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Israeli right's battle over Netanyahu successor remains behind the scenes

With polls showing that the public supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite the investigations, his own party members are forced to do the same.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations in Jerusalem, February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RC111BBBB180

The leaders of the right-wing coalition in Israel are toeing the line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu right now. Aside from weak “ethical” reservations, not one of them has demanded his resignation at this time. Despite the opportunity to publicly criticize Netanyahu’s leadership, they hesitate. A senior Likud minister told Al-Monitor that the succession battle will start only when everyone will be convinced that Netanyahu is out. Otherwise, those launching such a battle will be considered as joining forces with Likud enemies against the leader of the party and the right-wing camp. Another Likud minister said that Netanyahu’s policy of politically eliminating his rivals has instilled great fear within party members, to the extent that deterrence will play a role until Netanyahu is effectively out. And then, he said, quite a few Likud seniors will sigh with relief. The largest party in Israel would be ready to launch the succession battle.

The second reason is no less important. If an election were to be held today in Israel — an election for prime minister — Netanyahu would win in a landslide, despite the investigations and the grave suspicions, as the polls claim. Netanyahu is the preferred figure for the Israeli right, admired by most — even among supporters of coalition parties other than the Likud. Thus, the Likud has maintained its electoral power in polls conducted every other day.

For example, a poll conducted for TV show "Meet the Press" on Feb. 24 gives the Likud 28 mandates and a majority for the current coalition. An internal poll conducted by the Likud is even more optimistic, giving the ruling party 30 mandates.

The significance is that many on the right accept the narrative Netanyahu has broadcast to his voters in recent years: The left that hasn’t managed to win an election seeks to depose him by other means and has falsely accused him of empty plots through its agents in the media and the police.

Netanyahu emphasized this point in an election broadcast in 2015, showing him being disturbed permanently by minor issues (for instance, the bottle recycling episode, when Mrs. Netanyahu was accused of collecting the deposit money), while he is concerned with truly important matters. Another broadcast from the same election showed Netanyahu teaching kindergarten, where the children are the leaders of the other parties and he is the only responsible adult.

Even if some on the right believe the police recommendations on forbidden contacts with tycoons, the common position on the right is that there is no one in Israel — certainly not on the left — who could replace Netanyahu in the diplomatic, security and even economic arenas. This is one of the biggest question marks on the right in general and especially in the Likud Party: Would someone else be able to lead the nationalist camp to victory in an election if Netanyahu is forced to resign?

Only a few came out against this common position — among them right-wing intellectual Israel Harel. In a Haaretz article, Harel argues that Netanyahu leads the Likud into the abyss, and that by insisting to stay he could lead the left wing rising to rule. He also criticized senior Likud members who avoid at this point slamming the affairs involving Netanyahu’s associates and family members.

The internal battle within the Likud is only taking place behind the scenes. Those who consider themselves candidates for the premiership fear that trying to promote themselves would be interpreted as taking a stand against Netanyahu. Thus, each of the potential candidates is being very careful; if he would name himself as a candidate, he would quickly clarify that it would be only after the current prime minister leaves the scene. This is the case for Knesset member Avi Dichter, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In March 2017, he declared his intention to run for head of the Likud, and even said that “anyone who says that the prime minister can continue to function without interruption or distraction when an investigation is being conducted on him is not telling the truth." In a Feb. 24 interview with Maariv daily, Dichter changed his tune and clarified that he would run after the Netanyahu era. He did not repeat his statement from a year ago about the prime minister’s problematic functioning during investigations.

Yisrael Katz, the minister of transportation and minister of intelligence, also backed Netanyahu over the weekend. “The prime minister is functioning well and his judgment is guided only by the criteria of governing,” Katz said in an interview with Channel 2 News. “I absolutely reject all the calls I hear for his resignation and for an early election. They all come from political calculations. The public rejects this and embraces Netanyahu. I oppose an early election.” 

This is the line guiding the whole coalition: The election will take place at its designated time in late 2019. Aryeh Deri, the interior minister and chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, said Feb. 25 in an interview with the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation Kan that a government isn’t dismantled because of investigations, and there is no better government for ultra-Orthodox Judaism than the Netanyahu government. “Why break it up?” wondered Deri, who is also currently under investigation for corruption. Later in the interview, Deri clarified that the Defense Service law the ultra-Orthodox seek to legislate (exempting rabbinical college students from drafting) would be approved with this government, but he refused to turn it into a threat to the standing of the coalition.

The ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Council of Torah Sages also did not make the Defense Service law a condition for the standing of the government. After hours of debate last week, the ultra-Orthodox party leaders determined that “it would make a sharp and unilateral statement to pass the Defense Service law before the budget, but it would not give an ultimatum.”

Netanyahu’s alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties — his most loyal partners — has withstood the earthquake of the investigation thanks to his agreement to almost any demand of theirs, and thanks to the enormous support for Netanyahu among the ultra-Orthodox public.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is of the opinion that even if Netanyahu is indicted, he does not have to resign and should only do so if he is convicted. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of Kulanu, who sought to be portrayed as keeper of the rule of law in Israel, has left the decision to the attorney general and clarified on his Facebook page that he would continue business as usual until the attorney general’s decision.

At this stage, the Israeli right has deferred any uncertainties or dilemmas and has granted Netanyahu nearly total support, at least until the next test — the decision of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on an indictment. For the Netanyahu government, as long as the prime minister wants it, there is room to breathe at least for another six months or even until the end of 2018.

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