Bibi the Magician’s last chance to pull a rabbi out 
of a hat

The scenes at Meron reminded those of a certain age of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, says Anshel Pfeffer


Head of the Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, arrives to the president's house in Jerusalem, to have talks regarding recieving a possible mandate to form the new government, on May 05, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90

May 06, 2021 11:44

“Shimon made a big mistake taking responsibility,” said one senior police officer over the weekend of how his colleague, Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi, immediately accepted responsibility for the events leading to the deaths of 45 people at the Lag b’Omer festival on Thursday night.

“Shimon told me that he felt he needed to back up his officers who were taking the blame,” said the officer, adding: “Now he knows he made a mistake by making himself a scapegoat for the politicians.”

Commissioner Lavi came to his senses very quickly on Friday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived to view the scene – and his team prevented the PM from being captured by the media’s cameras in the same frame as Lavi. Since then, the only inquiries carried out have been by the Justice Ministry’s department for internal police investigations. They only have powers to question police officers, not civilian officials. On Monday, State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman announced that his office would be investigating the event. This is extremely convenient for the politicians and will be somewhat familiar for those following the fate of AC-12 in the final episode of Line of Duty this week.

Mr Engelman, who was handpicked by the prime minister for the job, is not — unlike his predecessors — a former senior judge. He is an accountant, who believes in “positive criticism” and has scaled down his office’s investigations into political corruption.

On Tuesday, he visited the site himself and was shown around by the political appointee who manages Mount Meron.

The only prospect of a serious investigation in which everyone is questioned is a national commission of inquiry. That means investigating the strictly-Orthodox politicians who insisted that there be no limits on the number of people allowed to enter the compound; the Likud ministers who rushed to fulfill their demands and overrule any objections from police or health officials; the Charedi political appointees who have mismanaged the site for so many years; and the senior police officers who were fully aware of the dangers of overcrowding but, year after year, kept silent.

Mr Netanyahu is determined to prevent such a commission. As long as he is Prime Minister, at least.

The scenes at Meron reminded those of a certain age of another traumatic event — the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, in which 96 football supporters were crushed to death at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final. The subsequent furore, in which police officers briefed the media that the behaviour of the victims was the cause of their deaths, muddied the waters and legal proceedings that are still ongoing, 32 years later. The worry now in Israel is that an even more vicious three-way blame-game between the police, the Charedi establishment and the next government will also deny the victims justice for long years.

The magician and Caesar

Blame was the name of the game in the increasingly tense coalition-building machinations this week. Benjamin Netanyahu spent most of the week blaming Naftali Bennett for trying to form “a dangerous left-wing government” because of his “irrepressible ambition to be Prime Minister.” This was when Mr Netanyahu wasn’t busy offering Mr Bennett the chance to become Prime Minister immediately, in his own government.

And Mr Bennett spent most of the week accusing Mr Netanyahu of pretending to form a right-wing government which he wanted as his “first priority”, while planning a very different government with Yair Lapid, Gideon Sa’ar and Avigdor Lieberman.

The week’s events had all the qualities of a fine Shakespearean production of Julius Caesar, where the entire audience knows that Brutus will knife Caesar, but are still shocked when it actually happens on stage. It seems that Mr Bennett, at 49 and after decades of hero-worship, has finally extricated himself from the prime minister’s shadow and no longer sees him as his father-figure. But for the sake of appearances with his right-wing base, he continues to claim that if it were only possible, he would serve under him once again.

And he wasn’t the only one who was pretending.

Bibi the Magician, as his diehard supporters still call him, seemed all out of tricks by Tuesday evening with less than 36 hours to go until his mandate to form a new government expired. But he managed to reach once more into his wizard’s hat, and pull out a final rabbi.

At the prime minister’s urging, Rabbi Chaim Drukman, unofficially the most senior of national-religious rabbis, wrote to Mr Bennett and his Yamina co-leader Ayelet Shaked, beseeching them to “announce immediately that you won’t sit in any circumstances with (Arab-Israeli MK) Ibtisam Marana, the terror-supporting Joint List and the rest of the left-wing MKs.”

A former student of the rabbi who is now also close to Mr Bennett said: “It’s a joke. Rabbi Drukman knows that Bennett has no intention of changing his mind. After all, the reason he and Shaked left Jewish Home and set up their own party two-and-a-half years ago was that they didn’t want to be in a position where rabbis tell them what to do.”

He went on: “But at 88, Rabbi Drukman likes to feel he’s still involved in politics, so if the prime minister calls him up — and Bibi called him several times this week — he’ll do him a favour and write a letter. Only Bibi is taking it seriously.”

Lapid’s biggest story?

As Mr Netanyahu’s mandate expired on Tuesday at midnight, he was the closest he has ever been in the last 12 years to losing power. But even though Mr Lapid now has the mandate, with the backing of more MKs than Mr Netanyahu had a month ago, and with the outline of an agreement for forming a government, in which Mr Bennett will go first as Prime Minister for two years, it’s still far from over.

The Prime Minister may be at his weakest point, but he can still exert pressure on the fearful members of Yamina. They will have to endure angry protests outside their homes over the next few days, and torrents of abuse on social media. Discreet emissaries will be contacting them and their family members, hourly, with promises of jobs and barely-veiled threats.

This proposed government, ranging from Yamina on the far-right to Meretz on the left, and with the support from outside of at least one Arab-Israeli party, won’t be an easy proposition for any of its members.

“We know we don’t have much of a choice. Bennett and Lapid so far haven’t even really started negotiating with us,” said a leader of one of the more left-wing parties in the proposed coalition.

“Let’s face it, everyone knows that we can’t afford to be blamed for preventing Netanyahu’s replacement.”

That means that the parties on the left, Labour and Meretz, will have to make do with minor ministries and not much of a say at all on government policy.

The only threat they can credibly use is to stay out of the government, and support it through a confidence-and-supply mechanism.

But they simply can’t prevent its formation. And if they’re going to support it, they may as well be members and have whatever little crumbs of power remain.

For Meretz especially, this a very rare event. They have not been in a government for 21 years.

Yair Lapid, who will be the “alternate prime minister” and foreign minister if the government is formed, is acutely aware of the difficulties his diverse partners will have. Before the election, he privately described it as “a coalition from hell.” He has been busy trying to create a narrative with the help of his American pollster, Mark Mellman, that will make it easier for the public and his partners to digest such a government.

During the election campaign, he repeatedly called it a “stable government.” On election night, he moved to the catch-phrase “change bloc” (gush ha’shinuy in Hebrew). In the weeks since, he has been toying with phrases like “healing administration” and “Israeli unity.” In preparation for what he hopes is the final stage of the coalition-building, he has quietly summoned writers, poets, educators and philosophers he admires to his home in north Tel Aviv, to advise him on “how to heal Israeli society”.

“Yair sees himself as the storyteller of the Israeli story,” said one of them. In his previous career as a chat-show host, he would wrap up every interview with the question, ‘What is Israeli, in your eyes?’ The source concluded: “Even if Bennett becomes prime minister first, this is Yair’s government, and he is preparing to tell his biggest Israeli story ever.”

May 06, 2021 11:44

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