Anaysis: Despite blow, Hanegbi’s political career not over

As one of the few MKs to leave Likud but maintain the friendship and respect of nearly all of its politicians, Hanegbi is not one to close doors.

By REBECCA ANNA STOIL
November 10, 2010 02:23
MK TZAHI HANEGBI exits the Jerusalem Magistrate’s

Hanegbi and wife 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

For months, the answer to questions about the future of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition and Kadima’s position in the opposition has been, “Everything will become clear after the Hanegbi ruling.”

But after MK Tzahi Hanegbi (Kadima) was found by the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court to have acted with moral turpitude in lying under oath, the only thing that was certain was that starting Wednesday, Hanegbi’s seat in the Knesset would be taken by Nino Abesadze.

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In the meantime, Hanegbi’s political future, the future of the prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and even the future of the coalition all hang in the balance.

The issue likely to be resolved most quickly is the chairmanship of the committee. House Committee Chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) already set the tone in announcing that Hanegbi’s seat at the head of the committee must be filled as soon as possible, as a vital security interest. Levin said that he would convene his committee next week to vote on a chairman to replace Hanegbi, who led the Knesset committee for the past five years during both the Netanyahu and Olmert administrations.

Filling the seat, however, may be easier said than done. Kadima initially agreed to allow Hanegbi to chair the committee in exchange for Likud retaining the chairmanship of the Economic Affairs Committee, a position traditionally held by an opposition MK.

That deal, however, was taken by Kadima to be at best a temporary marriage, and one likely to be terminated after the Hanegbi verdict.

But the coalition is reluctant to give up the reins of the Economic Affairs Committee – the committee through which Netanyahu must pass a number of key reforms, and in which the prime minister is reluctant even to replace one loyal Likud MK, Ophir Akunis, with a potentially lessloyal one, Carmel Shama.

Instead, Netanyahu would rather leave the situation as it is now, with Kadima holding the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair and the Likud retaining the Economic Affairs Committee.

That motivation is only amplified by the fact that Netanyahu has nobody left in his already-stretched stable of rank-and-file MKs whom he would be happy to see leading the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Likud MK Miri Regev has already declared herself a “natural candidate,” but Netanyahu has been wary of giving Regev any platform since day one, and particularly following her disloyalty in attacking the produce VAT.

As a parting gift to his party’s Knesset faction, Hanegbi added fuel to the fire Tuesday when he said that he supported the appointment of MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) to replace him at the head of the powerful committee. Hanegbi’s endorsement of Kadima’s most natural candidate for the position refueled the old rivalries within the centrist party between No. 2 Mofaz and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni. Livni hoped that the party would regain the leadership of the Economic Affairs Committee, but now, any party member who supports the committee trade will be seen as taking a clearly anti-Mofaz stance.

On the other hand, Livni is reluctant to allow Mofaz to hold a position that could give him any political platform. In recent months, Mofaz has blended into the Knesset scenery, and the last thing Livni could want is to give her erstwhile adversary a political leg up. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is said to support the appointment, which would both weaken Kadima by once again splitting it into two clear factions, and ensure that the committee is led by an MK who, in the words of another member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, “will do exactly what Netanyahu wants him to do, and won’t make trouble.”

Coalition Chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) could barely hide his glee when he said that the coalition would not intervene and that “Kadima will have to select from within its ranks an appointee to chair the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.”

He knew that that decision, forced along by Levin’s ultimatum, would make it a difficult week for Livni when she returned from the United States.

And what of the coalition? For months, rumors have circulated that Hanegbi was behind renewed attempts to marry the two largest parties into a national unity government.

In his post-ruling press conference Tuesday, Hanegbi lent credence to the rumors, promising to use his good relations with both Netanyahu and Livni to overcome the political and personal differences standing in the way of a national unity government.

Talks to bring Kadima into the government can certainly continue with Hanegbi as a broker, even if he is not an MK. Hanegbi has been suspended from the Knesset, but the court ruling did not – and cannot – prohibit him from doing the political wheeling and dealing for which he is valued by almost all of the Knesset’s leading lights.

The challenges facing a national unity government are not those mounted by Hanegbi’s sentencing, but rather the more pressing issue that there are simply no more positions in the government left to offer until a major coalition partner – Shas, Labor or Israel Beiteinu – jumps to the opposition.

Even with the current turmoil in Labor, budget complaints in Shas and stalled legislation in Israel Beiteinu, none of the parties seems ready to abandon its ministries... yet.

Hanegbi, in the meantime, is left with free time – time to serve as a go-between for the government and the opposition, as well as as the great peace-maker between warring factions in Kadima. One Kadima MK went so far Tuesday as to suggest that the Mofaz endorsement was designed to stir up the party pot in order to provide Hanegbi with a relevant position in Kadima, as the mediator between Mofaz and Livni.

He can also plan his comeback in the 19th Knesset. The jury is still out – almost literally – as to whether Hanegbi will ever be able to serve in a ministerial position, and political handlers speculated Tuesday that with the conviction and the criminal intent, it may be impossible to launch a realistic campaign for the premiership, but there is still plenty of room in Israeli politics for a godfather who crowns kings in the shadows.

On the other hand, with dueling appeals making their way to the Jerusalem District Court, and in the always-volatile world of Israeli politics, anything is possible. As one of the few MKs to leave Likud but maintain the friendship and respect of nearly all of its politicians, Hanegbi is not one to close doors – and Tuesday’s ruling was no exception. Whether behind the scenes or in front of the cameras, Hanegbi’s political career is far from over.


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