With Criticism on the Horizon, Netanyahu Is Losing His Cool

The issue is not which aide approved the embarrassing tribute to Netanyahu at the Carmel fire memorial ceremony - it's why the prime minister apparently felt the platitudes were necessary.

The embarrassing affair of the hyperbolic accolades lavished upon the prime minister during the memorial ceremony for the 44 Carmel fire victims ended Tuesday evening with a half-official, half-anonymous statement by the Prime Minister's Office. It expressed the prime minister's regret - while blasting advisers who had allegedly erred.

For more than a day, the prime minister's staff barricaded themselves behind "the facts," as they put it. Had they not been so full of themselves, they would have issued a clear apology right after the ceremony Monday night. That would have spared Netanyahu a day of ridicule, when not a single media outlet passed up the opportunity to mock him.

Verter - Biderman - December 23, 2011
Amos Biderman

Since then, the atmosphere in the Prime Minister's Office has been anxiety fraught with accusations. It's not so crucial to identify the person responsible for all this. Apparently there was more than one. What's more important is analyzing the dynamics that led this assistant or assistants to force the woebegone moderator to read such off-putting, obsequious accolades at such a sensitive public event. Whoever wrote it was merely transcribing what Netanyahu said. Our prime minister craves reinforcement; he lacks Ariel Sharon's serenity and poise.

It's hard to forget a Likud activist's secret recording of Sara Netanyahu a few years ago, when the party was in the opposition. Mrs. Netanyahu, sounding irritated, complained that Israelis were ungrateful and did not deserve a leader of her husband's caliber. The frightened advisers in the PMO are apparently motivated by her spirit.

Netanyahu is an authoritative leader. He has no true adversaries in politics. All surveys indicate he is likely to be reelected. So why is there this need to prove - and in a vulgar fashion, oblivious to the bereaved families' feelings - that he was the first to identify, the first to locate, the first to recruit, blah, blah, blah ...?

When he came to the ceremony Monday, Netanyahu was thinking about the person drafting the conclusions regarding how a certain three ministers handled the forest fire, and how the state's fire-fighting services were mismanaged in the years that preceded it: State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. His final report is due next month; based on Lindenstrauss' cautious statements, it will be scathing. People who spoke with him Tuesday heard he was not exactly impressed by the compliments lavished upon Netanyahu; they also say he is facing heavy pressure to soften his conclusions.

The State Comptroller's Office is scheduled to release four reports in the coming months. First, there will be the Carmel fire report. Then, in no specific order, will come a report about the deadly Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010; a report on the Israel Defense Forces chief-of-staff appointment and the Boaz Harpaz document; and one on the Bibi-Tours affair. Netanyahu is the leading player in three of these four reports. The latter report, concerning alleged improprieties during overseas trips, could implicate him in a criminal investigation.

The year 2012 will begin with speculation about what will happen when the state comptroller finishes his term in six months. Netanyahu's associates hope Lindenstrauss has designs on becoming president once Shimon Peres' term ends, and thus will moderate his reports regarding Netanyahu in an attempt to win Likud support. But that is unlikely: Lindenstrauss is in essence the most courageous and effective state comptroller in Israel's history. He has an outstanding staff. Any hint of whitewashing would bring him not to the office of the presidency, but leave an unseemly blemish on a fine record of public service.

Up in arms

When Netanyahu feels he is firmly in the saddle, he forgets who helped him get there. In one of the finest stand-up acts the Knesset ever saw, MK Eitan Cabel branded him the "sun of all peoples." Cabel went a bit far, but Netanyahu definitely believes that the sun rises out of his tucchus, as the saying goes. Charging forth, he opens new battle fronts.

Now he's quarreling with Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon - though for the time being, behind closed doors. At issue is the fate of Channel 10. Netanyahu is determined to pull the plug. Alarmed by the chance of a major television network shutting down under his watch, Kahlon is trying to change his boss' mind.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is fighting with Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar over the fate of Educational Television. He also fought with Information Minister Yuli Edelstein about appointing an Israel Broadcast Authority chair. Generally, the premier is prepared to fight with anyone in his bid to capture media turf. Or, alternatively, to destroy some chunk of Israel's media. Likudniks quip that his next target will be the children's Hop! channel.

Who's the chair?

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz was once very close to Netanyahu. The prime minister did not, however, involve Katz in his move to bump up Likud primary. Political sources say Netanyahu is angry with the minister about internal Likud matters, and because Katz made some ministry appointments Netanyahu didn't like. For weeks, Netanyahu has not allowed Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to appoint a Transportation Ministry director general. Furthermore, the premier also has strained relations with his deputy Silvan Shalom, and with Minister Without Portfolio Yossi Peled.

On a Sunday night three weeks ago, when Netanyahu pulled his primary surprise, he called Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and asked that he chair his campaign staff. Erdan immediately agreed. The next day, he scheduled a number of appointments and made some calls, and the following evening the PMO sent him a message: "Don't ask about the pressure the prime minister is facing because of you. Your friends are driving him crazy."

Erdan looked into the matter and found out that his colleague Yisrael Katz was trying to scuttle his appointment as campaign chairman. But because nobody in the PMO bothered to tell him anything, he continued making the rounds. At the end of that week, the PMO issued a statement saying that Modi'in Mayor Haim Bibas had been appointed chairman.

For his part, Katz said that when Netanyahu called him to tell him about the primary, he asked Katz to recommend a chairman. Katz recommended Bibas. At that time, he didn't know that Erdan wanted the job, Katz insisted.

As of this writing, nobody, including Netanyahu, has bothered to tell Erdan that he is not the chairman. Erdan learned about Bibas from the media.

Nonetheless, amid the whole Carmel memorial farce, Erdan was the only Likud cabinet member who defended Netanyahu (alongside perennial Netanyahu praiser MK Ofir Akunis ). In radio interviews, Erdan insisted there was nothing wrong with the ceremony; later that day, his boss there had been "a grave mishap," and that such an "embarrassment didn't have to happen."

Lieberman under attack

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's stamp of approval for Russia's problematic elections during his meeting with Vladimir Putin has stirred consternation among his constituency. The Russian-language media has not forgiven him.

The media assault on Lieberman by his electoral base left Yisrael Beiteinu MKs pale and wan. In a private conversation this week, one senior party member said the media backlash was so massive and aggressive that he believed "someone is seeking to destroy us in elections. Nothing like this has ever occurred among us."

About a week ago, the popular Russian-language website NEWSru, conducted a user survey regarding Lieberman's statements. In response to the question "Do you believe the elections were just and free?" - 70 percent said no; only 9 percent disagreed. Asked whether Lieberman's declaration was warranted, 64 percent said no; only 17 percent said yes. Asked how their impression of Lieberman had changed, 7 percent said it had improved; 42 percent said it had been damaged. Asked how Lieberman's declaration influenced their attitudes toward Yisrael Beiteinu, 5.5 percent said it improved it; 31 percent said it damaged it. This was also reflected in the Russian-language community's voting inclinations as a 10-percent gain for Likud (to 25 percent of the electorate ), and a 13-percent drop for Yisrael Beiteinu (to 37 percent ).

But then came the last question. Why did Lieberman say what he said? Some 51 percent responded, "Because, as foreign minister, he wants to improve relations with Russia." Another 40 percent replied, "This was a sophisticated game by a politician and diplomat," while 35 percent responded, "Because he personally wants good relations with Putin." As happens sometimes in Russia, the total percentage here, too, was more than 100. How did that happen? Respondents were allowed to choose multiple answers. In the end, respondents gave Lieberman some backing, even after slapping him in the face.

Last Monday, Lieberman held a press conference in the Knesset, seeking to project loyalty to the coalition. He reiterated that the government would serve out its term, that Yisrael Beiteinu is a loyal coalition partner, that it would be irresponsible to hold early elections given the regional instability. "I'm trying to bypass land mines, not set them off," he said.

Was this declaration of political loyalty somehow related to the issues with his constituency? Or perhaps it had to do with the surprise deferral of his hearing before state prosecutors, scheduled for this week? Lieberman would likely deny all such connections. Nonsense, he would say: The political commentators are once again talking rubbish.