Kafe Knesset for May 29
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Is the White House recognizing Jerusalem? Next week, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan are co-hosting a bi-country simultaneous event with live video between the Capitol and the Knesset. The event honors 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem and was organized by Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. Not only is it cool that they are video-conferencing an event in two legislatures but there could be interesting diplomatic implications. Sources tell Kafe Knesset that either President Trump or Vice President Pence is expected to speak at the event, while Netanyahu will speak on the Israeli side. The US government has never recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at all – not east, not west, not united, not divided. Having the executive branch take part in an event celebrating a united Jerusalem is a new development that could be seen as tacit recognition. On the other hand, the event will take place several days after Trump’s deadline to sign a waiver postponing the US Embassy’s move – it falls on the second day of Shavuot for those of you outside of Israel – so we will know if the recognition is just tacit or out in the open before that.
Taylor Force again: Speaking of support that might-be-tacit, might-be-open, the Taylor Force Act came up in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this morning. The committee discussed Palestinian incitement, specifically in the form of incentivizing terrorism by paying terrorists salaries, something that the bill drafted by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is supposed to curb. Former Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Dore Gold brought up the act, and how some people in DC say they do not support it because Israel does not support defunding the PA. Gold was adamant that, while Israel normally would not get involved in pending legislation in other countries, Jerusalem should make it very clear that it supports the Taylor Force Act. He said that when he ran the Foreign Ministry, they put out position papers against Palestinian incitement. MKs in the committee expressed frustration that, while everyone knows the Palestinians incite, the Israeli government is not doing enough to stop it – just complaining. They pointed to a bill by Yesh Atid’s Elazar Stern that would cut tax money transferred to the PA by the amount given to terrorists. Yet, at this point, it does not look like the government will support the bill.
Deri is back in the hot seat: Deri and his wife Yaffa arrived this morning at the Lahav 433 Police special unit offices, while 14 other family members and confidants were detained, in what appears to be another mega-scandalous probe which will rock the political system. The police are investigating allegations that funds from Deri’s government offices were directed to associations and groups affiliated with his wife and other family members. The investigation has been going on for over a year, and news of the probe immediately refreshed the collective memory of Deri’s previous misdeeds. In 1999, he was forced to quit politics after he was convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust; he served a 3 year sentence and then waited for an additional 8 year time-out before his political comeback in 2012.
Surprise reshuffle: Early Sunday morning, the ruling Coalition woke up for some unexpected news. Netanyahu decided to appoint Likud Minister Ayoub Kara as his new Communications Minister. Kara, who so far served as a minister without a portfolio, was a surprise choice, as over the weekend speculation mounted that Tzachi Hanegbi, who filled the post temporarily in the last three months, would get the permanent appointment. However, Netanyahu decided to place Kara, who is considered one of his most loyal Likud ministers, in the contentious seat.
A brief summary of the events: the communications portfolio is Bibi’s “baby,” as it enables vast and wide influence and control over the media. When the current government was formed two years ago – Bibi insisted on retaining this post himself. But early this year, following petitions to the High Court of Justice against him holding the post due to alleged conflict of interests, he was forced to appoint someone else for the job. Hanegbi was Netanyahu’s first choice, and he has been filling the post for the past three months. Last week, Hanegbi’s temporary term expired, but Netanyahu did not want him. For weeks, he urged fellow Likud Minister Yariv Levin to take the job, but he refused. On Friday, Netanyahu met Hanegbi, but he did not offer him the position, and instead – Kara was the final choice.
Hanegbi, who will continue to serve as Regional Cooperation Minister, has also tried to be very loyal to Netanyahu in recent months. But according to sources close to the PM, Netanyahu was disappointed with Hanegbi’s handling of the Public Broadcast Authority reform in recent months, and decided to replace him. This morning, Hanegbi told Army Radio that the PM did not even inform Hanegbi about his decision, dubbing it as “unfriendly and unfair.” At the same time, Hanegbi said he did not want the job.
Kara, the second Druze minister in Israel’s history, is considered a surprise appointment, since his name has not even been mentioned as a potential candidate in recent weeks. But if you think about it – it really should be no surprise. He constantly praises and stands up for Netanyahu, and recently dubbed him as a “once in a generation leader.”.A widely held assumption in the the political establishment states Kara will only serve as a “shadow minister,” and that the PM will continue to influence the communications sector even though the portfolio will be held by Kara. “Ayoub is a yes-man, and as such, is a convenient appointment for Netanyahu – he will be totally loyal and fill all of his orders,” a senior Likud minister told Kafe Knesset.
Another senior minister offered a different explanation for the surprising weekend pick – a positive Channel 2 poll published over the weekend, revealing a spike in the popularity of Netanyahu and the Likud. The survey, which tested the public waters following the Trump visit to Israel, projected that if elections were held today, the Likud would get 30 seats, while Yair Lapid, who in previous polls had taken the lead, would only get 22. The Arab Joint list would receive 13 seats, the Zionist Union 12, the Jewish Home would earn 9 seats, Shas and UTJ would have 7 seats for each, Kulanu and Israel Beitenu would have 6 each, and Meretz would have 5. Following the presidential peace pledges, the poll also surveyed positions on the Two State solution, and asked respondents if they would support a peace agreement based on 1967 lines while maintaining the large settlement blocs: 47% said they were in favor, 39% opposed and 14% said they did not know.
Lapid strikes back: One possible explanation for Lapid’s drop in the polls is that he has been awfully quiet lately. His voice was not heard at all during Trump’s visit. Today in the Knesset, he offered an explanation, that he did not think it was appropriate to criticize the government while a foreign leader was in town. However, Lapid did not hold back this time. The Yesh Atid leader said he is very concerned about the arms deal Trump signed with the Saudis. He called on AIPAC to ensure that Israel’s friends in Congress make all elements of the deal transparent, and that the Defense Ministry must talk to the Pentagon to make sure Israel is adjusting in order maintain its qualitative edge. Lapid saved his sharpest barbs for Netanyahu, who he said is not taking the Saudi threat seriously enough: “The Prime Minister needs to stop worrying about the President’s short fuse. For [Trump] the deal is about jobs and money – for Israel, it is a matter of life and death.”