For Netanyahu, all 'business as usual'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defused this week two coalition crises, thus guaranteeing once again the stability of his government.

al-monitor Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, Nov. 19, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Nov 29, 2017

In the early morning of Nov. 28, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for a short visit of a few hours to Kenya. He returned to Israel that same night.

There was nothing urgent or important to this visit. The prime minister of Israel was the sole Western leader who attended Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta's swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi. But for Netanyahu this trip was another opportunity to distance himself from the travails of the criminal investigations into his dealings, and to show the Israeli public more official photos from visits to distant lands, where he is received with royal honors. Netanyahu aims to create a sense among the public that while in his own country he is persecuted by the police and the left, around the world he is treated with prestige and respect.

But this time, as he walked down the red carpet in Nairobi and inspected the Kenyan honor guard, Netanyahu could also be pleased with some achievements at home: After several stormy political days where his fourth government faced immediate and real danger of collapse, he once again stood on firm and solid ground. In less than a week, his coalition withstood two major crises, each one of which could have escalated to an early election. And all this time he is embroiled in several criminal investigations — in a normal world he would be considered a lame duck.

But in current politics — in Israel and in the rest of the world — there is nothing normal, and the prime minister proved once again that when it comes to political survival and manipulation, he is better than anyone else. Netanyahu has emerged from these crises heading a stable coalition, where he — and only he — will decide if and when the next election will take place.

The crisis concerning train repair work on the Sabbath, which made Netanyahu sweat Nov. 24, was the most serious coalition crisis experienced by this government to date. It took time for the prime minister’s office to grasp that the spiritual leader of ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah party, the Hasidic grand rabbi of Gur Yaakov Alter, means to go all the way with his demand to cancel all work on the railways on Saturdays, including instructing Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman to resign from the government. Netanyahu, who was burned in the past by giving in to the ultra-Orthodox on the issue of the Sabbath, understood that conceding on this topic would strengthen his political rival from the opposition — the chairman of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid. According to a poll by Channel 10 published Nov. 26 in the shadow of the ultra-Orthodox crisis, Yesh Atid and the Likud are battling for the same number of Knesset seats: 24.

But anyone who hoped that this conflict over the Sabbath would lead to a political drama was disappointed. Indeed, Litzman resigned from the government Nov. 26, but his party remains in the coalition. Netanyahu is now working to change the Basic Law of the government in a way that would allow Litzman to return to the Ministry of Health with the same responsibilities, but with the title of deputy minister. It goes without saying that Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri, for whom the polls predict a collapse in the next election, remains entrenched in the coalition.

A day later, the second crisis arrived. Spirits in the Knesset were inflamed once again, this time at the Recommendations law that was brought to a first reading in the Knesset. This is a bill brought by Likud Knesset member David Amsalem, which aims to prohibit the police from recommending that government prosecutors indict someone at the end of an investigation, instead of allowing the police to merely share their findings with the prosecution. Although he was severely criticized, even from the Likud, Amsalem invested great effort to make sure the law takes force and involves Netanyahu’s current investigations as well. Thus, he significantly strengthened the argument that this is a personal law, meant to silence the police and allow Netanyahu to contend in the next election without the public burden of an expected recommended criminal indictment, at least in one of the cases in which he is being investigated.

Throughout this crisis, eyes were watching the chairman of Kulanu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. In recent weeks, Kahlon pledged not to allow personal laws to pass. But at the moment of truth he too helped Netanyahu pass the law, which even a professional expert such as State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan described as “silencing.” The chairman of Kulanu folded in face of the threat of an early election and unflattering polls, and at once transformed from being the coalition’s defender of the rule of law to being a collaborator in the prime minister’s fight against law enforcement authorities. If in the not-distant past some in the opposition counted on Kahlon to be the one to dismantle the government, they were proven wrong again.

As with Litzman’s crisis, here, too, a ladder was built to help Kahlon climb down from the tree. Amsalem’s bill was amended such that in investigations that have already begun — like the investigations of the prime minister — the attorney general could ask the police for their recommendation, but in any case it will not be made public. Another win for Netanyahu.

In a rushed press conference he organized Nov. 27 after the passing of the Recommendations law, Kahlon claimed that before he supported the bill he consulted with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. Along the way the chairman of Kahlon had to quiet discontent in his party, but he did so without great effort once he made clear that opposition to the law would mean going to an election. To Kahlon’s luck, the media fire was also directed at opposition members — 17 of whom did not show up to vote on the law in the Knesset plenum.

A senior Likud source close to the prime minister, who in recent days witnessed the political strategizing around him, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that there will not be another crisis with the ultra-Orthodox at least until the end of the year. The source said, “The government will hold at least until March 2019. The police and state attorney will not finish their work before then. There are many processes before the decision to indict a prime minister.” The source also noted that what will stick at the end of the three investigations against the prime minister is Case 1000 (concerning the receipt of gifts from businessmen), and that “in the Likud no one will get bent out of shape at charges regarding champagne and cigars. It will only strengthen him.”

According to the scenario described by the senior Likud source, Netanyahu will lead the party in the next election even if he is indicted in this case. “I don’t know anyone in the Likud, including those vying for the crown such as [former Minister] Gideon Saar and [Minister] Yisrael Katz, who would call on Netanyahu to resign, because they would destroy themselves in the process,” the source said.

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