More than 18,000 people attended the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington last week to show support for Israel and to find out from expert analysts what is going on behind the scenes in the Israeli corridors of power.
But little did they know that the real action was not happening on stage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center but in its VIP dining hall, which was limited to speakers at the conference.
While onstage, pundits speculated about how to prevent war with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, in the dining hall, an ad hoc command center was opened by two politicians fighting to prevent the ugly battles in Israel that emerge from a national election.
The heads of Bayit Yehudi – Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – were joined by their top advisers, constantly on the phone with Israel.
Bennett and Shaked were determined to stymie efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to topple his own government without getting blamed for it and initiate an election at the time that suited him politically and legally. Netanyahu wanted an election in June, soon after celebrations marking 70 years of independence for Israel and far enough before a decision by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit
about whether to indict him.
Netanyahu wanted the election to send a message to Mandelblit, ahead of his decision, that the public wants him in power despite allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He wanted to build a government with parties that would be forced to promise that they would not topple him if indicted and would perhaps even pass a bill modeled after a French law barring the investigation of a sitting prime minister.
Bennett and Shaked were not willing to accept an early election. They know the current government is the most right-wing in Israel’s history and any other coalition could advance a peace plan written by US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. They also like their current jobs, where they are advancing key reforms.
But the main reason the Bayit Yehudi leaders went to war was that they did not want Netanyahu to initiate an election that would be entirely about him and his battle against legal, political and cultural elites. While Bayit Yehudi is doing well in the polls, a race with such an agenda could have enabled Netanyahu to cannibalize the Likud’s satellite parties on the Right.
Shas leader Arye Deri wanted to prevent a June election for the same reasons, along with polls indicating that his party could end up not passing the electoral threshold, especially if former Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s daughter Adina Bar-Shalom runs on a list being created by MK Orly Levy-Abecassis.
Deri in his Knesset office and Bennett and Shaked at their AIPAC command center got to work putting out fires in the coalition. When Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon conditioned his support for the controversial haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription bill
on it being deemed legal by Mandelblit, Shaked got the attorney general’s support for a version of the bill for which Deri was able to receive the backing of United Torah Judaism.
Shaked was constantly receiving calls from Israel during her mingling at AIPAC. She would apologize to the Israel supporters in front of her and take the calls from Israeli party heads. When asked about the crisis onstage in a forum for 100 top AIPAC donors, Shaked told her interviewer, AIPAC Jerusalem office director Cameron Brown, that it was a “fake crisis.”
The main work of Bennett, Shaked and Deri was persuading other party heads to prevent a June election, in an unprecedented effort of coalition and opposition against the prime minister toppling his own government. They knew that from Netanyahu’s perspective, the ideal scenario for an election is June, followed by some time in 2019, and the worst-case scenario is in October, when Mandelblit’s recommendations could be ready.
The easiest party to draft in support of an October election was ironically the Joint List. Ramadan is set for May 15 to June 14, followed by the festival of Eid al-Fitr. Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said a June 26 race would not give his party enough time to campaign. He was overjoyed that his party’s decline of the June date gave him an excuse to inform Israelis of the dates of the Muslim holidays.
The Zionist Union was a harder nut to crack. Party leader Avi Gabbay announced support for an election as early as possible, before consulting with the rest of the leadership of the Zionist Union. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who was also at AIPAC, and MKs Tzipi Livni and Shelly Yacimovich set him straight, and he relented.
“It would be absurd to go to an election before the attorney- general determines the fate of the man much of the country is considering voting for,” Herzog told his party colleagues. “But if the election is in six months, Mandelblit could complete his recommendations, and Netanyahu will no longer be a candidate.”
When other parties that battle the Likud for votes, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu, also endorsed an election in October at the earliest, Netanyahu was left with the backing of strange bedfellows Yesh Atid and Meretz, which will elect a leader next Thursday. Even Likud MKs could not be counted on, most notably David Bitan, who has own investigations to worry about and has a clear interest in the current Knesset continuing.
Herzog tried unsuccessfully to persuade parties to enable him to form a government, if Netanyahu tried to initiate an early election. He worked alongside Bennett, who sat next to him at a dinner honoring outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky in New York.
At the head table, Sharansky and his wife, Avital, sat with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, former US president George W. Bush, US Ambassador David Friedman, and the owners of the Israel Hayom newspaper, Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson. Whether Adelson said anything to Netanyahu about Israeli politics could not be confirmed.
WHILE BENNETT, Shaked and Herzog were focusing intensely on Israeli politics from the US, Netanyahu barely got involved in solving the crisis before he returned to Israel. Even days after the crisis ended, the prime minister’s associates were still not briefing reporters about his true intentions.
Cabinet ministers who were in touch with him interpreted his intentions in various ways. One described Netanyahu as unfazed or apathetic about the crisis, because he sees both a June election and keeping his coalition together as two genuinely good options with obvious risks.
“I know him when he is under pressure, and he wasn’t,” one minister close to Netanyahu said. “He was amused by how worried everyone else was.”
A source close to Netanyahu said the entire June election thesis is preposterous, because Netanyahu is so convinced that he is 100% innocent, that Mandelblit will clear him of all charges, and that he could win any election by a landslide at any time. But the source said that at a certain point, he believed his coalition partners would not be able to resolve their differences, so he took preemptive steps.
Other ministers said that upon his return from the US, Netanyahu pursued an early election with full force and demonstrated it by repeatedly creating unnecessary obstacles to resolving the crisis.
For instance, they noticed how Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman upped his demands for remaining in the coalition immediately after meeting with Netanyahu last Friday, hours after the prime minister landed back in Israel. While Liberman and Netanyahu’s associates have vigorously denied a deal between the two, the defense minister’s cabinet colleagues laughed at him for calling the number of haredim in the IDF “a matter of national security.”
Bennett brought a graph showing the rise in haredim in the IDF to Monday’s Bayit Yehudi faction meeting and noted that the IDF is actually happy with the pace of haredi integration and could not handle much more. The day before, Bennett took a risk by challenging Netanyahu and saying that if the prime minister were to drag the country into an unnecessary and costly election for personal reasons, he would consider running against him for prime minister.
Monday evening, Netanyahu met for an hour and a half with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, half the time alone and half the time with the cabinet minister Netanyahu most trusts, the governmental liaison to the Knesset, Yariv Levin. The press reported that night that Netanyahu met with Edelstein to figure out logistics for dissolving the Knesset, instead of meeting with Liberman to resolve the crisis.
But actually both options were discussed in great depth in the meeting, with Netanyahu seeking the Knesset speaker’s advice and his expertise in reaching out to Liberman, who was called repeatedly from the meeting while he was on his way to and from joint military drills with the US.
At that point, the biggest problem was that Yisrael Beytenu would not vote for the conscription bill. Liberman is not an MK, so he did not have a vote, but Aliya and Integration Minister Sofa Landver is in the Knesset, and if she voted against the bill, her firing would be dictated by tradition, though not law. Edelstein suggested the vote be held before she arrived back from a visit to the US, where she attended a Nefesh B’Nefesh aliya fair in New York. But Liberman rejected the idea, because he wanted to make a statement to his Russian immigrant voters that he stood tough on matters of religion and state.
THE CRITICAL day in the crisis was Tuesday, when the draft bill was set to come to a vote, along with bills calling for passing the 2019 state budget and dispersing the Knesset. At the start of the day, no one knew which of the three would pass.
Bennett and Shaked got to work, with Shaked canceling everything on her agenda, except a morning meeting with visiting law students from Duke University. The two ministers called every right-wing website and social media group, getting them to protest Netanyahu toppling a right-wing government.
They cited 1992, when divisions on the Right led to the election of Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo diplomatic process. The scars on the Right from that mistake are still raw 26 years later and touch a nerve when raised with them. But back then, the reasons for the election were ideological. Here, it would be painted as personal for the prime minister.
There are conflicting narratives on what happened next. Netanyahu’s narrative is that he called in Levin from his sick bed, spent hours with him even though he was contagious, and caught his strep throat, which made him miss Wednesday night’s vote on the budget.
Levin, who could barely even speak, discovered a clause in the coalition agreement that barred Netanyahu from firing Landver without Liberman’s permission. But Netanyahu was still concerned that if he did not fire Landver for violating coalition discipline, he would open the door for Bennett or Liberman’s future insubordination, so he got party heads to reach a deal that Landver’s vote would not be seen as a precedent.
The other narrative is that Deri, Bennett and Shaked got all party heads to oppose Landver’s firing hours earlier, and they were about to call a Knesset press conference, but Netanyahu heard about it, and they decided to let the prime minister save face and take credit for bringing them in line on Landver.
Bennett was surprised to see that Netanyahu added to the deal released to the press a commitment to pass a less hawkish version of the controversial nation-state bill. Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich wanted to start a new fight, but Bennett told him to back off and vote for the bill, because it was only a first reading and could be changed later, and causing another crisis would play into Netanyahu’s hands.
So every party ended up getting more or less what its leaders claim they wanted in retrospect, except perhaps Netanyahu, depending on what narrative should be believed.
Days after politicians had already leased campaign headquarters and hired graphic artists and the Central Elections Committee checked if it could kick reporters out of the Knesset to take their office space, an election was officially avoided.
Now the politicians can go back to the US on their long spring recess, turn off their cellphones and relax.