any obligation to serve as a mere backdrop for the Likud election campaign. In addition: On July 13 President Rivlin took off for an official visit to Seoul. It would have been very peculiar for Israel’s two leading statesmen to visit the same country 10 days apart. That reasoning was relayed to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the message was understood and it was decided to cancel.

The Japanese Embassy preferred not to comment.

I directed two questions to the PMB: What was the reason for the cancellation? And, was the State of Israel forced to pay for the hotel rooms reserved by the Japanese?

In response, sources who took part in the planning of the trip, said that, A. No hotel was found, so the state did not have to pay; B. The trip was not canceled, only postponed, because of the distance.

Summer silliness

• Sometimes, when he takes things to heart, semi-criminal utterances escape the mouth of David Amsalem, a minister in our government. About a year and a half ago, after it became known that Yair Lapid had given testimony to the police against Netanyahu in Case 2000, Amsalem went up to the Knesset dais and screamed at his fellow MK: “You little rat! Pathetic snitch!”

This week, after talk about a scenario involving a possible ouster of Netanyahu, Amsalem threatened, in all his emotional upheaval: “Who would dare to remove Bibi? And if anyone dares, I personally will take him down!” The communications minister was not asked by what means he would carry out his threat. With sweet talk? With subtle persuasion? By use of moderate physical pressure? With a machete? He’ll personally take him down. A second-rate Tony Soprano.

• Amsalem’s Likud colleague Minister Miri Regev, who for reasons of campaign discipline has not given many interviews recently, chose to dispel her boredom and express her frustration by way of a meme designed to make Yair Lapid look ridiculous in the wake of his controversial clip about Haredi politicians. She posted a picture on social media of a burning torch, à la Israel’s annual Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl, connected Lapid’s right hand to it along with a silhouette of his face, and wrote a “satirical” text: “I, Yair Lapid, hereby light this torch in memory of the economy the tradition and the values that I have succeeded in inciting and dividing in the Jewish people.” (No commas in the original.) It doesn’t really matter that it came off as childish, clumsy and terrible amateurish. But for God’s sake: the sheer inarticulateness – of a culture minister!

• On Tuesday evening, the folks at the Democratic Union posted a photo on Twitter: Stav Shaffir, one of the party’s three heads, in a selfie with Nitzan Horowitz, Ehud Barak and a bunch of smiling activists. She was in the forefront, they were crowded behind her, piled up in a heap. The heading was “#We’ve started.” We have only two comments: 1. What do you mean “We’ve started”? What have we started? What were we seeing up until now? The promo? The pre-movie newsreels? And, 2. That photo reminded us of forgotten things of the past. On the morning of July 25, Israel awoke to the dawn of a new day, on which the Democratic Union was founded. The photo sent to editorial offices that day was of Shaffir taking a selfie with Horowitz and Barak peering out from behind her shoulder. This is a recurring motif: She is the lead, they are the extras; she is the moon, they are the stars. In each successive picture, they become increasingly distant, until they evaporate into the fog and only she remains. 

• The Labor-Gesher slate launched its election campaign this week. Amir Peretz appears in the center of the photo that was distributed (an old-fashioned one, not a selfie); on his left is Orli Levi-Abekasis and on his right, Itzik Shmuli. The caption: “Human beings. First of all.” In the press release sent to the media, the opening text read: “At the forefront of the campaign will be the three most loved politicians in Israel: Labor Party Chairman MK Amir Peretz, Gesher Chairwoman Orli Levi-Abekasis and MK Itzik Shmuli.” This empirical declaration is not supported by public opinion surveys, street polls or readings of coffee grounds. They are the best loved because, as the communique states, objectively, that is simply the case. There’s no argument. How will they be described in the next press releases? The best-looking in Israel? The coolest? Or maybe: The most modest?

Closing time

Last Thursday at about 9:50 P.M., four heads of the Union of Right-Wing Parties assembled in the Knesset office of Education Minister Rafi Peretz: the host himself, Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett and Bezalel Smotrich. The union’s slate of candidates had just been submitted to the Central Elections Committee. Also on hand were two others on the ticket: Idit Silman and Nir Orbach. Parliamentary aides came and went.

Then, on a closed-circuit TV screen, the gangling figure of MK Moti Yogev was seen knocking on the door. Yogev is considered quite a nuisance in the party: He has reservations, complaints and opinions on just about every issue.

For example, when Shaked asked her fellow union members to sign a “Declaration of loyalty to values” (a fitting right-wing answer to the loyalty declaration Likud members were forced to sign, on behalf of their leader) – Yogev refused to sign before the “party institutions” expressed their opinion of the wording of the document.

An aide entered Peretz’s room: “Yogev is outside,” he said. “Should I let him in?”

“No!” roared the four in unison. “Lock the door!” The MK remained outside.

That was, in effect, the first agreement reached after submission of their joint Knesset slate by the heads of the Union’s three parties: Habayit Hayehudi, the National Union and the New Right. All courtesy of Yogev.