Netanyahu Has Turned From Praised Leader Into Flinching Pleaser

A month ago, he was the people's hero, when he brought home kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Now Benjamin Netanyahu is the punching bag, being battered by different political interests, stepping in late and coming out empty-handed.

One month ago, on October 18, Gilad Shalit was freed from captivity in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was waiting to embrace him. He got his right-wing government to approve, by a huge majority, the difficult decision to redeem Shalit for hundreds of terrorists. He gained points with the Israeli center, which is not part of his electoral base.

Now, in mid-November, Netanyahu is rocking back and forth between other people's agendas. Hundreds of doctors are quitting the public health system, some for life overseas and some for private medicine, and he is doing nothing. But he blocked the bill drafted by Likud MKs Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin that would let the Knesset hold hearings for Supreme Court justice candidates. "This isn't going to happen," he declared. "This bill will not pass in my government. The Supreme Court's independence is above all."

Benjamin Netanyahu - Emil Salman
Emil Salman

Why didn't he pound on the table at the Likud ministers' meeting on Sunday, and declare to the whole nation that this would not happen?

Even Likud members contacted their elected representatives this week and asked them to rein in the anti-constitutional rampage being led by Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu. MK Zahava Gal-On of Meretz (whom Rotem called "not even a beast," after she called a him "crude bully" ) called it "hunting season."

Some people are saying that in order to camouflage his support for all the other laws that have sprouted up like poisonous mushrooms, Netanyahu just stood by looking on, and a moment before the pot boiled over, he swooped down to rescue the Supreme Court. If this is indeed Netanyahu's game, he is alienating the center and the sane majority of Likud voters. Likud members have been calling this the Netanyahu method for a long time now: He stands in line, haggles over the price, pays too much, and in the end he comes out empty-handed.

Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, in an interview in Argentina, bemoaned the fact this isn't the Likud he knows. As for the bill that would block foreign donations to political non profits (Netanyahu supports the bill, but wants its sponsor, Likud MK Ofir Akunis, to soften it ), Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin has called it akin to policy in third-world countries and dictatorships.

These two, along with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Minister for Government Services Michael Eitan, come across as the Likud's fig leaves. They play the role of a bunch of old codgers preaching morality to the wild youngsters - MKs Elkin, Levin, Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotovely and Miri Regev, who are treating the Likud as if it were their own, in the spirit of their true guru, Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman.

Serious accusations

Sometimes, in the late evening, when the Knesset begins to empty out and the journalists are heading home, one can hear speeches there that were worth the wait. One such address was delivered at 9:30 P.M. this past Monday. On the agenda was the government's attempt to conquer the committee for selecting justices by making the bar association head - a right-wing associate of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman - a permanent member of the committee. (The Israel Bar Association has always had two representatives on the selection committee but this would fix the identity of one of them by law. )

The speaker was MK Roni Bar-On of Kadima. Last week, Neeman tipped the balance by voting in favor of the bill, after the vote in the ministerial committee had ended in a tie. Neeman was not present in the plenum hall on Monday.

Bar-On reminded the MKs of where Neeman was from and where he would return: One of the largest law firms in Tel Aviv, Herzog Fox & Neeman, which employs 170 to 200 lawyers. When elections for the Israel Bar Association are held, explained Bar-On, firms of this size determine the Bar Association head due to their sheer percentage of voters.

"The government has never intervened in Israel Bar Association matters," said Bar-On. "I asked myself, Why is the government meddling all of a sudden? And then I realized: It's Minister Neeman!" Bar-On explained what he believed had happened. Neeman's lawyers played a large part in getting Doron Barzilai elected as bar chairman. Then, Neeman went all out to get him onto the Supreme Court selection committee, which would make him the fifth right-wing member out of the nine, so that Barzilai would tip the balance in favor of Neeman's candidates.

Bar-On related how two weeks ago, after the first vote in the ministerial committee on changing the Israel Bar Association Law ended in a five-five tie (Neeman did not vote ), they met at the Knesset. "He said to me: 'You see? I didn't participate in the vote because it would appear to be a conflict of interests.' I applauded. And what happened at the second vote? The votes were split eight to eight and the justice minister, who has what appears to be a conflict of interests, voted."

This is a serious accusation, especially directed at the justice minister. I asked Bar-On whether he believed this was a criminal matter.

"I'm not going to say anything beyond what I said in the plenum," he replied.

He ended that speech with the following sentence: "There's no leader at the Justice Ministry. There is an interested party."

Neeman declined to respond. He's not only not talking to the media; he didn't open his mouth at the Likud ministers' meetings, either. On Wednesday he broke his silence in the Knesset and scolded those who accuse him of harboring evil intentions. The proposal had been nicknamed the Sohlberg law, after Judge Noam Sohlberg, whom the committee's right-wing representatives want appointed to the Supreme Court.

"This isn't the Sohlberg Law," said Bar-On. "Sohlberg would have to be approved by seven out of the nine [under the current law]. But in order to appoint the next Supreme Court president, only five out of the nine are enough. The government needs the fifth representative to do its bidding in order to choose the next Supreme Court president. Not Sohlberg. Don't badmouth Sohlberg. This has nothing to do with Sohlberg."

Mourning and politics

Hundreds of people flocked to the impressive mourners' tent in the garden of the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem to condole Sara Netanyahu, who was sitting shiva for her father, Shmuel Ben Artzi. President Shimon Peres, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, all the government ministers, many Knesset members including Netanyahu's bitter enemies like Bar-On, Zahava Gal-On and opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni, businesspeople and rabbis. Everyone was there.

Most of the time, the prime minister was there too. Since his father-in-law's death on Wednesday a week ago, he has hardly been at his office except for urgent matters like cabinet and government meetings, or to host foreign leaders. He even held consultations and work meetings in the tent.

On Monday evening he whispered at length with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, their hands covering their mouths. Apparently it was then that Weinstein told the prime minister that he opposed the draft bills, most notably the one involving the Supreme Court. Livni also asked him to do something. Peres called to ask him to stop the flood. The day after that conversation, the president publicly condemned the proposals. "They deviate from the democratic spirit of the state of Israel," he said.

Sara Netanyahu showed visitors pictures of her late father. In one, he is with her husband and their children, Yair and Avner, at the Caesarea beach, adjacent to their home. Sara told her interlocutors that the picture was taken the evening before Shalit's return.

"I had a great deal of influence on Bibi's decision to agree to the deal," she said. She connected her husband's performance during his second term as prime minister to his strong relationship with her father. It did sound like Ben Artzi's relationship with his son-in-law and his grandchildren was indeed extraordinary.

On Wednesday night, American Jewish billionaire Ron Lauder came to pay his respects. He whispered for quite a while with Sara and then went to a corner to talk with her husband. Lauder met Netanyahu in the mid-1980s, when the latter was Israel's UN ambassador. The heir to the cosmetics empire became a close friend, a donor and an access route to the American business and political elite.

He also invested some of his own money in the purchase of 25 percent of Channel 10, which was then depicted as Netanyahu's foothold at the country's second commercial television channel. The romance ended a year ago when Raviv Drucker broadcast an investigative report into what would become the "Bibi Tours" affair. Netanyahu had expected Lauder to block the broadcast. Lauder did not intervene. Eventually, Lauder became a sharp critic of Netanyahu's diplomatic conduct, which he has blamed for Israel's increasing estrangement from the United States and Europe.

The interesting question is what this visit might mean for the struggling TV channel. Only Lauder can save it. Netanyahu, however, wants to shut the channel, and especially its new division. Last week, he forced Likud members on the Knesset Finance Committee to vote against a plan to delay the channel's repayment of its debts, thus apparently sealing its fate. The second and final vote on the issue in the Knesset Finance Committee has been postponed until the middle of next week.

A Likud minister met this week with key party activists. He conducted a spontaneous poll: Who is in favor of shutting Channel 10? All voted against.

"You understand," said the minister, "that is their culture. That is what they watch at night. They don't want to be left with Channel 22, which no one watches."

I asked the minister whether he would tell this to the prime minister. He snorted: "This really doesn't interest him."