Already battling for political survival, Netanyahu is not restraining his coalition

Recent polls find that most Israelis want PM to step down after the war; meanwhile, he’s placating far-right and ultra-Orthodox interests, even when they run counter to war effort

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a press conference with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a press conference with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

A far-right minister risked setting off an international scandal on Sunday, at a time when Israel is battling to maintain freedom of operation in its ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu let him off with a slap on the wrist.

Israel’s cabinet now sports close to 40 ministers, and Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu is one of its most junior. But the head of Eliyahu’s Otzma Yehudit party, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, would be critical to maintaining a post-war Netanyahu coalition, which might not include Minister Benny Gantz, the centrist emergency government partner.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid pressed Netanyahu to fire Eliyahu for suggesting that dropping a nuclear weapon on Gaza should be on the table, and both Gantz and Netanyahu condemned the statement, but the latter only suspended Eliyahu from cabinet meetings, themselves few and mostly consisting of telephone votes, as wartime decision-making rests with the small war cabinet.

Netanyahu was said to have wanted to oust Eliyahu, but relented after pushback from Ben Gvir.

As reported, it is the latest example in which Netanyahu has subordinated wartime concerns to coalition management, including preparing for future political survival.

In recent polls, 70 to 80 percent of Israelis said they believe Netanyahu should resign after the war. Opposition party heads Avigdor Liberman and Merav Michaeli on Monday said that he should quit now.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, greets National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the Knesset on May 23, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Before Hamas’s devastating October 7 terror onslaught, killing 1,400 people in southern Israel, started the current war, Likud advisers, former politicians, and Israeli political analysts predicted that Netanyahu was betting both his liberty and his legacy on clinching a US-brokered normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.

That deal — which some analysts predicted could lead the public to forgive Netanyahu for plunging Israel into nine months of turmoil with his government’s bid to shackle and politicize the judiciary, as well as the prime minister’s three ongoing corruption trials — is now in a deep freeze.

Netanyahu is already building a narrative to protect his seat, which is centering on the question of blame for the colossal intelligence and strategic conception failure that October 7 represented.

On Monday, a month after the war started, Netanyahu made his closest statement toward taking responsibility for the failure. In an English-language interview with ABC News, he said that “of course” he would have to take some responsibility, but that investigations should take place post-war.

Speaking in Hebrew to the Israeli public, Netanyahu has said that he has a responsibility for the future of Israel, but, unlike a stream of security chiefs and some politicians, has avoided directly acknowledging personal failure.

In addition to pushing off blame, Netanyahu has twice publicly implied that it should be placed on security services and intelligence chiefs.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with ABC News on November 6, 2023. (Screen capture)

On Sunday, Netanyahu linked a military reservist protest against his government’s judicial overhaul to Hamas’s decision to attack. He quickly backtracked by tweeting that responsibility for October 7 lies with Hamas alone.

Two weeks earlier, the premier tweeted sharp criticism of the military intelligence and Shin Bet service chiefs, saying he had no indication of Hamas’s plans until the onslaught was launched. Netanyahu later recanted, after facing public uproar.

Less than two weeks into the war, the news site Walla reported that Netanyahu’s wife had ordered the prime minister’s aides to review cabinet meeting notes and pull out quotations from security officials who had said Hamas was not inclined toward escalation.

Netanyahu is now well-padded in his 76-seat war coalition, but Gantz’s National Unity has said it is only a partner for the duration of hostilities. While much can change during this open-ended conflict, if Gantz were to pull out, he would leave behind the thin, 64-seat, hardline coalition that Netanyahu formed at the end of 2022.

The premier partnered his right-wing Likud party exclusively with far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners because they were the only ones willing to return him to power at the end of a five-election cycle that consumed Israeli politics from the end of 2018 to 2022.

MK Moshe Gafni leads a meeting of the committee meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, which he chairs, on October 23, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Likud’s ultra-Orthodox partners are also staging their own quiet rebellion, which Netanyahu has not quashed.

In late October, the cabinet formally redirected all non-transferred coalition funds to be diverted toward the war effort. Coalition funds are monies doled out to fulfill political promises, and among them was a NIS 300 million ($77 million) uncompleted transfer to boost funding to cash-strapped, private ultra-Orthodox schools.

On Sunday, Haredi parties tried to push a cabinet vote to exempt this ultra-Orthodox school funding from the funds sweep, a move that was quashed only after Gantz objected.

Additionally, neither the Finance Ministry, under far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich, nor the Knesset Finance Committee, headed by a Haredi MK, have made moves to return what the Movement for Quality Government cited as NIS 6.65 billion ($1.7 billion) in frozen funds back to the Treasury’s general reserve, so that they can be reallocated for the emergency ear needs.

The Finance Committee, chaired by United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, is the body which approves such transfers, after it receives a request from the Finance Ministry.

The Finance Ministry has declined MK and reporter requests to confirm the exact amount that is available in the pool, leading opposition MK Vladimir Beliak to call the number a “state secret” during the committee discussion on Tuesday. A treasury representative said during the same meeting that the state had enough funds to meet current war needs.

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