How Netanyahu ditched his 'panicker' image

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and other members of Benjamin Netanyahu's current government have been surprised to find that the prime minister is not so easily pressured as in the past.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a dialogue with Robin Li (not pictured), founder and chief executive of Chinese search engine Baidu, in Beijing, China, March 21, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Jason Lee.

Topics covered

israeli elections, israeli politics, right wing, broadcasting, naftali bennett, moshe kahlon, benjamin netanyahu

Mar 21, 2017

Moshe Kahlon, Israeli finance minister and chairman of Kulanu, is considered one of the politicians most intimately familiar with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's weak spots. He spent years working intensely at his side in Likud, as a Knesset member and later as a minister in Netanyahu's government. This, along with healthy political instincts and a talent for understanding people, has made Kahlon an expert in dealing with Netanyahu and knowing what makes him tick.

Kahlon believes that Netanyahu, at his core, only understands force, that he tends to zigzag and that he folds under pressure, as proven more than a few times in the past. This image of Netanyahu as someone easily pressured and extorted and with a tendency to zigzag has been with him since the beginning of his political career. The person most responsible for shaping this image was the prime minister's greatest rival, the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who frequently called Netanyahu a “panicker.” Netanyahu, in fact, earned the reputation. He often zigzagged and folded, even in coalition negotiations, whenever faced with threats from senior Likud members.

Almost none of Netanyahu's political rivals can claim never to have mocked him for being so easily pressured. He has been disparagingly tagged for this in every election campaign. In response to Netanyahu's economic decrees, Tzipi Livni as opposition chair in 2011 said, “This is a prime minister who is easily pressured and only understands force.”

This explains why Kahlon has waged an aggressive campaign against canceling the creation of the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) — to replace the bankrupt Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) — as Netanyahu wants. He could only imagine Netanyahu at some point conceding. It was beyond his wildest imagination that Netanyahu might give him an ultimatum and threaten to go to new elections, as he did March 19, if Kahlon refused to withdraw his opposition to postponing the IBA's closure and replacement with the PBC.

It looked initially like Kahlon would get what he wanted. Editorials from March 16 praise him for managing to put Netanyahu in his place, thereby saving freedom of the press, after he told Netanyahu that he would not lend a hand in canceling the PBC, which was scheduled to begin broadcasting at the beginning of April. Kahlon was even said to have scolded Netanyahu, saying, “I left the Likud. I'm not your No. 2 and not your No. 3. You can't play these kinds of games with me. There's a real person sitting here in front of you. Whenever there is a success, you are sure to show up. But you always disappear when there is trouble.”

Kahlon is well-aware that the issue of the PBC is of particular importance to Netanyahu. He has developed an obsession about it, as he considers it to be yet another arm of his mortal enemy, Noni Mozes, publisher of Yedioth Aharonoth. On the other hand, Kahlon also made the assessment that Netanyahu would not want to get into a fight with him over the issue, because that might lead to a coalition crisis. He also believed that the police investigations against Netanyahu had sufficiently weakened him to the point he would have to concede.

On March 19, however, the finance minister learned that everything he thought he knew about Netanyahu was wrong. He was completely surprised when Netanyahu released a political bombshell by announcing that he regretted his previous statements and that the new corporation would not be formed, even if it meant going to new elections. Then Netanyahu hopped on a plane and left for a state visit to China.

Stunned, Kahlon at first was silent. His spokespeople later made it clear that he did not intend to fold. Kahlon made that decision by assuming that Netanyahu was “only threatening” and that he lacked the gumption to break up the government over something like that. This explains why he continued to stand up to Netanyahu with all the strength he could muster. Even when messages arriving from China were clear and unequivocal — that Netanyahu had no plans to abandon his position, even if it meant new elections — Kahlon still seemed to believe that Netanyahu would be the first to blink.

“The government did what it did against the staff of the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, and then it tossed this hot potato to me to deal with it. … Leadership means taking responsibility,” Kahlon said at a March 19 press conference.

It remains unclear why Kahlon let himself get dragged into this quagmire. Perhaps the only explanation is that he believed that he could stand up to Netanyahu and become the person who blocked his attempt to take over the media.

What Kahlon and many other political players have failed to internalize is that the Netanyahu in power at this time is different from the previous Netanyahu. Whatever Kahlon once knew about Netanyahu being easily pressured under when duress or faced with strength is no longer valid. The source of Netanyahu's transformation can be found in his huge electoral victory in the March 2015 election. Likud won 30 seats despite all the predictions of its downfall, even from within Likud. Netanyahu felt that the victory was all his, because he had fought against the powerful forces trying to bring him down, including the left-wing media, US President Barack Obama and his political rivals.

Indeed, after the elections, a senior political source who spoke on the condition of anonymity quoted Netanyahu as saying, “It is an enormous achievement, and it is all mine. Who brought you victory? Who ran the campaign?”

Netanyahu has been strutting around with this attitude since the last election. It is particularly obvious in his unrestrained and patronizing behavior toward certain ministers in his government. Thus, HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, who had prided himself on how well he understood Netanyahu as being someone who will always succumb to force and threats, has run up against a different man. While Bennett continues challenging Netanyahu on ideological issues, because they are fighting for the same right-wing electorate, at a September 2016 Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu had actually threatened to fire Bennett. Making Bennett's position perfectly clear, Netanyahu told him, “You don’t decide anything here.”

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz also found himself confronting a very different Netanyahu. When Katz ordered that maintenance on the railway system take place on the Sabbath — contrary to demands by Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners — Netanyahu accused the transportation minister of intentionally trying to cause problems between him and the ultra-Orthodox parties and threatened to fire him, too. Katz was simply acting like Kahlon and Bennett, based on the assumption that Netanyahu would be too scared to pick a fight with him.

Generations of politicians have risen with the idea that Netanyahu is a reluctant individual who rarely exposes himself to risk. Over the past few days, however, Netanyahu has challenged these assumptions. As of March 20, he hasn't blinked in his face-off with Kahlon, even though the finance minister was absolutely sure that he could force Netanyahu's hand.

More from  Israel

al-monitor
European allies of Israel against Hezbollah, but also against annexation
Rina Bassist | Israeli-Palestinian conflict | Jun 1, 2020
al-monitor
Temple Mount reopens amid growing tensions in Jerusalem
Rina Bassist | | Jun 1, 2020
al-monitor
Despite trial, Netanyahu's popularity soaring
Ben Caspit | | May 29, 2020
al-monitor
Netanyahu not destabilized over Palestinians cutting security coordination
Mazal Mualem | Israeli-Palestinian conflict | May 28, 2020