Analysis

The implosion of Israel’s ruling party

Under Netanyahu, Likud transformed from a raucous party proud of its internal democracy into a monolith without debate or dissent. That change shapes the fight over the judiciary

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud Knesset faction meeting, March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud Knesset faction meeting, March 13, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

In the election of 2015, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party ran a campaign warning that then-opposition leader Isaac Herzog would allow the Islamic State terror group into the country. In the next election, in 2019, it warned that challenger Benny Gantz was being blackmailed by Iranian intelligence over a purported extramarital affair uncovered by a hack of his private phone.

Politics, Likud officials like to say, is not a game for the overly sensitive.

Or as former campaign manager Ofer Golan memorably put it, “First you win, then you do damage control.”

Over the past two months, that political culture was on display in the government’s blitzkrieg of judicial reforms, in a strategy that sought to bludgeon the opposition into desperate last-minute talks or risk a complete erasure of the judiciary’s capacity to rein in the other branches of government.

The strategy was aggressive to the point of predatory, and disastrously counterproductive. Instead of cowing before the juggernaut, half the country became convinced the extreme version of the reform was not an opening negotiating position, but proof that the reform’s original purpose was just what it looked like: an attempt to transform Israel into an authoritarian state. So it went to war.

Nearly everything the coalition has done since seemed to prove the point. It proposed bills that would impose prison sentences for immodest dress at the Western Wall, grant police the right to search homes without warrants, set aside up to 30% of positions in government corporations and public companies for Haredim alone, massively expand state subsidies for non-working Haredi men largely at the expense of secular Israelis who pay most of the country’s income taxes, expand the jurisdiction of rabbinical courts where women are at a structural disadvantage on matters as basic as the relative strength of their testimony, set gender-separate swimming hours for rivers and springs in national parks, politicize the management of elections, and on and on.

Police scuffle with protesters during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Just on Monday, among the half-dozen bills advanced by the coalition was one that would allow public servants to receive almost unlimited amounts of money as gifts, including from anonymous donors, a measure meant to allow Netanyahu himself to keep some $270,000 he received as a gift from a late cousin.

This blitz was accompanied throughout the past two months by a steady drumbeat of populist rhetoric, including coalition lawmakers calling the High Court a “tyranny” that must be overthrown, boasting that secular Israelis would be “replaced” (as one Shas MK let slip), and calmly and repeatedly explaining that a Palestinian town should be “erased.”

Some of these bills or statements were retracted after a public uproar; most were not. But even those that have failed to advance helped set the narrative and define the public perception of this government’s intentions.

“First you win, then you do damage control.”

Most Israelis haven’t followed the intricate details of the institutional changes at the heart of the reform. Their support or opposition to it are mostly a function of their trust or distrust of the current government. The government’s behavior mattered.

The missing Knesset

Members of Knesset aren’t elected directly by the voters. Most are given their seats when their party leader appoints them to the Knesset list. Even in Likud, one of the few parties to still hold primaries, one rises or falls based on loyalty to Netanyahu more than any other factor. Most MKs are therefore beholden not to voters, but to their party leaders. And since those party leaders make up the government, Israel’s MKs essentially serve at the pleasure of the government ministers who appointed them.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with other Likud MKs including Nir Barkat and Avi Dichter in the Knesset plenum on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

That makes the Israeli Knesset an exceedingly weak check on government power, more so than in other parliamentary systems that have direct election of MPs or open-list systems where voters pick the line-up on election day.

That’s especially true in recent years with the decline of the party primary. Three decades ago, most MKs in most of the larger parties were elected by party members in a primary election, granting them a political foundation from which they could challenge and rein in party leaders, and thus the government. Across the center and left, that’s no longer true.

But it isn’t true in Likud either. Just a decade ago, Likud’s Danny Danon was able to use his chairmanship of the party’s Central Committee to call Netanyahu to task and even to run against him for party leader without risking his political career. Israel Katz, now the minister of infrastructure, energy and water, vied enthusiastically for the chairmanship of the party secretariat responsible for Likud’s election-day ground operation, a position that made him a force to be reckoned with even for the party leader.

Those days are gone now. The Central Committee, which once made news by taking up a debate on the Gaza Disengagement, now debates nothing. Election campaigns are run directly from Netanyahu’s desk. Even Likud’s local chapters, once a key stop on the road to national office, now wither on the vine without budgets or programming.

Over the past two months, it’s fair to say that this process, the slow gutting of party institutions, achieved its apotheosis. As the judiciary fight tore the country apart, Likud proved itself so astonishingly unified and harmonious that in practical terms its internal institutions all but disappeared. Critics began to speak of the MKs’ “vow of monastic silence” that prevented their questioning of the reform.

And that matters in the judiciary debate. The intensity of opposition to the government’s sweeping reforms isn’t just about protecting the court; polls consistently show broad support in principle for a reform of the judiciary. But three factors made the government’s plan anathema: The radicalism of the version advanced by the government, the seemingly endless litany of illiberal legislation and belligerent rhetoric, and the transformed Likud that in its conduct over the past 11 weeks demonstrated the Knesset’s inherent weakness as a check on government power.

Israelis protest against the Israeli government’s planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Voiceless

On February 14, in an interview with Channel 13, Likud’s Avi Dichter accidentally let slip a strange admission.

Asked about the silence of most Likud MKs up to that point as the judiciary fight roiled the country, Dichter replied, “We in Likud, internally, haven’t sat and studied this seriously yet, so anyone who tries to describe ‘what they think in Likud, what they say or don’t say in Likud,’ all those commentaries, believe me, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.”

The statement startled Dichter’s interviewer, the sympathetic right-wing pundit Sharon Gal.

“What, there hasn’t been a serious meeting on the reform in Likud? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Not yet,” said Dichter, nearly six weeks after the reform was presented to the public on January 4, and after some of its bills had already been filed in the Knesset. The first plenum vote would take place just six days later.

“But this has been talked about for months,” said Gal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party’s election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

“I’m telling you,” Dichter replied, “the things have been cooking. Look, Yariv Levin is leading this. He’ll present something very thought out and detailed, we will sit, discuss, sort out. Believe me, Likud doesn’t have irresponsible people, from Prime Minister Netanyahu through Yariv Levin and down to the last member of Likud. Any attempt to describe us as a bunch of polarizing saber-rattlers simply isn’t serious.”

That internal discussion never took place.

Instead, in the two and a half months since Levin’s first presentation of his reform, Likud and the rest of the coalition proved themselves united and uncurious about the controversial plan. Most MKs expressed unstinting support, a few offered meek calls for dialogue; none questioned even a single article of the sprawling legislation.

The most independent and powerful of Likud MKs tried to avoid the issue altogether.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Avi Dichter, left, at an FADC meeting in the Knesset, November 19, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

’We’re all Shas now’

After the High Court ruled in January that Shas leader Aryeh Deri must be fired from his posts as health and interior minister, Shas cabinet ministers developed a curious ritual. Each time Deri would enter the plenum, Shas’s cabinet ministers would hurriedly stand up from their seats at the government table and walk back into the ordinary MKs’ rows to sit by their leader.

As Ishay Cohen of the Haredi news site Kikar Hashabbat explained the ritual, “there’s never a moment in the plenum when Deri sits as an ordinary MK and [the Shas cabinet members] sit as ministers in the government.”

It is loyalty theater of a type common enough inside Haredi Shas but probably not seen before in the Knesset plenum. Like the Likud MKs who were told to stand loyally behind Netanyahu the day his trial began in May 2020, it is an act of political theater that increasingly reflects a new political reality.

Shas is not alone.

Perhaps the least popular of the government’s recent pieces of legislation, even among the coalition’s own MKs, is the bill known as “Deri Law No. 2,” an amendment to the Basic Law: The Government that would remove judicial review from cabinet appointments and allow Deri to return to the cabinet despite his multiple corruption convictions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (top R) leads a cabinet meeting to discuss the annual budget on February 23, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Whatever one thinks of the legal-constitutional question of a court’s intervention in cabinet appointments — some liberal scholars are as opposed to the idea as conservatives — the bill is generally seen by lawmakers as the least savory of the coalition’s many proposals.

It amounts to amending a constitutional Basic Law for the direct personal benefit of an individual politician, and specifically to allow him to serve in government despite serial corruption offenses. It is a law many Likud lawmakers quietly oppose and few want to be seen supporting.

And that’s precisely why every single one was ordered not only to vote for it but to actively sponsor it.

When the Deri bill was formally submitted to the Knesset on February 6, it bore the signatures of a whopping 37 sponsors — all the coalition’s MKs who weren’t also ministers, deputy ministers or the Knesset speaker, positions that prohibit them from sponsoring legislation. (There was a single holdout MK who hadn’t signed by February 6: Religious Zionism’s Simcha Rothman.)

For comparison, the bill immunizing Netanyahu from being declared unfit to serve as PM because of his trial was sponsored by five MKs, the bill setting aside government jobs exclusively for Haredim by three, and the one allowing hospitals to prohibit the entry of food that isn’t kosher for Passover by just one.

As one veteran MK described it, to order everyone to sponsor the bill together was a bullying tactic meant to prevent any from later claiming they hadn’t supported it. “I’ve never before, in all my years in the Knesset, seen an MK ordered to sign on to a bill as a sponsor,” said the MK.

Said another: “We’re all Shas now.”

Justice Minister Yariv Levin speaks in support of Aryeh Deri during a Shas party meeting at the Knesset on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Loyalty

The needs of the leader have increasingly overtaken the needs of the party, and, say critics, the needs of the country.

Even as the coalition now ostensibly seeks a compromise to its reform and announces the delay of some measures and a “softened” version of its judicial appointments bill, there are two bills rushing quickly through the system that it is adamantly refusing to soften or delay: The bill that would bring Deri back to the cabinet, and the one that would lift restrictions on gifts to public servants so Netanyahu can keep his cousin’s gift.

In the plenum, at least, the loyalty theater isn’t mere theatrics; it’s how the coalition prioritizes legislation.

It is affecting policy too. In mid-March, a Netanyahu smarting from the Biden administration’s refusal to meet with him reportedly ordered all government ministers to avoid traveling to the US and to refuse meetings with US officials until the administration ended its boycott of the PM — irrespective of the business they may have to conduct with the American administration.

A great many threads came together in the first three months of the new government: The slow collapse of Likud’s once-noisy, competitive inner life, the strategy of winning at all costs and then trying to minimize those costs after the fact, the breakneck speed and populist rhetoric that have only intensified opposition to the reform, the continuous flow of bills expanding the power of state religious institutions or weakening anti-corruption rules. The result, of course, has been chaos.

Defense Minister Yoav Galant, center, at a ceremony for incoming IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi at the army’s Kirya headquarters base in Tel Aviv, January 16, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the judicial overhaul continues to advance at astonishing speed. The coalition’s judicial appointments plan was changed twice on Monday alone — without any real debate in the Knesset, public or any coalition party on the significance of these changes, and without altering the self-imposed deadline to enact it as law by the end of the month.

But some, at long last, are choosing to break the “monastic silence” and ask hard questions.

Last Thursday, MK David Bitan was apparently the first to speak directly against the legislative blitz. His criticism was blunt: “The way they went about this, the speed with which they did this, the lack of explanations, they pushed all the bills instead of going one at a time slowly — all these things caused damage to the very proposal we want to pass. Today our situation is worse than it was before.”

A remarkable statement, but not a courageous one. Bitan’s tongue was liberated from the shackles of Likud politics not by personal courage but by a corruption trial underway since 2021. One co-defendant has already been convicted of bribing him. The day is likely nigh when his legal troubles will push him out of the Knesset anyway. He has nothing to lose.

Still, Bitan’s public criticism provided cover for others. Minister of Culture and Sports Miki Zohar worried on Thursday night that the country was “tearing apart.” On Saturday night, MK Yuli Edelstein said his party’s own conduct had helped fuel the protests, and not, as Netanyahu has insisted, foreign money and “anarchists.”

“If you constantly say, ‘We won’t stop, not even for a moment, and we will pass the reform as is,’ you are only helping recruit more and more power to the protests,” said Edelstein.

File: Israeli reserve soldiers, veterans and activists protest outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, against the Israeli government’s planned reforms, on February 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, MK Eli Dellal went even further. “We’ve reached a dead-end. Negotiating with ourselves isn’t as clever as we think. We should stop and do it properly and with broad agreement.”

Are these new voices a sign of a turnaround? Not quite. It was Netanyahu himself, desperate to mitigate the damage and put an end to the chaos, who announced late last week he would deliver a compromise. The new critics in Likud don’t think they’re challenging him; they think they’re paving a path he wants to walk.

On Monday, Netanyahu led a Likud faction meeting at which a “softened” version of the bill for choosing judges was presented; among the modifications, it lets the coalition directly appoint the first two High Court justices in each Knesset term, rather than all of them as in a previous draft. It was greeted by “tension” and “criticism,” Likud sources leaked to the press. (MKs’ phones were confiscated at the entrance to the meeting, so recordings were not forthcoming.)

Some MKs came out of the meeting arguing that the amendment constituted a shameful surrender to the left, others that it was an authentic effort at a serious compromise. Curiously, both camps were made up of Netanyahu’s most loyal proteges, including those directly appointed by him to the Knesset list.

MK Tali Gottlieb, for example, railed against the “surrender,” while Galit Distel Atbaryan enthused that “the [new] framework isn’t a surrender because we don’t think of our brothers on the left in terms of surrender or control.”

To those watching from the outside, the disagreement was suspiciously convenient. The sudden willingness of loyalists like Gottlieb to criticize seemed designed to show the compromise was real; the sudden praise by the generally more belligerent Distel Atbaryan seemed directed to the party’s base to provide political cover for Netanyahu.

Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The only lawmakers who went off-script after the meeting were independents like Bitan, who chided, “This is the last time you do this without consulting us.” He was roundly ignored.

The government has spent over two months pushing legislation to radically weaken the judiciary that, some on the right now claim, it never meant to pass in so extreme a form. With half the country convinced it’s under assault, growing ranks of reservists beginning to refuse to serve and economic harm from the overhaul already reaching into the billions, that old formula — “first you win, then you do damage control” — no longer fits the situation. The damage is becoming too great.

Haredi Shas was always illiberal and enamored with charismatic leadership. The lawmakers of Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism have never hidden their illiberal predilections. But Likud was once a rowdy and unruly party with multiple power centers, unpredictable primaries and strong institutions that hosted serious debates on ideology and legislation, a party as proud of its liberalism as its nationalism.

That old, boisterous Likud has now imploded into something else, something loyal, unquestioning, eerily docile, free of dissenters or debates, that has even many supporters of judicial reform worried that a coalition with such a political culture at its heart might seek to do the same with the country.

If it wants to contain the damage, it may be time for Likud, now celebrating its 50th year, to reclaim its lost voice and its forgotten diversity.

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