A former Likud justice minister accused prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu of putting his ambition for power ahead of the country’s best interest, selling out Israel’s democratic character to win over coalition partners by acceding to controversial demands.
Dan Meridor, a Likud centrist who served in a number of Netanyahu cabinets before leaving politics in 2014, spoke out as the incoming government readied to push a number of bills through Knesset, paving the way for a coalition to take power, where it is expected to implement a number of far-reaching reforms that have raised alarm bells by moderates and others.
Netanyahu “is not a racist, but he is willing to cause damage to Israeli society in order to return to the premiership,” Meridor told The Times of Israel Monday.
Among the proposals agreed to in draft coalition deals between Likud and its coalition partners is legislation that would allow businesses to refuse service to members of the LGBT community if it offends their religious sensibilities. Netanyahu later said he would not support any such discrimination.
“Netanyahu is doing something here that is not his worldview, but he’s willing to pay any price because of his goal to be prime minister again — and maybe it is in connection with his own criminal trial,” Meridor said.
Critics say Netanyahu is willing to extend himself greatly to satisfy coalition members because he wants their future support for changes to the judicial system that could help end his ongoing corruption trial.
Meridor said that today’s public discourse represents a “profound change in the values of Israeli society.” He specifically blamed Netanyahu for normalizing the racist rhetoric and policies of far-right Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir.
“Netanyahu helped him to get public support,” he said. Netanyahu engineered a joint election run by Otzma Yehudit with the larger Religious Zionism led by MK Bezalel Smotrich, which boosted both parties’ chances of crossing the threshold into the Knesset and ultimately delivered them six and seven seats respectively.
Other demands Netanyahu has agreed to include repealing a law barring individuals who support terror and racism from running for Knesset, which he said was ineffective.
Meridor recalled that in 1986, Likud was the party that proposed the bill to block racism and incitement in the Knesset.
“We passed the famous 7A clause in the Basic Law: The Knesset, to block Meir Kahane from running. We proudly submitted the request to ban him, provided all the material to disqualify him at the time. For many years politicians with these kinds of statements were outside the consensus. Netanyahu broke this pattern because he wanted their votes and support — and now he sits with Smotrich who said his wife will not share a hospital room with an Arab woman and with Ben Gvir who speaks about the deportation of Arabs.
“Shocking stuff, and terrible values. It used to be illegitimate discourse but now it is common talk,” he said.
Meridor added that the entire Likud ranks are “silent as fish in the aquarium. I am sure that not all of them agree with those steps, but they do not speak. As for Netanyahu, I do not know if he will have the strength” to stand up to Smotrich and Ben Gvir.
“Netanyahu plays it publicly as if he is such a strongman, but he is not strong, as his partners got whatever they wanted from him,” Meridor assessed.
While criticism from within Netanyahu’s Likud party has been rare, it has not been absent.
Likud MK David Bitan, once a close Netanyahu ally and former coalition whip who has ramped up his criticism of the party leader in recent months, said recently that generous offers to coalition partners had “crossed the line.”
“I don’t see how Likud is going to have influence in the way we wanted. I am unhappy on behalf of Likud voters and activists. This is unbelievable and I hope it will change in the negotiations,” he said.