Analysis |

Lapid's Dilemma: Help Left-wing Meretz Party or Devour It?

The big intrigues of the small Meretz party and Lapid's last minute call ■ The left has learned nothing as it fawns all over the ultra-Orthodox again ■ Testimony at Netanyahu's corruption trial clarifies that he and Sara are one

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Verter Illustration.
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Ariel Sharon used to say: “The difference between a large political party and a small one is that both kinds are infested with snakes, but while in a large one you can plan your steps between the reptiles, in a small one no matter what move you make, you will step on a snake.”

What is happening in Meretz these days is an apt incarnation of the agricultural metaphor from the owner of Sycamore Ranch. With four Knesset seats in the public opinion polls, on a good day, it is generating bad blood and quarrels that would suffice for a party several times its size. A small party with many intrigues. The power it wanted for more than 20 years has not done well by it. The dreadful, opportunistic accident named Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi has bled away at least one Knesset seat from the leftist party.

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Like staircases in an Escher painting, no matter which way Meretz is heading, it will always return to the same point in the election campaign: suspicious, attacked, gripped by fear of the electoral threshold and on the verge of shrieking gevalt at its shrinking electorate. As always, it is in need of help but, alas, it is not finding a sister’s hand (i.e. that of Labor Party chairwoman Merav Michaeli).

The issue of Meretz will greatly exercise the world of Israeli politics. On the current map, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of obtaining 61 Knesset seats depend to a large extent on Meretz’s success or failure in crossing the electoral threshold (3.25 percent of the vote). Hence the dilemma that Prime Minister Yair Lapid faces: Should he help Meretz (again) as an altruist, or devour it this time, as an egotist.

Health Minister and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In his party, Yesh Atid, they have reached the following conclusion: They will wait for the final two weeks of the election campaign. After the fall holidays. If at that time Meretz has stabilized at four or five seats, Lapid will have mercy on it. If it is trembling on the edge of the electoral threshold, or below it, he will pounce on it, he will call upon voters not to waste their votes and spur them to vote for Yesh Atid. Exactly as Netanyahu did in the past to far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir when the latter was running on his own.

The calculation goes like this: Let’s say that on the eve of the election, Meretz has about three seats, one less than the required minimum. Two of them will go to Lapid, or Michaeli, or Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Kahol Lavan). The votes of the few loyalists who won’t give up will go down the drain and be split, under the Bader-Ofer law, among the two largest parties, Likud and Yesh Atid. The damage will not be catastrophic.

Back to the present: The factionalism in Meretz is running amok. A phenomenon like this does not exist in any other party. Not in the Labor Party, where everyone has sworn fealty to Michaeli. In the nature of things, not in the autocratic parties either. In Bibistan (aka Likud), of course not.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige.Credit: Fadi Amun

Minister of Regional Cooperation Esawi Freige was the first in Meretz to come out against the party chairman, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz. He announced his resignation and attacked Horowitz for lack of leadership, for neglecting the caucus, for the Rinawie Zoabi fiasco. Horowitz took the blow and recounted, bitterly, how when he asked the party convention to assure her a place in the Knesset, it did so with a majority of 95 percent, including a gooey speech from Freige, heaped with superlatives for the lady.

Freige is a partner in the camp of former party chair and Environmental Affairs Minister Tamar Zandberg and MK Mossi Raz, the group that back in the day led the initiative for “a Jewish-Arab party.” In Horowitz’s corner is MK Michal Rozin. A few weeks ago, Freige and Zandberg went to Horowitz and made him an offer they thought he couldn’t refuse: Give them a foothold in party affairs. In appointing a secretary general, for example. Or allocating delegates. The payback: industrial peace. Horowitz refused. This is according to sources in Meretz.

I directed an identical question to the former chairwoman of Meretz and the resigning minister. Zandberg denied this vehemently. “Horowitz received and is receiving backing from me,” she insisted. Freige did not respond. It seems to me that he is closer to the truth. He is currently trying, including through personal persuasion, to bring former party leader Zehava Galon back into the picture. Galon is not even considering a run, not opposite MK Yair Golan and not opposite anyone else. She’s been there, done that and had enough. Her position might change if the role is offered to her collectively, without a contest.

There are politicians who have quit and evaporated quickly. Galon is of the other sort. Since the moment she quit, she hasn’t stopped engaging with matters of the leftist camp, giving interviews, writing opinion pieces (in Haaretz), establishing an institute called Zulat: Equality and Human Rights, of which she is president. And she is a leader.

Former Meretz head Zehava Galon.Credit: Hadas Parush

Horowitz less so. It seems that he too would admit that. You can’t take away from him the six Knesset seats he brought the party in the last election. He evinced responsibility in the coalition talks, went with the flow, compromised and his demands were proportionate. He passed the supreme test of leadership, which means relinquishing principles for the sake of the exalted goal, at the time – kicking Netanyahu and his gang out of power. He was also an easy partner and a minister popular with his team. He swallowed frogs when necessary, but not for a moment did he lose eye contact with the supreme priority: preserving the government, with all its flaws, in light of the dangerous alternative.

This is also what guides him today. Ultimately, he is a responsible individual. He isn’t greedy for chairmanship. If the Galon option is realized (the chances are slim), he will not stand in her way. He mainly doesn’t want to be remembered as the chairman who signed Meretz’s death certificate. However, this is also what was said last time, and the time before that, and also three times ago – and somehow things worked out.

Fawning and flogging

“No one has ever been flogged for fawning,” said Levi Eshkol, the prime minister for most of the '60s. In Yiddish it sounds even better.

The photos and videos that flowed from the wedding of United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni’s granddaughter proved that the Israeli left has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Fawning over the ultra-Orthodox throughout the generations isn't only ineffective, it's usually harmful and nearly always embarrassing.

For decades, from Shimon Peres on, the left's leaders pinned their hopes for political cooperation on the Haredim, hopes that were always disappointed. They're moderate, was the common justification. They have no interest in diplomatic and security issues; all they want is money, money, money for their community, even without honors and power.

The left has always fawned and the Haredim – both the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim, United Torah Judaism and Shas – have always preferred the right. Except when there was no alternative (in 1992 and 1999). Their default remains Likud, regardless of its leader. The legend of their voters’ moderation is long gone with the wind.

Shas voters are fervent Bibi-ists in every respect. Most of the Ashkenazi communities are strictly right-wing. This is less a result of collapsing peace processes and more the rise of pernicious identity politics.

This week we saw the ecstasy that gripped the yeshiva boys when Netanyahu showed up to participate in Gafni’s sheva brachot ceremony, the seven blessings that precede the wedding. Especially in his years as a defendant, Netanyahu has focused on the Haredi street, in all its variety, for thorough treatment to make himself the most admired rabbi among its young people.

His attacks on the police, whom the ultra-Orthodox hate, and the Supreme Court (the goyim’s court, in their language) speak to them. They identify with the sense of persecution and sacrifice he radiates.

One of the most frequently broadcast bits this week was of course Labor Party chief Merav Michaeli’s dancing in the women’s section. The criticism was excessive if not unnecessary. Michaeli has never concealed her fruitful cooperation with Gafni in the Knesset. She's also convinced that unlike her predecessors, she'll eventually break through the wall of the Haredi camp and create an alliance with them.

In addition to her, about half the lawmakers from Yesh Atid also showed up at the wedding, very likely on the instructions of their party's leader. Lapid himself wanted to attend, but it was politely suggested that he forgo the pleasure. He made do with a phone call.

Benny Gantz came and was greeted warmly. He's Plan B of the two ultra-Orthodox party heads in case of a catastrophe in the rightist-Haredi bloc this Election Day, November 1. At the moment, it's hard to envision.

In any event, if the Netanyahu bloc doesn't win 61 Knesset seats and, in the 42 days during which he holds the president’s mandate to form a government, he fails to bring over lawmakers from the other side, Gafni and Shas leader Arye Dery will again face the choice: another (sixth) election or crossing the Rubicon to the other side.

Clearly, in such a scenario Gafni will prefer Gantz. That's the prevailing assumption right now. It has almost zero probability, but Gantz is on it.

The Netanyahoos

The cross examination of Hadas Klein will try to do the impossible. To transform heaven into earth, darkness into light, black into white. On Wednesday, upon the completion of two days of her testimony, Netanyahu’s spokesman issued an excoriating, slanderous statement, according to which she is “a liar.”

From now on Citizen K is a member of the club of the vilified and threatened, together with that police commissioner who grew up in Kiryat Arba, with the attorney general from the Beitar youth movement who gave very generous celebrity discounts to the corrupt couple from Balfour Street, with the investigators and prosecutors who dealt with their matters, and with the courageous sources who exposed their shocking conduct to journalists and the authorities.

Klein has joined this evil conspiracy of reptilian humanoids. She too was recruited by the satanic and merciless deep state to topple the leader of the right, the messiah of our age, the modern Dreyfus.

Sara Netanyahu was not included in the indictment, by virtue of the aforementioned generous discounts. This helps Netanyahu, allegedly. In the past, he often wept crocodile tears over the coverage of his family (let’s recall that he was the first Israeli prime minister to bring cameras into his home and expose his family, all to win public favor). “Leave my wife and children alone, aim the arrows at me,” he cried. He meant the opposite. For Netanyahu it has always been convenient that his spouse is a kind of lightning rod for him. His fanatical admirers are convinced that the thousands of stories about her, from 1996 to the present, are all lies. With others, their hearts go out to him and his “greatness.” Only a messenger of God could withstand all this and at the same time be a statesman of the stature of Winston Churchill.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu.Credit: Mark Israel Salam

But both in the plethora of investigations of Sara Netanyahu (which boiled down to one slim conviction and a disgraceful plea bargain on the part of the state), and in the investigations of his own corrupt dealings, the pattern is clear. And it is the one that undermines another line of defense that we will see next week, the one that relates to “awareness.”

Was the strong prime minister from the right, the destroyer of Hamas and the humbler of Iran, aware of his spouse’s unhinged demands? He didn’t know, his attorneys will claim. Bibi didn’t know. The crates of expensive champagne, one after another, in vast quantities that would not have shamed a top restaurant in Tel Aviv, piled up in the official residence and in the villa in Caesarea – and he didn’t know.

So, Klein has refuted all those claims. The prime minister himself, more than once and more than a dozen times, cleared his busy agenda to pressure James Packer and Arnon Milchan to give the lady “everything she wants” (so there will be “quiet in the country,” according to Milchan, and especially at home). He saw how they were loading the goods into the trunk of the car. The rest, the cigars, he demanded himself, for himself; and like Sara he asked to camouflage the “gifts,” like a thief in the night.

Klein’s testimony makes clear what we have known for many years. The two are one and the same. He is aware of her activities, and enables them: by way of the people from the Prime Minister’s Office, the residence employees, legal advisers, moguls and even their aides. When, about four years ago, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon related that Sara had interviewed the candidates for military secretary, no one listened. In a recent interview with Amir Oren, one of those candidates, Maj. Gen (res.) Guy Tzur, told of this in his own voice. Naftali Bennett, too, was interviewed by her when he first came to work at Netanyahu’s campaign headquarters.

It is impossible not to feel empathy for Klein. She inspires instinctive confidence. Her direct, untwisted language, her clear descriptions. Now, like many before her, she has a constant bodyguard close by. The threats to her are focused. Another victim of the Bibi-ist crime organization.

Arnon Milchan aide Hadas Klein at the Jerusalem District Court for her testimony in former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial, on Tuesday.Credit: Emil Salman

Even if the Netanyahus had indeed, as they claim, received legal advice from Yaakov Weinroth (may he rest in peace; he can’t confirm this) to the effect that it is “permissible to accept presents from friends,” both of them know very well that it is neither a matter of presents here nor a matter of friendship. Even if there was an incidental conversation, moments before the logistics mechanism began to transfer on demand goods worth hundreds of thousands of shekels, it bears no connection to this legal reality.

This is something that Weinroth would never have permitted them. He certainly did not imagine the extent and the worth of the perks that were milked from the two billionaires, in the greed for expensive tobacco, alcohol and jewelry. The more they received, the more they demanded, imperviously, wickedly. Milchan, Klein testified, was disgusted. And he has seen many things in his life; he’s from Hollywood.

Klein found herself in an inferno. She became a slave, like many others, to two shameless exploiters. The Netanyahus are habitual criminals in their souls. Pathological miserliness, a sense of entitlement, total instrumentality on his part – and an instinct for humiliation on hers – towards anyone who is supposed to cater to their wishes. This leads them over and over again to the realms of criminality. Since 1999, with the official gifts and the moving and the work on their private home by contractor Avner Amedi, to this day.

Incidentally, the fate of dozens of other gifts from the defendant’s latest terms in office is not clear. Those, and the smokes and drinks supply chains (as well as gold chains, as is known), are but a sliver of a whole layer of power-fueled hedonism, unprecedented and unbounded.

Two fateful judges

A day after Likud lawmaker Yoav Kisch threatened Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara that she would be fired by the next Netanyahu government if she lets the defense minister appoint the next army chief – and after Kisch’s colleague Shlomo Karhi added that “she’ll be fired either way” – it was damage-control time at Netanyahu’s office. The obvious conclusion: These mafioso-esque statements aren’t vote magnets on the mainstream right.

Kisch was scolded and ordered to apologize, and he dolefully complied. He was sent to brief reporters: “We don’t intend to fire anybody. The law enforcement system needs reform, and Likud will do it responsibly and judiciously.”

This sounds as credible as Netanyahu, in a suit and tie, washing windshields at a gas station. The Likud chairman is now focusing on a cost-of-living campaign. He pops into markets and spreads lies about a sweeping lowering of prices.

This is the guy in whose day the cost of living ballooned to monstrous proportions, and he did nothing to stop it. Oops, sorry, he did rein in the cost of living at his own home.

Three weeks ago he voted for a bill to transfer the procedure for selecting Supreme Court justices to the cabinet, which if Netanyahu forms a government will contain convicted criminal Arye Dery, convicted criminal Itamar Ben-Gvir and suspect Bezalel Smotrich, not to mention David Amsalem, who once said of the Supreme Court president, “What has Mrs. Hayut been drinking?”

Lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a Knesset committee in 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Then there’s the intended justice minister, Yariv Levin, whose hatred for the justice system flows from all his apertures (and who once proposed a war between the Knesset Guard and the court system’s guards). And there’s Likud's madwoman who pours bleach over the “rotten prosecutors,” Galit Distal Atbaryan.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten the horror show at the Jerusalem District Court on the first day of the Netanyahu trial, or the coup that he and his demolitions contractor Amir Ohana attempted when they tried to appoint Likud rag doll Ofir Akunis as justice minister, contrary to a Basic Law and the attorney general’s opinion – and amid the demand that judges prove “they aren’t leftists.”

Netanyahu is a double-speak artist, changing tack according to the circumstances. His lawmakers, who in the past year have become privy to the minutest details of his destructive plans, have been asked to restrain themselves. Well, inertia makes this difficult.

On Wednesday, Ohana appeared at a convention of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants and drew up the outline: The attorney generals’ responsibilities in the future will be reduced. They won’t have authority. They’ll give their opinion, like a panelist on a talk show. Supreme Court justices will be appointed by the politicians.

And of course, there’s the override bill letting the Knesset approve legislation contrary to a Basic Law, which would emasculate the prosecution. “The legal system is sick,” diagnosed Dr. Demolition-Ohana, who fortunately didn’t manage to use too many of his tools when he was justice minister.

Netanyahu wants a government of the destruction of the rule of law. This is apparently the reason Yuval Steinitz is quitting politics. He realizes the impossible situations he could face as the husband of Supreme Court Justice Gila Canfy Steinitz if he’s required to support “reforms.”

Netanyahu’s main aim remains the cancellation of his trial – or better infrastructure for a plea bargain. A top legal expert who was a criminal lawyer for decades and has served in government explained to me why he thinks there’s no real chance the trial will get canceled.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a court appearance in the Jerusalem District Court in May.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Let’s say, this expert said, that the government decides
to fire Baharav-Miara because she’s “biased,” as Kisch puts it. And let’s say a new attorney general, someone to Netanyahu’s liking, is sent to Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman’s courtroom to ask for a retraction of the indictment against Netanyhau, so there can be a “to reexamination of the evidentiary material.”

Not a judge in the country would allow this (unless superpowers threaten him or her – not an entirely preposterous scenario) without presenting the judge with a reason à la a cinematic thriller: a recording where prosecutor Liat Ben Ari and former Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit are heard plotting how to depose the prime minister.

“Netanyahu is in the judges’ hands,” the veteran lawyer said. “They won’t do what he wants. This isn’t Egypt or Russia. As long as the case was in the investigation stages, it was possible to stop the train from leaving the station. Now, only the judges will decide.”

As for the override bill, the veteran lawyer believes that the Supreme Court won’t rule out this legislation’s entry into law, but it would definitely prohibit its application to the Netanyahu trial.

Ditto regarding a law that would exempt a sitting prime minister from facing prosecution. Even the judges whom Ayelet Shaked appointed when she was justice minister wouldn’t support a legal abomination like that. The lawyer added: Don’t forget that in October, Esther Hayut enters her final year as Supreme Court president. She’ll have her eye on a legacy.

In short, he concluded, Netanyahu’s fate isn’t in his own hands, even if he sits in the Prime Minister’s Office. It's in the hands of two judges: Rivka Friedman-Feldman and Esther Hayut.

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