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The one man who will definitely reap the benefits from the Knesset's dissolution




The one man who will definitely reap the benefits from the Knesset's dissolution

Israeli parties are heading for elections on the wrong foot, but for a certain gambling mogul and tabloid owner, the political upheaval is the best remedy for last month's slap in the face.

Dec. 4, 2014 | 8:15 PM
Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson. Photo by Reuters
Amos Biderman
Let the fighting begin Photo by Amos Biderman
On Wednesday, the Knesset, not yet two years old, rejoiced and exulted. The MKs voted six times to behead about 40 of their number in the next election. They tried to cover up their anxiety with raucous laughter and stale jokes. They were like the fellow who walks by a graveyard at night, scared to death, whistling loudly to himself.
Equally impressive was the speed with which yesterday’s political partners adjusted to their new situation. With obvious relief, they lost no time in tarring and feathering one another verbally, as though this is what they had been waiting for over the past 20 months when they sat, elbows locked, around the cabinet table in the Knesset plenum.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) responded at length to the motions to dissolve the Knesset. He dubbed his successor in the Finance Ministry a “pretty boy” and a “presenter.” That was his sweet, if belated, revenge for the episode in the early days of the government when the arrogant, overbearing Yair Lapid demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eject Steinitz from a security cabinet meeting, because there was no reason for him to be there.
The Yesh Atid leader counterattacked Wednesday evening, saying Netanyahu is “out of touch” and that as a security cabinet member, he saw the prime minister having difficulty coping with the pressures of managing the war last summer.
If things were so bad and so dangerous for the country, why didn’t Lapid resign? Where’s his national responsibility?
Netanyahu himself looked glum and gray. He knows he’s in the fight of his life – a self-inflicted fight. He didn’t give the impression of someone who’s convinced that his path to a fourth term as PM will be a walk in the park. Maybe he was dumbstruck by the polls reported by Channel 2 and Channel 10, giving Likud 22 seats. Maybe he started to have regrets.
It’s a universally acknowledged fact that a Netanyahu-led Likud is always more optimistic at the start of an election campaign than when the final results are in. As Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it, nothing good threatens Netanyahu in this election. Anything less than 20 seats for Likud and it’s a whole new ballgame. In that situation, longed for by many MKs – in which Netanyahu disappears from view into the setting sun – party leaders like Moshe Kahlon and Lieberman would be liable to stick in the knife at the critical moment and twist, twist, twist.
All the major parties but one – Habayit Hayehudi, which is in an excellent situation – are starting this campaign from positions of weakness. Likud, as just described. Shas, without Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is doing badly in the polls. Yisrael Beiteinu is treading water. Yesh Atid could lose half its MKs. Hatnuah is hovering on the brink of the threshold vote of four seats to enter the Knesset. Meretz, which for a long time had a two-digit result in the polls, is back to seven seats.
The biggest tragedy, though, is Labor. The polls consistently give the party 13 seats – less than it has now. Even today, with the coalition parties faltering and the government deteriorating and its leaders wallowing in a revolting mud bath of mutual bad-mouthing, the chief opposition party is not benefiting. To reach such a situation you need a special talent.
The truth is that the disputes over the budget and the zero-VAT housing initiative (to lower prices for first-time home buyers) could have been resolved in a two- or three-hour meeting of coalition party leaders. Netanyahu could easily have got himself another year in office, his 10th. Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni would not have ousted him.
The whole “putsch” story, around which Netanyahu forged a dark theory, is a joke. On Wednesday, an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, MK who is deep in the loop, told someone: “I can’t believe that Bibi actually bought our story about a deal being concocted with Lapid. It’s incredible how easy it was for us to bring down this government.”
Indeed, there was no dealing and no wheeling. Lapid in an alliance with the Haredim? It’s hard to imagine that even the ultra-suspicious Netanyahu believed that tale. Maybe he just used it as an excuse to be rid of his unwanted partners? In the end, he was the one who decided – very uncharacteristically – to topple the pillars.
Why, for example, did he also fire Justice Minister Livni? She did not “subvert” or abuse him verbally. Her criticism was reasonable within the coalition’s political reality. She was certainly less blunt that Lieberman during Operation Protective Edge or Economy Minister Naftali Bennett on various occasions.
Fishing deep to explain her dismissal, Netanyahu dived to the depths of the archive and hooked an obscure meeting she held with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last May against his wishes. But afterward they worked harmoniously during the 50 days of the Gaza campaign, in which she performed like a foreign minister in all but name, doing pretty good work in quelling the growing anger in the diplomatic community. Eight months later, he suddenly remembers to punish her? It doesn’t wash. There was obviously an extraneous motive.
Sheldon’s coalition
All this brings us back to November 12, when the Knesset, with the support of MKs from Livni’s Hatnuah, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu passed the so-called Israel Hayom bill in preliminary reading. (If the law is passed, Israel Hayom, the pro-Bibi freebie owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, would be forced to charge for the paper.) According to knowledgeable sources, that was the day on which the fate of the coalition was sealed. Netanyahu cut off all contact with Lapid. He made no effort to resolve the budget crisis. In fact, he ceased to be a prime minister where preservation of his coalition was concerned. He also rarely met with Livni and Lieberman.
It has been observed many times that for the sake of Israel Hayom – his “iron wall,” in Jabotinsky’s phrase – Netanyahu will go to the people. That’s how critical the paper is for him. And there you go: Exactly three weeks after the Knesset vote on the bill, he fires two of his three domestic conspirators (he might need Lieberman in the next coalition) and dissolves the House.
When a Knesset is dissolved, bills that have only had preliminary reading are erased as though they never existed. That’s the immediate gain of Netanyahu and of his patron and benefactor, casino king Adelson. Anyone who wants to try again in the next Knesset will have to start from scratch, and it’s an itchy process.
On the assumption that Netanyahu will form the next government, he will likely demand of his new partners a commitment to oppose any such malicious move. The Haredi MKs, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike, did not show up for the Israel Hayom vote, nor did MKs from Habayit Hayehudi. They passed the test. They are qualified to enter the gates of the next government. Netanyahu will only have to persuade Lieberman, Kahlon or Labor’s Isaac Herzog, or two of the three, to promise him, man to man, that Masada shall not fall again – that no legislation like that will pass. If a coalition like that is formed in the next Knesset, it can rightfully be dubbed “Sheldon’s coalition.”
Channeling energies
The Israel Hayom episode is not the only media cloud hovering over this election campaign. Since Gilad Erdan became interior minister, Netanyahu has held the communications portfolio, and likely will hold it during the campaign. Again, not by chance.
Erdan did not want to part with that portfolio amid major steps that he was taking in the realms of public broadcasting and commercial television. Netanyahu agreed to let Erdan retain responsibility for the Israel Broadcasting Authority, so he can press ahead with reforming that outdated body. But he refused to allow Erdan to retain the communications portfolio as such. And with good reason: It can be very convenient and very rewarding to be the minister whose fat thumb is pressed on the throats of Channel 2 and Channel 10 in the rough campaign that lies ahead.
So, the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. This week it was learned that a new investor, Shlomo Nehama, a former CEO of Bank Hapoalim, is ready to pour 100 million shekels ($25 million) into the coffers of Channel 10. Nehama is a very close, very old friend of Communications Minister Netanyahu. In 2003, he mediated between Ariel Sharon, the prime minister-elect, and Netanyahu, when the latter was considering whether to accept an appointment as finance minister. The mediation ended with Netanyahu getting the job.
In April 2005, the finance minister, accompanied by his wife, Sara, attended the 50th birthday party of banker Nehama. Civil service regulations forbid ministers to attend private functions of people with vested interests who might need them in matters related to their job. TheMarker broke the story, and when asked for a response, the finance minister’s bureau replied: “Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Nehama have been personal friends for decades.”
First it was Ron Lauder, a former good friend, who came to Channel 10, and was burned and fled. Then the name of Bibi buddy Adelson came up as a possible investor. And now the potential savior of the troubled channel is an equally good pal of even longer standing. On Wednesday morning, I sent the following query to the Prime Minister’s Bureau: “Has the prime minister met recently with Shlomo Nehama, and did the subject of investing in Channel 10 come up in the meeting?” No answer was received by press time.
Cuckoo’s nest
Despite his current gloomy situation, Labor leader Isaac Herzog has the potential to take off in the next 100 days. It depends on whether he can bring new faces into his party, or create a new list of candidates centering around Labor. Herzog would like to bring in Livni and two or three other Hatnuah MKs, as well as MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima). Livni is a senior stateswoman who still exerts a strong appeal among left-leaning voters, as the polls show; Mofaz is the most experienced security honcho currently in the arena.
In addition to the intense talks she’s been holding with Herzog, Livni has also been talking to Lapid about some sort of union. In recent years, she has been comparable to a tweeting cuckoo bird that lays her eggs in the nests of crows, which serve as surrogates, hatch the eggs and raise her young. She started off in Likud as a proud daughter of a Betar movement prince, Eitan Livni, split from Likud with Ariel Sharon when he formed Kadima, left Kadima when she was defeated in the primaries by Mofaz (also ex-Likud), formed Hatnuah, whose only banner was the peace process, and now she’s on the way to nesting in a new assisted living project.
Three closing notes
1. Strategic threat: A titanic struggle is underway in Likud over the method for choosing the list of candidates for the next Knesset. The titans involved are Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Interior Minister Erdan. Katz, who is allied with MK Haim Katz (no relation), wants to transfer the power from Likud’s 130,000 registered members to the 3,000 members of the party’s central committee. Erdan sees this as an existential threat to his standing as number one in the party, following Gideon Sa’ar’s departure.
Erdan has been Netanyahu’s ally, confidant and chief loyalist for 20 years. He has never quarreled with the boss. He expects Netanyahu to side with him unreservedly against Katz. Should he have reason to suspect that Netanyahu is behaving otherwise, he is likely to draw conclusions, as the saying goes. And what conclusions!
2. Bloc head: Lapid announced Wednesday that he is running for prime minister. The polls give his party 9-11 seats, and only 7 percent of those asked think he is qualified to be prime minister. Apparently he hasn’t learned the lesson since the unfortunate television interview he gave, immediately after the last election, when he declared he would be the next prime minister.
The talks between the parties in the center-left camp (Labor, Kadima, Hatnuah, Yesh Atid, Meretz) on forging a bloc or a compound or an arena, before or after the election, to prevent Netanyahu from forming his fourth government, are in the nascent stage. The two big quandaries: Would such a bloc increase or decrease the collective number of Knesset seats? And who will be its candidate for prime minister?
As for the first question, all the parties will soon be conducting polls and so forth. The pollster and strategist for Yesh Atid, Mark Mellman, will arrive from the United States soon. He will conduct thorough research, lasting three weeks, and only on the basis of the results will Lapid decide how to proceed.
As for the second question, it involves ego, honor and prestige. Clearly, out of the whole group – Herzog, Livni, Mofaz and Lapid – Lapid is the least qualified, least experienced and least suitable. Nothing demonstrates this better than his behavior and deportment in the past 20 months. Herzog has the ability to be prime minister and manage a coalition, but not with the number of seats the polls are predicting for Labor – though that will undoubtedly change by Election Day.
But there are two additional relevant candidates. One is Lieberman, who is rebranding himself in the center-right camp as a responsible, highly experienced, judicious and pragmatic politician. The other is Moshe Kahlon, who’s looking like the new Yair Lapid of Israeli politics. His point of departure is 10-12 Knesset seats. But the sky’s the limit. Meanwhile, all the parties are feeling stressed by just one person: Kahlon. For them, he’s like the Ebola virus that’s threatening to spread and claim vast numbers of victims across the electoral spectrum.
The keyword is “rotation.” If, after the election, and depending on the result, Herzog and/or Lieberman and/or Kahlon agree to share the premiership between them – that will be the end of Netanyahu. That’s all that’s needed.
3. Total recall: The question of whether Netanyahu has arrived at a comprehensive deal with the Haredim on their participation in the next government, or just a partial deal, is unimportant. The decisions will be made when the results are in. Shas and United Torah Judaism will do what’s best for them.
It was different in 2008. That autumn, after Ehud Olmert’s resignation as prime minister, Livni received a mandate from the president to form a new government. She held talks with the two Haredi factions. But so did Netanyahu and Sa’ar, with the indirect, secret aid of Olmert, who was determined to prevent Livni from succeeding him.
By the time it became clear that Netanyahu would be the next prime minister, his agreements with the Haredim were airtight. Everything was decided in advance, including money for the yeshivas and who would get what jobs.
This week, Livni recalled how, in the midst of the useless talks she was holding with Shas and UTJ, former minister Shalom Simhon came over to her during a cabinet meeting.
“In Bibi’s next government,” he said to her, “Ariel Atias [from Shas] will be minister of housing, including responsibility for the Israel Lands Administration.” She was dumbfounded. Couldn’t believe it. Felt like she was in a dream. And so it was, so it was.

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