Is an Axis of Politicians Conspiring to Unseat Netanyahu?

Ehud Olmert, Yair Lapid and Yuval Diskin all criticized the prime minister publicly in one week. Can Netanyahu be blamed if he’s worried that someone is trying to oust him?

Benjamin Netanyahu is suspicious by nature. We can only surmise what went through his mind on Sunday, when he was roundly criticized by his predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, for the way he is handling the Iranian nuclear issue − and again the next day, when Finance Minister Yair Lapid took him to task over the same issue.

Olmert, who spoke at a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, and Lapid, who was interviewed by an American television network, are close friends. They hang out together on Friday nights sometimes. It could have been mere chance that led both of them to lay into Netanyahu − Olmert somewhat rambunctiously, Lapid politely − on the most sensitive and volatile policy issue today, and within such a short time. Or maybe not.

Moreover, former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, who in the eyes of Netanyahu’s close circle is a member of the “Olmert gang,” contributed his two cents to the offensive against the premier when, speaking at an event of the Geneva Initiative, he called for a change of government due to the deadlock in the negotiations with the Palestinians, and added that the conflict with them is more important and more threatening to Israel than the Iranian nuclear project.

Olmert did not mince words in his speech at the prestigious institute. “Will salvation come from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or from [U.S. President Barack] Obama?” he asked rhetorically. “Should we come out against the president of the United States? Argue with him? Of course, we should ... but only in the appropriate places and in the right way.” Olmert reiterated that during the Netanyahu period, Israel has spent more than 10 billion shekels ‏($2.8 billion‏) on preparations and force-building for an attack against Iran − which, he said, was never carried out.

The former prime minister is currently an international businessman who is also keeping the courts back home busy with various matters. Once every few months, he faithfully conducts a ritual of publicly excoriating his successor; he is keeping their ongoing confrontation on a low burner. After he lead the country from 2006 until 2009, Olmert’s remarks still generate considerable interest and resonate in the headlines.

Opinion is divided about his motives. Some think he just likes to poke an occasional finger in Bibi’s eye. Others believe he has the good of the country at heart, as he sees it. Still, others maintain that he wants to recapture the premiership, if and when he emerges safely from his legal entanglements. And some say that the purpose of these pugnacious remarks is to aid his business ventures overseas. When the rich gentiles see the headlines he generates, along with commentaries ‏(like this one‏) suggesting that he might be back in power one day − it can play a hefty part in their business dealings with him.

Netanyahu tends to examine events in the public arena above all from a political perspective. And always from a severe point of view. The chain of events this week might make him wonder whether an axis of politicians is developing here who want to unseat him: Lapid, who to date has not managed to recover in the polls, will one day hook up with Olmert, and together with the other well-known members of the “gang” − Diskin, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and other security figures − will challenge him in the next election. And above them, by their side and behind them will be the then-retired president of Israel.

First and last

Yair Lapid is worried about his standing in the public’s opinion. How do we know he’s worried? Because he is going out of his way to convey the opposite impression. A week ago, the finance minister ran into one of Meretz’s six MKs in the Knesset chamber. The MK congratulated him for his decision to cancel the planned tax hike.

“You know,” Lapid told him, “in soccer, at the beginning of the season, there are always teams that rush forward and become the league leaders, but at the end of the season they find themselves at the bottom.”

Embarrassed, the MK was speechless. He reported to Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On about the severe prophecy he had heard from the leader of Yesh Atid. Gal-On, who in her Petah Tikva home has to put up with a great deal of soccer, sent the MK back to Lapid equipped with a message: “Tell him that there are teams, like Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, that at the end of the season win the championship, contrary to all expectations and predictions.”

Last week, the Knesset Channel published a survey conducted by the Panels organization which showed, if an election were held today, that Meretz would win 13 seats, three more than Yesh Atid. The public’s view of Lapid’s performance as finance minister remains unchanged: Only a fifth of those polled are satisfied with him, as opposed to 74 percent who are dissatisfied. The move to cancel the planned income tax increase was greeted with great suspicion by the public: Seventy-three percent of those polled thought it was intended to improve Lapid’s public image. Only 18 percent thought he had acted on the basis of “substantive considerations.”

Members of Lapid’s close circle have reached the conclusion that the rehabilitation of his image and success in regaining the party’s popularity rest on three pillars: Lapid must differentiate himself politically from Netanyahu, as he did by criticizing the construction initiatives in the West Bank, and this week by commenting on the premier’s relationship with Obama; he has to help Israel’s middle class financially; and he and his colleagues have to come up with liberal legislative initiatives that will appeal to Yesh Atid voters, who in recent months have been drifting to other parties in the center-left bloc, such as Meretz, Labor ‏(which garnered the equivalent of 19 seats in the recent poll under its new leader, MK Isaac Herzog‏) and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.

However, all of Lapid’s efforts to push through legislation that will make Israel more tolerant, modern and enlightened vis-a-vis its citizens and its minorities have come up against a brick wall called Habayit Hayehudi. That religious party − which contains an extremist, ultra-conservative wing led by Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, and a seemingly slightly less off-the-wall wing led by Economy Minister ‏(and party head‏) Naftali Bennett − systematically scuttles initiatives undertaken by Lapid and his frustrated fellow MKs. This has been seen in the preparation of the “equal burden” law; in the promotion of the “civil union” idea whose submission to the Knesset was heralded a month ago by a headline in the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth − except that it hasn’t yet been submitted; in the legislation dealing with the elimination of duality in city rabbis; and this week, in a vote that was postponed at the last minute on a bill submitted by MK Adi Kol of Yesh Atid to grant same-sex ma
rried couples the same tax benefits as heterosexual couples.

The great majority of Yesh Atid MKs were not enthusiastic, to put it mildly, over the alliance that was forged between Yair and Naftali after the January election. They thought it was a case of apples and oranges. Since then, they have been forced to partake of the poisoned fruit over and over. It makes no difference that Lapid’s faction has 19 MKs in the coalition and the Bennett-Ariel faction only 12. It’s the latter who possesses veto power on issues of religion and state − a power generously granted by Lapid himself in the coalition negotiations he conducted with the duo of Netanyahu-Avigdor Lieberman. Lapid obviously thought at the time that he and Naftali had shown Bibi what’s what in dictating to him a government without the ultra-Orthodox. The media tended to agree. Today, it’s pretty clear what’s what.

Housing costs

On Wednesday, the Economic Affairs Committee of the Knesset, chaired by MK Avishay Braverman ‏(Labor‏), held a meeting about the way the water corporations comport themselves toward clients who owe them money. Heartrending stories were told about distressed families, single-parent families and disabled people who found themselves in debt to the water utilities − sometimes unwittingly, because of a leak in a pipe − and had their water cut off. For some, the personal drought has lasted for as long as half a year or eight months, because of debt of a few tens of thousands of shekels.

It’s hard not to draw a connection between the depressing world about which the committee heard only the tip of the iceberg, and the world that looms on the other side of the walls and carefully tended gardens of the two homes of the prime minister and his wife: The official residence in Jerusalem and the private one in upscale Caesarea.

Let’s ignore the official residence for the moment. It can be argued that the sharp increase − twofold − in the maintenance costs of the two-story fortress at the corner of Balfour and Smolenskin streets in Jerusalem between 2008, when it was occupied by the Olmert family, and 2012 attests to greater wastefulness by the occupants. On the other hand, if Sara Netanyahu is blessed with a more developed sense of style and is meticulous about keeping every object clean and about being a good hostess and maintaining things properly ‏(aromatic candles to the tune of 500 shekels − or $140 − a month‏), as compared to Aliza Olmert, that will necessarily be seen in bills the state has to pay. In the end, it’s the wives who decide on these matters and no two wives are alike.

The problem is with the Netanyahus’ private home. The state paid 312,000 shekels ‏(about $88,000‏) for the maintenance of the villa in Caesarea in 2012. Of that, 81,000 shekels was for water usage. The Prime Minister’s Bureau claims that this is misleading and that this amount refers to a four-year period, starting in 2009, but that is was paid last year. In other words, an average of about 20,000 shekels ‏($5,600‏) a year for water.

But that amount also calls for an explanation. Bibi and Sara and their two sons, Yair and Avner, are at the Caesarea residence once every two or three weeks, on weekends and holidays. On weekdays, there are a few security guards in a booth next to the house; they use the sink and washrooms, and have their own showers in an adjacent house that is rented for them by the Shin Bet.

The Prime Minister’s Bureau says maintenance of the swimming pool is paid for by Netanyahu ‏(along with the property tax and the insurance‏), and that in any case, the water in the pool is changed once a year, not once a month. The conclusion is that the state is paying a large amount of money for water that irrigates to the saturation point the good earth in which the Netanyahus’ private garden is planted. This is in addition to 28,000 shekels for “gardening” and 125,000 shekels for “cleaning and maintenance.”

Let’s say the house was used for the serial hosting of presidents and counts and high-rollers from overseas. But it’s not. Political colleagues and others are well aware that the lady of the house does not allow anyone, apart from a coterie of friends, to set foot in her private abode. On the weekends during which the prime minister is in Caesarea, he holds all his working meetings across the street, in the home of a friend, Leon Edery, one of the owners of the Cinema City chain, or in a special suite that is rented for him in the swanky Dan Caesarea Hotel nearby. In the past, Netanyahu also used to avail himself of the adjacent house, which belongs to film producer Yoram Globus and his wife, Leah. Sara’s private living room is off-limits to ministers and

advisers. But when it comes to reimbursement for expenses − suddenly it’s an open house.

Netanyahu’s aides reacted aggressively to the criticism this week. “First of all,” they said, “why is only Netanyahu being checked?” The annual upkeep costs of the official residence in the period of Ehud Olmert − whose lifestyle is not exactly that of a Buddhist monk − were half of what they are now, so that argument doesn’t hold water. “And why don’t people ask how much the state paid for maintenance and construction on Ariel Sharon’s ranch?” the PM’s people continue. “If those bills were made public, the country would be in an uproar.”

The aides also note that even before the current reports were made public, Netanyahu issued a financial “efficiency” directive relating to both homes, so that by the end of this year the expenses in Caesarea are expected to decrease by about 40 percent, and in Jerusalem by about 16 percent.

As it is, the aides say, the official residence is maintained with spartan modesty. When Secretary of State John Kerry visits, the prime minister has to host him for a meal in one of Jerusalem’s fancy hotels in order to save on catering expenses. One can justify the big outlay for a guest like President Obama, but not on a regular visitor like Kerry, who shows up once a month. The fact is that one day not long ago, Netanyahu got home at 10 P.M., starving. He craved an omelet, but the kitchen staff wasn’t there, because the housekeeper wanted to spare the state overtime costs. So the prime minister apparently went to bed hungry.

Future president

The struggle to succeed President Shimon Peres is so far being waged far from the media. A week ago, this column reported that leaders of the American Jewish community who were in Israel for the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations, contacted the Prime Minister’s Bureau to ask for Netanyahu’s backing for Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.

At the moment, Netanyahu’s favored presidential candidate is not known, though he is undoubtedly looking for someone who will be both worthy of the office and stand a good chance to win a majority among the 120 members of the Knesset, who elect the president.

This week, it turned out that Sharansky has another supporter: Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who is economy minister as well as minister for Diaspora affairs, Jerusalem and religious services.

Bennett recently discussed this subject with confidants and with various people in the Knesset. As minister of Diaspora affairs, he believes the next president should embody the connection between Israel and the Jewish people abroad. 

Amos Biderman
Emil Salman