Reeling from the last election’s failures, Netanyahu turns on the right

Reeling from the last election’s failures, Netanyahu turns on the right

Into the weeds of the prime minister’s narrowing electoral prospects, as a cornered political animal seeks to carve a path to victory at the right’s expense

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, June 30, 2019. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, June 30, 2019. (Oded Balilty/AP)

It’s usually a bad idea to bet against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral prowess. Surrounded by detractors on left and right, disliked by large swaths of the population, and recently facing the prospect of graft charges, the Likud leader has proven himself an unstoppable political juggernaut, and the shrewdest navigator of Israel’s chaotic politics in recent memory.

That’s an easy conclusion to reach after four consecutive Likud election victories, which last month made Netanyahu the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in the country’s history.

His success has several intertwined causes. Among these are a left that has yet to find a compelling political narrative to replace the Oslo peace effort of the 1990s after its collapse in the 2000-2004 Second Intifada; a Likud rank and file known for its loyalty to the party leader (Likud has had just four leaders since Israel’s founding); a demographic shift in recent decades in favor of the more conservative subcultures in Israeli society, especially Haredim and the national-religious community; and more.

But all of that shouldn’t diminish from the most salient factor that has driven Netanyahu’s victories: the man himself. At key points over the past decade, it was more often than not Netanyahu’s own decisions and tactical insights that ensured his victory. He decided when to run a campaign appealing to centrist voters, and when to lean rightward to shift the coalition math in another direction. It was he who engineered alliances with other parties, such as the union with Yisrael Beytenu for the 2013 election, chose the election days in 2015 and 2019, and orchestrated many of the public fights and crises that set the agenda during the campaigns. He is not just his party’s leader, but also its main political strategist and campaign manager.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman at a joint press conference on May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That long record of political competence is the backdrop to the stunning setback Netanyahu was dealt when he found himself unable to pull together a coalition after the April 9 race. Though the wrench in the works was Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s ultimatum about an ultra-Orthodox enlistment law, among other demands, the failure was Netanyahu’s. As the whole country watched, he let the coalition talks drag on to the last possible day without result — not a single party had signed a coalition agreement by the time Netanyahu gave up on the 21st Knesset on May 30. Ensconced atop a 35-seat Likud, its best showing since 2003, Netanyahu nevertheless failed to force his will on a five-seat Yisrael Beytenu, or to draw meaningful concessions from the ultra-Orthodox. And in the last hours of May 30, he turned to the six-seat Labor party, offering no less than the vaunted defense and finance ministries in a desperate gambit to save his premiership.

The legendary political acumen of Benjamin Netanyahu was nowhere to be found in those proceedings. And the fallout, including the new elections on September 17, have left him weaker than before — and angrier.

Less than forty days to the election, his election strategy is slowly coming into focus, an amalgam of aggressive, brooding and bullying tactics, from turnout-depressing vilification of his opponents and the deployment of hundreds of cameras to polling stations in Arab communities, to fear-mongering among his base over the prospect of a left-wing victory. But none of that, however distasteful, is really new. What’s new this time around is Netanyahu’s focused and decisive turn against the right.

Abandoned by ostensibly right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, pressured ceaselessly by the United Right, he no longer has any interest in propping up the parties that might form a future right-wing coalition, focusing his campaign instead on urging right-wing voters to leave other rightist parties and vote Likud.

Thus, in June, Netanyahu pushed through Likud’s institutions the merger with the four-seat Kulanu party, led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon. The logic of the move for both men is clear. Kahlon, at four seats, only slightly ahead of the 3.9-seat minimum for entering the Knesset, has avoided being politically erased. Netanyahu, meanwhile, has folded into his ranks one of the wildcards of the race, a man who urged a unity government in 2015 when Kulanu won 10 seats. Running separately, or in a union with some other right-wing party, Kahlon might net more seats for the right as a whole, but Kahlon could not be trusted to back Netanyahu the day after the election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon in the Knesset on March 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The trade-off here is clear. In the last two elections, polls have shown that large numbers of Kahlon’s voters voted for him in an emphatic attempt not to vote Likud. When Kahlon is no longer a possibility, most of those votes presumably don’t turn to Likud, but go to the centrist parties from whence they first came before the 2015 race. When he sat in a right-wing coalition, Kahlon represented a net transfer of centrist votes to a right-wing government. While some part of Kahlon’s rightist voters may now vote Likud, those centrist votes are likely lost now to the future right-wing coalition.

Ironically, Netanyahu has begun to couch his campaign at the right’s expense as a defense of the right.

Thus we find many of Netanyahu’s most dependable supporters, such as the columnists and journalists in the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom daily, demanding that he commit publicly that he won’t establish a unity government with Blue and White.

“Netanyahu – commit to a right-wing government,” read the title of one such column by Israel Hayom’s Mati Tuchfeld earlier this week, which the newspaper, apparently distraught at the prospect, put on its front page.

That column earned a response from Netanyahu, which the paper ran as a “response column” on Wednesday, also on the front page. The “column” is more Twitter post than oped, a series of campaign talking points strung together apparently haphazardly, to the point that some sentences repeat almost verbatim the point raised only a sentence earlier. It is, in other words, a political ad being carried in a Netanyahu mouthpiece. But to those seeking signals of Netanyahu’s political thinking, such ads are more valuable than any lengthy prose full of dissembling and apologia.

Likud party campaign material and posters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strewn on the floor following election night at the party’s Tel Aviv headquarters, April 10, 2017. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The ad/column’s message is confused: “Only a right-wing coalition: There won’t be a unity government,” its headline declares. Right-wing voters “must wake up” and “must vote Likud — only Likud,” it adds.

It is hard to square this focus on voting for Likud alone with Netanyahu’s promise of a right-wing government, since every poll by every pollster has shown the same thing for the past month: Likud will not, in all likelihood, be able to form a right-wing-only coalition if the rest of the right doesn’t grow.

Netanyahu goes on: “My commitment is clear: to form after the elections a strong right-wing government, that will continue to lead the state of Israel to unprecedented achievements and will safeguard the security of Israel’s citizens. That’s my commitment to Likud voters. There won’t be a unity government.”

But he then rails again against voting for other right-wing parties: “Anyone who doesn’t vote Mahal [the letters on Likud’s ballot paper] — in effect votes for the toppling of the right-wing government and the establishment of a leftist government headed by Lapid and Gantz.”

Liberman, the prime minister warned, plans to recommend Benny Gantz for prime minister. Only a large Likud, larger than Gantz’s Blue and White, “will ensure that we are tasked with forming a government, and will deny Liberman the possibility of dragging us to a weak leftist government headed by Lapid and Gantz.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during an election campaign visit to the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on April 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And in case you still didn’t grasp that this was his main and only point: “We must not repeat the mistake of the last election, when right-wing voters lost seven seats to parties that didn’t pass the electoral threshold.”

On Friday, the prime minister doubled down yet again, posting a Facebook live video stream that hardly bothered to pretend he was aiming for a broader right-wing bloc. “Anyone who votes for another right-wing party that could pass the electoral threshold, and it does pass, in the end makes Likud smaller…. Anyone who says, ‘I want Netanyahu as head of a right-wing government,’ must vote Likud, and not say to themselves, ‘I’ll give this [vote] to someone else and make sure, or hope, that they pass the threshold and then also recommend Netanyahu.’ I’m hearing the stuttering [on that point] by our friends over there on the right.”

The message is astonishing, and completely new: No one ensures a right-wing government except me, Netanyahu. Even the far-right may not recommend me, and so would usher in a left-wing government.

It is rendered all the more astonishing after Likud MK David Bitan, a Netanyahu ally and loyal footsoldier, confirmed on Thursday media reports that said Netanyahu had told Likud activists he would turn to Gantz and ask him to join his next coalition, but without the Yesh Atid portion of the Blue and White alliance. “We have no problem going with Gantz — but without Yesh Atid,” Bitan told Radio Drom, referring to Yair Lapid’s party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK David Bitan (R) at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on June 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Who to believe? Netanyahu, or Netanyahu? Is a vote for Netanyahu’s Likud really a vote for a right-wing government, whereas a vote for United Right is not?

Here lies the heart of the new strategy: the right-wing “bloc” be damned. In the end, Netanyahu believes it is a Netanyahu government that matters, not a rightist one. Those who support him for his policies and accomplishments may understand that view, but it conflicts directly with Netanyahu’s promise that he’ll only lead a right-wing government.

As the prime minister pivots to a campaign at the right’s expense, ironically egged on by unwitting supporters in Israel Hayom and elsewhere, the rest of the right has responded with growing bitterness and the accusation that Netanyahu is doing his utmost to ensure the very thing he so vehemently forswears: a centrist national-unity coalition.

As United Right chair Ayelet Shaked said Friday in response to Netanyahu’s post, it is Netanyahu, not his “friends over there on the right,” who is “stuttering” — “stuttering with [former Labor leaders] Gabbay and Herzog, and [former leftist coalition partners] Livni and Barak.”

Netanyahu has often and happily joined forces with centrist and left-wing parties in recent years, as witnessed in his attempt to bring Avi Gabbay into his coalition as recently as May 30. But that was no mere fluke born of the desperation of the moment. Netanyahu was in open talks with then-Labor chief Isaac Herzog in 2016 to bring him into the government. Labor actually sat in Netanyahu’s coalition from 2009 to 2011, and then for another two years as the splinter faction Independence, after then-Labor chief Ehud Barak broke away from his own party over a leadership challenge.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked, left, during a vote on the 2017-2018 state budget in the Knesset plenum, December 21, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Similarly, in the 2013 government, Yesh Atid, now a major part of the Blue and White party, and so an integral pillar of the supposed “center-left bloc,” held the finance, education, welfare, health and science portfolios under Netanyahu. Hatnuah, Tzipi Livni’s left-wing faction that disbanded ahead of the April 2019 race, also sat in that government, holding the justice and environmental protection portfolios. That is, as recently as four years ago Netanyahu was happy to place much of the government’s domestic policy in the hands of what he now depicts as an untouchable “left.”

Netanyahu’s long record of such centrism includes his votes in favor of the Disengagement from Gaza in 2004, or, as prime minister in the late 1990s, his implementation of the withdrawals from Palestinian population centers stipulated in the Oslo peace accords.

In short, those parts of the ideological right not enamored with the man himself are smelling a trick, a betrayal being prepared for them by a man with more flexible principles than his campaign will admit.

“More and more indications are showing us that Netanyahu plans to form a leftist government,” Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, No. 3 in the United Right party, charged in a Twitter post as early as Tuesday.

“That’s why he wants us small and weak,” Smotrich went on. “Only if we’re big and strong can we ensure he has no choice but to form a right-wing government. The United Right will keep Netanyahu on the right.”

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a URWP party conference in Lod, July 22, 2019. (Flash90)

Eli Ben Dahan, the deputy defense minister from Jewish Home who ran on the Likud list in April as a concession by Netanyahu to give the far-right another Knesset slot, also slammed Netanyahu’s campaign.

“Without an ideologically rightist party to the right of Likud, we will find ourselves with Likud in a national unity government with the left,” Ben Dahan said Thursday. Such a union “will surrender parts of the land of Israel” in a peace deal with Palestinians, he warned, showing that Netanyahu isn’t the only politician willing and able to play with voters’ fears and anxieties.

“We cannot let that happen,” Ben Dahan concluded.

Israeli pundits often think about election arithmetic through the lens of left or right, the supposed “camps” or “blocs” of Israeli political life. Each time a major news outlet posts a new poll, it includes a pie chart or bar graph showing the “total size” of a “right-wing-and-Haredi bloc” and a “center-left-and-Arabs bloc.” No single party has ever won a Knesset majority, the thinking goes, so the race isn’t actually won by the largest faction, but by such like-minded alliances.

The trouble with this way of thinking is that Israeli politicians do not really behave this way, and Netanyahu least of all. He has shown himself entirely comfortable incorporating the left into his coalitions, and even ceding major agencies and policies to make that happen.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday, November 14, the first day of Operation Pillar of Defense (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak on November 14, 2012, the first day of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

If the collapse of the last coalition talks proves anything, it is that lumping the ultra-Orthodox with the right also doesn’t reflect electoral reality; it is right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, and not the centrist secularists of Yesh Atid, that torpedoed the formation of that coalition over its demands of the Haredim.

Nor does the lumping of the Arab-majority parties with the center or left reflect Israeli political reality. It is true that Arab parties once famously backed the Rabin government’s efforts to push the Oslo accords through the Knesset, but such examples are exceptions, not the rule. Arab parties are not generally disposed to backing leftist or centrist Jewish-majority parties just for the principle of the thing, and have never joined a ruling parliamentary coalition. Indeed, they have proven as likely to cooperate with the right as with the left, if not in their rhetoric then in their politicking and legislation.

Thus the Arab parties joined with Netanyahu in the June Knesset vote forcing a new election, a vote Netanyahu desperately needed in order to avoid having to surrender his premiership to another MK. Shortly after that vote, Netanyahu’s closest political fixer and confidant Natan Eshel — Likud’s lead negotiator in the failed coalition talks in May — penned an oped in the left-wing Haaretz daily urging cooperation between the Israeli right and the Arabs. “We must join our fate to that of Israel’s Arabs,” he wrote, and urged “full cooperation” between the right and the Arab community, and even “a partnership in leading the country.”

With Netanyahu reeling from the failure to form a coalition, the oped was a not-so-subtle wink at the Arab parties, telling them they will find a sympathetic ear in the premier — a leader running an unabashed fear-mongering campaign against the Arab community, complete with secret body cameras in Arab polling stations — as long as they don’t back Gantz for prime minister .

Instead of counting artificial “blocs,” prognosticators would be better served thinking about possible coalitions, which can and do straddle the political divides and are the real engine of victory in an Israeli election.

People walk by election campaign billboards showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, alongside Blue and White party leaders, from left to right, Moshe Ya’alon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi, in Tel Aviv, April 3, 2019. Hebrew on billboards reads, left, “A strong Likud, a strong Israel,” and on the right, “Every vote counts, Blue and White victory.” (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Netanyahu faces a tricky confluence of electoral realities: the rise of Liberman as a champion of secularists and the liberal right, the abiding strength of Blue and White in the polls that continues to threaten his lead, the loss of Kulanu for the right, and the United Right alliance to his right coalescing without the extremist factions Zehut and Otzma Yehudit, likely leaving perhaps three or four Knesset seats’ worth of rightist votes outside the next Knesset.

Netanyahu’s response is simple and straightforward: abandon the right, secure a Likud lead, and worry about the next coalition’s makeup and policies only after victory is secured on September 17.

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