Stepping out of Netanyahu’s shadow – but still enjoying the shade

Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis, a fan of ‘House of Cards,’ seems to have learned how to play both sides from the TV show’s politician antihero.

MK OFIR AKUNIS looks out over the Old City of Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
MK OFIR AKUNIS looks out over the Old City of Jerusalem
‘Of course I watch House of Cards. It’s appropriate, don’t you think?” Deputy Minister for Liaison with the Knesset Ofir Akunis said of Netflix’s dark political drama that seems to be on everyone in the legislature’s lips in recent weeks, while preparing two cups of his favorite nonalcoholic cocktail of grapefruit juice and soda water for himself and his guest.
Frank Underwood, the House-majority- whip-turned-vice-president, may only be a television caricature of a cool and calculating politician, too slick and ruthless to be true, but Akunis seems to have learned at least one thing from him: How to play a double game.
Throughout his first term in the Knesset, Akunis was primarily known for being Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, following multiple stints working in the Likud leader’s office. If Akunis said something, chances were Netanyahu agreed. If Akunis proposed a bill, you could count on the prime minister supporting it.
In the current Knesset, on the surface, Akunis appears to be as close to Netanyahu as ever, as a deputy minister stationed in the Prime Minister’s Office; several times in his interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, he declaimed his utmost respect for Netanyahu and that there is no one who can replace him.
However, like Underwood, Akunis knows how to show support for his party’s leadership in general, while making digs at the details. Since the latest round of negotiations with the Palestinians, the term “Likud deputy minister” has become synonymous with the party’s farthestright- wing and a thorn in Netanyahu’s side. Akunis seemed to be trying to step out from the prime minister’s shadow, publicly speaking out against a two-state solution, which Netanyahu supports, and the government’s decision to release Palestinian terrorists.
“It’s no secret that I have an ideological dispute with the prime minister on diplomatic issues. It’s been true since the Bar-Ilan Speech in 2009,” he hedged. “When he first talked about it, I told [Netanyahu] before anyone else that I cannot support it, because this has been my ideology my entire political life and I do not think the conflict will be solved via this equation.”
Akunis said his differences with Netanyahu came to the fore more recently because diplomatic issues moved into the spotlight in this Knesset, as opposed to the previous one, but stressed that he spoke out against the settlement construction freeze in 2009-2010.
“I’m allowed to disagree with [Netanyahu],” Akunis said, defending his position. “He was the first to hear from me that if a [two-state] agreement comes to a vote in the Knesset, I’ll vote against it. Not abstain, vote against it, because I resolutely oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in the place where our nation was born.
“I see Judea and Samaria as the cradle of the Jewish people born 4,000 years ago, long before our conflict with the Palestinians, which started around 100 years ago. So when this issue comes up, as deputy minister connecting the Knesset with the government, I always say my personal opinion is different from the government policy.”
Akunis presented his “ideological dispute” with the prime minister as a credit to their party, and an opportunity to bash Yesh Atid and its leader, Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
“I hear [Lapid] said that everyone in his party will stand by whatever [peace] agreement is reached. That’s an insult to some of his party’s members. What is he basing that statement on? We haven’t even seen [US Secretary of State John] Kerry’s framework document yet. How can you force your opinion on an MK or minister?” Akunis asked.
“I can say happily and proudly that the Likud has freedom of thought, which is why I maintain my stance.”
Still, Akunis did not give up the mantle of Netanyahu’s greatest champion in the Knesset, asserting that “no one in the Likud, no minister, no deputy minister, even those who criticize the prime minister, can fit into his shoes. He is responsible for the security of 8 million, people 24 hours a day.”
A day before Netanyahu addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington, Akunis seemed to be perfectly coordinated with prime minister’s message: The world is putting pressure on the wrong side.
“I’m sure most ambassadors to Israel will read this interview, so I want to say that it is unfair to put pressure on the side that wants peace. It’s an anomaly. The pressure is on the wrong side. There is no one in Israel, except maybe the most extreme elements, who doesn’t want peace,” he stated.
“Nothing is good enough for the Palestinians, not even the farthest-reaching proposals.
“We even released despicable murderers. What other country would do that? Not America. A man like [Israeli agent Jonathan] Pollard, who didn’t murder anyone, still sits in prison, unfortunately.
“When the Palestinians only see pressure on Israel, they don’t compromise. Their line of thought is, if the world is only being tough on Israel, why should we recognize it as the Jewish state? [The Palestinians] think that with enough pressure [on Israel], they can have the ‘right of return’ to Ashkelon, Ashdod, Jaffa and Ramat Aviv.”
Predicting another Netanyahu catchphrase from his visit to the US, Akunis said, “We don’t just want a peace agreement, we want real peace.”
The prime minister said hours later that he wants “peace, not a piece of paper.”
The deputy minister also stands behind Netanyahu in his battle to maintain control of the Likud convention, despite Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon’s best efforts to wrest it from him.
“The idea that the head of a party will lose authority to the point that he can’t run his own party is unacceptable. I stand by [Netanyahu] openly and clearly,” Akunis said.
Plus, Akunis would not acknowledge any possible scenario in which Netanyahu would break off from the Likud because of a lack of cooperation from within the party.
“Netanyahu is a Likud man, he came from the Revisionist movement. Never say never, but to my understanding, Netanyahu will run for prime minister in the next Knesset as the head of Likud.
The fact is that the Likud is growing stronger in the polls. Netanyahu will lead the Likud,” he proclaimed.
Akunis may soon find himself with something else in common with the fictional Frank Underwood, other than an ability to play both sides, if he becomes coalition chairman – the equivalent of majority whip.
When the government was sworn in, MK Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu) accepted the coalition chairman position, which may be the most difficult and thankless job in the Knesset, on the condition that he would leave it after a year. At the time, the idea was that Levin and Akunis would trade places, but Akunis never agreed to give up his deputy minister position.
Senior Likud sources said Akunis is under heavy pressure to take Levin’s mantle, and it would be more effective for the prime minister to have his close ally whipping votes for him.
Akunis wouldn’t confirm that he was asked to become coalition chairman, saying only: “If I receive an official offer, I will seriously consider it. As long as there’s no official offer, I have no reason to consider it.”
Meanwhile, Akunis can continue watching House of Cards for tips on how to be a whip – who is able to work both for and against the man at the top of the political food chain.