Analysis |

Netanyahu Says He'll Quash the Gas Deal – and the Country and World Can Burn

When Bibi makes an election promise to revoke the natural gas agreement with Lebanon he's promising war, conflict with the U.S. and the Putinization of Israel. Meanwhile, he’s sending the settlers to take care of Gantz, while his ally Arye Dery is showing the real threat to the legal system

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Likud Water fight
Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The 1996 election was over the Oslo Accords. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who was running for prime minister for the first time, months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, attacked the agreement, expressed lethal criticism of it, depicted it as the end of the state, of Zionism. One thing he didn’t say: that he would revoke it if he were elected. The Netanyahu of those days acknowledged the principle of continuity, that international agreements signed by one government obligate the next.

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When he was elected, not only did he not revoke the accord, the Palestinian Authority remained securely in place and with it the rest of the Oslo principles. Netanyahu also expanded the area of the Palestinians’ control. He signed the Hebron Protocol with Yasser Arafat (and implemented it in part) and also the Wye River Accord (which he also implemented only in part).

The Netanyahu of 2022 – dangerous, unrestrained, a cynic whose conduct borders on anarchy – is declaring that his government will revoke the gas agreement with Lebanon, if it is signed. The Oslo accorded handed what according to Netanyahu are “territories of the homeland” to the Palestinians. The gas agreement deals with the borders of the territorial waters, which are not sovereign.

This doesn’t deter the national inciter from trundling in his glass carriage from city to city and brainwashing an uninformed audience with lies like: “Lapid has signed a capitulation agreement that transfers a gas field worth billions of dollars into the hands of Hezbollah! This is your money! This is your gas! Lapid was against taking the gas out of the water, and now he is taking the gas out of the water on the Lebanon border and handing it over to Nasrallah ... to build missiles with it and launch them at us.”

Only the word treason is lacking. But this is treason, isn’t it? To hand Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah billions of dollars to make missiles and kill us? What is the punishment for treason in a time of war?

Security experts such as Amos Yadlin, Giora Eiland, Amos Gilad and Noam Tibon, all of them generals in the reserves, hold that the likely agreement is good for Israel. That was also the position of the current defense officials, not yet in the reserves, and all the professionals involved. The agreement distances the parties from the possibility of war.

But the secretary general of Hezbollah says he has won and his local campaigner, Netanyahu, is fervently spreading the news. Nasrallah has never had such a creative, energetic and effective PR man. Netanyahu believes in the well-known principle whereby the bigger the lies, and the more often they are repeated, the harder it is to deal with them with the tools of reason and common sense. Lies are always more attractive than dry facts.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at Lilkud Headquarters, in Tel Aviv, last week.Credit: Itay Ron

What Netanyahu is promising us (if he revokes the agreement, which may or may not be signed before the November 1 election), is a war with Hezbollah, which now has about 150,000 missiles and rockets (about 90 percent of which were made or arrived in Lebanon under the prime minister’s nose from 2009-21).

He is promising a head-on collision with the administration of President Joe Biden, whose envoy Amos Hochstein mediated between Israel and Lebanon and who will, in effect, be signed to the agreement. He is promising chaos, killing, blood, fire and pillars of smoke, ruined infrastructure, a mortal economic blow and tremendous damage to Israel’s reputation in the enlightened world, as a state that does not honor agreements and instigates strife. In short, he is promising the Putinization of Israel.

What will remain of these Ben-Gvirish boasts after the election, if indeed Netanyahu does form a government? We shall see. But the fact of their utterance is dangerous in and of itself. Moments before the agreement with Lebanon (which is still encountering difficulties) is signed and gives Prime Minister Yair Lapid both a diplomatic and a political achievement, Netanyahu has decided to sear consciousness with a thundering lie, and to hell with the world.

The caretaker prime minister said yesterday that the agreement will avert certain war. He looks more responsible than the pretender to the crown. Well, he doesn’t have a base to inflame.

Profitable pyromania

Apparently Lapid himself hadn’t predicted the intensity of the toxifying and inciting discourse, which has been accompanied by rightist media people with the bliss of fire aficionados whose sole desire is to please the pyromaniac in chief. He could have prepared better for selling the issue. If he thought a topic like an agreement on territorial waters wouldn’t particularly catch the public’s attention, he forgot two elements: the holiday period, that is relatively empty of news and the man who is facing him, who has long lost any restraint and for whom there is no enemy with whom he won’t join forces in the name of achieving his goal: becoming prime minister again.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the Israel-EU Association Council meeting on Monday, the first in ten years.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Lapid needs a local coalition behind him in this matter. The head of the National Security Council and the others who are working on the matter are not public figures. He should have shared the credit, and accordingly obtained the backing of his senior partners, first and foremost Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who has remained wounded according to people close to him. Lapid didn’t share the last lap with the former prime minister, who had conducted the talks himself until July. Bennett does not like some of the latest concessions in the negotiations, but more than that he doesn’t like being distanced from the inner circle. If he expresses his position publicly, Lapid will suffer serious damage.

Netanyahu’s aim is to depict Lapid as a catastrophic prime minister, a national disaster, even though the country is running along smoothly, relatively speaking. He has hardy had any opportunities during the election campaign to do this. Therefore, the moment the Israeli-Lebanese gas fumes tickled his nose, he hastened to spray them with a flame-thrower.

This is Netanyahu’s favorite diplomatic-security turf. Likud’s cost of living campaign was going nowhere. People managed to understand that the wave of inflation is worldwide and the high cost of living – especially of housing, – is a legacy from the Likud chair’s long tenure as prime minister.

In addition to the diplomatic arena, there is also the internal security scene. A wave of terror attacks of changing intensity accompanied Bennett’s time in office from its halfway point, and Lapid’s from its beginning. Most of these are attacks by lone terrorists, mostly in the territories. A good opportunity for Netanyahu to conduct another incitement campaign. His operational arm is that of the settlers.

About two weeks ago they embarked on a campaign against the government (with a focus on Defense Minister Benny Gantz) because of “the situation on the roads and in Judea and Samaria.” The situation, as everyone knows, was born only a year ago. Until then the roads in the West Bank were pastoral. The settler leaders protest opposite Gantz’s home in Rosh Ha’ayin. They are demanding Operation Defensive Shield 2. Relative to the force of the attacks and the volatile situation in the territories it is like – forgive the comparison – demanding chemotherapy for the flu. Let us recall that in the territories an extensive military operation has been underway for more than six months, called Breakwater. Every day and every night the army has been going into Jenin and Nablus, carrying out hundreds of arrests and thwarting terror attacks.

Fathi Hazem, father of Palestinian gunman Raed Hazem, who carried out a deadly attack in Tel Aviv in April, speaks at an Islamic Jihad rally in the Jenin refugee camp on Thursday.Credit: Majdi Mohammed /AP

The alternative general staff of Judea and Samaria, Yossi Dagan and Shlomo Ne’eman and the rest of the inciters and pyromaniacs, wants more. Not because they really believe in it. That too is a lie. Their campaign has a political goal: to harden the soft right electorate that is wavering between Likud and the National Unity Party, voting for Gantz. Their aim is to erect a mental barrier that will prevent them from putting Gantz into the ballot box.

As part of that strategy formulated at Netanyahu’s headquarters, on Saturday night settlers demonstrated under the windows of Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s home in Tel Aviv. Gideon is bad for settlement, they shouted for hours (because of random evacuations of a shabby trailer home or a scrawny goat from some windblown hilltop). They are demanding “Bring back the roadblocks,” to all areas of the West Bank, even places from which terror attacks aren’t coming, in order to create there too rage and bitterness and poverty and motivation to attack. The settlers want what Netanyahu wants: war. Fire. Loss of control.

Netanyahu is a prime minister who fled from military conflicts but does not refrain from inciting emotions and violence in our neighborhood that is tense in any case when he is handling the role from the opposition. That is how he was in the 1990s. That is how he regarded with astonishment Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, after which the second intifada broke out (and that very same Sharon defeated Ehud Barak in the election shortly after that). That is also how he was in 2009, when the Likud chairman had himself filmed on the eve of the election, during Operation Cast Lead, and promised to topple the Hamas regime the minute after he became prime minister.

Then too the security situation played in his favor and brought Likud ahead of Kadima in the public opinion polls. In short, Netanyahu was and remains a leader who aspires to security stability – but only on his watch. When he is not in power, it’s a free-for-all, no holds barred.

Criminal alliance

Until recently, Likud and Netanyahu managed to run a pretty effective campaign of concealment. Problem Knesset members were banned from the media, and the messages from any problem candidate’s mouth on what the justice system could expect were calming. We heard things like “the reforms will be carried out responsibly” and “no one will be fired, not even the attorney general.”

But lately it hasn't gone as well. For example, last week after the banning of Amichai Chikli from Likud's Knesset slate, the fuse blew for Bibi. He crudely attacked the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Supreme Court Justice Isaac Amit. As Netanyahu described it, “a fixed game designed to bring down the right and leave the left [standing].”

A few days later, Shas chief Arye Dery appeared in the “Meet the Press” studio. He was asked whether he feared that the Supreme Court would prevent him from being a cabinet minister because of his corruption conviction this year. Dery (the “patriot” and “statesman,” as he described himself just a few minutes earlier) flew into a rage.

“We'll correct this thing,” he shouted. “There won’t be a ‘reasonableness test’ again. It will be revoked” – and the next government will pass a bill to allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings.

This is the election campaign's most terrifying statement so far. It’s a hundred times more dangerous than the threats from Likud legislators David Amsalem, Shlomo Karhi and Galit Distal Atbaryan, because none of them heads a party that Netanyahu needs to form a government. It’s disastrous because it’s not an empty threat, it’s a work plan.

Dery’s statements mean the cancellation of judges’ discretion and the neutering of the Supreme Court. This is basically the annulment of administrative law in the State of Israel, a move that's the very embodiment of corruption and rot.

Shas leader Arye Dery at a conference in Jerusalem, in July.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Allowing the Knesset to override the Supreme Court doesn't just touch on declaring laws unconstitutional, an issue that’s possible to discuss. It touches on every administrative decision by cabinet members and the prime minister.

What if Netanyahu appoints Dery and the Supreme Court forbids this? The Knesset override – 61 of the 120 lawmakers – will be put into action and the appointment will be approved. Or as Dery put it: “If a few people on the Supreme Court can decide that I can't be a minister, why are we holding an election?”

A little more of this statesmanlike sweetness, another drop of such refined patriotism and we'll melt. This is the plan: You don’t need a bulldozer to bring down the beautiful Supreme Court building in Jerusalem. Sixty-one hands raised in the Knesset are enough to make it an empty architectural shell.

The “reform” that reveals the depth of the alliance, the alliance of criminals between Dery and Netanyahu, will be one of the first votes brought before the Knesset after the new government is formed. Likud's Yariv Levin will put the appropriate section into the coalition agreements and everyone will support it enthusiastically. The Bibi-ist reformation will be on its destructive way.

Dery got riled up and blurted out something he had managed to hide for months. This seems uncharacteristic of him, though the worrying signs could be seen in his disrespect for the legal system just after his corruption conviction in a plea deal.

In addition to all these operational plans, there’s the question of a certain ministerial job. Two party leaders in the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc have announced that they want to be finance minister: Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich and United Torah Judaism leader Yitzchak Goldknopf. This newborn politician wondered that if Yisrael Beiteinu chief Avigdor Lieberman “has six seats and can be finance minister, why not me?”

And who hasn't said anything on the matter? Dery. Unlike Smotrich and Goldknopf, he knows that raising the issue will cause the bloc damage. Most of the public, including many Likud voters, are terrified of the notion that the treasury could fall into Smotrich's hands.

Dery doesn't suffer from a modesty complex. Privately, he tells people that during the next term, Shas will hold the interior and finance portfolios. Nothing would give him greater pleasure – spiritual, of course – than replacing Lieberman. But the wise man in these times will remain silent. And Dery, most of the time, is very wise.

Regarding the interior and finance ministries, Dery’s office said that “these statements are based on lies.” His office added that Dery is totally focused on the effort to obtain at least 61 lawmakers for the right-wing bloc “and will not ask now for any portfolios or positions.”

Well, not now. A minute from now.

Yesh Atid's fuzzy math

At the beginning of the week, Yesh Atid held an election rally at Kibbutz Negba in the south; members of the party’s Knesset slate were on hand, Michal Shir and Mati Harkavi. Shir shared the strategy for the final stretch of her new party's campaign. It was pretty cryptic: 30-30 and 78,000.

The first numbers refer to the balance of Knesset seats between Yesh Atid and Likud. “To bring Likud down to 30 and raise Yesh Atid to 30,” Shir explained.

The audience listened and tensed up. The most optimistic polls give Lapid's party 25 seats. Where will the rest come from if not from Labor and Meretz to the left? Is Lapid conspiring to cannibalize the bloc despite the risk that these two parties might not make it over the 3.25-percent electoral threshold?

No, Shir said to calm the audience. Labor and Meretz aren't the target. Between Likud and Yesh Atid lie about four Knesset seats worth of undecideds. Two of them have been identified in Yesh Atid’s polls as true undecideds. These are the 78,000, which of course depends on voter turnout.

Lapid is aiming for them. He doesn't want to burn his partners in the bloc, without whom – or without one of them – the Netanyahu bloc will reach the magic number of 61.

Meretz and Labor voters in the audience would have considered calming down if it weren't for the next gem. Toward the end of the rally, Shir and Harkavi asked the participants to give the Yesh Atid activist in Negba their phones' contact lists so they could get out the message to the undecideds.

The activists from Meretz and Labor were outraged: You want us to help you convince soft right voters in your name and lose Labor and Meretz voters along the way? One participant, a veteran activist for Meretz, stood up and announced that only Yesh Atid voters would remain in the room and be briefed on the 78,000 project. Partly because of her comments, the event ended on a bad note.

I asked Shir if she was convinced of those figures that she supplied. She said yes. “There are people defined as ‘soft right’ between us and Likud. They don’t want to vote for Netanyahu and we need to reach them,” she said.

She also mentioned the Balfour Street protesters who demonstrated at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, and vaccine opponents. “There are also those who have just plain given up hope, who don’t see any reason to go out and vote, because ‘there will be more elections anyway.’”

“There's also the right of Likud,” Shir said. “I asked my cousin, who voted in the past for Yesh Atid, why this time he's for [Religious Zionism's Itamar] Ben-Gvir. ‘Because he’ll put things in order,’ he told me.”

Doing business with the Haredim

The saying “For peace I’d wear a shtreimel” – one of those furry hats ultra-Orthodox Jewish men sometimes wear – was mistakenly attributed to Shulamit Aloni, Meretz's first leader. Either way, the statement was born before the peace processes of the 1990s.

More than three decades later, when peace no longer threatens us, most Meretz voters are expressing a willingness to join the next Lapid government alongside the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, just to prevent Netanyahu from rising again.

A recent Meretz poll among 608 voters who described themselves as center-left found the following: 65 percent of Meretz voters support joining a government with the Haredi parties that would preserve the religious status quo. In other words, no public transportation on Shabbat, but also no extra funding for schools that don't teach math, science and English, despite Netanyahu's promise.

Meretz chief Zehava Galon is proud of these figures; she sees them as an expression of the “ideology and pragmatism of Meretz voters.” She's friendly with United Torah Judaism chief Moshe Gafni; the two have cooperated in the past. She even believes that if Netanyahu doesn't reach 61 seats, she can broker between the center-left and the moderate faction within United Torah Judaism, Degel Hatorah.

Well, it’s hard to argue with faith. Still, this is a major signal. Meretz supporters remain committed to preventing Netanyahu's return to power. The notion of a full-on right-wing government and Itamar Ben-Gvir in the cabinet only causes them more fear. To prevent this they'll wear a shtreimel – until this too passes.

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