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Netanyahu goes all out in battle against state budget

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do whatever it takes politically to prevent the state budget from passing, thereby toppling the Bennett government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before parliament votes to approve the new government, Jerusalem, June 13, 2021.

Israeli law considers the vote over the state budget as a vote of confidence in the government. Thus, with the 2021-22 budget scheduled to be voted on Nov. 4, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces one of his most critical junctures in the current era. A Knesset approval will cement the future of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government for at least two years, meaning that Netanyahu’s prospects of returning to power in the foreseeable future will shrink to almost nil. On the other hand, if Netanyahu comes up with some sort of political ploy or a miracle occurs and he is able to deprive the government of the majority it needs to pass the budget, the Knesset will be automatically dissolved. In such an eventuality, Netanyahu will be crowned in an instant, at least in the eyes of the public, as Israel’s next prime minister.

Netanyahu obviously knows this. His many followers do, too. His successor Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Justice Minister Gideon Saar are also well aware of the stakes. The budget vote is a decisive battle of historic proportions waged by a fragile but determined multiparty coalition against the most powerful politician ever to operate in Israel, a man without inhibitions capable of doing anything it takes to turn back his wheel of fortune and make another comeback, against all odds.

The first and most prominent victim of Netanyahu’s comeback salvation campaign is Knesset member Mansour Abbas, whose Islamist Ra’am party is the first Arab party to participate fully in an Israeli government. Just months after engaging with him in a highly publicized romance, Netanyahu has turned Abbas into the ultimate demon in recent weeks.

At the time, Netanyahu, who needed Ra’am’s four Knesset members for his desperate bid to form a government following the March 2021 elections, courted Abbas and activated his many associates in the press and social media to legitimize him as a potential partner. Netanyahu’s well-oiled propaganda machine ran around the clock to convince his voters that the time had come to reach out to Israel’s Arab minority, that Abbas does not support terrorism and that all Abbas wants is to take part in the democratic political game — in other words, it was high time for political coexistence.

Throughout the election campaign, Netanyahu boasted of a new nickname bestowed on him by Arab voters — Abu Yair, the father of Yair, his first-born son. He went on the stump to Bedouin Ra’am strongholds in Israel’s south, pledged allocations of tens of billions of shekels for Arab communities and convinced himself that having managed to split up the Arab Joint List prior to the elections and transfer one-third of its members (the Ra’am party of this Arab alliance) to his side, he would once again obtain the keys to the prime minister’s office.

But all his machinations were to no avail. The chair of the far-right Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich torpedoed his attempts to bring Ra’am into the coalition, refusing to bring his own party into a government with the Islamists and depriving Netanyahu of the 61 fingers he needed to secure a Knesset majority. Bennett and Lapid ended up enjoying the fruit of Netanyahu’s labors, bringing Abbas into the government in a historic move for which Netanyahu had in fact paved the way.

When this happened, Netanyahu and his associates resorted to depicting Abbas once again as a dangerous supporter of terrorism. This campaign of demonizing Abbas has intensified in recent days. For the past week, the media is awash with reports and exposes about alleged links between Abbas’ party and the Islamist Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. Specifically, the party is accused of allegedly improper links with the Assistance 48 Association that helps Gazan orphans and widows. The propaganda message is clear — Israel is committing suicide by allowing cynical politicians like Bennett to include Ra’am in the government.

Netanyahu is storming all the bastions in an effort to tempt just one member of the coalition to jump ship and vote against the budget. His success is not guaranteed even if he pulls off such a move because the coalition presents the budget 10 days prior to the Nov. 14 legal deadline, in a calculated move to foil such a scenario. If Netanyahu and his people can mobilize a renegade, this time frame would give Liberman time to make a deal with a Knesset member from the opposition Arab Joint List on absenting himself from the vote in order to provide the coalition with a majority. The coalition could also resort to a legal maneuver dubbed the “Norwegian Law,” firing the rebel lawmaker and replacing him with a senior government minister in order to obtain the needed vote.

Judging by his continuing efforts, Netanyahu refuses to consider the idea that his prospects of success are slim. The way things look now, he will fight to the end with all the means he can muster. His associates are counting on polls in which Netanyahu demonstrates impressive power (36 seats for his Likud party according to a Nov. 1 Channel 13 poll), on his popularity and on his constituents’ short memories.

If his game plan succeeds, Netanyahu will engineer the most miraculous comeback ever seen in Israel. The question is what happens if he fails. Would he prefer to stay on as chair of the opposition in the wilderness of political exile, and keep hoping for a miracle, such as an unexpected war? Quite a few temptations await him on the outside, although his way is strewn with obstacles. His trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust is going full steam, with the first state prosecution witness — his former close aid and media adviser Nir Hefetz — about to take the stand next week. Netanyahu is under pressure, especially from those closest to him, to let go, to try to reach a plea bargain with the attorney general, which would prevent him from going to jail and allow him to start a new chapter in his life.

During his recent Hawaiian vacation as the guest of billionaire Larry Ellison, Netanyahu received a number of tempting offers. He knows he could quickly become a multimillionaire if he takes them up. He turned 72 earlier this month and is known to enjoy the good life (albeit at other people’s expense). On the other hand, he also has an insatiable appetite for power and influence, a strong desire to leave a positive legacy and mark on history, and a burning ambition to win. The decision is up to him.

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