Top Netanyahu associate warns against ‘playing with the lion’s balls’

Natan Eshel tells reporters they shouldn’t believe PM is losing grip on government, as coalition members make threats over state budget disagreements

File: Natan Eshel attends a memorial ceremony for Yoni Netanyahu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's brother, at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, in Jerusalem, on June 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
File: Natan Eshel attends a memorial ceremony for Yoni Netanyahu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's brother, at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery, in Jerusalem, on June 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a peculiar message Thursday, a close associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned reporters that they were underestimating the premier’s power amid disputes with his coalition partners.

Netanyahu on Thursday reportedly faced threats from dueling government members that they would quit the government over a dispute on the allocation of funding in the upcoming state budget. The internal divisions have sparked questions in the media over the Likud leader’s hold over his allies and the stability of the coalition, only five months into its term.

“A suggestion to everyone,” Natan Eshel wrote in a WhatsApp group with journalists. “Whoever thinks the lion is tired and weak is mistaken. He is at the height of his power. You are mistaken when you think you are playing children’s games. You are playing with the lion’s balls, and he doesn’t like it.”

He added that “the blow will come,” without elaborating.

Eshel, a close confidant of Netanyahu’s, served in the Prime Minister’s Office between 2009 and 2012. He resigned as part of a plea bargain over sexual misconduct allegations, specifically that he had used a surreptitiously placed camera to film under the skirt of a female colleague. He was also accused of accessing her private emails.

He is believed to remain in close contact with Netanyahu.

The former senior staffer has had a history of making outrageous comments. During the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020, he blamed the public, not the government, for a renewed outbreak of the virus. In the lead-up to the March 2020 elections, he was recorded saying said that “hate is what unites” the right-wing camp led by the Likud party and that negative campaigning works well on “non-Ashkenazi voters.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (right) walks with Matityahu Dan, chairman of the Ateret Cohanim organization, after a meeting at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, May 7, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The coalition is experiencing ongoing tensions over the upcoming state budget. A total of NIS 13.7 billion in discretionary funding was divvied up between parties in the upcoming budget. The Otzma Yehudit party griped that far-right Religious Zionism — led by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — received over a billion shekels for party-held ministries and ultra-Orthodox parties got a NIS 3.7 billion boost for yeshiva students, one of their core concerns.

On Wednesday, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir ordered Otzma Yehudit lawmakers to boycott Knesset votes in a bid to pressure allied parties to divert more funds to its priorities in the 2023-2024 state budget — specifically the Negev and Galilee Ministry, held by the faction.

Additionally, a faction within United Torah Judaism has threatened to withhold support for the budget if it doesn’t receive an extra NIS 600 million ($164 million) to fund full-time religious scholars.

Kan news reported on Thursday that Smotrich told Netanyahu he will resign his position if the Haredi parties receive the funds they demanded. Smotrich denied the report.

The Agudat Yisrael faction of UTJ has reportedly threatened to pull out of the coalition if they do not receive the additional demanded funds. Degel HaTorah, the second faction in UTJ, has yet to announce whether it is joining the protest and did not respond to a request for comment.

While the 64-member coalition can still pass the budget without Agudat Yisrael’s three votes in the 120-member Knesset, this would not be the case if Degel HaTorah supports its partner and withholds its votes as well.

Discretionary funds are only a portion of the trillion-shekel, two-year budget expected to be approved by the end of May, but have ballooned from NIS 1.2 billion in the last budget to its current figure as a result of political pressures, and Otzma Yehudit apparently wants to receive a larger slice of the pie.

Ben Gvir is considered the most volatile link in the Netanyahu government’s chain and has staged several boycotts and public protests against their shared government in the five months since being sworn in at the end of last year.

The government must pass a budget before its May 29 deadline, which if not met would trigger an automatic dissolution of parliament and snap elections.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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