Analysis |

Netanyahu's Hat Has Run Out of Rabbits. Now Lieberman Can Finish Him Off

Israel's right didn't get the victory it expected – but at least there's corona ■ Netanyahu's 2020 achievement: Boosting the Joint List ■ Left and right, Naftali Bennett and Amir Peretz are waging the same war

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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illustration: Amos Biderman
illustration: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It was Thursday, and it was a dramatic high noon. Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman placed the sword on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s neck. The sun was shining, the system was thriving - and the slaughterer slaughtered.

Lieberman’s support of the proposed legislation that would prevent a person under indictment from forming a government is the next, obvious stage in his main and in effect only election promise, a commitment with a double edge: To accelerate Netanyahu’s farewell to public life and to prevent a fourth election. “I have a formula,” he said any number of times during the course of the campaign. “Wait and see.”

Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't winCredit: Haaretz Weekly Podcast

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Once again, the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu proves that he keeps his word; in September he promised he would only join a unity government – and he stuck to his guns. Now, he is keeping the promise that is truly important to him: to be the one ripping Netanyahu from his prime ministerial seat. On election night, Lieberman was dubbed a loser, a failed gambler. Two days later, the wheel turned 180 degrees. Our Evet has once again become the key player.

If the absolutely final result of the vote count does not change the current Knesset map, 59 Knesset members are likely to recommend to the president that Kahol Lavan's Benny Gantz form the next government. That is – the entire anti-Bibi bloc minus the three members of the Balad party in the Joint List. It is short of the preferable absolute majority of 61 seats; and leaves it to President Reuven Rivlin to use his own judgement to make a final decision.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman at a cabinet meeting, April 2013.Credit: Emil Salman

In any case, an effective majority should enable Gantz to embark on a series of parliamentary steps: Replacing the Knesset speaker, for example. Likud's Yuri Edelstein, who currently occupies the position, is probably considering resigning of his own accord anyway: If not, he will be torn between the relentless hammering of the prime minister and his entourage and his duty to the parliamentary majority. Importantly, it will also allow the former IDF chief to finally establish a Knesset Arrangements Committee, which is necessary to the legislative life of the country, and advance the above-mentioned legislation.

In contrast to the previous election campaign, in which there was hardly any communication between Kahol Lavan and Lieberman, this time the line was constantly opened. Yoram Turbowitz and Shalom Shlomo, who conducted the coalition negotiations in the previous round, were an integral part of Gantz’s election headquarters. Paid, full-time. Turbo and Shlomo, who know Lieberman well, were given one mission: Maintain a continuous, fair and transparent – insofar as possible – relationship with Yisrael Beiteinu, and with other potential coalition partners. Gantz and company were not surprised by Lieberman's dramatic announcement. They were waiting for it, with bated breath and hearts going pitter-pat.

The moment the legislative initiative became known, Netanyahu’s soldiers were dispatched to sound the alarm about the injustice being planned for their dear leader. Last time around, they told us that immunity from prosecution was the democratic panacea, and the establishment of a Knesset Committee a criminal act. This time, Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar, president-in-waiting of the Israeli Institute for Alternative Democracy, decried Kahol Lavan's proposed bill in every television studio. A vote to pass this law would be anti-democratic, Zohar argued. Interesting. Incidentally, this proposal is an altogether more reasonable version of a similar bill that targeted disgraced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. A certain Benjamin Netanyahu had then voted for it with great enthusiasm.

This piece of legislation is smarter. Kahol Lavan’s plan is to have the law be effective only from the next Knesset. This will prevent it from possibly being struck down by a court challenge, while at the same time prevent Netanyahu from contending in yet another election, should there be one.

If Lieberman does cast his vote in favor with Kahol Lavan, ending the long and exhausting Netanyahu chapter in the chronicles of Israeli politics, it will be his greatest accomplishment. Since November 2018, ridding the political arena of Netanyahu has been his single aim. For him, and most other players, the undefeatable Likud leader has become a rotten and dangerous version of his young self, the one whom Lieberman had contributed to build up, with diligent effectiveness, during the gay 1990s.

Moshe Ya'alon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi launch their joint Kahol Lavan slate in Tel Aviv, February 22, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

If there ever was mullings in Kahol Lavan about another strategy out of the deadlock, including ousting Gantz, these seem to have been frozen and thrown out. Unseating Netanyahu is, as usual, their best incentive to show a united front. Gantz's colleagues Yair Lapid and Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon will not have to stomp around bitterly threatening they will never be part of a government with Mr. Corruption Incarnate every time there is an offer from Likud: After the filth campaign Netanyahu conducted against Gantz, the latter will apparently not even meet with him face to face.

Despite all the electoral disappointments, there is a consensus at the top of Kahol Lavan: There is nothing left to discuss with Netanyahu. Now what must be done is to ensure the prime minister will be officially investigated. For the dirty tricks bordering on criminal. For the Seadrift shares that made Netanyahu rich while in office.

Incidentally, the Balfour Street residents have not taken their foot off the poison gas pedal. There is open talk of blackmailing Omer Yankelevich, who is on the 23rd spot on the Kahol Lavan slate, to force her to defect. Top Likud people now see Miki Zohar and Netanyahu’s advisor Yonatan Orich as embarassing liabilities. The two of them have boasted that the “defectors” are already in their pocket. Netanyahu’s loyal servants, imbued with misplaced arrogance, have scattered promises in public to anyone who changes sides. The result: All the “suspects” were forced to react, some sooner and some later, eventually swearing loyalty to their electorate and only coming up with one answer: Netanyahu nyet, under any circumstances.

'A Corona unity government'

Gray as a burlap bag, frightened and anxious, light years away from the night of the “enormous victory,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood and scrawled his racism on the board for all to see. “58 seats for Zionist right, 47 for the Zionist left,” are, to his thinking, the election results and the basis on which a government should be formed.

With the sweep of a marker, the prime minister erased the 575,500 citizens who voted for the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties (20,000 of whom, incidentally, were Jews) and put them beyond the pale, as if they were lepers. The extremist rabbi Meir Kahane is probably heaving a sigh of relief in his grave; a worthy successor has emerged.

With his contemptible sketch of his convenient political arithmetic, the man who campaigned in Arab communities over the past few weeks offering reassurance and calling for “reconciliation” demonstrated cynicism and the total loss of shame and statesmanship. Only the “Zionists” count for him. Even Iran’s leaders never so blatantly excluded the Jewish citizens living there.

South Korean tourist awaiting a flight back home, at Ben-Gurion airport Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

The election results, which are unlikely to change with virtually all the votes having been counted, promise continued political turmoil and paralysis. Neither Netanyahu nor Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz have a coalition. Gantz has a better chance of setting up a minority government, with the support of most of the Joint List and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. The question is whether he will dare to try, and if his partners will go along. Getting the Knesset to ratify such a government would be the easy part; it will be far more difficult to maintain and manage it. In any case, that scenario seems fairly far-fetched at the moment.

The news broadcasts on Wednesday night went back to being dominated by the new coronavirus. Even if the panic and draconian measures are proportional, one can always count on Netanyahu to intensify things for his personal interests. During the tough political times he finds himself in, facing the possibility he’ll be forced out of Balfour Street and made to stand trial as an ordinary lawmaker, his people have started to brief journalists on the catastrophe and apocalypse that have befallen us. A hundred thousand people in isolation, the collapse of the economy, the end of the world is already here, it’s only a cough away. The remedy? Clearly, an emergency government, and fast.

“A corona unity government,” Netanyahu's chief adivisor was quoted as saying by a journalist. We will hear more about this in the coming days. But rest assured, even if Israel had, God forbid, dozens of deaths and hundreds of sick people, if Netanyahu had won a majority we wouldn’t be hearing a word about the need for unity. It’s a sad joke. There’s no connection between the outbreak of the virus and the formation of a government, there’s only a connection to the cynical needs of Monday’s great victor, who discovered Wednesday that he’d actually lost. Again.

A lot of worries have piled up on Netanyahu’s desk in the 48 hours since the exit polls seemed to favor Likud and the right-wing-ultra-Orthodox bloc, not least the law that would ban a prime minister under indictment from continuing in office.

On the other hand, Gantz has problems, too. All of his options are bad. Kahol Lavan will presumably not be strengthened by a fourth election; it has exhausted its strength this time. Joining a unity government under Netanyahu would lead to the party breaking up and destroy it as an alternative ruling party for good. And a theoretical minority government wouldn’t be much of a good thing either. It would actually be deep trouble.

And still, in a country run with a budget that was set eons ago and whose government activity is mostly paralyzed, the added value of the novel coronavirus might create an economic crisis, more so than a health crisis, whose scope still remains unknown.

In such a situation, all players would have to bring into the equation – God forbid – national interest, and do everything in their power to prevent a fourth election.

Likud supporter holding up a poster with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced by his wife Sara at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Monday after the polls closed.Credit: AFP

The sample and its collapse

Only forty-four hours - and an eternity - separated the power-drunk, almost bestial revelry that followed the release of exit polls on Monday night (“Shut down the Supreme Court,” “Fire the attorney general,” hoarse Likudniks were screaming at the Expo Tel Aviv event venue) and the gloom among those assembled in the Jerusalem Room in the Knesset on Thursday.

At around midnight, Likud lawmakers and cabinet ministers were informed that the prime minister and his wife were about to depart form their residence for Tel Aviv, for the victory speech. Before that, Netanyahu asked to speak with four key individuals: Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, and lawmkaers David Bitan and Shlomo Karhi, who is known as Baba Buba.

Netanyahu wanted Karhi involved not because he was planning to pepper his speech with gematria, the Jewish numerology of which Karhi is fond. Baba Buba is responsible for the polling places. The prime minister wanted to make sure the number 60 was solid.

Pollsters unanimously predicted 60 Knesset seats for the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc. Historically, these results trend for the left and the expectation was that another seat, the savior seat, would fall into their hands by the following morning. It would usher in the n-th Netanyahu government, which would act swiftly to pass a series of laws to thwart a trial, leading to more far-reaching legislation that would alter Israel’s system of government.

Karhi and the others also assumed to samples were accurate, and that angels would bring the final number to 61, and yallah, Saraleh, we’re staying in the residence.

The next day, when the balance had changed to 59, doubt began to gnaw. The Prime Minister’s office moved to the Knesset building, spitting distance from the Central Election Committee headquarters. Netanyahu held meetings in rapid succession, including with a number of veteran party operatives from United Torah Judaism and Shas, who are considered the top experts on polling places. Their opinion was sobering: It would take a miracle, they told him, to get to 60. However, as David Ben Gurion said, in the state of Israel anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not realistic.

Towards evening, faction leaders were called in for an urgent meeting at the Knesset. Terrified, Netanyahu resorted yet again to the procedure of firming up their loyalty on an hourly basis. He also complained that the Central Elections Committee, headed by Justice Neal Hendel, “was stealing the election from us.” As always, everyone was to blame, except for him: Imaginary buses, non-profit organizations supported by the CIA, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the Central Elections Committee. His Twitter corps, headed by his son Yair, the bullshit bully of social media, began launching invective at the committee, testifying to the magnitude of the panic at Balfour Street. In Hubei Province in China they behaved more calmly.

Likud attempted to etch in the public's mind a narrative that made the "victory" 59th Knesset seat a matter of just a few votes. It turned out that the distance to number 59 was about 7,000 votes, five times more than what current Defense Minister and then-justice minister MK Ayelet Shaked needed back in April of last year to make it back into the Knesset.

The community's honor

Netanyahu likes to depict himself as having transformed Israel into a world power. An empire. He tends to rewrite history for his own needs. In his encyclopedia, the entry “Israel” says that until 2009, we were a faltering third-world country. Just sand and more sand and a few Jaffa oranges. He attributes to himself the high tech boom of the last two decades, the product of the brains, talent and enterprise of Israelis who have no connection at all to his governments, fortunately for them, fortunately for us.

One chapter he will probably play down in his memoir should in fact be seen as a tremendous achievement for which he can take all the credit. He transformed the Joint List into the largest and most significant political force for Israel's Arabs.

Let us review what has happened during this past year of repeat elections: In April, the Arab public suffered from extreme under-representation. Ten parliamentary seats were split among two slates. In May, Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset, and the campaign of incitement and rabble-rousing against Arab citizens immediately began, peaking with the Cameras Law that toady Miki Zohar promoted.

Netanyahu’s actions enraged the Arab electorate, and accelerated the renewed union of the parties that represent it. In September, their combined power brought 13 lawmakers into the Knesset, and after it was once again disbanded, Netanyahu returned to his evil ways. This time, he specifically targeted Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, chairman of the list and chairman of the Knesset faction respectively, the two most admired and esteemed politicians among their voters.

Joint list members Sundus Saleh (R) and Iman Khatib (L) in a campaign event in Tel Aviv, August 2019. Credit: David Bachar

One could argue this tactic worked for Likud, who managed to grow by one seat, to 36. But it is far from the Joint List 50 percent increase in 11 months: 15 Knesset seats. Furthermore, it managed to garner support from Druze and Jewish voters, who gave it more than half the number of votes needed for a seat, giving flesh to their protest against the racist-in-chief.

The section of Trump's Mideast peace plan regarding population transfers, a brilliant notion attributed to the Prime Minister’s office (and which doesn't stand a chance), also served as an additional incentive for the Arab street. Netanyahu's main campaign message also spoke to Arab voters – Gantz does not have a government without the support of Odeh and Tibi, he said, truthfully. For the first time since the establishment of the state, the Arab community, united, could truly have influence over the government that rules their lives.

The Joint List vote is the most fascinating aspect of this election, and the upward trend is expected to continue in future elections. Arab voters are internalizing now what the ultra-Orthodox adopted decades ago: It is better to participate in the game and exercise your power to the fullest – that’s the only way to obtain real change.

However, the 15 precious Knesset votes will not be given to Gantz so easily. Ayman Odeh is demanding a public apology from the head of Kahol Lavan for his campaign, in which he ran after Netanyahu and worked hard to distance himself from the Joint List, going as far as to share in that same despicable talk about a “Jewish majority.” Joint List leaders are not prepared to act like a mistress in a clandestine love nest. From today on, the relations with them will be visible – or won’t happen at all.

Loss of values

The election reserved a similar fate for Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and MK Amir Peretz, the candidates for alliances on the right and the left, respectively. Both men comported themselves with incomprehensible elation, self-importance and amazing arrogance. Both of them crashed.

The first finished with six Knesset seats: three for Hayemin Hehadash, headed by Bennett himself and Ayelet Shaked, two for Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union and one for Education Minister Rafi Peretz, a political aviation disaster, who pulverized what had been the splendid National Religious Party with his own two hands .

Naftali Bennett gestures as he delivers a statement to members of the media, at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, on Monday, November 19, 2018.Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

If Bennett thought the Defense Ministry would send him soaring, he experienced what all his predecessors experienced. In the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, there is a command bunker underground and a political bunker, up on the 14th floor where the defense minister’s bureau is located. An unsuccessful round of fighting against the negligible Islamic Jihad, a pathetic and childish explosion of a television interview, and along came the collapse. Netanyahu didn't even have to drain his votes - the straw just drew the votes upwards to him of its own accord.

Amir Peretz gleaned seven seats. His party built Israel, led it for decades, and is now represented in the Knesset by three lawmakers: Peretz, Itzik Shmuli and Merav Michaeli. Fewer than Agudat Yisrael (a compnenrt of United Torah Judaism), fewer than Hadash (a component of the Joint List). Meretz has two representatives: Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg. They are joined by two lone players: Orly Levy-Abekasis of Gesher and Yair Golan.

Labor and Meretz together number five lawmakers. For the sake of comparison, in the 1992 election, their combined strength stood at 56 (44 and 12 respectively). In the 2015 election, Isaac Herzog brought in 18 and together with Tzipi Livni, the Zionist Union raked in 24 seats. Just five years ago. How his colleagues embittered his life over this “failure,” how they are now missing the glory days of Avi Gabai, who managed to win six in April.

The crash should not be attributed only to Peretz. There are far broader and deeper processes here. But yes, Peretz is responsible and as usual, it does not occur to him to resign. He, like Netanyahu, is not to blame. Why should he be? Only Kahol Lavan is to blame for the fate of his party.

The degree of the disconnect from reality is cause for concern. His speech on Election Night included all the ingredients apart from the words: we won. “I will continue to be the responsible adult of the entire center left,” he declared. “I will rehabilitate the party and the entire camp…” After Yitzhak Rabin’s “I will navigate” victory speech in 1992, the people of his party have heard a lot of “I” – and precisely from people who navigated their battered ship straight into the rocks.

Labor's Amir Peretz at a Labor Party conference, November 25, 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

His campaign was awful, amateurish and went from bad to worse. He appointed himself as senior economic minister in the next government, gave Levy-Abekasis the health ministry and Horowitz education. Towards the end of the election campaign, he had the winning idea to appoint an additional minister, Ben-Gurion University social work Professor Alean Alkranawi, a native of the Bedouin city of Rahat. He completely ignored Shmuli, the most esteemed and admired lawmaker in his party.

Amir Peretz is the Knesset longest-serving member, together with Netanyahu. Both entered the building for the first time in 1988. But while the latter is a sophisticated politician and a super-campaigner who knows how to understand new trends and gain control of them quickly, Peretz remains stuck in the 1980s. Anachronistic, obsolete, with a decidedly unhealthy element in his ego that messes up his limited abilities from the outset.

I am not a traitor

On Sunday night, about 10 hours before the polls opened, Yisrael Bachar gave Benny Gantz the results of the last survey he carried out, hot from the oven. Bachar had been very publicly fired days earlier, but it was only for show. For the record and for the media. He stayed away from headquarters but continued to do what he specializes in: Surveying and analyzing.

The results of the survey were as follows: 36 or 37 for Likud, 32 or 33 for Kahol Lavan, 58 for the right and ultra-Orthodox bloc, 6 or 7 for Yisrael Beiteinu. For the most part, Bachar does not err. The final-day surveys he did in the last two rounds, in April and September, were also accurate.

Yisrael Bachar at Kahol Lavan headquarters, Tel Aviv, September 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

On Election Night he watched his professional rival Ronen Tzur, himself an advisor of repute, sitting in a television studio and accusing him by implication of intentional damage to the Kahol Lavan campaign. Bachar was actually a double agent, a Netanyahu plant, the accusations go. As such, he gave bad advice to a person who trusted him. Advisors’ battles are an ugly thing. Perhaps a little bit less repugnant than journalists’ battles on Twitter. Both kinds of professional are blessed with egos the size of Australia. Tzur chose to settle his personal account with Bachar, who in any case was out for the count, in the television studio. Not elegant, not fair, not humane.

Bachar was heartsore. If I was sent to subvert from within, why did Kahol Lavan maintain its strength, he asked. And if I had been Netanyahu’s plant, why did he burn me and urge the rabbi not to distort my voice and conceal my identity? And if I did work for him for half a year or maybe a year and a half back from the first campaign, I should have got paid. Bachar is ready to face a police investigation, give access to all his accounts and undergo not just one polygraph test but four.

"Anything that is required of me I will do in order to refute those suspicions," said Bachar.

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