Prime Minister Chickenshit

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The sum of what can actually be known, as distinct from “vaguely guessed at,” about Israeli politics since the 17th September elections is quite short:

  • Netanyahu has 55 backers in the Knesset, Gantz 54.
  • Hence, Netanyahu has received the first chance to form a government. So far, he failed. Once he fails, Gantz will get his chance.
  • Gantz is also likely to fail.
  • The Joint List has made an historic decision to recommend a Zionist candidate (Gantz) as Prime Minister, and then was promptly ignored by the Zionist parties.
  • Netanyahu has, once again, justified the Obama’s administration description of him as “chickenshit.”


Gideon Sa’ar votes in the Sept. 17 election. From his Facebook page.

The problem Netanyahu faces is simple: there is a gridlock in the Knesset, neither party can form a government, and once both candidates fail to form a government, the Knesset has 21 days to recommend a new candidate, or another elections will be called. Netanyahu desperately wants to be that candidate, because he knows public opinion is sick and tired of going to the polls time and again; the government cannot pass a new budget, as there is no functioning Knesset, so it has to rely on last year’s budget; and he knows there is rising Netanyahu fatigue.

His main fear – paranoia, really – is that someone within his party will try to become that new candidate, ending the Netanyahu era.

So, in order to make certain nobody will dare, Netanyahu announced early Thursday that he will call for a snap primary of the Likud Party. That plan hit a rock within the hour. Gideon Sa’ar, a former cabinet minister, tweeted two words: “I’m ready.”


A few words about Sa’ar. He is the current Netanyahu nemesis. An extreme right-winger, he’d been Netanyahu’s Education Minister and Interior Affairs Minister. As Education Minister, Sa’ar oversaw the emasculation of the civics studies – the Israeli right-wing correctly saw them as a menace, because they taught equality and democracy. Naturally, reality being stronger than flimsy fantasy, most students promptly forgot all about such studies as soon as they were drafted into the army; but the ideas were dangerous, and Sa’ar saw to it that they were trampled down.

He forbade publishing a UN booklet about the Human Rights Declaration, because it included the right to emigrate (a big no-no to the Israeli right) and the right to convert to another religion, anathema to the majority Jewish Orthodox population. He also walked hand in hand with the nationalist group Im Tirzu that makes a business of going after human rights organizations: they would highlight targets in the academic world, and Sa’ar would try to take the targets down (not very successfully).

As Interior Minister, Sa’ar’s main claim to fame was hunting down asylum seekers, and creating a special unit for doing so, a unit (unsurprisingly) known for its unusual brutality.

Then, several years ago, he abruptly resigned. He claimed he did so because he wanted to see his new-born son “learn to walk.” Many thought he was tired of Netanyahu and was leaving so as to make his triumphant return; others hinted at a dark sexual scandal, which never came to light.

Last year, Sa’ar returned to Likud, and Netanyahu went into full panic mode, accusing Sa’ar of conspiring against him, which was probably true. Earlier this year Netanyahu tried to sabotage Sa’ar’s chances in the Likud primary, and failed miserably. Sa’ar came in fifth in what was considered a rebuke of the prime minister.

And now Netanyahu suggests another primary and Sa’ar says, “I’m ready.”

Why did Sa’ar issue the challenge? Either because he thought he had a genuine chance to win, which is unlikely; or he thought he could lose honorably (getting 40% or more of the votes); or he just wanted to beard the lion, to watch Netanyahu go full paranoid mode. If the latter, then he succeeded.

When Sa’ar said he was ready, every paranoid nerve in Netanyahu went into overdrive. His shills screamed that Sa’ar was committing treason. And, twenty-four hours after Sa’ar wrote those two words, Netanyahu announced the primaries were off: he would, he said, merely ask the party to confirm him as its leader for the duration of this Knesset.

Netanyahu was too afraid to face a rival in a primary: This means that he knows, or fears his position in Likud has sunk so low he may not survive a challenge. Netanyahu’s paranoid ravings are not new. Over the years he has been known to vastly overestimate rivals or dangers. There are several famous incidents. When he faced David Levi in the early 1990s, he arrived, panicked, at a TV studio and – as the anchors watched flabbergasted – confessed to have cheated on his wife; he said there was a conspiracy against him, that there was a sex tape, and he was being blackmailed. A police investigation found no reason to believe a tape existed. About a year ago, he claimed Sa’ar and President Reuven Rivlin were conspiring against him, attempting to make Sa’ar prime minister. Perhaps the most devastating moment of panic came during the elections of 1999: When Netanyahu claimed he was stable and steady, his former defense minister, Itzik Mordechai, literally burst laughing. “Bibi,” he said among guffaws, “I know you. We’ve both sat in some highly tense classified discussions, and we all know how you reacted then.” Netanyahu didn’t manage a coherent answer, and that moment was widely considered to have decided that election.

As the Obama administration so aptly put it: Prime Minister Chickenshit.

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