Charging abandonment by Netanyahu’s government, Likud’s southern base is rising up

The premier’s refusal to take responsibility and his government’s lack of response to Oct. 7 has some in areas near Gaza rethinking their support for Likud, or at least its leader

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Sdot Negev Regional Council head Tamir Idan (right) hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 27, 2017 (Sdot Negev Regional Council)
Sdot Negev Regional Council head Tamir Idan (right) hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on November 27, 2017 (Sdot Negev Regional Council)

Yehiel Zohar, the mayor of Netivot and Tamir Idan, the head of the Sdot Negev Regional Council, are unable to free themselves from the trauma of October 7, dealing with its impact day by day, hour by hour.

Both feel that the state abandoned them before and after the horrific terrorist attacks. Neither is ready to forgive the prime minister and the leadership of the country, many of whom, notably including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, refuse to take responsibility for the failures of that black day.

Both Zohar and Idan are politically aligned with the right.

Zohar, who has led the city of Netivot for 35 years, has deep Likud roots, and wields enormous influence inside the party. He is running for mayor under the Likud banner, but listening to him on Friday, it’s clear that his continued affiliation with the party is being tested.

Idan has already made up his mind. Last week, live on Channel 12, he tore up his Likud membership card, protesting the government’s disdain for the council’s residents and the refusal to fund residents who want to leave the area but live just outside the government-mandated evacuation zone — which extends seven kilometers from the Gaza border.

The policy has left residents of Netivot — 8.5 kilometers from the border — and nearly all of the communities in Sdot Negev, without government help should they want to decamp for a less dangerous area.

Sedot Negev Regional Council head Tamir Aidan, resigning from the Likud party during a live broadcast on Channel 12, on November 1, 2023. (Image capture, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“I am not ready to accept the behavior of these ministers,” Idan said of the government.

Zohar is meanwhile making do with thinly veiled hints directed at Netanyahu, to whom he has sent two letters in recent weeks.

Zohar’s letters described the difficulty of living in Netivot, a city of 52,000 with another 17,000 homes in the works, including rocket strikes on apartments in the city which have cost the lives of three residents and five soldiers.

“I have noted that I did not receive anything — not aid money, nor a budget for security, nor financial help to allow residents to leave for a break to recover,” Zohar wrote in his first letter.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Netivot Mayor Yehiel Zohar, at a reception celebrating Netanyahu’s honorary citizenship in Netivot on September 15, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“I have noted before that your government has abandoned us to our fates,” he added.

He also acerbically thanked the big shots who came for a photo-op but did nothing to help.

“Who will return to live here if this situation doesn’t completely change?” he recently asked Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s sister site.

Sitting in the control room of the Netivot operations building, an impressive, sophisticated facility attached to a civilian logistics center, Zohar seems more angry and frustrated than he has in years.

In the past, the room hosted two separate meetings with security officials where they discussed scenarios in which hundreds of terrorists cross the fence, take over the communities and kill the residents.

Maps, likely infiltration routes and defense plans were presented, but senior military personnel didn’t even take their own warnings seriously, Zohar recalled.

“After the discussions, they told us ‘Forget about it, it won’t happen,” he said.

Like many others, he has pointed questions for authorities about how an ultrasophisticated fence that cost NIS 3 billion ($775 million) could not stop a single terrorist; how the air force wasn’t deployed in the first 10 minutes, and how none of the army chiefs answered the phone at the most crucial time.

Idan has records of calls and WhatsApp messages from October 7, including his own fruitless attempts to reach IDF commanders nowhere to be found as terrorists spread carnage across communities under his authority.

Middle-management mutiny

Zohar was the first person in Likud to urge Netanyahu to take responsibility for the failures of that day.

Although he still hasn’t joined the call for him to resign, Zohar is collecting material and preparing himself for lengthy testimony before the State Commission of Inquiry that will be established after the war.

On that day, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators will march to the offices of the Prime Minister and the Knesset and call for Netanyahu and his ministers to resign. Zohar and his people will be among the marchers, and he thinks others in the party will be there too.

“There will be a large group of people in Likud that will change the existing situation,” Zohar promised about the future.

Idan doesn’t see Likud changing from within, hence his departure from the party.

Tamir Idan leads a protest of Sdot Hanegev Regional Council residents outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 31, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ministers from Likud and other coalition parties are sticking with Netanyahu, at least publicly, even if they agree with Zohar and Idan. The prime minister still has enormous control, and they hesitate to move against him out of fear for their political fates. On Thursday, Shas minister Yoav Ben Tzur posted on social media about holding elections within 90 days of the war’s end, and then immediately pulled the comments back.

The open anger toward the prime minister and his ministers is coming from the party’s middle management, the regional council leaders, the mayors and Likud activists in the affected areas. These people can express themselves freely and organize without fear, and this is where the potential for Netanyahu’s removal lies.

Zohar and Idan were given serious pushback from Netanyahu’s hard-core supporters within Likud, but they aren’t taking back their words or flinching. Zohar can win re-election as Netivot mayor even if he is expelled from Likud, and Idan is ready to give up his political ambitions after his term ends.

Likud may not even be in power by then. Some 43% of Sdot Negev’s 11,000 residents voted for the party in the last elections, and most others voted for right-wing parties as well. But that could change.

“People care about Likud. They don’t want to harm the party and that interests them more than Netanyahu, but if a reliable right-wing party is formed, they’ll vote for it,” Idan estimated.

The aftermath of a Qassam rocket’s fall on a street in Netivot, Israel on October 10, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

After tearing up his membership card on air, Idan received support from Likud members, mainly from his colleagues in local government. The stunt made enough waves that it brought some of the country’s top officials to his office.

On Wednesday, Defense Ministry Director-General Eyal Zamir met with Idan and his staff to discuss protection for the region. Zohar was visited by Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, a Netanyahu backer received with little enthusiasm.

During my own visit with Idan, he took me to a nearby field where cars had been towed following the massacres.

The scene was horrific. Thousands of wrecked cars, their windows smashed and bodies riddled, stood in silent testimony to a day nobody wants to remember, but which nobody can forget.

Israeli security forces inspect charred vehicles burned in the bloody Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas terrorists, outside the town of Netivot, southern Israel (AP/Ariel Schalit)

On Friday, the mayors and council leaders in the Gaza-border area headed north for their first meeting with Netanyahu since the outbreak of war. Zohar did not attend. Ofakim Mayor Itzik Danino, another member of Likud, participated after some hesitation. Idan showed up, too, with a prepared statement for the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, meets with mayors of Gaza border towns at IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv, on November 10, 2023 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“I’ll tell him who here is working and who isn’t,” Idan said ahead of the meeting. “[National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir won’t answer us. [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich sends his assistants. Others don’t come at all. This government does not function.”

Most Popular
read more: