Analysis

What's Netanyahu Up To? His Supporters Would Like to Know

As the party lists were locked in place this week, and the right finally 'united,' Likudniks are asking, where is the leader guiding us?

Benjamin Netanyahu.
Olivier Fitoussi

As the days go by and the polls multiply, the average Likudnik – lawmaker, minister, even a local-branch activist – is increasingly recognizing that the coveted electoral goal of 61 Knesset seats on September 17 is looking hard to achieve. At the moment, the prize they would like to see at the end of the route – the establishment of a joint right-wing and ultra-Orthodox government – is far beyond the hills of darkness at the moment.

Likud lawmakers are wondering why their campaign, which is being led exclusively by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, doesn’t appear to reflect the full scale of the plight. Does he have a plan for a scenario in which it turns out on September 18 that Likud and its potential partners do not have 61 seats, the floor collapses under them and Avigdor Lieberman emerges from the ruins as anointer – or annihilator – of kings?

Netanyahu, naive he is not. There’s no doubt that the grimness of the situation is perfectly clear to him. Nor does he have any illusions about Lieberman. I know, he said to someone recently, that Evet – Lieberman’s Russian name – wants to see my head and my body separated from each other. To confidants, he betrays his greatest concern: a Likud revolt in a situation in which his decade-long rule begins to look like it’s about to slip through his fingers because of his legal troubles.

That may sound like pure fiction, but then again, Israel has never had two elections within six months. Netanyahu also knows full well that he won’t get the chance to lead Israel into a third one.

The facts are clear, the danger is obvious and Likud folks are asking, where is the leader guiding us? Netanyahu is a superpolitician, the most experienced campaigner in the Middle East, a magus who has often extricated himself from nasty situations. A catastrophe of the kind that’s looming for him – and us – has never before happened. So, where’s the sense of urgency? Are alternative plans being hatched in the twilight zone of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street, among the shadows and the demons? With his lawyers, for instance?

The Likudniks don’t understand why Netanyahu isn’t assailing Kahol Lavon and is instead dragging himself, together with a few ex-lawmakers from Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu, into focusing his efforts on the bastion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

So far, his fixation on those voters is only helping Lieberman. His party has stabilized at 10 seats in the polls – twice as many MKs as it has in the outgoing Knesset. Three of the five new seats forecasted come from Likud voters.

At the beginning of the week, Netanyahu threw a new joker onto the gambling table in the form of Vladimir Putin, the head-basher from Moscow. Two posters appeared on Metzudat Ze’ev, the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv. On the northern façade, passersby saw a photograph of Bibi and Donald that covers 12 of the building’s 16 floors, just like before the last election. But on the southern side, instead of television presenter Eliraz Sadeh, who had the honors last time, Bibi and Vladimir are flapping in the hot summer wind. “Netanyahu, a different league,” the caption shouts.

Never mind the provincialism, the shtetl-like kowtowing before lord and master. The problem is that most of the “Russian” voters, as they’re commonly called, didn’t come from Russia but from countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. In most of them – in Ukraine, for example – Putin is a controversial if not hated figure.

What works on the average Israeli sabra, whose chest swells with pride at the sight of Russia’s president and Israel’s prime minister doing the buddy-buddy thing, doesn’t necessarily work on Netanyahu’s declared target audience in this election. In the overall balance it might not hurt, but given that this time, he’s homing in on Lieberman’s voters and they are his be-all and end-all, it’s not clear how it’s helping.

Two Likud Party banners in Tel Aviv show Netanyahu shaking hands with Trump and Putin. The caption says "Netanyahu, in another league." July 28, 2019.
AFP

The creaking kingdom

The Putin episode is only one of several puzzling events that are causing many Likud activists to wonder what Netanyahu is thinking. Let’s take another occurrence, when he visited the Efrat settlement, southwest of Bethlehem, on Wednesday morning this week. By nature, stumping is a sensitive matter; the prime minister’s entourage is painstakingly selected in accordance with the target audience.

Sitting alongside Netanyahu this time were two representatives of the religious Zionist movement: Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Minister of Environmental Protection and of Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin – both from central casting, as one would expect – and Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who has never been identified with the community in question. Ohana wouldn’t have been there if the campaign staff hadn’t invited him. And why was lawmaker Nir Barkat, the former Jerusalem mayor, invited (but didn’t show)? What does he have to do with the settlements? He’s supposed to be operating behind the lines of Kahol Lavan.

Something is creaking in the kingdom of Balfour Street. Even if they do miraculously garner 61 seats (Likud wins 34, ultra-Orthodox 16, the right-wing parties 11; Labor doesn’t cross the electoral threshold; there’s another low turnout among the Arab community), their numbers will include Naftali Bennett and his loyalists from Hayamin Hehadash, Matan Kahana and Roni Sassover.

Bennett has already made it clear that he’s not eager to serve as the springboard that serves Netanyahu on his way to obtaining immunity from prosecution. Not that at Balfour, where resides a woman whose hatred drives her to distraction, anyone is trying to bring Bennett closer. On Thursday, we learned that Likud secretly funded a campaign against him on websites connected to religious Zionism. Ayelet Shaked is also permanently under suspicion of spinning plots intended unseat the king. This is exactly what Michal Peretz, the wife of Education Minister Rafi Peretz (United Right), said she was told by the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, in a recording, leaked this week, of a conversation between Peretz and an unknown interlocutor.

The protracted negotiations conducted between Shaked/Bennett and Peretz/Bezalel Smotrich (third on the United Right slate and currently the transportation minister) on the question of whom to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin as the person to form the next government stirred up all the old paranoias within the prime minister’s family. The dispute was eventually resolved: It was decided that the joint list will recommend a right-wing candidate who has the best chance of forming a right-wing government. That should calm Netanyahu in the first round with the president, but if he fails (and this time he won’t get an extension beyond the first 28 days), it’s a whole new ball game. The original decision will no longer be binding.

However you look at the electoral picture, Netanyahu has little reason for excessive optimism. His circle is now turning its gaze to Labor leader Amir Peretz; maybe he will be the deus ex machina, the missing piece to complete the coalition puzzle. For those who have forgotten, Peretz, along with Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni, joined the third Netanyahu government, after leaving Labor in anger with the excuse that the party’s elected head, Shelly Yacimovich, had refused to promise him, and publicly, that she would never hook up with Netanyahu.

If the Peretz of six years ago was ready to forsake his declarations and principles in return for a junior portfolio, the environmental protection ministry, I was told by a Likud minister, how will he respond when Netanyahu calls him on election night and dangles the Finance Ministry in front of him? In that case, the walls whose collapse the Labor chairman anticipates almost religiously really will come tumbling down.

How to win them over

One thing you can’t take away from Netanyahu is the way he has taken to an art form – if not sheer magic – his use of representatives from the religious Zionist movement in his government to whitewash problematic political-diplomatic moves.

The security cabinet unanimously – “with one voice,” as the Hebrew phrase goes – voted to build hundreds of housing units for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, which is under Israeli control. This includes the big, ideological voice of Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

The man who boasts of having founded Regavim, a nongovernmental organization whose aim is to foil Arab construction in Area C; the representative of the far-right in the government, who could hardly swallow Arab construction in Areas A and B – voted in favor. He didn’t even abstain.

After the vote, Smotrich sat down to write an apologetic, self-justifying manifesto, studded with lots of “thank God” and “with God’s help.” To purge his sin, he lashed out at the “right-wing governments” in the past decade (hmm, who was it who led them?) that acted with “incompetence, criminal negligence and abandon,” thus making possible the “mad building of thousands of illegal structures” in the said area.

The Likud ministers in the security cabinet guffawed. Suddenly he’s no longer an idealist, he’s a statesman; no longer an adolescent “hilltop youth,” but a strategist whose eyes have been opened. No longer the organizer of the “March of Beasts” (his protest against the gay pride parade) but a member of the top rank of national leaders.

The ministers are familiar with the procedure: Netanyahu invites the target to a meeting, “consults” with him about Iran, Syria, the Gaza Strip, shows him a hush-hush, hot-hot intelligence document, straight from the oven, and the miscreant melts like soft ice cream on a hot tin roof. Afterward, the prime minister asks him to support Palestinian housing construction in Area C. It’s important for me that you vote in favor, he tells him. Yes, in favor. He shares with him details of his conversations with U.S. President Donald Trump, maybe even shows him a transcript, and that’s it. He’s a puddle on the floor.

Illustration. Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir watch as Bennett, Smotrich and Rafi Peretz take off in a Shaked-shaped hot air balloon.
Amos Biderman

Perfect match

Naftali Bennett likes to bandy about the term “technical bloc.” He says it’s likes a bus going from one stop to the next, and at every stop someone gets on. More precisely: a homophobe, a target of police surveillance, a woman with baskets, a Kahanist who admires Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer from the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The bus arrives at the last stop, all the passengers get off and go their separate ways. If something bad has clung to the other passengers, it will wash off. (The last three sentences are from me, not Bennett.)

You can argue about the accuracy of the extended metaphor, but overall, he’s right. The brakes, the sensitivities, the “that can’t happen” of the past have long since been thrown into the garbage. Everything is kosher on the road to Las Vegas, even if it stinks to high heaven.

There’s no doubt that this trip is a lot harder for Bennett than it is for his colleague Ayelet Shaked, who’s driving the bus. What the religiously observant fellow from Ra’anana would never consider – hosting Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit in his home – she’s more than happy to do. She’s acting as if she has anosmia, a sense of impaired smell. Her red lines are lot more elastic than his, and they aren’t actually red.

It wasn’t partnership and still less, friendship, that brought these two together for the second round of the 2019 election. It’s purely a convergence of interests. She was given the leadership; he got to keep the party. Three of the four members of Hayamin Hehadash who are in the first 10 places on the United Right slate are Bennett’s people (himself, Matan Kahana and Roni Sassover). For Shaked, the current gambit is only a way station on the way to Likud. The ruling party was and remains her goal, and also a way to settle at the top. Soon Netanyahu might no longer be there, and it would come as no surprise to this writer if an application for Likud membership arrives at party headquarters the day after his departure. She’ll go through basic training, serve the required minimal time in the ranks and wait her turn.

The linkup between Shaked and Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash and Peretz and Smotrich’s United Right is a perfect match. The former bring popularity and attractiveness among broad circles of the secular right, while the Hardali ultra-Orthodox nationalists bring money and the blazing messianic fervor of the types who are willing to give their life on election day.

Most of the negotiating was conducted between Bennett and Smotrich. They met in Smotrich’s home in the settlement of Kedumim and also with the negotiating teams in Ra’anana. Bennett fried some eggs, chopped vegetables for a salad and made coffee for everyone. From the get-go it was agreed that Bennett would not talk about who would head the slate, only about who would be on it, who’s next in line and who’s in the next line.

He placed his loyalists into slots that are considered safe. According to the polls and certainly if a right-wing government is formed, the cabinet ministers from the party will resign from the Knesset, making it possible for those below them on the list to take their spots in the legislature. Kahana, who was on the previous slate as well, and Sassover, who came out of nowhere, are ahead of Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, who left Habayit Hayehudi with Bennett and Shaked and enabled them to legally split from the party. Moalem-Refaeli, the industrious former lawmaker with a large selection of head coverings, apparently projects something that’s not suitable for the new Hayamin Hehadash.

Indeed, in the matter of people retention, Bennett and Shaked are following in the footsteps of their former employer in the bureau of the opposition leader, Netanyahu, in 2006-2007. Hardly anyone has survived with them from the 2013 election, or even from 2015. Nor Alona Barkat, Caroline Glick, Yinon Migal, from this past April. Ayelet and Naftali are renewable energy.

Shaked and Bennett.
\ Moti Milrod

Room for all

After the election, Bennett says, we’ll split back into the parent parties. The coalition negotiations, if they happen, will be conducted jointly but also separately. How will that work? Simple. Bennett has the right to demand the first ministerial portfolio, Shaked the second; Smotrich and Peretz have a similar arrangement.

On the assumption that the right-wing bloc wins 61 seats, and the United Right will have 11 or 12 of that number, Bennett will demand one of the three senior portfolios: defense, foreign affairs or the treasury. Shaked will happily return to the Justice Ministry. Peretz and Smotrich will remain in the ministries they now hold. All of them will sit securely in the security cabinet.

Looking back, all in all, Bennett has reasons to be satisfied. Two months ago he was a has-been. The failure of Hayamin Hehadash to enter the Knesset was attributed solely to him. Shaked was the one who was courted and adored. He decided to run ahead on his own, with no resources. He resurrected 70 branches of the party, drew up and published plans for the draft, education and the economy, and still on his own, without Shaked, appeared consistently in the polls above the electoral threshold. When she joined, the number leaped to seven or eight and the path to leading the united slate was paved with butter.

But if there’s a lesson that Bennett learned from his own experience since entering national politics, it’s that in the Netanyahu era, a person’s word is not his bond, a promise is not a promise, the money is counted on the stairs, and so forth.

In 2013 he recommended Netanyahu, but he would have remained outside if he hadn’t hooked up with Yair Lapid. In 2015 he recommended Netanyahu, and he was pushed to the end of the line. Fortunately for Bennett, Lieberman pulled a fast one and opted for the opposition, and Bennett was able to maximize profits to the max.

Now, deeply scarred, he will demand that the main part of the coalition talks be completed before the parties make their recommendation to the president. Even then, however, let’s say that Netanyahu commits – even in writing – to both parties, Hayamin Hehadash and United Right. After he gets the nod from the president, what’s to stop him from trying to bring in other parties or even to form a broad government with Kahol Lavan or parts of it?

Isn’t everyone is waxing nostalgic for Yitzhak Shamir these days? Well, it was Shamir who sent Yuval Ne’eman, the head of the extreme-right party of the 1980s, to hang the coalition agreement the two had signed on the wall – and formed a unity government with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.