Opening Shots| January 3, 2023
Bibi the boss man makes a comeback
Illustration: Menachem Weinreb
AS opposition MKs tried to drown out his sixth swearing in speech with chants of “Weak, weak,” Netanyahu shot back, “Who are you to preach to us?”
He went on, “An election defeat is not the end of democracy — it’s the essence of democracy.”
If Israeli democracy could be distilled into one moment, it would be when a defeated government’s ministers vacate their seats in the plenum hall — one floor above the prime minister’s office — for their successors.
Ever since the 1995 assassination of Yitzchak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel has been one of the most well-protected people on the planet, surrounded by a screen of bodyguards and escorted by a convoy of Audi armored cars, and even a private ambulance in case of a medical emergency — a precaution adopted after the late Arik Sharon’s on-the-job stroke in 2006.
Lapid arrived at the building with pomp and ceremony in his swansong as prime minister. He ascended to the plenum hall from the government floor to watch his nemesis Netanyahu presenting his government and taking the oath of office.
The moment after the new government’s confirmation vote, Lapid rose from the prime minister’s seat and left the hall. But the security detail that had escorted him there didn’t follow him out. The entourage of bodyguards outside the hall abandoned the object of their care for the past half a year and latched on to Netanyahu instead.
Outside the Knesset building, a gaggle of leftist agitators raised their voices in protest in the cold Jerusalem night — but fears of an Israeli “January 6” proved unfounded. This might seem surprising, given the Israeli political system’s turbulence over the past four years, but in the moment of truth, Israel’s democracy proved remarkably resilient.
A year and a half ago, following the change government’s confirmation vote, Netanyahu relinquished his seat to Bennett after over a decade in power. Last week Netanyahu reclaimed his seat at the head of the government table — and this time, Lapid left the hall without a word. The two did not shake hands after the vote, and even agreed to forgo the traditional transition ceremony.
When Netanyahu left his office, he left a note for Bennett in the prime minister’s office reading, “I’ll be back soon!” — and he was.
“I’M as excited the sixth time as I was the first,” Netanyahu said from the plenum podium to the cheers of coalition MKs— another breach of protocol, by the way, as applause is not permitted in the chamber.
But whether Netanyahu admits it or not, there was a difference this time. Netanyahu is now the only party leader in his coalition who doesn’t wear a kippah. He emerged from the coalition negotiations bruised and battered, roundly condemned by the media as having sold out the state to extremists. The red line was crossed when he transferred authority over extracurricular school content to deputy minister Avi Maoz of the No’am Party, which has made a flagship issue of opposing alternative lifestyles — a sacred cause for the secular media.
And yet, after months of media silence — unless you count some damage control in English to the foreign press — Bibi found an opportunity to showcase his differences from his coalition allies last week.
In his picks for the Likud’s share of portfolios, he demonstrated a preference for party members with liberal and secular leanings. To take one example, he flatly rejected firebrand MK Dudi Amsalem’s demand for either the Justice Ministry or the speakership of the Knesset, and for now Amsalem remains without a job.
With his roster of relatively liberal picks for posts such as Knesset speaker, minister of foreign affairs, defense, education, economy, and more, Netanyahu sought to prove to critics — both domestic and foreign — that despite the key roles occupied by extremists Smotrich and Ben Gvir, he remains in charge and will set the government’s tone.
During the swearing-in ceremony, his allies bit the bullet. Whether they’ll continue doing so for the remainder of the 37th government’s term is another question.
Only three MKs who were present in 1996 during Netanyahu’s first swearing-in were still there for his sixth in 2022. Besides Netanyahu himself, the only other two were leaders of chareidi parties, the first being MK Moshe Gafni, now back as chairman of the Finance Committee, which hashes out the details of every single budget allocation.
The second was Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who was left outside the government in 1996 due to his indictment. After being convicted and doing time, Deri did the unprecedented and returned to the government table — only to be indicted again during his most recent previous term. He was forced to sign a plea bargain under which he resigned from the Knesset, pled guilty to tax offenses, and was handed a suspended jail sentence.
Deri had to go through a lot before he could take the oath of office as minister of health and the interior last week. Without going into the details of Israel’s basic law, the problem started with an opinion by Attorney General Gali Beharav-Miara (appointed by former justice minister Gideon Saar), whom Netanyahu disinvited from the government’s first meeting in retaliation. The AG — who faces mounting calls for her dismissal from the right — interpreted the basic law as equating a suspended prison sentence to an actual prison sentence vis-à-vis “moral turpitude,” which is disqualifying for a government post.
As a result, Netanyahu had to seek the opinion of High Court justice and Central Election Committee chair Yitzchak Amit on whether Deri’s offenses involved moral turpitude or not. Deri, for his part, demanded the passage of a law distinguishing an actual prison sentence from a suspended one.
“The attorney general’s decision was personal, illogical, and counter to the spirit of the law, and for this reason we had no choice but to amend the law,” Deri told Mishpacha on the eve of the government’s swearing in.
The “Deri law” could serve Bibi, as well. According to the new law, Netanyahu could receive a suspended jail sentence as part of a plea deal in his ongoing trial without having to resign as prime minister.
Former justice minister Chaim Ramon predicted in a conversation with us that Netanyahu would avoid an immediate showdown with the justice system, but the Deri law could well be the flashpoint — whether Netanyahu wants it or not — as the High Court is set to begin hearing appeals on Deri’s appointment as minister next week.
If the High Court disqualifies Deri from serving as minister, the government will have to legislate the override clause to overrule it. If that happens, it will be the opening shot in the epic showdown between the judiciary and the legislative-executive branch awaiting us in the coming term.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 943)
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