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Coalition projects confidence amid fears of a break-up if Netanyahu leaves politics

‘This government will last,’ says Lapid amid speculation right-wing parties could unite; power struggle brewing in Likud as contenders eye top spot, Hanegbi joins race

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

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset plenum, January 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset plenum, January 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Leaders of the coalition tried to project confidence on the stability and longevity of the government on Monday, vowing that it “will last,” amid mounting speculation over the political future of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

The desire to oust Netanyahu from power was the central factor that helped bring together the eclectic coalition of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Islamist parties — and many believe his departure from the scene could see the right-wing parties gravitate back to their natural partners, who together constitute a significant majority in the Knesset.

The current government has a razor-thin majority in the 120-seat parliament, hampering its ability to pass laws that don’t enjoy the full support of all parties.

“This government will last,” Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid said at his Yesh Atid party’s Monday faction meeting. “The government is not dependent on Netanyahu. It’s based on shared work, it’s based on our creation of a government that connected all of Israeli society.”

Recent days have seen speculation mount that Netanyahu is close to reaching a plea deal in his corruption cases that would see him agree to a “moral turpitude” clause that would ban the 72-year-old Likud party leader from politics for seven years.

Health Minister and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz echoed Lapid’s confidence in his own faction meeting.

“A plea deal does not say anything about the government,” Horowitz said. “This government is better than all the imaginary options people have. The government will continue, even if there is a deal.”

Minister of Health and Head of the left wing Meretz party Nitzan Horowitz leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on January 03, 2021. (Yonatan SindelFlash90)

Horowitz suggested that Netanyahu’s departure would cause more of a disruption to the opposition Likud than to the coalition, with a power struggle erupting around his succession.

Merav Michaeli, transportation minister and Labor party leader, echoed similar sentiments in her faction meeting.

“This government will continue to do the good and important work it does for the citizens of Israel, regardless of these developments,” she said.

While the sanguine projections came mostly from the center and left, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the right-wing Yamina party, made similar predictions on Sunday.

“All of the various political analysts, with their graphs and scenarios, can rest assured,” said Bennett in a speech to his cabinet. “The government of Israel is working and will continue to work quietly and effectively, day after day, for the citizens of Israel.”

That said, the Bennett-led coalition has faced a number of tests, including two potential coalition crises this week that resulted from ideological differences.

On Monday evening, just hours after the faction meetings, the coalition failed to pass a controversial law to promote ultra-Orthodox service in the Israel Defense Forces. Fulfilling its commitment to the coalition, the Islamist Ra’am faction brought three of its four members to vote in favor. However, the measure failed because a Meretz member unexpectedly broke ranks. MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi reportedly failed the vote in retaliation for the government’s support of the contested Citizenship Law, which she is against, as well as a controversial foresting initiative.

Israeli police detain a man as Bedouins protest in the southern Negev Desert against a forestation project by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), on January 12, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Earlier this month, fierce riots and intense emotions broke out across the Negev in response to Jewish National Fund tree-planting on land claimed both by the government and a local Bedouin village. Ra’am, who calls the same Negev Bedouins its base, has been harshly critical of the coalition over the controversy. Tensions are still ongoing, especially as Monday was Tu Bishvat, a holiday traditionally commemorated in Israel by planting trees.

Meanwhile, predictions of unrest and instability in the Likud appear to be taking hold, with mounting speculation on who could succeed Netanyahu were he to release his almost two-decade-long grip over the party. Netanyahu has chaired the Likud continuously since 2005, and previously from 1993 to 1999.

MK Tzachi Hanegbi on Monday told the Knesset Channel that he was the latest contender to throw his hat into the Likud leadership ring, appropriately caveated with “[but] I hope that Netanyahu will not accept this decree of removal from public life.”

Other equivocating or assumed candidates for Likud leadership include MKs Yuli Edelstein, Amir Ohana, Yisrael Katz, and Miri Regev, as well as former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who has emerged as the frontrunner.

Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi attends an event at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. September 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Despite the palpable excitement, several steps need to be taken before any intra-Likud election could begin.

First, Netanyahu must finalize a plea deal, which would trigger him leaving the Knesset. Then, he would either have to step down from Likud leadership or be forced to step down – two scenarios that are far from certain.

Michael Kleiner, president of the Likud’s internal tribunal, told Army Radio Monday morning that whether Netanyahu can be forced to leave the helm of the Likud is a matter for discussion.

Section 20 of the Likud constitution holds that a party member who is convicted of a crime bearing at least a three-month prison sentence and moral turpitude may be barred from holding office in the party. Kleiner highlighted that the bylaw could be interpreted as enabling barring the member, rather than necessitating it. If Netanyahu does not decide to leave and is challenged, the issue may ultimately be decided by the Likud’s internal court.

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