Operation bring down Benjamin Netanyahu

Well orchestrated strategy or matter of timing?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement in the Knesset on Tuesday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement in the Knesset on Tuesday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
An interviewer from Al Jazeera TV asked Tuesday night whether the new Israeli election would be about the economy, the coronavirus, matters of religion and state or other key issues for Israel’s future.
The response from an Israeli political analyst made the interviewer laugh.
“That is lovely that Al Jazeera is giving Israeli politicians so much credit, as if they are really focused on the issues. But with all due respect, this election is just another referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
If that is indeed the case, it helps to have a dramatic story line about the effort to unseat the prime minister. This week’s events initially appeared to provide one.
Early in the week, it appeared that Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz had reached an agreement to extend the deadline for passing the state budget and were en route to a deal that would keep the government going for months if not years.
But then an unsung Blue and White MK not known for rebelliousness delivered one powerful surprise. And then two MKs provided more surprises by popping up from the Knesset parking lot to vote down the extension and end the last chance for preventing an election.
If you speak to the rebels, however, the situation sounds far less dramatic. Then-Likud MK Michal Shir and Blue and White MK Ram Shefa did not really lie in wait for hours in the parking lot. And unlikely rebel Michal Cotler-Wunsh of Blue and White was not part of any conspiracy.
Shir is a former adviser to both Netanyahu and his new challenger Gideon Sa’ar, whose New Hope Party she joined after the vote. Reports said she lied about being sick, came to the Knesset clandestinely in someone else’s car and waited in the parking lot’s little used “Floor -1” before coming up to vote.
In an interview conducted on Zoom, Shir said she was really sick and had the antibiotics to prove it. She came in her own car and had no time to wait in any lot, because she arrived only just in time to vote.
“I contemplated a lot, and it wasn’t an easy decision for me,” she said. “I come from a Herut [Likud’s forerunner] family, and I’ve been in the Likud for 25 years. Going to elections is sad, but an entire system serving one man and not the citizens, the children and the unity of the nation is sadder. I had to do what was right for the people.”
Shir said there was no thought-out plan devised by Sa’ar to keep her in the Likud faction as a Trojan horse and bring her out at the perfect time for a surprise ambush on Netanyahu. She said she decided on her own the night of the vote to leave her sickbed in her Ramat Hasharon home, come to the Knesset and help defeat the bill that would have postponed early elections.
“I respected the prime minister, but I had no choice,” she said. “We are in our third lockdown and our fourth election with no state budget. Then they wanted to pass this bill in five minutes. I am an MK for certain values, and the Likud abandoned them. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I couldn’t be part of this farce anymore.”
Sources who spoke to Shefa said he did not coordinate anything with Shir, and he had no idea they would surprise Netanyahu together. Like Shir, he denies the story line about lying in wait.
“The real story is less romantic,” he said. “I didn’t hide in the car. At 9 p.m., they told me I have to be quarantined, so I left. I wasn’t allowed to be in the building, but I was allowed to come back to vote in the special area for quarantined MKs. It happened at the last minute, and the reporters didn’t know, so there was an element of surprise, but I told top people in Blue and White I’d vote against the bill.”
Shefa emphatically denied misleading anyone, saying “I am in politics too little time to become someone I don’t want to be.”
Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar admitted that he knew hours in advance that the bill was unlikely to pass. It was not the votes after midnight that ended hope of avoiding early elections. It was a tweet from Cotler-Wunsh nearly 12 hours earlier about the need to go back to the polls that made clear that even the least problematic Blue and White MKs could no longer be counted on.
Shefa, like fellow Blue and White MKs Asaf Zamir and Miki Haimovich, had been vocal against Netanyahu throughout the outgoing term in the Knesset. All three come from the left side of the political map.
Cotler-Wunsh, by contrast, was elected to the Knesset as part of former Likud minister Moshe Ya’alon’s right-wing Telem Party. She had not expressed particular discontent until then.
“I supported entering the unity government out of responsibility for the citizens of Israel,” she tweeted. “That same responsibility requires me now to consider the bad option of elections and compare it to the intolerable reality of a government that does not function and violates the rules of the game, including misusing Basic Laws. The time has come to return to the people, who are sovereign in a democracy, and ask them to make a decision.”
Cotler-Wunsh said in an interview from her quarantined home that she did not come to vote like Shefa, because “I had already made my statement, and I saw no reason to make a statement louder than necessary.”
There were those who saw her tweeting about hope as a sign that she would join Shir in Sa’ar’s New Hope Party. Her arguments for term limits and good governance – central planks in the new party’s agenda – were a further sign.
Cotler-Wunsh would not reveal her political future but said she was at peace with her decision.
“I think the Knesset is an effective place to bring about change,” she said. “I hope I will continue to represent olim in the Knesset, and as soon as I know which platform, I will make it known to the public with the proper transparency. I don’t know what my options will be. Everyone has spoken to everyone. I want to make a difference. I have a voice that should be heard.”
Like Shefa, Cotler-Wunsh had only positive comments about Gantz.
“He took a bullet for the State of Israel,” she said. “He lay down on the fence [sacrificed himself] for Israel. It was an electric fence, and he knew it.”
About Netanyahu, she is less positive. She said “a dysfunctional government is worse than another election.”
When pressed further on whether her former party head Ya’alon or Yamina head Naftali Bennett should provide the alternative to Netanyahu, she said: “It transcends Bogie, Bennett and me. It’s about how to move the ship forward for the next 72 years.”
While Shir, Shefa and Cotler-Wunsh denied being part of any strategy for bringing down Netanyahu, Bennett’s moves were calculated.
Bennett has been criticized for waiting to announce his run for the premiership until it was no longer relevant. But he purposely did not want to make the announcement until the Knesset was officially dispersed, because he thought if he threw his hat in the ring, Netanyahu would purposely wait to initiate elections, to prevent the fight from starting.
Now that the race has begun, this is when strategy kicks in. Sa’ar purposely timed Ze’ev Elkin’s announcement that he was leaving Likud to take place immediately after Bennett made his speech, in order to steal his thunder.
After adding Elkin, a hawkish former resident of Judea and Samaria, Sa’ar is expected to reveal recruits from the Center-Left next week who will help balance his list. Those rumored to be on his list of targets include Labor Party Minister Itzik Shmuli, Blue and White Minister Chili Tropper and MK Hila Vazan and former Kulanu MKs Roy Folkman and Merav Ben-Ari.
“The goal will be to showcase our team and present Gideon as the one who can provide the stable and uniting leadership that is so needed,” Shir said. “Gideon is the smartest person I’ve met, and the public realizes it.”
Lapid and Bennett will also be presenting themselves as the one real alternative to Netanyahu ahead of the February 4 deadline for party lists to be submitted to the Central Elections Committee. Mergers of lists will happen just ahead of that date, based on what polls say then.
Netanyahu’s strategy will be to present all his opponents as mere politicians, while he is the one true leader. The Likud’s first campaign poster released Thursday featured him in the light, and Sa’ar, Lapid, Bennett and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the dark, alongside Netanyahu’s favorite MK for campaign fodder, the Joint List’s Ahmad Tibi.
The question remains whether all the party leaders on the poster will bicker among themselves for the 90-day campaign or coordinate strategy together to prevent the prime minister’s reelection.
“We need to remove Netanyahu because there is no system in the country that is functioning now,” Shir said. “The goal is not about Netanyahu. The goal is improving the lives of the citizens. There will be more surprises. And for a change, the surprises will be good for the country.”