As election campaign begins, cracks emerge in right-wing loyalty to Netanyahu
PM assailed by right-wing pundits as ‘intoxicated with power,’ and not right-wing enough, though no alternative leader is offered, as pro-settlement allies duel
Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.
Over the past week, some prominent voices on the right have begun to question their loyalty to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a rare display of unchecked animosity toward the long-serving right-wing premier.
But the foray by some loyalists into criticizing the prime minister appeared to make way for a shaky “truce” by Wednesday, even as tensions among the already splintered, rapprochement-seeking religious right-wing camp boiled over.
The glimmers of hostility emerged at the onset of the campaign for the September elections, which were called after Netanyahu failed to assemble a coalition last month following the April national vote.
During those coalition talks, the prime minister unsuccessfully attempted to woo the center-left Labor’s Avi Gabbay into the government with promises of multiple portfolios, much to the ire of the right-wing parties. Days later, he fired right-wing ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from his cabinet, in what was seen as a maneuver to deny them public exposure in the run-up to the election. Adding insult to injury was the appointment of Likud’s Amir Ohana as justice minister last week, to the chagrin of the supporters of both his predecessor Shaked and the Union of Right Wing Parties’ Bezalel Smotrich, who had demanded and was ultimately denied the post.
The brewing animosity also came as small right-wing parties attempted to forge a joint ticket for the upcoming election, after losing thousands of votes in the previous ballot when Shaked and Bennett’s New Right and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut failed to clear the electoral threshold. The Union of Right Wing Parties went on to win five of the Knesset’s 120 seats in April, down from eight in its previous iteration as the Jewish Home under Bennett, and the Likud’s support climbed from 30 to 35 seats.
The weakened pro-settlement vote separated Netanyahu from forming a government by a single Knesset seat, after Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman rejected the prime minister’s offer to join the coalition.
‘Is the man greater than the idea?’
The cracks in the support for the prime minister began last week with several journalists, who haven’t shied away in the past from openly supporting Netanyahu.
“Listen friends, the truth is that I’m disappointed,” tweeted Channel 20’s Shimon Riklin last Monday.
“On the one hand, I am fighting like a lion against the legal system because the extent of the change needed there is obvious to me. And on the other hand, Netanyahu offered [Labor MK] Yachimovich the Justice Ministry, an expanded welfare [portfolio] to [Itzhik] Shmuli, and finance to Gabbay etc,” continued Riklin, who is seen as close to the Netanyahu family. The Prime Minister’s Office has denied making such an offer during its covert talks with Labor.
“So what do we do in this situation?” he continued. “Is the man greater than the idea? Than the need for change?”
“We must wean ourselves off our Netanyahu addiction,” chimed in Israeli media personality Avri Gilad that same day.
Over the weekend, the right-wing Makor Rishon daily published several op-eds critical of the prime minister.
“Netanyahu’s intoxication with power is dangerous,” opined Karni Eldad, criticizing his abrupt firing of Kobi Eliraz, the settlement adviser to the Defense Ministry, as well as that of Shaked and Bennett.
Assailing the prime minister’s “megalomania,” Eldad conceded she could think of no better alternative for a right-wing prime minister.
“I have no alternative to Netanyahu (mostly because he wasn’t wise enough to cultivate an heir). I still think he’s almost certainly the lesser evil, but we cannot, under any circumstances, vote for him directly, but rather go home, each to their [political] home: The New Right voters to the New Right, the URWP to their home, and so forth. We cannot give this man more power. He uses it heartlessly and without distinction. Now we have the power to balance him out and block him, to direct him, so that such actions do not recur, or at least happen less often.”
And one writer questioned Netanyahu’s right-wing credentials.
“In retrospect, one can see that Netanyahu isn’t really Right, and not because he lives in Caesarea and not in [the West Bank settlement] of Nokdim,” wrote Doron Nir-Tzvi, referring to a recent quip by Nokdim resident and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman to Netanyahu’s accusations that he was “left-wing” over his refusal to join the government last month.
“Netanyahu adopted the Oslo Accords, shook Arafat’s hands, signed the Hebron agreement, handed over territory in the Wye Agreement, and even voted several times in favor of the  Disengagement Plan [from Gaza], precisely when he could have thwarted it… Netanyahu also froze construction in the settlements, adopted the two-state solution formula, and even wasted President Trump’s time in office — which may be a one-time [opportunity] for the settlements in Judea and Samaria. And we haven’t yet discussed that the burning south has become the hostage of Gazan terror groups for years.”
In the Maariv daily, reporter Kalman Liebskind called for a reevaluation of the relationship between Netanyahu and the religious right.
He urged the national religious community to “look into our mirror and check if we’re comfortable with the positions we’re supporting.”
“Because the feeling is that Netanyahu is heating us all up in a pot, like that frog in the tale. He raises it degree by degree, each time another French Law and another police recommendations law, another attempt to save him from prosecution, and another enlistment of the right in the service of his personal issues. And each time, the temperatures rise just slightly, and each time it only seems a bit hotter than before, and the big fear is that one morning we’ll wake up and find all the values on which we have raised our children have boiled out, and nothing remains.”
Amid the outpouring of criticism since his initial tweet, Riklin on Tuesday appeared to backtrack and sought to soothe the tensions.
“I propose a truce in the right-wing camp from now until the end of elections. During this ceasefire, it will be permitted for everyone to express their opinion on every matter, on the condition that it doesn’t hurt the right’s chances of winning and forming a government,” he tweeted.
But the fight among the political representatives of the national religious community was only getting warmed up.
Right-wing politicians, seeking unity, declare war
The dissent in the right-wing press made way on Wednesday for an increasingly combative fight between right-wing politicians, on the backdrop of attempts to form a unified list ahead of the September election.
Still nursing the wounds from the previous election, in which the fragmentation of the various small right-wing parties left several out of the Knesset, the pro-settlement lawmakers were hoping to overcome their differences to forge one right-wing party to bolster Netanyahu’s Likud.
But the ideological differences were stark and grievances many.
In a scathing indictment of the party he once led, New Right chairman Bennett said Wednesday that he had no intention of returning to the Jewish Home, claiming its intolerance was not representative of the national religious community that it purports to represent.
Bennett was responding to remarks made earlier in the day by MK Moti Yogev of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, the current iteration of Jewish Home, who told Radio Galey Israel that his party would not welcome back someone who “betrayed” them.
“Bennett was not loyal to religious Zionism and its people,” Yogev said, going on to accuse the ex-Jewish Home leader of abandoning the party with debts of millions of shekels — a move he controversially characterized in February as “rape.”
In response to the criticism, Bennett penned a lengthy Facebook post in which he explained why he had no interest in returning to the party he once led. He claimed he left “because you [Yogev] and others in the faction and outside of it have kidnapped the Jewish Home party to take it on a path that is far from what I and many others — including those within the party — believe in.”
Smotrich, of the Union of Right Wing Parties, rushed in to intervene.
“There are moments in which you must stop!” he tweeted. “Friends, our goal is to form a right-wing government. The only way to get there is for there to be one large right-wing party to the right of Netanyahu. There are and will be legitimate disagreements among us and it’s okay. Disrespect, slander, insults won’t get us anywhere. Let’s lower our egos and find a way. We must!”
The message appeared to stick — at least initially.
“Despite the fact that the things that were written are wrong, I’ve chosen not to respond,” tweeted Yogev an hour later.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.