Analysis |

A Looming War Lifts Netanyahu's Spirits

Although the attacks in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq added some fuel to Bibi's campaign fire, he is coming around to the idea of a unity government with Kahol Lavan's leaders – at least, some of them

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration: Netanyahu looks through binoculars at Shaked and Lieberman.
IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked hale and hearty this week, according to people who saw him and spoke to him. The more security tensions escalated and captured headlines, the more his self-confidence soared. In conversations with political colleagues, he sounded more optimistic than he had since the onset of the election campaign. His goal – of winning 61 Knesset seats for the bloc, with Likud garnering at least 35 of them – seemed achievable to him.

The attacks in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, some of them open and official, others less so, and the saber-rattling in the direction of Iran and Hezbollah, were fuel for the fire of his campaign. Netanyahu piled on the video clips. In a black polo shirt in the field alongside the chief of staff and the generals, or suited up in his office, he was heavy on warnings – but only for the enemies to the north and east. With them, he upped the ante and sharpened the tone.

When it came to Hamas, however, and the various wayward groups in the Gaza Strip that continued to hammer the neighboring communities in southern Israel, the premier was almost silent. People in Sderot will continue to vote for him no matter what, and the kibbutzim in that area are left-wing anyway, so he’s alright. The instability in the north helps him in terms of public opinion, whereas the situation involving Gaza doesn’t help him – but also doesn’t cost him, in terms of support.

In addition to his preoccupation with the military arenas, Netanyahu this week initiated the decisive campaign on two political fronts – one among the religious-Zionist community, and the other, among Israel’s Russian speakers. In the past four election campaigns, from 2009 until April 2019, about half the seats Likud won came from national-religious voters and from immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The importance of those reservoirs of support for Likud cannot be overestimated, especially given Avigdor Lieberman’s departure from the rightist-ultra-Orthodox camp that was once his home.

As it happened, he met with religious Zionists Tuesday in Givat Shmuel, a stronghold of theirs, and with Russian-speaking immigrants the next day in Bat Yam. In the remaining 16 working days until the election on September 17, Netanyahu’s main efforts will be devoted to these communities. He also knows, from in-depth polls, that for Likud, the most important dynamics in this campaign will center around those two groups: Victory or defeat depends on them.

He has a fantastic, unrivaled ability to adapt himself to the surroundings and to shifting target audiences. He inhabits the character he wants to market to perfection. At the event in Givat Shmuel (of which more later), a small city in the Metropolitan Tel Aviv area, he became a yeshiva student. Every possible cliché from the arsenal was summoned up: “Did you know that Sara does hafrashat challah?” he asked the audience, referring to the ritual of separating part of the dough when baking the Sabbath-eve challah. No, they didn’t know. He invited those present to his home to watch her do it.

Netanyahu spoke at length about the weekly Shabbat dinner “with Sara and our sons” at Balfour Street (just before elder son Yair heads out, accompanied by bodyguard and personal driver, for the Pussycat Club in Tel Aviv). The next day, he related, Avner (his younger son) and I “put on our kippot and read the weekly Torah portion, the haftarah and ‘Ethics of the Fathers.’”

You don’t believe me? he asked his audience. “You think I’m just saying it because you’re here? Come to our home. You should know that when I wanted to delve even deeper,” he disclosed, “I took a few lessons secretly with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.” Boom. The policy of ambiguity, a sacrosanct element of Israel’s security doctrine – which was thrown out the window in the wake of political distress – has also departed this world when it comes to Netanyahu’s relations with his secret rabbi. At least Steinsaltz won’t threaten to retaliate.

A way out

For the past 90 days, the political arena and the media focused on just one issue, embodied in a single number: 61. When the stillborn 21st Knesset ended its days last May, the question that accompanied its dissolution was: Will Netanyahu reach the winning number of seats that will save him from a dire fate and from prosecution – or is his era about to end?

Since then, precisely three months have passed. The polls, without which we have nothing to base our conjectures on, are holding steady: At best, the Likud-Haredi-far-right bloc will garner 57 seats. The Lieberman bloc has around 10 seats, and the entire center-left bloc, including the Joint Arab List, gets all the rest: 53-54 seats.

Those will not be the final and official figures, but the specter of an indecisive dead end is still preoccupying the leaders of all parties at present. What will happen, for example, if at the end of the two days of consultations with President Reuven Rivlin, neither of the two premiership candidates is able to come up with 61 recommenders?

One possibility is that the president will simply give the nod to whoever has more recommenders. Which will undoubtedly be Netanyahu. A second option is for Rivlin to summon the leaders of Likud and Kahol Lavan, and urge them to seize the day and find a way to spare the battered nation long months of Italian-style horse trading. According to very senior figures in a few of the parties, this is in fact what Rivlin will do this time around. Netanyahu, too, naturally agrees with that assessment.

This week Netanyahu invited Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz for a security briefing from both the head of the National Security Council and the prime minister’s military secretary. Because of a legal lacuna, Gantz is not officially the leader of the opposition, and Netanyahu is not obligated to share information with him. After the April election, when Bibi was convinced that he could cobble together a narrow government and spent 45 days trying to perform that Sisyphean task – he didn’t invite Gantz to see him even once. Only when he found himself staring into the abyss with two days to go before his time ran out, did the prime minister remember to dispatch envoys to Kahol Lavan (and to Avi Gabbay’s Labor Party), in order to promise them the moon and the stars. It was too little and too late.

Now, coming around to the idea that there is a real chance that he and Gantz will be in the same government, one way or another, Bibi is following a different course of action. His denials notwithstanding, there is explicit talk in his circle about a broad government with Kahol Lavan – or, more likely, with Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael party, sans Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid or Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem. That is his “Plan B.” If no “immunity government,” then at least a government, after which he will find a way to get by.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012, with Benny Gantz, who was then the IDF chief of staff.Credit: Avi Ohayon, GPO

There was an indication of this in a report on Wednesday by Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson, that Yair Netanyahu wrote, half as a threat, half as a promise, to an adviser of Ayelet Shaked that his father, the prime minister, would prefer to hook up with Gantz rather than with her, leader of Yamina, to exact revenge for her “leftness.”

In Hosen L’Yisrael, they’re having similar thoughts. In a situation in which forging a single-bloc government is impossible, the days pass aimlessly and the clock keeps ticking, Gantz’s voters would prefer to see him take the defense helm during a tense period such as this, even if it’s under Netanyahu. After all, the two got along fine as chief of staff and prime minister.

And what about the indictments of the prime minister in the corruption cases? Well, Netanyahu won’t get immunity via Gantz, but there is the law. And the law allows a prime minister to stay in power while he is standing trial. That might be the way out. A looming military campaign in the south or the north, or in both, could pave the way.

The late news

First there was the late arrival. Even by “Bibi time,” it was a bit over the top. The audience – at what was billed as “the opening event in Likud’s campaign in the religious-Zionist community,” in Givat Shmuel, a small city in the Metropolitan Tel Aviv area, – was invited for 6 P.M., on Tuesday. The prime minister was scheduled to arrive at 7 and to speak half an hour later, with the national anthem at 8 and then home.

Netanyahu and Sara arrived at about 8:40 and he began to speak five minutes later. It was one of his poorer performances. He was distracted, his thoughts lay elsewhere, he had a hard time concentrating. He made two mistakes: when he referred to the Six-Day War and meant the Yom Kippur War, and when he attributed to Gantz a remark made by Lapid. His aide Topaz Luk came onstage and handed him a note, and he corrected himself. The shameful performance was immediately erased from his Facebook account, but it’s still alive and kicking (in the sense of an own goal) on YouTube.

The reason for the delay wasn’t a traffic jam (the prime minister’s convoy with all the sirens and blue lights and shouts through the loudspeaker system, is unacquainted with that genre) or a security-related meeting. Rather, during the relevant hours, Netanyahu was busy dealing with an extreme situation that was forced on him by the two major newscasts, on Channels 12 and 13.

On Channel 12, correspondent Guy Peleg revealed passages from the testimony of Shlomo Filber, who turned state’s evidence in Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla affair. On Channel 13, Raviv Drucker cited quotes from the testimony of Miki Ganor, a state witness in Case 3000, involving the submarines. People who have been with Netanyahu in similar circumstances say there would have been a brainstorming session, with few brains but storming in spades. Sara and Yair set the tone and fire up the participants and feed the flames. The lawyers try to pour cold water on the proceedings, but it evaporates in a nanosecond like the water dumped on the reactor at Chernobyl.

The course of events that evening was illuminating. The first response, issued to Channel 12 and broadcast at the end of Peleg’s report, was moderate, given the people involved. Filber, it stated, “was compelled to lie” (meaning: he’s a victim, he was threatened). “He ‘did a Like’ to an article claiming Case 4000 is ‘fabricated’” (meaning: that’s the real truth, and not the testimony he signed under police coercion).

About half an hour later, the tune at the Balfour Street residence changed. At 8:49 P.M., a refurbished and far more violent response appeared in Netanyahu’s Twitter account: “His [Filber’s] lies would not hold water for a minute in a confrontation [with Netanyahu],” it stated, adding, “In order to extricate himself from criminal responsibility and from actions he undertook without connection to the prime minister, he testified mendaciously against Netanyahu…”

Shlomo Filber.Credit: Moti Milrod

In short: no longer an innocent lamb that was forced to sign on to false testimony, but a liar and a scoundrel who in cold blood devised a blood libel against an innocent person.

Fateful tweet

Two conclusions can be drawn from this whole saga, the first personal, the second legal in character.

1. The broadcast drove someone up the wall. When the prime minister and his wife were in the hall in Givat Shmuel, he on the stage and she in the front row, someone was working on the formulation of an updated response that was uploaded to Netanyahu’s Twitter account while he was still speaking. There’s only one person who could do that, and the style is definitely his: young Yair, he of the dirty mouth, conflicted psyche and fraying nerves.

2. A well-known and veteran legal expert who has defended many public figures and participated in hearings conducted by the attorney general and the state prosecutor, told me that this effectively seals the fate of Case 4000. In his view, when the suspect claims that the prosecution witness on whom the accusation is based is a liar, the person managing the hearing has no option but to transfer the decision to the court. The directives of the attorney general are clear: A hearing is not about the nature of the evidence or the credibility of the witnesses, but only about whether the defense counsel can prove that the evidentiary material is mistaken and/or that there is no legal justification to place the suspect on trial.

There’s another element here, too: Filber is not out to get Netanyahu. For two decades he worked alongside him or helped the leader he admired in other ways. In interviews he gave, it was apparent that Filber’s decision to turn state’s evidence was costing him in health. The thought that he is liable to send the prime minister to jail is certainly not easy for him. To tarnish and humiliate him publicly is rank folly, akin to suicide.

We recall the arrogant interview on the investigative television show “Fact,” in 2014 in which attorney Roy Blecher, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s lawyer, insulted and stigmatized Shula Zaken, Olmert’s longtime aide. Afterward, she explained her decision to become a state witness against the person she admired and served for decades, by citing the stinging insult she felt. All the more so in this current case: It’s not a lawyer this time, whose words can be denied, but the accused himself (pending a hearing), who has spoken via Twitter.

The late attorney Jacob Weinroth would never have allowed his client to do this to himself and to his case. The prime minister is taking a huge, and hugely dangerous, risk when he gives his son a free hand not only in campaign-related matters but also in semi-legal affairs whose implications for his personal freedom are liable to be consequential.