Can Netanyahu ease the world’s nerves over Ben-Gvir? - opinion

Concern focuses on extremism, how religious it is, but also the fact that this is the government with the most convicted and alleged criminals in Israeli history.

 LIKUD CHAIRMAN Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
LIKUD CHAIRMAN Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Two weeks ago, on Saturday, a few armored sedans drove up a narrow street in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood. Members of the Border Police’s Yasam Unit stood watching as Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu got out of their car and walked into a nearby house, where the incoming prime minister’s longtime confidant Ron Dermer lives with his family. 

The Netanyahus spent a few hours at the Dermers, and neighbors later told of cigar smoke wafting up from the backyard.​ ​It was four days before the election, ​and ​the Likud leader needed a place to relax and a close adviser with whom to consult.

While Dermer is mostly known as the former ambassador to the US (2013-2021), he is also often referred to as “Bibi’s Brain,” serving as a shadow political and diplomatic adviser to Netanyahu even after he completed his ambassadorship, and moved into the private sector, becoming a partner at a Jerusalem-based investment group. 

In the 10 days since Netanyahu secured a 64-majority coalition in the November 1 election, Dermer is the man everyone in the Biden administration is looking to for answers. What type of coalition is Netanyahu going to form? What role will Itamar Ben-Gvir have? Will the new coalition annex parts of the West Bank, as Bezalel Smotrich has demanded? And what – if at all – will the new government do when it comes to Iran? 

The answers are not yet clear, and Dermer has been playing the role of trying to ease the nerves in Washington. It helps, for example, that he and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides are friendly. When Dermer was named Israel’s ambassador to the US in 2013, there were some members of the Obama administration who did not want to accept the Israeli envoy. It was Nides – at the time a deputy secretary of state – who spoke with key White House officials and helped push through the approval process. 

Ron Dermer  (credit: REUTERS)Ron Dermer (credit: REUTERS)

The concern about the incoming government varies.

On the one hand, for Israelis, the concern focuses on the extremism of some members of the new government, how religious it is, but also the fact that this is the government with the most convicted and alleged criminals in Israeli history. 

Netanyahu is about to become prime minister despite being on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery; Shas leader Arye Deri is being spoken about as the new finance minister even though he spent two years in jail in the early 2000s after he was convicted of bribery. 

Earlier this year, Deri was convicted in a plea deal for tax offenses. In a normative country, that would be enough to make someone unsuitable for public office, let alone to be the finance minister. How can the man who evaded taxes now be in charge of collecting them? Itamar Ben-Gvir, the presumptive public security minister, was convicted in 2007 of supporting a terrorist organization and of incitement. Should a prior conviction prevent someone from serving as the minister in charge of the police? In some countries the answer is obvious. 

And then there is Haim Katz, number 23 on the Likud list, who was convicted of fraud in a plea deal last year that came with a suspended sentence, as well as David Bitan, number 17 on the Likud list, who is currently on trial for bribery in one of the largest corruption cases in Israeli history. 

Almost 10% of the new coalition are either ex-convicts or are currently on trial. A true light unto the nations.

But then again, in a country where 45 people were killed in 2021 at Meron – in the greatest civilian disaster in the nation’s history – and nobody lost their job, why should we expect any different?

This is all connected and it is about what we – the people – are willing to accept. When we normalize politicians who are convicted or alleged criminals then why would anyone think they are responsible for disasters like what happened at Meron?

FOR THE Americans, the concern is different. While moves that undermine Israel’s democratic character and the judiciary concern them, their greatest interest right now is in the identity of the next defense minister. 

The reason is simple. After the prime minister, the defense minister is the person who interacts the most with the US administration on some of the most sensitive issues between the two countries. If Israel were a country in Europe or Africa that wasn’t the recipient of billions of taxpayer dollars, advanced US military technology and high-level intelligence, the administration would not be bothered as much. Because of the close relationship, they are. 

In addition, the defense minister in Israel is responsible for contacts with the Palestinian Authority. The defense minister oversees the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Civil Administration. Almost nothing happens in the West Bank, not in settlements nor in the Palestinian Authority, without the defense minister’s approval.

While it is unlikely, it is possible that Netanyahu will tell the Americans that he doesn’t care what they think. And while there are some on the Right who want him to do that, they need to understand that such a move would come at a price. 

Anyone who thinks that billions of dollars in annual aid, advanced weapons, close intelligence ties and vetoes at the UN all come without strings attached, might be in for a surprise. 

For now, the Americans are at least happy that Dermer is in the picture, although his exact role is still unclear. Some reports claim that he was offered to serve as Netanyahu’s national security adviser and others that the incoming prime minister would want to make him foreign minister. While that might be Netanyahu’s desire, it will be hard not to give that portfolio to one of the Likud’s elected officials. Doing otherwise could raise ire within his party. 

“Either way, it is good to have Dermer involved. You don’t have to agree with him, but he cares about Israel, is talented and is the right person to engage with the Americans.”

Former top Israeli government official

“Either way, it is good to have Dermer involved,” one former top Israeli government official said this week. “You don’t have to agree with him, but he cares about Israel, is talented and is the right person to engage with the Americans.”

When it comes to the defense minister, there are four possibilities right now. The first is that Netanyahu caves to pressure and gives the portfolio to Smotrich. This is exactly what the Americans do not want and anyhow it would be hard to imagine Netanyahu agreeing, especially after this week when the Religious Zionist Party leader spread conspiracy theories about Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) involvement in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. 

The second option is that he gives it to a Likud member, two of whom are lobbying for the job – Yoav Gallant, former IDF general, and Avi Dichter, the former director of the Shin Bet. 

And then there is the third option: Netanyahu keeps the portfolio for himself. This is what he did after the government fell apart in late 2018. Netanyahu refused to give the portfolio to members of his party or to anyone else at the time. 

Holding on to the portfolio would do something else – it would be a sign to Benny Gantz that Netanyahu hopes the National Unity Party will join the government.

And this might be ​precisely what Netanyahu’s strategy is. He knows that Gantz – despite significant pressure from the Americans – will not join the government now, but what about after all the legal reforms are passed, and the trial against the prime minister has been stopped? Why would he not join then? By that point, Gantz will be at least half a year in the opposition, a place where generals like him usually go to die (politically). 

If Netanyahu’s plan works, he would like to present his new government on Tuesday, the same day that the new Knesset is sworn in. We wish him the best of luck.