Analysis

The Dirty Trick Netanyahu Played on President Rivlin

Netanyahu's actions this week indicate he has lost his marbles; meanwhile, his already fraught relationship with the president reaches a new low

Illustration: Netanyahu mimics the eyebrows of Channel 2 police reporter Moshe Nussbaum; Bitan is led by a police officer; Amsalem points and shouts; Rivlin turns away from Netanyahu
Amos Biderman

There is a common thread running through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday evening at a Likud Hanukkah event, and his decision to appoint party MK David Amsalem as coalition whip the next day. In both cases, there’s no method in the madness. What arises from both is the image of an individual who has lost both his marbles and his inner compass.

We always knew that the premier’s war of survival consistently takes precedence over the good of the state, the party and the cronies. The human mind can still grasp that, even amid our twisted reality, because we know our man. But this week, on the eve of publication by the police of the results of their investigations into his activities, we learned that, on his way down, Netanyahu has arrived at a point at which he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face.

His desire to prove something, to provoke, to mock, to demonstrate, is taking him to places that raise questions about his mental resilience and judgment. Of what benefit to him was the revolting spectacle at the Likud gathering – when Netanyahu castigated and vilified the Israel Police and its investigators? After all, he may well encounter his interrogators again further down the road, in Case 3000, for example.

By implication, he affronted not only the police but also the State Prosecutor’s Office, whose lawyers are working with them and whose superiors will be called on to decide whether to indict the premier. It is them he mocked, taking the presumed fruits of their intense labor – which is undoubtedly being carried out with credibility and integrity – and tossing them in the garbage in front of a roaring, frothing crowd.

Every budding lawyer who’s passed the bar exam would instruct a client who’s similarly entangled to lie low, not to poke a finger in the eye of those who hold his fate in their hands. Does Netanyahu actually listen to anyone? Associates related this week that he insisted on leaving in the speech the bit that included an imitation of grim-faced media commentators and the pantomime of the thick eyebrows, contrary to the counsel of some of his advisers. (The object of the imitation, police correspondent Moshe Nussbaum, said that Netanyahu had called him afterwards to apologize.)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mocking the eyebrows of Channel 2 police reporter Moshe Nussbaum at a Likud event on November 19, 2017.
Twitter/Yediot Ahronot

In response to his speech, some said it was good to see that that Netanyahu still had a sense of humor. But those who observed him closely saw a forced smile, heavy-handed mimicry and lusterless eyes.

His pointless behavior not only affects his fraught relationship with the law-enforcement agencies, but also has ramifications for the political arena – specifically for the coalition, and still more precisely for Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu). Without Kahlon and his party, Netanyahu doesn’t have a coalition. True, Kahlon has no interest in dismantling the government on the basis of the police recommendations. But he bears a singular status in this government: He’s the barrier to antidemocratic legislative initiatives. He’s the finger in the dike. And thanks to him the ruinous “reforms” of Habayit Hayehudi’s leaders, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – aimed at effectively eradicating the Supreme Court – continue to be thwarted.

The spotlight that will be directed at Kahlon after publication of the so-called police “recommendations” regarding Netanyahu (which aren’t recommendations at all, but a determination as to whether there’s an evidentiary foundation for going to trial) will be the cruelest and most demanding yet. The weekly Saturday night demonstrations against political corruption will then focus on Kahlon. The more the premier runs wild and vilifies the institutions of law and order, the fiercer and more massive the public reaction will be. The bigger the (metaphoric) fire in the streets, the less Kahlon – who is acutely sensitive to the public’s passions – will be able to remain firm in supporting the coalition.

We’ll get an indication of the public’s wishes Saturday evening, in the form of two demonstrations: by the left on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, and by the right in Zion Square in Jerusalem. Both are aimed against corruption and in favor of the rule of law. The TV screen will be split, but the tenants in the Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem will focus only on the right side. For from the right shall disaster come.

Spin and sewage

Prime Minister Netanyahu was quoted this week as saying that David Amsalem’s appointment as coalition whip is a reward for his loyalty. A multitude of senior Likudniks – partners of Netanyahu during his 30 years in politics, who have been neglected, betrayed and thrown to the dogs by him – raised their eyebrows. Since when does the premier show gratitude to his supporters? The answer is clear: As long as they’re obedient, kowtowing, lacking public status and prepared to dip their fingers in sewage for him.

Why was the prize given to Amsalem, of all people? Presumably thanks to his activities this year – spearheading the misbegotten “police recommendations” bill (which was wrenched away from Amsalem by Moshe Kahlon and his MKs); the corrupt initiative to grant immunity to a sitting prime minister from police investigations; the despicable attempt to enact the “French law,” concerning the resignation of cabinet ministers (which was thwarted by Kahlon and Naftali Bennett); the repeated, obsessive attacks on the Israel Police and its investigators; and the ugly personal harassment of Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich because of his supposedly excessive salary.

The appointment of the prime minister’s contractor for dirty work as a replacement for MK David Bitan is yet another link in a chain of decisions that show that Netanyahu has lost his powers of judgment. The choice of Amsalem – whose name, even more than that of MK Oren Hazan, has become synonymous with everything that’s wrong with Likud nowadays, whose every media appearance drives sane Likud voters into the arms of Kahlon, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett – is totally contrary to the prime minister’s personal and political interests.

Amsalem is undoubtedly the crassest and most vehement voice against the police, whom he knows from the less pleasant side of the table in interrogation rooms. There has never been anyone like him in the Knesset. Compared to him, Bitan is a beacon of refinement and tact. At least Bitan, who is badly entangled in a corruption investigation concerning the Rishon Letzion Muncipality, where he served as deputy mayor, has personal charm, a sense of humor and a buddy-buddy character that’s made him popular among all the Knesset factions. It’s no coincidence that no MK, not even among the Meretz purists, called on him to resign as coalition whip because of the serious allegations against him.

Amsalem has none of those qualities. His conduct so far, especially in the Knesset Interior Committee, which he chairs, has made him widely hated. Even his Likud comrades are fed up with his style. He provokes antagonism. His appointment to the most important role in the Knesset suits the hooligan genre, and is inappropriate for our time.

MK David Amsalem at the Knesset.
Emil Salman

In his delicate situation, Netanyahu should have found someone to calm and contain things, someone who knows how to comport himself with coalition partners and opposition rivals alike. He could have appointed another Likud MK – Amir Ohana, Miki Zohar or Yoav Kish, for example. They are no less experienced than Amsalem, all are in their first Knesset terms and would want to work hard and succeed.

But Netanyahu went with Amsalem. That is his right. But he’s like a soccer coach who’s trying to win the championship not with the best players, but with the rabid fan who reviles the other team the most. Since the investigation of Bitan became public, it was clear that his stint as whip was on borrowed time. However, no one in Likud thought that Amsalem would be chosen to succeed him. After all, “Bibi hasn’t gone nuts,” several interlocutors told me in the past few weeks.

This week, before the Hanukkah speech and the Amsalem appointment, a senior Likud figure chatted with a group of activists. “With Netanyahu we’re sliding down a slippery slope,” he predicted. “Likud is being weakened with every day that passes. The surveys don’t tell the whole truth, only part of it. If the situation goes on like this, we’ll go into the elections with an image of revulsion, corruption and stupidity – and we’ll crash.”

We’ll get 17-18 seats, one of activist forecast. (Today, the party has 30.)

The senior figure gave him a doleful look. “Even less,” he said.

No tango here

President Reuven Rivlin and Netanyahu haven’t spoken for over a month. There are no meetings, no phone calls, no personal ties. Their bureaus work with each other – directors general, military secretaries and political and media advisers, with their counterparts – but the head honchos are in a state of disconnect, a situation initiated by Rivlin.

Rivlin demonstratively avoids shaking hands with Netanyahu at public events, and he doesn’t care if people whisper. He doesn’t exchange glances with Netanyahu, not to mention words. At the annual memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion at Kibbutz Sde Boker a month ago, the president departed from protocol by hurrying into the plaza alone, without the prime minister. When Netanyahu arrived and passed by, Rivlin cast his gaze somewhere into the desert wilderness.

Last Wednesday, as fate would have it, they found themselves under the same roof again, at a ceremony honoring outstanding Mossad agents at the President’s Residence. People who in the audience say that there was no handshake, not even a nod.

The Rivlin-Netanyahu rivalry is as well known as it is fierce. Still, despite everything, they had established an axis centered around work, which is vital for the political-security management of Israel. They often found themselves at loggerheads, and yet usually smoothed things over. But that’s apparently no longer the case. The rift is so deep, the resentment so searing that, as the song goes, a thousand firefighters wouldn’t succeed in quelling it. The cause this time is Netanyahu’s attitude toward the political-social network lynching of the president for his decision to reject the request for pardon of Elor Azaria, the “shooter from Hebron,” a month ago.

When Rivlin was pictured in a Nazi uniform and roundly cursed by far-right activists, Netanyahu, who tweets and responds in an instant when it comes to himself or his wife, remained silent for 24 hours. When he finally deigned to comment, the condemnation was lukewarm, dealt mostly with himself and was uttered in a tone of mockery and ridicule toward the president.

At that moment Rivlin decided to sever relations. The next day they met at Sde Boker, as described above. This week, Rivlin discovered, to his astonishment, that Netanyahu had decided to rely on him in constructing his argument against the expected police recommendations.

The prime minister wanted to illustrate to his audience how damaging police recommendations that come to nothing can be to an individual, his family and his career. He took a story that has a factual foundation and on it built a crooked tower of distortions and half-truths.

In 2001, when newly elected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed appointing Rivlin minister of justice, the Likud Knesset member found himself the subject of a police investigation. Sharon was forced to name Rivlin communications minister instead. Rivlin was questioned once by the police, whose findings were then sent on to the state prosecutor, Edna Arbel, for a decision regarding whether to bring charges against him.

Netanyahu found the relevant context in remarks made by Rivlin a week ago at the President’s Residence, at an event celebrating the appointment of judges. In addition to his main points, which dealt with the presumption of innocence, against the backdrop of the “recommendations law,” the president talked about the rough experience he and his family endured for three-and-a-half years, while his file gathered dust in the offices of the state prosecution.

Netanyahu and Rivlin attend a memorial ceremony for victims of terrorism in Jerusalem, May 2017.
Noam Moskowitz / Pool

What he said had nothing to with police recommendations (which in Rivlin’s case were actually in his favor, urging that the case be closed – it was the state prosecution that dragged its feet in making a decision).

Netanyahu took those innocent sentences and played a dirty trick with them – knowingly, undoubtedly – by twisting them and making it sound like the president supports legislation to muzzle the police and hide the truth from the public, the aims of the so-called recommendations law.

That was not the case. Rivlin had sanctified the concept of the people’s right to know. “That is a cardinal right,” he said, “but alongside it there are additional values, including the presumption of innocence and the right to protection against harm to one’s good name.” He called for a comprehensive public debate about the tension between those values, about the built-in clash between them. He was not referring to the shameful farce of the fake debate on these issues that took place in MK Amsalem’s Interior Committee in recent weeks.

Red light, green light

The Likud Party Central Committee will meet at the end of the month to discuss and vote on a resolution that will call on the party’s elected representatives – MKs and cabinet ministers – “to act in order to enable free construction and to apply Israeli law to all the liberated settlement areas in Judea and Samaria.”

Ahead of the meeting, its 30 elected Knesset members, including the prime minister, have been asked to appear in a brief clip in which they express their ardent support (and it better be very ardent, with no faking) for the resolution. Anyone who refuses will be denounced as a leftist.

The resolution is likely to be approved by a large majority. The diplomats who are stationed in Israel will report to their foreign ministries that the highest body of Israel’s ruling party instructed its elected representatives to advance application of Israeli law in the West Bank.

In other times, in fact throughout most of his tenure as party leader and premier, Netanyahu would have gone out of his way to thwart such a discussion. On previous occasions he sent his aides to Likud’s internal court to request delays, citing abundant excuses. He always claimed that what was perceived in Israel as a harmless bit of prattle would be seen abroad as defiance of the leader by members of his own party. What’s more, since when is it the place of the central committee to tell the prime minister and his cabinet how they should be running the country?

Not this time. This time, the Prime Minister’s Bureau is silent, going with the flow. The red light that lit up in the past during similar episodes has turned green. On the eve of the police recommendations that are liable to topple his coalition, Netanyahu is focusing on preserving his political base and playing up to the extreme right in Likud – and not only them. Cancelling the central party discussion would show him in a problematic light, exposing him to attacks from the right wing of his party, possibly also from Habayit Hayehudi. There’s important and there’s less important, and what’s most important is him.

Weak constitution

The memorandum of the Basic Law on Legislation disseminated this week by Justice Minister Shaked and the leader of her party, Education Minister Bennett, reads like hackwork. Its genesis was a political gimmick and it will end its days in the cemetery of political gimmicks, where the dead are already being buried standing up, because of overcrowding.

In fact, it was stillborn: Kahlon made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, nothing would come of it. He would not discuss the legislation or authorize Kulanu MKs to talk about it with their Habayit Hayehudi colleagues. In this period of tensions involving the government and the rule of law, the last thing Kahlon needs is to lend a hand to the Shaked-Bennett provocation that aims to dwarf the Supreme Court. They want to score a point with their voters? Fine. He’s not going to play into their hands.

The two ministers shot themselves in the foot from the outset. As soon as they presented the draft of the bill to the public, they transformed a historic measure – intended to be at the heart of the state’s constitution and to regulate the relationship of the legislative and executive branches, on the one hand, with the judicial one – into a political exercise initiated by a party with eight MKs. The content of their memo is taken almost verbatim from the Habayit Hayehudi platform. Something to run for the next Knesset with, across the rocky slopes between settlements.

Their proposal – that a majority of only 61 MKs would be needed to overturn a Supreme Court decision that was made by an extended panel of justices – is a bad joke. Obviously, it’s an opening gambit, which itself lends the whole package an aura that is far from professional or constitutional.

No wonder the public dialogue relating to the draft bill didn’t last longer than a single newscast. Though in our time, that’s something, too.