Monday, May 27, 2019

The final stretch (to form a coalition) - Mati Tuchfeld

by Mati Tuchfeld

The two major sticking points holding up a new coalition are haredi conscription and the justice minister appointment. Despite what the media is saying, the question of immunity for the prime minister is not an issue.

The final stretch
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, bottom left and right, sit in front of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman, top center, in the Knesset | Photo: Oren Ben Hakoon

Now that the weekend is over, we are approaching the final stretch of the race to assemble a coalition. Negotiations will shift gear from foot-dragging to a discussion of sticking points, which will decide the new government’s policies for the next few years.

The biggest disputes that have held up the formation of a new government are the haredi conscription bill and the justice minister appointment. Everything else was basically agreed upon by the last government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the haredi parties have reached understandings about budgets, appointments, and laws. The same goes for the Likud and the Union of Right-Wing Parties, and Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. The weak link is, as usual, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Lieberman. After the April 9 election, Lieberman tossed aside all his campaign pledges to become part of the right-wing coalition and support Netanyahu as prime minister and did a U-turn toward the opposition.

Lieberman remains unmoved by the fact that for the first time in years, the Likud did not set up a Russian campaign headquarters – this with the express purpose of bringing Yisrael Beytenu over the minimum electoral threshold. He now prefers to be offended about a few Russian-language Likud signs that were posted in the last few days of the election, after it was already clear that the risk his party wouldn’t make it into the Knesset had passed. This is a kind of political ingratitude that is typical of Lieberman.

Immunity? Don’t bore us 

Last Wednesday, the eve of Lag Ba’omer, Netanyahu met with Lieberman. The meeting was brief and to the point. Head of Netanyahu’s coalition negotiations staff, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, was also there. When it concluded, Netanyahu was more pessimistic than he was when it started. Those present came away with the impression that Lieberman had effectively decided not to join the coalition, but was unwilling to say so. His insistence on passing the haredi draft bill gave the Likud official something to cling to. Lieberman won’t pay any price among his constituency if he leads the compromise he is expected to. At one point, one of the people in the meeting exclaimed, “This stubbornness will send us into another election!” Lieberman’s response? “No problem.”

Last Thursday, a change in strategy was proposed – a bill to dissolve the Knesset before the deadline to form a government. This would prevent President Reuven Rivlin from handing the job of forming a governing coalition to someone other than Netanyahu. It seems that a majority of Knesset members would back that bill. The haredi parties would support it, as would the Union of Right-Wing Parties and, of course, Lieberman. What’s more, the further the bill gets in the legislative process, the greater the chances that something might happen at the last minute to break the impasse.

What hasn’t been addressed at all in the negotiations are the cases against Netanyahu. There is an astonishing discrepancy between the media headlines and what is actually happening on the ground, where the investigations aren’t even a topic of discussion among coalition members. As far as they are concerned, Netanyahu was elected for a four-year term, and he is the one who will choose how he wants to ensure he remains in power. If he wants to pass a bill that would give him, as prime minister, immunity from prosecution – let him have immunity. If he wants to forgo the immunity bill and use his existing immunity? Not a problem. Does he want to forgo immunity entirely and allow himself to be indicted and possibly tried while in office? Bring it on. No one in the coalition will give him a hard time or demand that he resign.

The opposition’s campaign about the issue of immunity and the harm to democracy not only isn’t hurting him, it could wind up doing the opposite and prompt the right-wing parties to seek and pass the bills that so terrify the left side of the political map, because they would keep Netanyahu in office. Even former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, who did a turn in the media after coming out against Netanyahu, has said that he would support immunity for the prime minister under the existing law.

What’s going on with Gabbay? 

In the new government, Likud ministers will get the leftover crumbs. Netanyahu decided that the government will include only 16 Likud ministers. The current 11 will stay on. It looks like they will be joined by Avi Dichter, Tzipi Hotovely, and Nir Barkat. That leaves two. Netanyahu wants Amir Ohana to serve as communications minister. David Amsalem is also expected to receive a ministerial role. As is David Bitan. But all these will be handed out only after the Gideon Sa’ar riddle is solved. No one knows whether or not Netanyahu intends to appoint him to anything and if so, what.

It looks like Yisrael Katz will stay on as foreign minister. Hotovely, if appointed at all, would be the first female minister from the national religious sector, which would be a bonus if she were given the culture and sport portfolio, for example.

Meanwhile, in the Labor Party, senior party officials’ questions about where Labor chairman Avi Gabbay is leading the party after its election loss turned into real concern this past week. Based on Gabbay’s behavior, and even though he is denying it, they think that not only is he not drawing the necessary conclusions after his failure as party head, he is actually doing less than nothing to keep himself in the role of party leader much longer. In addition to announcing that he was moving the Labor primaries forward by six months, Gabbay is still increasing his grip on the party mechanisms by exploiting the constitutional changes he passed when he was made party leader. These changes were meant to give him tools to ensure that Labor would win the election, but in effect are just increasing his lopsided rule over the skeleton of the party whose assets he has stripped. Former party leader Isaac Herzog successfully “re-set” the party, and covered its 8 million-shekel debt. But in Gabbay’s short time at the helm, Labor’s debt has ballooned to 4 million shekels, an enormous amount for a party that has only six Knesset seats.

Last week, Labor Secretary General Eran Hermoni sent Gabbay and members of the Labor faction a letter in which he demanded explanations for their financial conduct. Hermoni asked them to submit lists of everyone in the party who holds official positions and receives salaries. Gabbay had already refused to comply with similar requests.

Hermoni also wrote that “a number of questions I posed to the party leader about expected expenditures … like [questions] about the considerations behind some of the actions he has taken as part of the plan to rehabilitate the part, have yet to be answered.”

Hermoni’s letter indicates that the party spent over 300 million shekels on business deals, contracts, and covering debt in the month after the election. Which senior party officials do not see as a sign that Gabbay intends to go anywhere. One source in the Labor Party said, “Gabbay apparently set the primaries for a far-off, unrealistic date, so he can postpone them against and tighten his grip. That’s not how someone who means to take responsibility for the failure and leave behaves.”

“For now, Gabbay is still … selling off assets as if this were a company he has to strip,” the source said.

Associates of Gabbay said in response to these claims that “the only unreasonable expense in the budget is the useless salary for a useless secretary general, who admits himself that he has done nothing for the past two years. The primaries will be moved up, there’s no argument about that, and the one who is leading that move is Gabbay himself.”

This week, David Bitan launched a lobby to strengthen national institutions. While sitting with other MKs, Bitan spotted Gabbay and asked him to join the lobby. He was gobsmacked at Gabbay’s response: “Not only will I not join – as far as I’m concerned, you can dismantle the Jewish Agency tomorrow morning,” he told Bitan.

Senior members of the Labor party were less surprised at this than Bitan and his colleagues.
“The Jewish Agency is a Labor asset. So it’s no surprise that Gabbay is trying to dismantle it, too,” they said.

Mati Tuchfeld


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