Netanyahu Is Going for Broke

After long weeks of uncertainty and an unclear strategy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a decision: to promote the party, not the bloc. To grind down the coalition partners with the aim of having Likud emerge from the election not only as the Knesset’s largest party, but with more than 35 seats. Even if only one or two more. A sweeping electoral achievement, his aides believe, will eliminate the muttering within the party about his ouster, which will continue to gather momentum below the surface as September 17 approaches.

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At every diplomatic meeting, Netanyahu recites a fixed mantra about Israel: If you’re big and strong, no one will dare to mess with you; if you’re small and weak, everyone will pounce on you mercilessly.

He’s now applying that tired old notion to himself. If he achieves an electoral knockout for his party, the revolt against him will be suppressed, his quality of life greatly improved, and the way paved to 61 seats. But if Likud declines in strength, even by three Knesset seats, in the re-do election the prime minister instigated, his protective vest will be cracked. The vultures are already circling above, silently.

Netanyahu wants to leave everyone else in the dust. Of Ayelet Shaked, leader of Yamina, he says: After I get through with her, she’ll have only seven seats. Trust me. He also aims to grab three of the seats that have been forecast for Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman’s party. For the time being, however, the campaign Netanyahu is waging to garner Russian-speaking votes, by means of a few senior refugees from Lieberman’s party, is not getting results.

Things are not going very smoothly for the prime minister. Bezalel Smotrich, the “natural ally” apparently sent from hell, continues with remarkable consistency to plant spikes along his path. This week Netanyahu had to clean up after him once more, and dissociate himself from a primitive, benighted remark by Smotrich about the damage caused by female soldiers to the Israel Defense Forces. Smotrich is turning out to be the rival camp’s most valuable asset.

Lieberman’s hard-and-fast condition for recommending to President Reuven Rivlin that Netanyahu form the next government – a commitment from the latter to create a secular, national-unity government – is seen by the prime minister as a targeted assassination. If I have 61 seats, he is saying in private forums, everyone will come in. Including Lieberman and MKs from Kahol Lavan. When they understand that the horizon is blocked, they’ll wake up.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers his speech during meeting with businessmen in Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug 20, 2019.Efrem Lukatsky/AP

The scenario that would see him ousted by his own party if he fails to establish a coalition, which was written about in this column recently, worries him. He has no illusions about those who signed the pledge of loyalty to him. In his way, he's signaling the plotters: Don't rush to get rid of me. If Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz gets the nod from Rivlin to form the government. He won’t call for unity, he won’t turn to Likud. The ultra-Orthodox will be in his arms before his car has even exited the parking lot of the President’s Residence.

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So this time, he’s telling his people, it’s all or nothing. It’s a war for our home, for freedom, for life.

Uncreative chaos

On the day that the surplus-vote agreement between Yisrael Beiteinu and Kahol Lavan was signed, I happened to be in the Tel Aviv campaign headquarters of the latter party, where I found its leaders in the midst of victory celebrations. The question, “So, what do you say about Lieberman?” preceded the usual hello. They were so happy about the deal, one might have thought they had concluded a coalition agreement. Meanwhile, from the opposite side, Netanyahu gleefully savaged Lieberman as though the agreement on combining any surplus votes the two parties might get – that is, extra votes that don’t add up to a Knesset seat (which is essentially a technical matter) – were a coalition accord. If two rivals identify a positive potential in the same development, one of them must be wrong.

Likud recycled the cliché – the cat is out of the bag and Lieberman has shown his true colors. At the same time, Amir Peretz (Labor), along with Nitzan Horowitz, Ehud Barak and Stav Shaffir (Democratic Union), flayed Gantz: We told you so – he’s right-wing!

Gantz’s aides maintain that their party leader was out to demonstrate political leadership and out-of-the-box thinking. By signing the deal with Yisrael Beiteinu and not with Labor-Gesher, they explained, he’s proved that he has no problem leaving his comfort zone and showing that the traditional blocs are no longer relevant. Our image is one of a left-center party, they are saying. When Lieberman – who is not perceived as being left-wing, despite Likud’s efforts to stigmatize him in that way – signs off with us, he’s granting us legitimacy among parts of the population that we’ve had trouble reaching.

Kahol Lavan has two supreme goals in this election: to emerge as the largest party and to prevent Netanyahu from attaining a bloc of 61 Knesset seats. The first goal is a tough one. Likud is adept at speeding up in the final lap and running over anyone who’s in the way. Polls show that five or six seats are floating between Itamar Ben Gvir’s Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party and Moshe Feiglin’s libertarian Zehut slate. If voters accounting for three of those seats can be persuaded that “right-wing rule is in danger” – the slogan that never dies – and switch their allegiance to Likud, Netanyahu will cross the 61-seat threshold without needing defectors from the left like Peretz and/or Orli Levi-Abekasis. The same goes for Kahol Lavan’s second goal: The surplus-vote agreement with Lieberman won’t necessarily help to achieve it; it could play into the hands of both sides.

Benny Gantz.Olivier Fitoussi

But until we get to the vote-counting stage, Kahol Lavan continues to set off every available land mine. The peculiar story about an investigative agency that was hired to look into – well, it’s not exactly clear what, who and why – boomeranged on them. Gantz acted on his own, without sharing. The result was a flood of negative reports and rancorous exchanges of accusations between the two main parties that constitute Kahol Lavan – Hosen L’Yisrael and Yesh Atid – amid allegations that the latter is rife with leakers of information and collectors of unfavorable information about Gantz. There’s good reason to worry when the pilots in the cockpit pummel the passengers in the cabin.

The reports that branded some of Lapid’s colleagues as traitors found the Yesh Atid leader on his way to Tokyo for a no-less-bizarre event: a meeting with the Japanese defense minister. What urgent security matter justified a 20-hour flight to the other side of the world, one month before the election? We’ll get the answer, maybe, in another 30 years, when the secret documents are made public.

We did get a partial explanation for the Far East junket in a clip that Lapid uploaded to his Facebook account. He visited a local supermarket and compared products on the shelves. His conclusion – hold on tight! – is that things are cheaper in Tokyo. Please excuse our confusion, but is he planning to be prime minister (via rotation) or to get a job on a consumer affairs program?

During rallies in the last election campaign, some Hosen L’Yisrael activists held up signs reading: “Yalla, Balagantz” – roughly translated as “Let’s go, Gantz chaos.” The man himself really likes a catchy slogan. I’ve caused quite a bit of chaos in the political arena, he says with satisfaction, and two big pillars resulted from it: us and Likud. That’s true, but what’s happening with Gantz now is not the right kind of chaos. People in Yesh Atid grumble about him nonstop. The impression is that they’re just waiting for the campaign to end, so that they can dismantle the package. The friendship, the love, the kisses and the hugs will come to a sudden end, faster than people imagine.

Bread, shoes, votes

It’s well known that every time the prime minister and his wife board an El Al plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the wings of history flap so loudly that they drown out the noise of all other departing and arriving flights. Thus, Netanyahu’s rather political and totally unnecessary visit to Ukraine was also called “historical” by his aides. If not, then at least it was hysterical, as attested by his response to the “scandal” – the word preferred by stunned members of the local media – that erupted in the hosting country, in the wake of the act of discarding the traditional bread as performed by the Lady (after she had squeezed the bit of dough as though it were a dust ball in the Balfour Street residence).

With eyes swollen, perhaps due to lack of sleep, the prime minister positioned himself on the balcony of his Kiev hotel and put on a long squirming performance to minimize the embarrassing incident. In his defensive monologue, he artificially introduced mention of another “historic” visit – not his, but that of the prime minister of Japan to Israel, in May 2018 – which got mega-coverage because of the shoe-shaped vessel in which dessert was served.

“As with the story of the shoe, if it weren’t for the bread,” quipped Netanyahu, “the media would not have covered the visit at all.”

If there was a muddled mixture of history and irony surrounding the jaunt to Ukraine this week, it derives from Netanyahu’s previous visit to the country that was once part of the Soviet Union. That trip took place in March 1999, two months before an election in Israel. Then as now, the motive was purely political: a rearguard action waged by the prime minister in a desperate effort to halt the erosion of support from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who were captivated then by Ehud Barak and swung in his direction in huge numbers.

The 1999 election was a two-ballot affair: one for the prime minister, the other for the Knesset. The “Russian” voters felt free to vote for Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history, and then cast a ballot for one of the two sectoral parties: Yisrael Beiteinu or Yisrael B’Aliyah. Netanyahu, who saw which way the wind was blowing, organized the pre-election visit to Ukraine, Russia and Georgia. Ceremonies were held, agreements signed and bombastic declarations were made. But the May 17 election turned out to be a debacle for Netanyahu. Barak got his edge in the cities where immigrants from the Soviet Union had settled.

The bad news this time around, according to the polls, is Lieberman. Voters from Russia and the former Soviet Union, who account for three Knesset seats, are poised to abandon Likud in favor of Yisrael Beiteinu. Lieberman is predicted to get another two more seats thanks to center-left voters, most of them from Kahol Lavan.

“I am not interested in the leftists who are voting for Evet,” Netanyahu is telling his advisers, using Lieberman’s nickname, “I want to bring back the rightists.” And he’s right. As long as Lieberman is holding strong with 10 seats, Netanyahu’s prospects of reaching the sought-after 61 seats – which will enable the formation of a government of the right-wing parties and the Haredim (or at least the possibility of Netanyahu remaining in office, even if there is an indictment) – are poor, if not impossible.

The short and long of it

“Bibi should get a Yisrael Beiteinu medal,” Lieberman told me this week. “He did us a fantastic service, making this trip [to Ukraine]. He wanted to organize pensions [for the immigrants from the former Soviet Union] – he didn’t deliver. He wanted to get a declaration about the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem – but all he got was the promise of an interests office there. The media slaughtered him, both here and there.”

I asked him if anything had changed for him – something that happens quite often – or whether he remains firm in his commitment to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin only someone who agrees to form a national-unity government of three parties: Likud, Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Avigdor Lieberman.Meged Gozani

“Yes,” he said, “there’s zero chance I’ll change my mind. Netanyahu doesn’t get a right-wing-Haredi government, Gantz doesn’t get a center-left government – the only government that’s possible is the one I’m talking about.”

Lieberman has come a short-long way in these past few months – from comments like “I will only recommend Netanyahu,” and “Gantz would form a government with polar bears,” to torpedoing the prospect of a Likud-rightist-Haredi government, showing a willingness to recommend Gantz to Rivlin, and also signing a splashy surplus-vote accord with Kahol Lavan. That’s quite an about-face, even if it’s been effected with the help of some stylish makeup.

As in the past, Lieberman is investing his organizational efforts in his stable bases of support, in immigrant centers such as Carmiel, Nof Hagalil (until recently Upper Nazareth), Ashkelon, Ashdod, Arad and Bat Yam. However, this time around he is also dispatching his troops to the heart of the general public. He is not afraid of sending them behind the lines of the solid left, where until recently he was considered anathema but where the idea of voting for him is no longer unthinkable.

Thus, for the first time, booths where people can sign up to join Yisrael Beiteinu can be found around Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, in the very areas thought of as the preserves of Meretz, Labor and Kahol Lavan (and previously Zionist Union). The eyes see but find it hard to believe, I said to him. “It’s very good,” he replied, “we will reach everyone.”

Dangerous liaisons

Chaim Levinson’s scoop in Haaretz this week about the unseemly messages that Ayelet Shaked sent to Netanyahu – to the effect that she would vote in favor of his receiving immunity from prosecution, and defend that choice in public – brought the amazement back to the surface: Why was she rejected, with her path to Likud and to the party’s Knesset slate blocked? No one disputes that Shaked, now head of the Yamina alliance of parties, is an electoral asset. If Balfour Street could have overcome its unhinged emotions, the double benefit would have been theirs: Likud would have been strengthened, according to surveys, and the threat from the far right would have been brought back to tolerable proportions.

In a rational, logical world, Netanyahu would have acted like the owner of a basketball team who buys a player, even while gritting his teeth, just to ensure that the rival team doesn’t get its hands on him. He facilitated entry into the party of Yoav Gallant, who doesn’t bring even one-100th of a Knesset seat, and passed on a vote magnet like Shaked for the sake of maintaining domestic harmony.

Contrary to the impression Shaked and her associates tried to create, the promises with respect to Bibi’s immunity were not mentioned only by Shaked’s former driver-turned aide and confidant, Elyashiv Amitzur. There was another person, far more senior in rank, who worked indefatigably to ensure that she would be on her way to the top echelons of Likud.

Ayelet Shaked.Moti Milrod

That person, whose identity cannot be revealed at present, was heard to say more than once, “With Ayelet Shaked, Bibi will have immunity; without her he will not have immunity.” He saw to it that the message was conveyed to the residents of the official residence on Balfour Street – and he succeeded. He got to all three.

Shaked vehemently denies that she tried to trade in immunity from prosecution. There’s one issue on which we can accept her account: She did not boast that she “controls” Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, and that if she were only to get back to the Justice Ministry, everything would work out well for the prime ministerial suspect in three cases.

But she did propose, and by means of more than one person, to promote the cause of immunity in the media and to vote for it in the Knesset. That’s bad. Very bad. A vote on immunity is a quasi-judicial proceeding that obligates MKs to consider thoroughly all evidence presented to them, or at least to pretend that they’re doing so. If the idea of support is placed on the table as a payoff for a political connection – and by, of all people, the justice minister, who undoubtedly learned a thing or two in four years of hobnobbing with Supreme Court justices and leading lawyers – it positively stinks.

Moreover, if in your eagerness to join, you employ, in one way or another, the services of intermediaries and lobbyists, the potential for entanglement increases. And Shaked denies this, too. According to her account, there was one mediator who scurried between her and the prime minister, seeking to dissipate fears, reduce suspicion and vow in her name that she would not be a Trojan horse. All the others acted independently.

Shaked admits that this whole affair has harmed her: harmed her integrity and her reputation. As for electoral damage, it’s too early to say. It’s not likely that most of Yamina’s voters will take the matter seriously to heart. Anyone who’s willing to vote for a party that has in its top ranks racists, homophobes and messianics who heed the word of extremist, benighted rabbis, will get over this glitch, too.

In the public service

One of the lobbyists who hurled themselves into the fray for the sake of Shaked’s holy cause was Erel Segal, from the Kan Broadcasting Company. Known to be close to both her and Netanyahu, he was recruited – or volunteered – for the task. Sources close to Shaked say Segal spoke personally to Netanyahu about the subject. Segal denies this. His political activity, he says, was confined to conversations with “the prime minister’s people” – whom he undoubtedly urged to open their hearts and the membership roster. He also tweeted and spoke in this spirit.

Tweeting is allowed; so is offering an opinion on the television program he co-hosts. But for Segal to take an active part in political conversatons during an election campaign? Kan is a state broadcasting service, which is obligated to uphold strict ethical rules and demand of its journalists and announcers that they follow them unstintingly.