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Analysis

Netanyahu embarks on a campaign that’s shaping up as his last hurrah

If he fails for a fifth time to form a government, polls show the Likud leader will find himself without Haredi support and challenged within his party. He has one last chance

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu hails the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid coalition, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu hails the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid coalition, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was a remarkable show of unity in Likud’s top ranks.

On June 30, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, the party’s no. 2, announced he was withdrawing his bid to challenge Benjamin Netanyahu in the coming party primary for the leadership.

“At this time, ahead of an election critical for this country, I can’t drag the Likud movement into a confrontation within its ranks, so I have decided to withdraw my candidacy for party leader in the coming election…. This is the time for unity,” Edelstein wrote.

His decision effectively cancels the planned leadership primary and grants Netanyahu a clear path to run for prime minister in the November 1 elections. It was celebrated by Likud officials and activists as a sign of unity as the campaign gets underway.

Yet a closer reading of Netanyahu’s situation and Edelstein’s statement reveals something vital about Netanyahu’s position. After four consecutive failures to form a government, Netanyahu is running out of second chances even among his closest political allies.

Failure follows failure

Each time Likud failed to form a government, the proximate cause was different – but the broader reason was the same.

Netanyahu could not form a coalition after the April 2019 election because Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party refused to join. Likud savaged him at the time for “betraying the right,” but Liberman’s own right-wing voters rewarded him in the next election that September, growing his party from five Knesset seats to eight. Liberman’s voters, it seemed, did not view his turn against Netanyahu as a betrayal.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz (right) meets with Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman on September 23, 2019. (Elad Malka)

In the September 2019 race, a surprise run on the polls by Arab voters (spurred in part by Netanyahu’s own anti-Arab campaigning) helped drive a precipitous six-seat drop for Likud and again stymied Netanyahu’s plans.

In the March 2020 race that followed, Likud’s campaign rhetoric grew more heated and aggressive, including claims by Likud officials that rival Benny Gantz was mentally ill and had cheated on his wife. Likud’s voters rallied, raising the party by four seats – but no small part of it came at the expense of allied right-wing parties, while the continued campaign against the Arab vote helped drive a further rise in Arab turnout. The deadlock remained.

It was then, after three failures, that the rotation agreement with Benny Gantz was hatched – a unity government with a rotating premiership and an endless stream of assurances from Netanyahu to Gantz that he would actually leave the prime minister’s chair when the time came, “without tricks or shticks.”

But the tricks and shticks were not long in coming. Shortly after the new Netanyahu-Gantz rotation agreement was inked in May 2020, Netanyahu began delaying the passage of the state budget, whose failure to pass automatically triggered new elections before Gantz’s rotation could take effect.

The March 2021 election was Netanyahu’s to lose. And lose it he did

Heading into the fourth election in March 2021, Netanyahu, his reputation perhaps battered but his determination to win undiminished, seemed poised for a sure victory. Under his belt were a world-leading COVID vaccination campaign and four historic peace agreements with Arab states. The opposing Blue and White coalition was shattered by Gantz’s decision to join a Netanyahu-led government. The unified Arab faction was broken up as Ra’am decided to go it alone, raising expectations of a decline in Arab turnout. At Netanyahu’s behest, religious-Zionist parties joined into an alliance with the previously unelectable extremists of Otzma Yehudit. Every right-wing vote was assured, momentous achievements had just been delivered for the country, and the center-left and Arab factions were in shambles. It was Netanyahu’s race to lose.

And lose it he did. The ballot-box results once again denied him a victory, even before Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party abandoned him for a unity coalition with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Worse than the loss itself was its cause. Arab turnout had indeed declined as expected, Gantz had drawn just eight seats running alone, and the Religious Zionism alliance had rallied to six seats, returning the Kahanists to the Knesset for the first time in two decades. All had gone according to plan outside Likud. But inside the party, a fatigue had set in. The party shed 286,000 votes from the previous year’s race, a steep 27% drop.

Some small fraction of those lost votes went rightward to Religious Zionism. There’s little evidence the Haredi parties absorbed them; neither gained a single seat. Overall voter turnout declined four points, from 71.5% in March 2020 to 67.4% a year later, nearly all of it concentrated in just two electorates: the Arab-majority parties, freshly splintered after 2020, lost a combined five seats; Likud lost seven.

Each time, no matter the policy successes or campaign strategy, no matter how either political camp was structured, Netanyahu’s victory was denied

Four elections, four separate campaigns that spanned dramatic realignments of the center-left, the uniting and subsequent fracturing of Arab factions and a dramatic reordering of the far-right – and each time, no matter the policy successes or campaign strategy, no matter how either political camp was structured, victory was denied. And the reason, at its root, was simple: Too many factions, even rightist ones like Yisrael Beytenu and New Hope, had come to see Netanyahu as either too undesirable or too unreliable to sit in his coalition.

Rebellion

This three-year string of failures carries a cost, even for a man seen by his political camp as its undisputed leader and long-suffering champion.

In October, Edelstein was the latest to question Netanyahu’s continued leadership. He announced he would challenge Netanyahu for the helm of Likud.

As he explained his thinking in an interview with the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper a month later, “Netanyahu failed to put together a government several times, and on each of those times Likud did well in the elections… Netanyahu’s path back to the premiership is blocked. That is the reality.”

And crucially, “when people are polled on Likud headed by Netanyahu as opposed to Likud under my leadership, there are two things that are true. Netanyahu will win more seats, but I can form a government with fewer seats. A clear and concrete government without having to cozy up to the left-wing parties and the Islamic movement. A proper nationalist government.”

Yisrael Beytenu, Yamina, New Hope, even betrayed ex-partner Benny Gantz all yearn to join a right-wing coalition but refuse to do so with Netanyahu at its helm.

It’s a simple political reality emphasized with each successive failure, a reality Netanyahu must defy and disprove – or see the long-simmering but still quiet frustration in his party transform into open rebellion.

Haredi rethink

The warning signs for Netanyahu aren’t limited to Likud voters. The Haredi public, a key linchpin of Netanyahu’s “national bloc,” is going through a painful rethink of its own.

On June 30, the most popular news magazine in the Haredi community, Mishpacha, ran as its lead story a report on a startling new poll. The front page featured Netanyahu’s face alongside the dramatic bright-red headline, “Last chance.” The poll, carried out by political pollster and former Netanyahu confidant Shlomo Filber, found that a whopping 66 percent of the Haredi public support a government led by someone else, if Netanyahu fails to win a majority.

Respondents were asked if, “in the coming election, Netanyahu fails to form a government, what should the Haredi parties do?” The favored answer, with 51%, was, “to demand that he step aside in favor of another right-wing candidate able to form a right-Haredi coalition.” At a distant second place with 24% was the answer, “support Netanyahu even at the cost of another round of elections.” In third place, at 15%: “To examine supporting a government led by the center-left candidate.”

Mishpacha’s poll is clear-cut. Haredim continue to prefer Netanyahu and support a right-wing government – but are growing exhausted by the repeat elections and are beginning to resent the fact that Netanyahu seems to be the reason the right keeps failing to form a government.

And Mishpacha’s poll isn’t alone. A separate poll last week by the Haredi station Radio Kol Hai put the share of the Haredi public that believes Netanyahu should be replaced if he fails to win again at 48%.

A third, more detailed poll commissioned by the Haredi parties themselves confirmed these findings. Haredi voters were asked, “If Netanyahu fails to form a government, what should the Haredi parties do?”

The poll divided the Haredi respondents into the community’s four ethnic/ideological component groups: Sephardi, Ashkenazi-Lithuanian, Ashkenazi-Hasidic and Chabad. The option of “forcing Netanyahu to step aside for another senior Likud leader” won a plurality of all but the Chabad faction (37%, 48%, 46% and 31% respectively). In second place came support for following Netanyahu to a sixth election (35%, 20%, 27%, 43%), followed by the third-place option of “establishing a unity government with a party outside the rightist bloc in a rotation agreement” (17%, 19%, 15%, 17%).

MK Moshe Gafni (left) with United Torah Judaism party colleague Meir Porush in the Knesset, June 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Haredi politicians such as Moshe Gafni and Israel Eichler have openly argued that Haredi parties could not afford to remain with Netanyahu in the opposition out of loyalty. These comments drew torrents of scathing criticism from the right. The more fervently pro-Netanyahu Haredi journalists have responded to the spate of polls with videos of adulation for the Likud leader in the streets of the Haredi city of Bnei Brak and the insistence that he continues to enjoy “unbelievable admiration” in the Haredi street.

But the numbers speak for themselves. Indeed, the very fact that these polls are being conducted and publicized by the Haredi press amounts to an explicit warning to Netanyahu from the Haredi leadership: Our patience is coming to an end. Our loyalty will not survive a fifth failure.

The election

None of this is a prediction about the election result. Things still look relatively favorable for Netanyahu. Or at least worse for his opponents. The Arab-majority parties, divided and campaigning against one another, are now predicting an especially low turnout in the Arab community of some 41% (according to one poll last week commissioned by the Joint List). Ra’am now routinely polls below the 3.25% vote threshold required to enter the Knesset (though it has often polled lower than its actual ballot-box showing), while left-wing Meretz polls very close to that line.

A great deal of circumstantial evidence suggests Likud’s base is energized by the experience of a year in the opposition. An Israel Democracy Institute poll released Tuesday asked voters whether they would vote on November 1 the same way they voted last year. The four parties leading the voter-loyalty list, with 94%, 91%, 86% and 79% affirming they were “sure” they’d repeat their vote, are all from Netanyahu’s religious-right alliance: United Torah Judaism, Shas, Likud and Religious Zionism respectively. Compared to the 74%, 60.5%, 53% and 41% for his opponents in Yesh Atid, Meretz, Labor and New Hope respectively, Netanyahu’s side enjoys a dramatic loyalty advantage.

So Netanyahu has a decent chance of pulling it off this time around, even if polls continue to stubbornly predict yet another deadlock. The coming election, like the last one, will depend on turnout, and it’s not unreasonable to expect the right to win that contest.

Still, Netanyahu must battle – must dramatically reverse – the fatigue his own voters showed in the last round. If he fails to do so, not even his most loyal Haredi allies will stick by him for another one.

All of which puts Yuli Edelstein’s sudden show of support and unity in a new light – it is a warning, stark and unmissable.

Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Yuli Edelstein during a Knesset vote on the state budget, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Edelstein has not abandoned his ambition to succeed Netanyahu nor backtracked on his assertion over the past year that Netanyahu is the obstacle to a right-wing victory. No sentimental attachment to “party unity” is at work here. It is Netanyahu’s very vulnerability that cleared his path of challengers. None want to make themselves a possible target of blame in the not-unlikely event that the leader fails one final time.

Netanyahu may yet pull off a victory. He must. If he doesn’t, even his closest allies won’t stand by him for a sixth attempt.

In stepping out of Netanyahu’s way, Edelstein has helped establish the narrative for his replacement.

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