More than one way to skin a coalition: What the press is saying on July 23
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More than one way to skin a coalition: What the press is saying on July 23

It probably just needs one crisis, but the government throws in a few more for good measure, leading to talk of another dreaded election as Israel gallops deeper into farceville

Muslim women wearing face masks walk past a poster hung by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the District Court in Jerusalem, July 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Muslim women wearing face masks walk past a poster hung by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the District Court in Jerusalem, July 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

1. That warm and fuzzy election feeling: New elections are back on the table, apparently, because the raging coronavirus, intense protests and security tensions in the north are seemingly not enough to keep our lawmakers and pundits occupied.

  • A report in Haaretz cites associates (unnamed, natch) of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying he plans to stir up discord within the already discordant coalition and avoid passing a new budget, thus automatically triggering a vote sometime in the fall. The moves would be intended to allow him to regain control of the Justice Ministry, currently held by coalition-partner-through-gritted-teeth Blue and White, as his criminal case goes to trial.
  • According to Haaretz, Netanyahu regrets letting Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn ever take the reins: “This time around, the Justice Ministry will not be allowed to fall into outsiders’ hands again, the sources said.”
  • The paper also reports that if the pandemic makes a new vote impossible (Israel already held one election under the shadow of the coronavirus, though before it was known to be as widespread as it was), Netanyahu will seek to remain in power as head of a caretaker government.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth gives readers three reasons why Israel is ripe for its fourth round of elections in less than two years: “total anarchy” in the coalition — citing Knesset votes on Wednesday in which “everybody was against everybody,” Haredi anger at Blue and White over its support for a bill outlawing so-called conversion therapy for gays, and the looming budget fight.
  • Army Radio throws in annexation as another reason the coalition may be headed for collapse, though that seems like a sideshow for now.
  • “There’s a smell of elections in the air,” writes Israel Hayom on its front page.
  • Channel 13 quotes a Netanyahu ally giving even odds on new elections happening, calling it a “real danger.”

2. Kill bill: Channel 12 news quotes Haredi ministers fuming at Likud for allowing members to abstain from the conversion therapy vote, after which Likud minister David Amsalem was heard passing the blame on. “Blue and White are breaking up the coalition and leading Israel into elections. Gantz, you are aiming Israel at elections.”

  • Israel Hayom’s front page previews “a package of laws that will anger [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz.”
  • The paper writes that Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin is planning a “blitz from the right” of proposed bills, including a bill that could force the court to dismiss some testimony given “improperly” in the Netanyahu case, as well as cuts to public broadcast funding, and a bill that would allow the Knesset to bypass a High Court ruling forcing hospitals to allow patients to bring in leavened food products over Passover.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth says there’s a “storm in the forecast,” thanks to the package of bills, describing them as Likud revenge against Blue and White.
  • Israel Hayom’s Mati Tuchfeld writes that the ultra-Orthodox are no longer willing to be the glue that holds the coalition together after Blue and White supported banning conversion therapy: “Officials in both Haredi parties said Wednesday that the damage Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has caused to their political relationship may be irreversible. Rolling back moves that have rendered Gantz untrustworthy will be virtually impossible, they said.”
  • Walla’s Tal Shalev comes to much the same conclusion, writing that the fight over conversion therapy heightened tensions “and made it seem as if new elections were the next step.”
  • She notes that Blue and White had needed the Haredim as its ace in the hole since it has no way to actually hold Netanyahu to a coalition agreement demanding he hand over the reins of the premiership in the case of a dissolved coalition.
  • But she adds that “rising coronavirus numbers and protests filling the streets could spark a change of thinking and push Gantz and Netanyahu to do some thinking, to bend and to start over.”

3. Rag(doll) against the machine: The use of the word “danger” to describe the idea of elections should give some sense of how Israelis feel about having to go back to the polls, just when it seemed there was some semblance of a government, however dysfunctional and inflated it may be.

  • “We’re on the brink of an abyss. This isn’t an exaggeration. The country can’t allow itself political paralysis like this while we’re stuck in a severe health, social and economic crisis,” Shas leader Aryeh Deri tells party organ HaDerech. “The destruction of the coalition and moving up of elections can’t be allowed. The people of Israel won’t forgive whoever leads them to elections at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.”
  • President Reuven Rivlin also comes out against new elections, telling political leaders to “get a grip” and that “Israel is not a rag doll” for the politicians to toy with, in a message the Kan broadcaster describes as “sharp criticism of the government.”
  • ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur writes that elections are far from a sure thing, noting that Netanyahu likely has more to gain from threatening elections than from actually calling them.
  • “Netanyahu may want elections to rid himself of the troublesome unity government, but he rightly worries that the next Knesset will leave him in a worse situation instead of a better one,” he writes. “The political crisis, even after over 18 months of deadlock, may still get worse. But at least it won’t spark a fourth election election in 20 months. Probably.”
  • In Haaretz, columnist Yossi Klein writes that Netanyahu should not rely on sky-high polling numbers, predicting that even his party faithful will abandon him: “There will be an earthquake and the ones who will bring him down will not be the demonstrators. He will be defeated by the voters in Be’er Sheva and Ramle and Ofakim, who will put pressure on Likud party activists, on the party branch secretaries and on Likud Knesset members who won’t let him forget whom he has to thank for his royal palace and official airplane. They will ask one another how to get rid of a man who once gave them plum jobs and pride and now is a source of destruction and fear.”
  • Then again, Shaul Amsterdamski writes for Kan that given the dysfunction of the government, perhaps new elections would be for the best. “It’s better than the situation now.”

4. So what does he think about lockdowns? Luckily, there’s a new coronavirus sheriff in town, or project manager, or czar, or whatever you want to call Ichilov Hospital head and former Health Ministry director Ronni Gamzu, who has taken up the position of leader of Israel’s fight against COVID-19, only some six months into the pandemic.

  • The appointment comes after reports all over the press named Gabi Barbash as the pick, but then Barbash turned down the position at the last minute, in what the media decries collectively as a “farce” (or in the case of Channel 12 a saga). (More on that in item five).
  • In a preview of what Israelis may expect (or not expect) from the skipper, Israel Hayom quotes an associate of Gamzu saying that he is “no believer in lockdowns.”
  • “He’s against lockdowns and against hurting the economy and the fact that he has taken on the mission is an important message for the public, in contrast to Barbash, who is a fan of a lockdown,” the source is quoted saying.
  • That much seems clear from a Facebook post dug up by media from earlier this month, in which Gamzu called lockdowns a “doomsday weapon.”
  • “We need to do everything we can to deal with this without a lockdown,” Ynet quotes him saying a week ago.
  • Haaretz notes that it interviewed Gamzu recently and he described a lockdown as “the bottom of the bottom of the toolbox.”
  • He also indicated at the time that he would not take the coronavirus czar position, noting criticism he took on when he left Ichilov the first time over a decade ago to go to the Health Ministry. “I certainly won’t do that now.”
  • On Twitter, The Marker’s Ronny Linder praises Gamzu, but notes that a change of scenery may see him change his mind again.
  • “He’s seen as Beit Shammai when it comes to anything to do with a lockdown, it will be interesting how he sees things from the side of the czar and not the manager of Ichilov,” she writes, using a term borrowed from the hardline Talmudic house of study to mean dead set against something.
  • Linder also notes that while Barbash had demanded guarantees on what his authorities would include, Gamzu made no such fuss: “My guess, he is assuming his official duties will have less significance than what actually happens by force of his personality.”

5. Farce cry: Health Minister Yuli Edelstein tells Army Radio that Barbash’s appointment was never a done deal, and acts like he was never all but confirmed: “We had talks with him, like any other candidate.”

  • (Given that alternate prime minister Benny Gantz heard about the appointment of Gamzu from the media, the leaks that the press has to rely on about these appointments are given outsized importance. Edelstein tells the station that it is not his job to tell every minister.)
  • The description of Barbash as just another candidate seems a far cry from the situation described by the media, which sees the last minute loss of Barbash due to the failure to guarantee him any powers and the scramble to get Gamzu to replace him as another sign of the government’s dysfunction.
  • Channel 12 news reports that Netanyahu was supposed to hold a press conference on Tuesday announcing Barbash’s appointment. “But he retreated due to arguments about Barbash’s powers and how they are given to him. Edelstein opposed giving Barbash broad powers that he demanded and wanted to keep the authority with him and with his ministry chief Chezy Levy. Barbash, for his side, demanded broad powers from the health system, the ministry and from other ministries,” the channel reports.
  • “Everyone had an interest in Barbash failing,” columnist Nadav Eyal writes in a column in Yedioth panning the government as a failure. “Nobody really wanted him to succeed too much. Really there is no way to succeed since everyone is trying to bring everyone down in this government.”
  • “The whole thing is a farce; but there’s nothing funny about it, because it’s all happening at our expense,” writes Amos Harel in Haaretz. “Israelis will die, simply because the government isn’t capable of getting a hold of itself and dealing with the pandemic with the seriousness that its grave ramifications for the nation’s health and economy requires.”
  • Haaretz TV critic and rabble-rouser Rogel Alpher expresses dismay at the fact that Barbash won’t address the saga while making his nightly appearances as Channel 12’s coronavirus expert, and advises him to do so nakedly. Like actually nakedly: “Your top half alone won’t have the needed effect, Gabi. You need to go all the way. Whipping out little Gabi will do the job, and prove how much you’ve been hurt and how correct you were to sacrifice yourself for the goal. … Just be interviewed naked. It will be a great metaphor for the situation. If you have one, bring a menorah to sit on.”
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