My word: Yes, Prime Minister; for now

It’s hard writing about a new government when you can’t find it.

Wide view of the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Wide view of the Knesset
It’s hard writing about a new government when you can’t find it.
Or knowing that once you find it, it has a limited shelf-life.
Why has it taken so long for Benjamin Netanyahu to announce his government, a British radio interviewer asked me last week. “This is the Middle East,” I replied. The post-polls market-like bargaining is unpleasant but expected, especially as, despite the unpredicted scale of his success, Netanyahu is dependent on smaller parties to create his coalition.
And particularly as, very late in the game, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman switched sides and moved his considerable weight to the opposition.
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We were talking on May 7. British broadcast media were desperate for stories outside of the UK because, as I was very emphatically warned, they were not allowed to talk about their own elections taking place that day. “Not a word. Pretend they don’t exist,” I was urged by a producer panicking that I might be tempted to compare our situation and theirs.
The temptation existed, of course.
There were enough similarities and plenty of fascinating differences.
As we spoke, the smell of the previous night’s bonfires still hung heavy in the Jerusalem air.
Most of the country had been celebrating Lag Ba’omer, while Netanyahu feverishly struggled to come up with the requisite 61 MKs that would allow him to declare he had a coalition before the midnight deadline.
At 10:30 p.m. on May 6, a little ahead of the 11th hour, the deed was done and it seemed like the smoke of the local bonfires sent out the message in white puffs, accompanied by an acrid smell.
The Duchess of Cambridge looked better presenting her baby to the world a few hours after birth than most of Netanyahu’s staff did after the new Knesset was born.
A week later, on May 13, the government was only just beginning to fall into shape. I wasn’t the only one who wondered how long it would be before it fell apart.
It is going to be a very hard haul, but not necessarily a long one, for Netanyahu.
Liberman notwithstanding, it is not only the official opposition that he has to deal with.
There are several Likud members who feel they got a raw deal, and even after the legislation passed increasing the number of seats around the cabinet table, many are unhappy with the way portfolios are being handed out.
The hardest job, after the prime minister’s, will be that of the coalition whip (chairman). Enforcing coalition discipline among the disparate members and factions, with that narrowest of majorities in mind, is going to be a tough act – even if Netanyahu has on many occasions earned his nickname The Magician for pulling off political tricks.
There are likely to be some coalition members actively seeking new elections no less than the opposition.
IN CONVERSATION with other journalists over the last few days I was reminded, yet again, how stereotypes and stigmas work.
Several referred to it as a right-wing government, which it is, but only to a certain extent. The only far-right party, Eli Yishai’s Yahad joint list with Baruch Marzel, did not pass the electoral threshold, after all. But that seems like a long time ago. In fact, it was a long time ago: It’s been nearly two months since the polls took place, and half a year since Netanyahu, clearly with something else in mind, fired Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid and precipitated the elections.
Liberman, a pragmatist but more associated with Right than Left, is also in the opposition.
The surprise appointment of Bayit Yehudi’s Ayelet Shaked as justice minister – a surprise to her no less than to the general public, I assume – also triggered much interest (and stereotyping).
I was asked about the powerful position held by the relative newcomer, appointed on her 39th birthday.
Undoubtedly the justice minister has a great deal of influence and Shaked is not the type to be shy of using it. But Israel, while not perfect, remains a democracy. There are checks and balances. No minister can do only what he or she wants.
Several times over the last few weeks I have thought of the British TV series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, and the witty Israeli equivalent Polishuk, in which it seems to be the civil servants and political aides who run the country. Given that there hasn’t been a fully functioning government in Israel for the last half a year, there is evidently something to it.
Incidentally, the record for a democratic country being without a government goes to Belgium, which survived 20 months without a government in 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the crisis between the Dutch-speaking North and the French-speaking South of the tiny country, which is home to the European Union and parliament. Netanyahu’s six months pale by comparison.
Former MK Avraham Poraz once shared with me what he had learned from Yes, Minister: If you don’t know how to answer something, or don’t want to talk about it, Poraz imparted, “Say: ‘That’s not the question. The question is....’” It was a cute attempt to avoid answering what I was asking him about. Since then, I have thought about employing the technique when I’ve been interviewed.
When it comes to discussing Shaked, for example, I reserve judgment. She is definitely more than the pretty face that received so much chauvinistic attention since her appointment.
I’m less concerned by what she’s about to do in the position of justice minister (given those checks and balances) and more worried about what has quietly been going on in the justice system that is only now coming to light.
The arrest of former Tel Aviv district attorney Ruth David in the ever-expanding alleged corruption case involving celebrity lawyer Ronel Fisher, a senior police officer and former Ma’ariv publisher Ofer Nimrodi portrays a very disturbing picture of unhealthy ties.
It also reminded me of the case of Tel Aviv public prosecutor Liora Glatt-Berkowitz, who leaked material aimed at scuppering Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister, reportedly because she had an army-age son and was scared Sharon would lead the country to war. (Nobody, Left or Right, at that point imagined Sharon would pull the IDF out of Gaza, with catastrophic consequences.) Shaked has been assigned an extra security detail following death threats and after Photoshopped pictures of her wearing Nazi uniform were posted on the social media.
And, no, I don’t think this is a case in which “freedom of expression” can be invoked.
ISRAEL’S PREMIER has good reason to envy his British counterpart.
No sooner was David Cameron elected than he was able to announce his government and get back to work, a smile on his face. Cameron, however, has his own headaches: one of them stemming from his promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union.
And the question of Scottish independence, in the wake of the election results, is very much back on the agenda, although there are no missiles pointing at London and no world effort to enforce the split.
Cameron might have disparaged the Scots during his campaign, but he was not pilloried in the global media for it. Netanyahu’s remarks about the Arabs “coming out to vote in droves” were reprehensible and should never have been said. But he is hardly the first politician to make a regrettable statement before, on, or after Election Day.
What will Netanyahu’s government do now? That’s a good question. An equally good question is: How long will his staff and slighted party members continue to say: “Yes, Prime Minister"?
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