Kafe Knesset for August 7

Likud without Netanyahu? As the Prime Minister’s corruption cases heat up, a new poll on Channel 10 shows something that Netanyahu probably did not want to hear – that the Likud brand is stronger without him. If an election were held now with Netanyahu at the helm of the Likud, the party would get 27 seats, but if someone else were in charge, the Likud would net 31 seats in the Knesset, one more than Bibi’s big 2015 victory. The four extra seats for a Likud without Netanyahu came from Yesh Atid and, surprisingly, Zionist Union. As for who should lead the Right in the post-Netanyahu era, 23% said Gideon Sa’ar, followed by Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett with 11%, Defense Minister and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman with 9%, Likud Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan with 6%, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Bayit Yehudi with 5%, and the Likud’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz with 4%.

You would expect that the many Likudniks who consider themselves to be Netanyahu’s rightful heirs would smell blood – but you would be wrong. The fear of reprisals from Netanyahu within the party runs deep, and while it took some time – and Bibi expressing annoyance at their silence – senior ministers started making statements of support for the Prime Minister. Sa’ar said “it is not right” to say Netanyahu has to resign in light of the investigations, and that Netanyahu is “someone whose innocence or guilt is decided only in court, not in TV studios or newspaper headlines.” “Netanyahu is leading the country responsibly and professionally,” Erdan said, lamenting the “political and media attacks” on the Prime Minister. Katz said that Netanyahu must be allowed to do his job. “In rule of law and a democratic country, prime ministers are not removed based on headlines in the media, opposition demonstrations or partial investigations. I have faith in the Prime Minister.” Coalition chairman David Bitan announced a pro-Netanyahu rally to be held this coming Wednesday, after lackluster attendance at a Saturday night demonstration, which he attributed to Shabbat ending late.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners also have his back. Bennett said that “Israel needs stability.” Bibi is innocent until proven guilty and Bennett hopes that the investigations will end without an indictment. Shaked keeps pointing out that the law does not require Netanyahu to quit even if he is indicted. Bayit Yehudi is the one coalition party that is gaining in the polls, and the fact that they do not seem to want an early election is a major relief for the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the others are keeping quiet, even though Labor created a meme with photos of all the coalition party leaders, calling on them to force Netanyahu to resign.

“Business as usual” is Netanyahu’s main strategy to counter the barrage of legal developments in recent days. The PM is trying to project that he is continuing to lead the country, engaged in diplomatic, security and economic affairs, and not busy with criminal procedures and allegations. Bibi has defined all of those events as “background noise.” One of Netanyahu’s confidants told Kafe Knesset: “It is better for us not to be dragged into a battle of containment with all the information coming out, and the best defense line is to show that we are working as usual. If we respond to every report or development, the public will see a PM who is constantly occupied with his legal affairs and they won’t necessarily tolerate it for a long time. So it is better to focus on leading the country.”

However, the State’s Witness agreement signed with Ari Harow has definitely been at the top of Netanyahu’s concerns for days, and over the weekend he held intensive consultations to deal with the developments. The legal consequences of the agreement and its impact on Bibi’s own affairs is still unknown, but the fact that one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants turned against him has also reportedly caused much anguish for the Netanyahus. Right wing Channel 20 even referred to Harow as Judas, and other right-wing outlets have been describing a deep sense of betrayal.

Harow himself has rejected these claims and apparently is on a counter-campaign to deflect some of the criticism against his deal. Under the terms of the State’s Witness agreement Harow will be paying a 700,000 shekel fine and doing community service instead of serving prison time for his own felonies. “It is not like Shula Zaken. It is not that I broke the law together with Netanyahu and now I am seeking to bring him down to avoid punishment,” Harow was qouted by Channel 2’s Amit Segal last night, referring to the infamous State’s Witness deal signed with the closest assistant of former PM Ehud Olmert which was a crucial stage in the latter’s indictment. “The definition of a State’s Witness is an internal figure who turns on his boss. This not the case. I am not a classic ‘State’s Witness’ – not in the offenses that I am accused of and not in the agreement I signed.” Harow added that he “did not think in real time that these were criminal offenses, and even now I do not pretend to think so, so the argument that I am ‘opening up on Netanyahu’ is incorrect,” he said. Now, Harow is taking some time off and will fly out of the country today for a preplanned vacation. According to reports he might even return with more evidence and investigation materials, before he proceeds to testify and conclude his part of the State’s Witness deal.

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