ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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AnalysisDon't believe the threats from Ben Gvir, UTJ or Shas

For Netanyahu, the storm before the calm?

Things are looking up for the prime minister. If he can finish the Gaza fighting with public support intact and pass a state budget by month’s end, he will be all but unassailable

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a security cabinet meeting at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on May 9, 2023. (Avi Ohayan/GPO)
In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a security cabinet meeting at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on May 9, 2023. (Avi Ohayan/GPO)

Until the start of hostilities with the Islamic Jihad terror group this week, Netanyahu’s government seemed to be teetering on the brink of collapse.

The prime minister was in a bitter row with most of his coalition partners. Some were threatening to leave the coalition or angrily calling for him to resign.

There was the never-ending fight with National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and his far-right Otzma Yehudit Knesset faction, which spent a week refusing to vote with the coalition unless Netanyahu fulfilled a long series of demands, not least of which was a major military operation in the West Bank and Gaza — along with a return to the fast-tracking of the judicial overhaul; much tougher prison conditions for Palestinian security prisoners; and perhaps most importantly, letting Ben Gvir himself into top-level security discussions and decision-making forums from which the firebrand extremist has been quietly excluded by Netanyahu over the past few months.

To a significant extent, Ben Gvir brought his marginalization upon himself. According to sources in the government — or rather, just about anyone in the government who isn’t from Ben Gvir’s own faction — he has failed basic tests of competence and trustworthiness.

The national police force he is ostensibly leading is chronically understaffed and underfunded, but Ben Gvir has spent almost no time focusing on the organization’s problems. A new round of senior appointments is being delayed. He seems at every turn to confuse rhetoric with action, as when he went on national television in February to declare the launch of a massive law enforcement operation in East Jerusalem — without consulting or even notifying the broader government. He then seemed surprised that his slapdash declaration wasn’t carried out.

In March, when Netanyahu tried to mitigate the blowback to the judicial overhaul by declaring a temporary freeze, Ben Gvir was the lone coalition leader who refused to accept Netanyahu’s announcement. He threatened to leave the government and had to be bought off with the establishment of a new “national guard” police force answerable directly to him — a move that only drew more criticism of Netanyahu and the government at home and abroad.

The Brothers in Arms protest group against the government’s judicial overhaul demonstrates outside the home of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, May 4, 2023. The billboard reads, “Zero governance, zero responsibility, zero ability. This is too big for you!” (Courtesy Brothers in Arms)

To Likud and other coalition partners, he’s been a burden on the government, all costs and no benefit. And that matters for one simple reason. Ben Gvir’s six-seat faction could topple Netanyahu’s 64-seat coalition by one simple move: refusing to support the state budget in Knesset votes over the next two weeks.

So could Netanyahu’s Haredi partners Shas and United Torah Judaism.

“Why does [Netanyahu] sign agreements and then not fulfill them?” a frustrated Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush of UTJ demanded in a televised interview with the Haredi journalist Ishay Cohen on May 2.

UTJ is bitterly angry at the prime minister. One solemn promise after another appears set to go unfulfilled: the “parity in education” demand granting Haredi schools without core curriculum classes the same level of state funding as schools that teach modern math, science and English; the IDF draft law affirming the exemption for Haredi men from military service; the judicial override clause; and on and on. “Why sign an agreement with Netanyahu in the first place?” Porush asked. “How ridiculous does he want to look? Why did I help form this government, so we could listen to the same excuses of Treasury bureaucrats that we heard in the Bennett-Lapid era?”

Cohen, the interviewer, offered Porush a theory to explain these broken promises: “Almost all the [Haredi] demands” are being ignored, he agreed. “But the viewer might ask, ‘So what? Netanyahu controls you. You have nowhere to go. So he can do whatever he wants and the Haredim will fold again and again.’”

Right to left: United Torah Judaism chairman Yitzhak Goldknopf and party MKs Meir Porush and Ya’akov Tessler at a High Court of Justice hearing, in Jerusalem, July 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I don’t recommend that he rely on such things,” Porush grumbled in response. “When will the day come when we don’t have to be afraid [of the public reaction to Haredi demands]? And if we must forever live in fear, then Netanyahu needs to say, ‘I can’t be a prime minister here, because I can’t give you what you need.’… Who will sign agreements in the future if they’re never carried out? Netanyahu tells me, ‘I can’t.’ What does ‘I can’t’ mean? If you can’t, go home.”

The frustration is real, and seemed to be growing over the past month. One headline on the Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat on Sunday read, “The dilemma in the ‘Council’: Breaking up the government and going with Gantz in the next election.”

Some scoff at such political posturing, and for good reason. Such interviews and headlines are obvious attempts to frighten Netanyahu into acquiescing to Haredi demands. But that doesn’t mean they’re not simultaneously authentic expressions of frustration and signals of a real sense of disappointment and neglect. Hasidic factions within UTJ are now pushing for a tougher stance against Netanyahu, and doing so with the blessing of their rabbinic leadership. They’re making the reasonable case that, as the Kikar Hashabbat article explained, “breaking up the government and going to the next election with [National Unity party chief Benny] Gantz will end the hatred [against Haredim on the center-left], make the extremists [i.e., far-rightists Ben Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich] disappear, and get more for the Haredim” from a grateful center-left than they’ve so far received from a right-wing that takes them for granted.

Even Shas, Netanyahu’s most stalwart supporter over the years, has been signaling its frustration. In a column in the party’s official media outlet, Haderech, party spokesman Asher Medina called to “boycott [Knesset] votes until the Deri law is approved.” That’s a reference to the bill that would change anti-corruption rules to allow Shas leader Aryeh Deri to serve in the cabinet despite his past convictions on corruption offenses.

The current government, explained Medina, “was established only thanks to [Deri], and it has no right to be without Rabbi Aryeh at the cabinet table. The conspiracy to distance the chairman of the Shas movement from the government continues — and no one speaks out.”

In case anyone failed to understand who, specifically, was failing to “speak out” (or perhaps even leading the anti-Deri conspiracy), Medina explained that it was “the main actor in this play: arrogant, full of himself, delivering the latest messaging of the elite classes that hold Israel by the throat…. He’s a sock puppet of the [center-left] protesters. Netanyahu is the prime minister today thanks to Rabbi Deri’s efforts, and he knows that perfectly well.”

Head of the Shas party Aryeh Deri leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is hard to imagine that Medina could print such words in the party’s official daily, a paper founded in 2017 by Deri himself, without approval from above.

Saved by the war?

Some critics of Netanyahu have said over the past two days that his decision to avenge the rocket fire by Islamic Jihad with assassinations of some of the terror group’s leaders on Tuesday, triggering an escalation in Gaza, was linked to these political troubles.

The theory is suggested by the timing of events. After a volley of Islamic Jihad rockets last week, Ben Gvir stormed out of the government and announced he wouldn’t vote with the coalition until it took a tougher stance against Gaza.

That was May 3. Standing before news cameras, the Otzma Yehudit leader complained — and apparently didn’t realize what he was admitting — that he’d been excluded from security consultations. He issued a direct threat to Netanyahu: “I’m saying this bluntly: If you don’t want a genuinely right-wing government, you’re welcome to send us all home. Otzma Yehudit won’t attend [Knesset] votes until the prime minister understands and internalizes that the purpose of this government is to be genuinely, fully right-wing.”

The threat not to vote with the coalition is a real one. By law, the 25th Knesset must either pass a state budget by May 29 or be dissolved for new elections. The coalition has a lot of work to do before that deadline if it wants to avert collapse, including preparing budget bills in committee and winning votes in the plenum. A boycott of that process scarcely three weeks before the deadline is a threat Netanyahu can’t afford to ignore. When it comes from the unpredictable Ben Gvir or the genuinely frustrated Hasidic factions within UTJ, it’s reasonable to wonder if the government’s days are numbered.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a debate in the Knesset on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yet Netanyahu hasn’t seemed worried by the prospect. His response to Ben Gvir’s threat last week was so blunt and humiliating that many wondered if the Netanyahu-Ben Gvir alliance was nearing the end of the road. Netanyahu not only acknowledged his exclusion of Ben Gvir from high-level decision-making, he doubled down on it.

A statement put out by Likud spokespeople read: “The prime minister, the defense minister, the IDF and the security services are managing the sensitive and complex security situation that Israel faces. The prime minister decides which bodies are relevant for consultations. If Minister Ben Gvir finds that insufficient, he doesn’t have to remain in the government.”

To some Netanyahu observers, the very public sidelining of Ben Gvir only happened because Netanyahu planned to escalate in Gaza, leaving Ben Gvir shorn of his complaint and very visibly marginalized and irrelevant.

The escalation isn’t being driven by domestic politics, even if Netanyahu has used it for domestic political benefit

Netanyahu’s critics ask: Which came first? Did he use a military escalation he had in any case planned for valid strategic reasons to sideline a political rabble-rouser — or did he search for ways to sideline his critic and land on a Gaza escalation?

The answer is almost certainly the former. The escalation isn’t being driven by domestic politics, even if Netanyahu has used it for domestic political benefit. Netanyahu has a very long history of avoiding military conflicts. The 2010s, when Netanyahu was prime minister, saw the lowest levels of violence and death in Israel’s history. Netanyahu fears the unpredictability of conflict — too many Israeli leaders have been felled in one way or another by public disappointment with the handling of a war, from Golda Meir to Menachem Begin to Ehud Olmert. A politician as careful and calculating as Netanyahu is thus unlikely to leap into a war, if only for reasons of political expediency.

Whatever Netanyahu’s thinking, the war’s effect is the same. The far-right is temporarily neutralized. Opposition leader Yair Lapid expressed unreserved support for the government for the duration of the fighting. The government even froze the judicial compromise talks at the President’s House on Thursday so, officials explained, it could focus on the war effort.

Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepts rockets launched from Gaza City on May 10, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

No confidence

In political terms, then, the skirmish with Islamic Jihad in Gaza is a brief respite, a handy way to tame Netanyahu’s more wayward partners, a short-lived hiccup he doesn’t have to win but must merely not appear to lose. If the public doesn’t see a dramatic failure, the political system’s gaze will soon return to the halls of the Knesset and the budget votes on which the government’s survival depends.

That budget vote is Netanyahu’s last great hurdle. If the budget passes, everything changes. Netanyahu’s tenuous and chaotic five months back in power end, and a new era begins in the life of Israel’s 37th government. Netanyahu’s political position becomes almost unassailable; his opponents and coalition partners lose their most significant lever of influence over him. He is free.

The reason is a little-known parliamentary rule called “constructive no-confidence.”

In 2014, the Knesset passed a change to parliamentary rules meant to strengthen Israel’s chronically unstable governments. It’s a provision known as “constructive no-confidence.” Until the change, if a majority of the Knesset came to dislike the government, it could hold a vote of “no confidence” and topple the government within the week. Another MK chosen by the Knesset would then try to form an alternate government or, failing that, call new elections.

But since 2014, a sitting government cannot be dissolved without a replacement government ready to take its place. For the Knesset to topple the current government, it must carry out two votes in the same sitting: one to oust the current government and a second to vote into power an alternate one, complete with a new prime minister and cabinet ready to take the reins immediately. If the second vote is unsuccessful, the first one doesn’t go into force.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir walks past Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (seated, left), Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Infrastructure and Energy Minister Israel Katz in the Knesset plenum on May 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu can fall in two ways: by failing to pass the state budget by May 29, or by a constructive no-confidence vote that replaces his government with a fully staffed alternate government that enjoys a majority in the current Knesset.

That latter method is essentially impossible in the current parliament. The opposition is too divided, the coalition relatively united. There’s no imaginable majority in the 25th Knesset that might vote into power a Prime Minister Yair Lapid, or even, despite the support he enjoys in some Haredi circles, a Prime Minister Benny Gantz.

If Netanyahu successfully clears the May 29 budget deadline, it’s more or less clear sailing until the next budget deadline in March 2025.

And that has far greater ramifications for his own partners than for the opposition. The opposition lacks the votes to topple him in any case, with or without constructive no-confidence. But Netanyahu’s own coalition partners temporarily enjoy a massive lever of influence over him: He can’t afford to lose their votes for the budget law — and once it passes, he can pretty much survive in power without their help until spring 2025.

Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich with United Torah Judaism leader Yitzchak Goldknopf at the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On the morning of May 30, Shas, UTJ and Otzma Yehudit will suddenly discover how little leverage they have over a prime minister with no easy method for removing him from office. If Ben Gvir tries to carry out his oft-made threat to leave the coalition, Netanyahu will lose his parliamentary majority — and gain an excuse to temper the coalition’s legislation by seeking votes across the aisle. It would be a convenient rehabilitation of the government’s brand, not least among the perhaps 10 Knesset seats’ worth of right-wing voters who polls show have turned away from the government.

Instead of setting the government’s agenda and tone, Netanyahu’s coalition partners will suddenly find themselves coming to the cabinet table as supplicants.

It is this switch, this moment of Netanyahu’s liberation from any serious threat they could offer, that drives their hysterical warnings and calls for him to quit. Anything that Ben Gvir or Porush or Smotrich or any other coalition partner can’t get from him by May 29, they’re unlikely to get from him afterwards except at his discretion.

Anything that Ben Gvir or Porush or Smotrich or any other coalition partner can’t get from him by May 29 they’re unlikely to get from him afterwards

And so Netanyahu is charging ahead with the budget and calling everyone’s bluff. It’s a budget with much to criticize: too much spending on entitlements, too few meaningful reforms. It is even missing long-promised changes that Netanyahu himself made the centerpiece of his campaign, such as streamlining import regulations that drive up the cost of imported goods by double digits and make Israel one of the most expensive places to live in the developed world.

But to Netanyahu these are details. Everything bad or broken about the budget can be fixed afterward, in the calm, sunlit post-budget era. The priority — nothing else matters — is to get the budget passed.

Which Netanyahu?

UTJ’s anger and Shas’s indignation and Otzma’s bellicose threats are thus not the first step in the government’s looming collapse; they are strong signals that it has finally found its footing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the 75th anniversary Independence Day ceremony, held at Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on April 25, 2023. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Ben Gvir’s recent antics show that he, too, though still a neophyte, understands that the rules are about to change; that his unofficial relegation to the margins of national-security policymaking, now a matter of public record, will be lifted only on Netanyahu’s terms; that he’s found the limits of what can be achieved through bluster alone. And if he did not understand all that last week, Netanyahu’s treatment of him since should have helped clarify the point.

Netanyahu’s partners are asking themselves a question no one quite knows the answer to: Which Netanyahu will emerge out of the fog of pre-budget instability? Will it be the calm and competent economic reformer of yesteryear, or the more recent Netanyahu who became the first prime minister in Israel’s history to refuse to pass a state budget for an entire fiscal year (2020) in a bid to outmaneuver a political adversary and promised irresponsibly vast deficit spending to secure the loyalty of political allies?

Will he prove a moderate on the burning question of the judicial overhaul — a position he’s tried to claim for himself in foreign media interviews even as he’s defended the reform’s more radical versions in Hebrew — or be revealed as the actual force behind the unpopular version advanced by his government almost from its founding?

“I have both hands on the wheel,” Netanyahu has insisted to every American interviewer who would speak to him over the past four months. (He rarely gives interviews to non-ideologically supportive Israeli press.) That claim hasn’t really been true; he could not rein in his partners nor set the government’s agenda on a range of vital issues.

But on the morning of May 30, that claim will finally align with political reality. It’ll be his hand that sets the government’s direction — and therefore Netanyahu himself who will own any further chaos and failures of the sort that have defined his government thus far. When conflict ignites in the West Bank, prices soar on consumer goods, or the judicial overhaul returns to the agenda and brings mass protests back to Israel’s streets, it’ll be Netanyahu’s hand alone that decides its course and reaps the consequences of failure.

For better or worse — given recent polling numbers, the public is not optimistic — the 37th government of the State of Israel will finally begin to govern.

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