Kafe Knesset for June 12

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Labor versus BB: NO: The Haaretz expose revealing a secret Netanyahu-Herzog-Sissi meeting last year created a perfect backdrop for a special debate between the leading candidates in the Labor Party primaries. This morning, at the Haaretz peace conference in Tel Aviv. senior journalist Raviv Drucker, who moderated the debate, presented an identical question to all of the candidates, asking if they would join the coalition if Netanyahu decides to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The universal answer was simple: No. “I risked my entire political career because I believe we should pursue an agreement with the Palestinians, but Netanyahu couldn’t – and he will never be able to do it. We will support him from the opposition as we supported Begin was when he signed the peace deal with Egypt,” Herzog replied. His main contender in the race, Amir Peretz, said that “Netanyahu is an expert in preparing traps. We cannot and must not join him, only support him from the outside.” Erel Margalit used his business background to proclaim that “one can have a good business plan but if you do not believe in the the entrepreneur himself, you don’t touch the deal because he is a serial bankrupt.” Bar Lev said BB is a “false Messiah, with a widening circle of lies” and Avi Gabai said that “after 8 years in power, one should examine deeds, and not only words. Since Netanyahu did not go for peace, we must not join him.” However, before we totally dismiss the possibility of upcoming political changes as part of an effort to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, one should recall that the Labor party is in campaign mode and a common political wisdom states that campaign promises are meant to be broken.

BB versus the Media: 1-0: Netanyahu’s week started with some good news in the form of a legal victory in a civil libel lawsuit that he had filed against Yedioth Aharonot journalist Yigal Sarna. Sarna posted a notorious post on Facebook last year, in which he described a late night highway incident in which Saran Netanyahu allegedly kicked out her husband out of the car. The court ruled that there was no factual basis for the story and ordered him to pay the Netanyahu’s 100,000 NIS in compensation and another 15,000 NIS in court costs. According to the verdict, “the defendant’s publications were malicious and ugly, and were intended to shame and humiliate the plaintiffs.” Netanyahu declared the ruling as a “victory of truth and justice against the endless hunting campaign against me, my wife and my family for more than 20 years, and if we had sued anyone who slanders us, we would have to come to the court every day,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

BB versus Left Wing NGOs, round xxxx: The good legal news in the Sarna case was just the beginning of a busy day yesterday. Headlines were pouring out of the PMO by the hour. First, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu called upon the UN to dismantle UNWRA after a Hamas terror tunnel was exposed running under one of the agency’s Gaza schools. Then at the subsequent gathering of the coalition party leaders, the PM stepped up his battle against left wing NGOs. He proposed a blanket ban on all foreign state donations to non-profit organizations and expressed support for proposed legislation that would limit the NGO’s ability to appeal to the Supreme Court. The Knesset passed a bill last year that demanded transparency from NGO’s which are funded by foreign entities, but Netanyahu told his colleagues he thinks that the bill is “weak.” The PM also said that he intends to examine another controversial bill circulating these days, to limit appellate access to the Supreme Court. The bill, drafted by Likud members and activists, is aimed at undermining left wing and human rights NGOs appeals on behalf of Palestinians, and has already prompted strong opposition from Chief Justice Miriam Naor and the attorney general Avichai Mandelblit. Nevertheless, Netanyahu decided he wants to check out the prospects of the legislation, as part of his ongoing fighting against left wing NGO’s.

Bennett versus the Professors: Netanyahu’s apparent hardline mood was perceived by many pundits as an effort to counter some of his rivals, mainly the Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett. Bennett is engaged in a battle against senior professors and student organizations over a new ethics code that Bennett supports. The code would ban political statements inside university class rooms and would prohibit faculty members from supporting academic boycotts on Israel. Bennett’s plans have prompted harsh reactions with a strong condemnation from the Association of University Heads. That group issued a strong condemnation of the proposed code. In response to the proposed code, several student unions are threatening to announce a strike. Bennett brushed off the critics yesterday, claiming the vocal opposition only proves the necessity of the move. “The goal is to prevent academic silencing and prevent a situation that a student, only because of his political positions, may be harmed. We seek to prevent lecturers who are paid by Israeli taxpayers from issuing calls to boycott the Israeli academic system that pays their salaries. We fully support academic freedom, but are against promoting political agendas within academia.”

Lapid versus BB, 1-0: Netanyahu was probably not enthusiastic about Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid scoring some political points, as the Ministerial Committee on Legislation approved the Israeli version of the Taylor Force Act yesterday. The bill – which seeks to cut off PA salaries to terrorists from the tax revenues Israel transfers each year – is sponsored by Yesh Atid’s Elazar Stern and it was approved unanimously. It is quite unusual for the government to support a bill drafted by the opposition. But Yesh Atid drafted the political move wisely, ensuring it was co-signed by senior coalition partners, including Likud’s coalition chair David Bitan and since terror funding is such a hot topic these days, consensus on the need to deal with the issue was a given. However, there were some hectic behind the scenes maneuvers in the hours before the vote. Bitan tried to convince Stern to postpone the vote for one week, claiming there were “legal problems,” and that this is an issue that should be dealt with on the political level. “We support the law, of course, but the PM is waging a diplomatic battle on this matter, and it appears we are on the way to success. We are hearing a clear change of tone from the new administration and President Trump has addressed the issue with Abbas in very harsh tones,” Bitan told Kafe Knesset on Saturday.

News of the expected delay sparked pressure from within the coalition Sunday morning. Senior Likud ministers such as Miri Regev and Gilad Erdan told Netanyahu at the weekly faction meeting that the party must support the legislation. At the same time, Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked also came out in support of the legislation and said that they would agree to postpone the vote only if a similar governmental bill would be drafted instead. Eventually, at a meeting of the leaders of all the coalition parties, they decided to support the bill in its first stages, but that after the preliminary reading this Wednesday it will undergo government consultations and any further advance will depend on the government’s consent.

Stern told Kafe Knesset that he is confident the bill will move forward, despite a traditional security brass objection to moves that could undermine the Palestinian economy. “I am an Israeli patriot. I wore a uniform for most of my lifetime. I will not do anything that would harm the State. I consulted with plenty of security officials before drafting this bill.” Stern met Senator Lindsey Graham last week in Washington and he added that Graham believes that the progress in the Israeli bill will help efforts to advance the Taylor Force Act in the US Congress. “When I raised the issue on Capitol Hill, senators always ask why don’t the Israelis legislate? And they are right.” Stern added that “it is because we seek peace that we believe that we have to turn around the equation. Instead of a PA official and legal incentive for terrorism and incitement, we must create an incentive to stop terrorism. I want to reach peace but when the PA funds terrorists, they push peace away from both sides, because there is no public opinion that will support peace. Therefore this law promotes peace because it transforms the equation.”

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