Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government will arrive at Monday’s festive Knesset meeting – the start of the winter session – unchanged, and still less than perfect. Long and sometimes deceptive months of negotiations at different intensities, one step forward and two steps back, reached their conclusion without achieving the goal that was shared by the two sides at one point: to get to October 31 arm in arm, Likud and Zionist Union, Bibi and Bougie (Labor Party leader MK Isaac Herzog’s nickname) as prime minister and foreign minister, respectively.
If you believe the reports from Netanyahu’s circle, he did all he could. For the moment, at least, he has no interest in continuing the talks with Herzog and his representatives. Bibi’s not capable of supplying the leader of the opposition with an agreed lie in the form of a regional diplomatic move that would give Herzog a weak but appropriate excuse for sidling in. Without it, there’s no deal.
Until recently, Netanyahu’s aides were asking Labor MKs who denounced the move how they would react if an agreement were struck and the party’s convention authorized Herzog to join the coalition. The aides were hoping to hear that the opponents would split and form a separate Knesset party. They were disappointed to learn that MKs Shelly Yacimovich, Erel Margalit, Itzik Shmuli, Omer Bar-Lev and their colleagues had no intention of making things easier for Herzog and Netanyahu. They would remain in the party, bickering and squabbling, and devoting their energies to turning Herzog’s life into a daily nightmare. They were even looking forward to it, one might say.
Netanyahu will have to deal with the two major tests facing the coalition – the evacuation of the illegal settler outpost of Amona and the newly minted public broadcasting corporation – using the forces at his disposal. He’s utterly obsessed with the desire to destroy the corporation. And, alas, this isn’t hyperbole. The person who, according to MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), “isn’t engaged with the corporation and has no interest in it either way,” is totally focused on that goal. He doesn’t intend to give in or let up. It’s a war – and he has to win. His prestige is on the line, and he’s driven by fears and suspicions. Nothing less than his self-styled status as an omnipotent ruler is in question.
He can’t retreat and he’s incapable of letting go. He’s in the same frame of mind that dictated his jaw-dropping moves in the Israeli presidential election two and a half years ago when, to prevent Likud colleague MK Reuven Rivlin from being elected, he was ready to annul the entire institution of the presidency. An hour before the midnight registration deadline, he tried to persuade Elie Wiesel to become a candidate.
In conversations with politicians and others, Netanyahu makes no secret of his opinion. He sees the new broadcasting corporation as a vast, wicked conspiracy. Here, too, he finds the fingerprints of Noni Mozes, the publisher of mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. In Netanyahu’s eyes, the new organization is a dangerous mutation of Army Radio, Haaretz-The Marker and Channel 10 News, both together and separately. There’s no way he can accept the fact that, under his nose, on his watch and with generous government funding, another leftist, radical, subversive organization is coming into being, which will dig tunnels under his chair. Not necessarily in the realm of territories and occupation, peace and security, but on socioeconomic issues, matters relating to the judiciary and public probity, and investigations of the country’s leaders.
Netanyahu can rattle off the names of the key editors and journalists who will set the tone of the new corporation’s reporting. To his interlocutors, he describes in detail their economic creed – like a prosecutor reading out a defendant’s charge sheet. Not one of them, he maintains, is identified with Likud or him.
The corporation’s recruitment from the Ma’ariv newspaper of Kalman Liebskind – a right-winger who a week ago wrote an emotional article defending Netanyahu against perfectly legitimate media criticism, an article that Netanyahu was happy to share on his Facebook page – is perceived by the prime minister’s confidants as the exacerbation of the struggle against him, as a crass attempt by the corporation’s heads to rob him of his arguments. Liebskind, they say, is a “fig leaf.”
What’s happening in the coalition now is driving Netanyahu up the wall. If until two or three weeks ago it seemed as though he would be able to bury the corporation easily, things changed radically this week. The voices of protest and opposition are increasing. The reports, including the one reported here about an idea – shelved for the moment – to establish a new body from the remnants of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Army Radio and Educational Television, have rekindled the debate over the importance of worthy public broadcasting in a democracy.
At the end of last week, Netanyahu went wild after the head of the Kulanu Knesset faction, MK Roy Folkman, stated that his party would oppose a bill by coalition whip David Bitan (Likud) to annul the new corporation. He made a phone call to a certain person and shouted – and he really let loose with the volleys. It didn’t help: Folkman persisted, and even stepped up his comments – presumably with the blessing of his party chairman, Moshe Kahlon.
Shas Chairman Arye Dery, the interior minister, also stated in an interview that his party supports the corporation and will not vote to dissolve it. A Likud source claimed that Netanyahu himself and people in his office seethed with anger. In this instance, too, phone calls were made, at high decibels. I asked the interior minister’s bureau whether Dery’s radio interview had earned him the prime minister’s rebuke. Dery chose not to reply.
“We have to put a stop to this ‘Erdoganism,’ we have to show him he can’t have everything he wants,” a cabinet minister who is the chairman of a coalition party said in a private conversation this week. It’s more than likely that this minister and his colleagues were busy on the phone after Sukkot, exchanging opinions and coordinating positions.
Here’s the coalition lineup as this column is being written: Kahlon is the key man, we know. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, is keeping mum on the subject, but his view is that the new corporation is no longer stoppable. Legislation has been enacted, the corporation is in the process of being established, there’s even a start date. Best to leave it be.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, chairman of the United Torah Judaism faction, has no substantive, emotional or political interest in this story. He will act as mandated by the coalition agreement.
On Thursday morning, the final nail was driven into the Bitan bill when Education Minister Naftali Bennett (the leader of Habayit Hayehudi) announced in a series of interviews that his party supports the establishment of the corporation. He added that his party will vote against the ridiculous bill submitted by Bitan, whose economic sums seem to have come from a Marx Brothers routine.
One thing is perfectly clear to anyone with eyes to see: the masks are off, the costume ball is over. The legislation for the mercy killing of the corporation did not spring from the brain or the famous “gut feeling” of the coalition whip. Netanyahu is the initiator, Bitan the foot soldier. The “Bitanyahu bill to eradicate public broadcasting” is what it’s being called in the corridors of power. It’s a deplorable bill that was concocted and hatched in the recesses of the Prime Minister’s Office, in deceit and falsehood. Next week, Netanyahu himself is planning to ask the leaders of the coalition parties to come out of the closet and vote for it. We’ll soon see what they’re made of.
Moaning over Amona
In less than two months, the bulldozers will ride roughshod over Amona and the outpost that was built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land will be evacuated. In December 2014, the prime minister received an extension of two years – two years! – from the compassionate and patient High Court of Justice to remove a few dozen structures and families from the West Bank hilltop, but did nothing. Next week, he’ll ask the court for another extension, this time for six months – like a procrastinating child who failed to do his homework over the holidays.
Underlying the request are two main goals (apart from deferring this headache for as long as possible). The first is to placate Habayit Hayehudi, whose supporters and voters in the settlements are bringing heavy pressure to bear on Bennett and his party colleague, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, to prevent the unpreventable evacuation.
The second, and no less important, reason is to move the evacuation deadline from December 25 until after January 20, 2017, at the end of the 72-day transition period between American presidents. This way, President Barack Obama will not be able to set a trap of one kind or another for the Israeli government and its leader.
Netanyahu knows that the evacuation will happen, and that he will have to compensate the settlers and their representatives in the government at a cost that will be unacceptable to the international community. He wants to put off that quarrel until after the twilight period in the White House.
The Amona evacuation, when executed, will be violent. The settlers made it clear to Netanyahu and Shaked in a letter this week that any solution that does not include leaving them in situ, “while respecting the judgment of the High Court of Justice,” as they snarkily put it, is not acceptable to them. This crisis may revive the deceased body of the unity government.
The Negev got all festive. The Israel Defense Forces training complex named for Ariel Sharon was to have been officially dedicated two weeks ago, amid much pomp and circumstance. The Defense Ministry sent invitations to a long list of donors for the ultramodern base, south of Be’er Sheva. Naturally, the chief of proceedings was to be Lieberman, whose ministry spent many years bringing the project to fruition.
By chance, one of the invitations reached the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s said the ceiling of our Oval Office almost hit the sky, such was the rage. Netanyahu likes to take pride in “the IDF’s transition to the Negev.” It’s one of the feathers in his cap. The project featured prominently in the presentation of his government’s achievements during the premier’s round of media briefings this summer. He didn’t bother to mention that the planning started back in 2002, during Sharon’s term as prime minister. In 2007, the government of Ehud Olmert approved the plan and allocated funds and, a year later, the Defense Ministry issued the preliminary tender. But it wasn’t until 2012 that the ministry started to build. He received a “done deal,” and all he had to do was not mess up.
As prime minister over the past seven and a half years, Netanyahu didn’t really involve himself in the project, which proceeded apace on its own. But such a skilled credit-taker as Bibi won’t allow a big launch, still less one in a military milieu rife with soldiers – the prime minister’s favorite backdrop – to slip through his fingers.
“Cancel!” was the order that emerged from his office. It was made clear to Lieberman that Netanyahu has no intention of watching the event on the TV news, and that he views with gravity – and even with something of an insult, not to mention with more than an iota of amazement – the very notion of launching the IDF’s flagship project without his presence.
It didn’t take Lieberman long to accede: the event was canceled and invitations retracted. The Defense Ministry took a step back and passed the torch to the Prime Minister’s Office, which took command. A new date was set for mid-November, with Netanyahu’s participation.
Defense Minister Lieberman could have dug in and generated a spat with the boss. But for him, it’s a shame to waste a fight over a trifle like this. Opportunities to quarrel will not be lacking in the future. Besides, he’s only been defense minister for about five minutes, and to kick up a fuss about cutting a ribbon for something he received ready-made might be seen by some as swinishness.
This little tale says something about Lieberman’s overall strategy: Not to make waves, neither in the security nor political arena, to aspire to live in peace with the prime minister, to try to be defense minister for years to come, and to prepare for the next war in the Gaza Strip, which he said, in an interview with the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds this week, will be the “last war” there.
Mum’s the word
As long as Netanyahu was in the grip of MK Oren Hazan (Likud) in a stranglehold coalition of 61 MKs, one could accept – with qualified understanding – his silence in the face of the reports that Hazan ran a casino in Burgas, Bulgaria, consumed hard drugs and allegedly also played the pimp for escorts he supplied to his clients. Best not to tangle with a savage like that; you might get hurt.
What’s his excuse today, with the coalition having been expanded by five obedient MKs and a court ruling confirming the investigative report about Hazan by Channel 2 News? Public dissociation from Hazan – who lied before and during the trial, and is continuing to lie about his magnificent past as described in the ruling – is more than called for.
But Netanyahu is staying mum. Maybe he’s afraid that uttering a moral statement about Hazan will be a dangerous crack in the dam. Next he’ll have to dissociate himself from another Likud MK, Yaron Mazuz, who’s the deputy environmental protection minister and who, according to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth, chased a Likud activist with a drawn knife as they visited a sukkah. The backstabbing phenomenon in Likud took on a whole new meaning this week.
On the day after the report appeared, Mazuz was in the Prime Minister’s Office for Netanyahu’s birthday party. An official photo of the event shows him standing behind the birthday boy, probably making the bodyguards nervous. Of course, he, too, was not verbally condemned – even though, in a way, his behavior was even worse.
Netanyahu is undoubtedly the most tweeting, Facebook-oriented, photographed, broadcasting and responding prime minister Israel has ever had. When he’s not busy with self-glorification, he lays into UNESCO time and again; into the human rights organization B’Tselem; into journalists; into the whole world. He’s the senior internet commenter. But when he’s called upon to take a moral or educational stand that displays some sort of vision for the nation, he falls silent. Every nationalist rant by an Arab MK in an obscure meeting will elicit a firebrand post from him, sometimes verging on incitement. When it comes to Likud MKs, many of whom regularly bad-mouth the Knesset, he’s ultra-forgiving. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) at least spared us the shame of seeing Hazan function as one of his deputies by removing him from that post early on.
It’s not Netanyahu’s fault that Mazuz and Hazan and their friends were elected. The voters are to blame. Netanyahu would no doubt prefer to hobnob with higher-quality people who have read a book in their life and are capable of pronouncing the name of Joseph Goebbels without eight mistakes, one for each letter.
A few of these rare gems had their picture taken with Netanyahu on his birthday. The heads of the right-wing parties – those in existence and possible future ones – would do well to copy those photographs and paste them in their next election campaign, asking right-wing voters: Who do you want your ballot to elect to the Knesset?
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