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Despite failure to block new budget, Netanyahu not ready to retire

After the failure to block the new budget, opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu embarks on a campaign to preserve his political alliance and his status as head of the Likud.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in the Knesset before parliament votes to approve the new government, Jerusalem, June 13, 2021.

“The [former Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu era in Israeli politics is over,” Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin announced confidently in a series of interviews on the evening of Nov. 4. By then, it was clear that the Knesset would pass the 2021-22 budget. He said this after a three-day marathon of debates in the Knesset leading up to the final vote. It was the biggest test yet to face the narrow and very polarized coalition. If its 61 members would have failed to run the budget through this harrowing gauntlet, the government would fall.

That is why the opposition made every effort over the last few days to sway one or two members of the coalition to defect. It was an effort led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. He made all sorts of promises and applied all sorts of pressure to anyone he marked as a potential defector. It was futile. In the end, he discovered that this bizarre coalition made up of the Islamist Ra’am party and parties on the right (amid other partners) was more than ready to come together as one for this decisive moment.

The budget saga ended on the night of Nov. 4-5 with a victory selfie including all members of the coalition. The photo immediately went viral on every social network platform. The three main architects of the deal — Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Finance Minister and Chair of Yisrael Beitenu Avigdor Liberman, and Minister Elkin from the New Hope party — were all smiles as they sauntered about the Knesset celebrating the occasion. It was a major achievement for each of them.

While the coalition was celebrating its victory, the opposition was reeling from a devastating blow. The person to suffer most was the Likud party chair, Netanyahu.

Less than five months had passed since this “government of change” had been formed against all odds, and especially against the widespread sentiment (fanned by Netanyahu) that there was no way that it could survive. Nevertheless, it had just passed a budget, and with that, ensured itself an extended period of political calm and stability.

Now, Netanyahu will face his greatest and most challenging test yet. He will need to preserve the historic alliance between the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties under the most difficult conditions, with no new election in the foreseeable future. Exacerbating this is the fact that he no longer wields the power of government, after having it concentrated in his hands for years. At the same time, he will also have to defend his special status within the Likud, as the most popular figure in the party and as someone who cannot be defeated in a primary. That, coupled with his rising poll numbers, is what has helped him so far to withstand pressure from other senior Likud leaders, who would like to see him retire.

But Netanyahu is not ready to retire, and he rejects all predictions that he will. So, what will happen? He will likely remain in the rink and wait for his chance to return to the prime minister’s office. He was still convinced that this will happen, even after the budget was passed.

These days, he is putting the finishing touches on his political autobiography, a book running several hundred pages, which will be released in the United States. It is said to include new information and revelations about the peace talks that led to the signing of the Abraham Accords, as well as previously unreleased details about his fight against the Iranian nuclear program. The book is intended to play an important role in Netanyahu’s next election campaign. He wants to use it to bolster his image as a statesman and meta-politician.

According to one source close to Netanyahu who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The coalition is spreading the rumor that Netanyahu will resign from politics once the budget is approved. But the fact is that the budget has been passed and Netanyahu is still here. There is no sign that he is about to retire. In fact, the exact opposite is true.”

According to that same source, Netanyahu is planning to hit the ground every week and visit the Likud’s major strongholds in order to maintain his relationship with his voters. At the same time, he will stand vigilant in maintaining his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties in the opposition, which are also going through a difficult period, given their removal from positions of power and their lack of say in determining the budget. There are those in the coalition who want to see it expanded by including the ultra-Orthodox. Their voices are already heard. Netanyahu is well aware that if that should happen, it will end up hurting him in the Likud as well.

From now on, the government will surely make all sorts of gestures to the ultra-Orthodox. It will be part of an effort to weaken Netanyahu and undermine his standing within the Likud. To do this, the coalition will resort to the kind of rhetoric intended to portray him as a “dead horse,” to use Minister Elkin’s term.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has actually already started to do this. It was apparent in the statement he gave Oct. 31, on his way to Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. “Here in Israel, we expect a crazy week, which will get wilder every day the closer the vote on the budget gets. The moment the budget passes, it gives the government stability for several years. The implication for the opposition is that it will fall apart and crumble to pieces. They understand this. They’re desperate. They are desperate to bring down the budget and bring about a fifth election [since April 2019]. Therefore, we expect a week of big fake news. There is nothing they won’t do this week to bring down the budget and lead to fifth elections. But I want to calm everyone. They are wasting their efforts. The budget will pass.”

So far, this kind of rhetoric does not seem to be having an effect on the Likud or the right at large. As already noted, Netanyahu is rising in the polls, while Bennett’s Yamina party and Justice Minister Gideon Saar’s New Hope party are dropping. If elections were held now, Saar wouldn’t even pass the electoral threshold.

Netanyahu knows that he derives his political power from the public, which continues to support him unabashedly even after he was removed from power. This includes more than just the 1 million-plus Likud voters. It also includes hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox voters. They are his insurance policy.

In many ways, Netanyahu is once again leader of the alliance of underdogs that brought him to power the first time around, after late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995. At the time, Netanyahu was the leader of the opposition, who lead the fight against the Oslo Accord. After Rabin’s assassination, he was accused of contributing to the incitement leading up to Rabin’s death. Back then, he was able to mobilize the right, the ultra-Orthodox and Russian immigrants, all of whom felt that they were being accused indirectly of being responsible for the assassination. Now, three decades later, Netanyahu is head of a similar coalition, just this time without the Russian immigrants. Much of his electorate consists of people from the lower economic and social strata of Israeli society. That is why Netanyahu attacked the budget this week by claiming that it was a budget for the rich.

“They [the government] raise taxes on soft drinks and disposable utensils, and [they are imposing] a tax on the periphery that is euphemistically called the congestion tax. These are taxes that create severe discrimination against the weaker echelons, against ultra-Orthodox society and against the periphery."

He continued, “Your government of lies promised that it would lower prices, but in practice you are raising prices. [The price of] fuel is rising, electricity is rising, public transportation is rising, fruits and vegetables are rising. Everything is getting more expensive. … [The public] wants a real government, not a reality government."

The next few months will show whether Netanyahu is able to maintain his position in the polls, or whether Bennett and Elkin’s predictions will come true.

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