TEL AVIV — Israeli security forces intensified their presence in Jerusalem Friday morning, as 95,000 Palestinians entered the city for the fourth Friday Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Israel Defense Forces has also set up additional Iron Dome missile defense batteries across the country, in fear of rocket attacks either from the Gaza Strip or from the Lebanese border.
While security tensions intensify across Israel, so do the political internal tensions. The two issues are intertwined. Recent polls indicate a plunge in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, signs of disaffection are emerging from his hardcore base and he is persona non grata in Washington and other regional and world capitals. More so, the economy is on a dangerous downturn, with no stopping on the horizon.
For Netanyahu, there is no good news in the offing. He appears to be regretting the adventure on which he embarked, which handed him a Nov. 1 election victory — but at the expense of bowing to radical nationalist, religious forces. That being said, several signals in the past few days indicate a possible shift in the direction Netanyahu has taken in his first 100 days in office.
On Thursday evening, Netanyahu faced the cameras at his favorite media outlet, Channel 14, Israel’s version of Fox News. The audience was less than enthusiastic — at one point Netanyahu himself signaled them to cheer him — but veteran Netanyahu watchers discerned in his long monolog what they described as the beginning of a shift away from the radical right, toward the political center. “Maybe this wasn’t a turn, but more of a signal that a turn was coming,” a senior Likud party source said on condition of anonymity. “But it doesn’t take a genius to realize that Netanyahu sees he has hit a dead end, at best, or is heading for the verge and a bone-crushing drop.”
Addressing the issue of the deeply controversial campaign to weaken the country’s top court, which he has had to pause in light of mass public opposition, Netanyahu sounded more restrained on Thursday. He said there is no deadline for completing the legislative package, adding that given the latest security escalation, his primary goal is to achieve “a wide a consensus as possible” because “unity is paramount.” Netanyahu also moderated his attacks on the pro-democracy movement, conceding that those he had dubbed “anarchists” and “inciters” were only a handful among the opponents to his reforms. After a very long time, Netanyahu was reverting to his alternate persona as the great unifier of Israeli society.
That persona, however, is fake, an occasional role he assumes to appeal to the political center with cliches about “the world being against us” and the need to close ranks. What makes this time unusual is a seeming return toward center stage long after forging a strong alliance with the radical right with no intention of seeking consensus. “Netanyahu has realized that this alliance will spell his speedy end and is now trying to dismantle it,” said a source who worked closely with Netanyahu in the past, speaking on condition of anonymity.
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Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog have been lobbying intensively in recent days with influential economists in an effort to prevent Moody’s from downgrading Israel’s credit rating, a decision that is expected on Friday afternoon. "Netanyahu is not stupid," a senior Likud lawmaker told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "He knows how to read polls and realizes that he has vastly underestimated the impact of the protests. He sees signs of disobedience among the military and turmoil in economic markets, and is starting to regret the whole thing."
The assessment that the prime minister has decided to cut his losses is nowhere more evident than in the dramatic silencing of the toxic Twitter account of his son, Yair Netanyahu. The young Netanyahu has not posted in almost two weeks and was spotted at Ben Gurion Airport this week on his way to the United States, for what was described by Walla outlet as a "long stay." In recent years, Yair Netanyahu has caused serious damage to his father's image with batty conspiracy theories and criticism of the United States and other allies, and is also perceived as having influenced many of his father’s disastrous political decisions.
Other indicators of Netanyahu’s shift include his decision to prevent Jews from visiting the Temple Mount during the remaining 10 days of Ramadan so as to avoid clashes with Muslim worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, and his announcement that the soon to be established National Guard will be under the command of the Israel Police rather than of National Security Minister and Jewish Power party Chair Itamar Ben-Gvir.
"In return for all this — and especially the silencing of his son Yair — Netanyahu hopes to finally receive the invitation to Washington," a senior Likud official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. In what has been a painful embarrassment, President Joe Biden has publicly shunned Netanyahu over his government’s policies.
Meanwhile, two of Netanyahu's most prominent rivals — his predecessors Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett — were both in the United States this week. Lapid met with New York Democrat Reps. Jerry Nadler and Ritchie Torres, and with the heads of Jewish federations in a bid to shore up support for Israel. Bennett, too, is on what he described as a "national advocacy" mission, giving a CNN interview and meeting senior officials in Washington. The fact that these two, whose governments Netanyahu criticized harshly, are now warmly welcomed in the American capital, while he is stuck at home, a virtual hostage to Ben-Gvir and other hard liners, is detrimental to prime minister's well-being.
But does he have an alternative source of support? That is far from certain. A poll published Friday by Maariv shows Ben-Gvir and his Jewish Power party barely making it into the Knesset if elections were held now, having failed to make good on his pledge to reduce terrorism and crime. If this trend persists, Ben-Gvir is likely to jump ship. That way, he could shift away criticism from within his own camp over the failure of the judicial overhaul.
Netanyahu knows it. In parallel, he is also well aware of the increasing opposition within the Likud to the judicial overhaul, which critics describe as a constitutional coup. The Netanyahu of old would have maneuvered deftly within such a challenging situation. But he is not the same Netanyahu and his options are far fewer.
Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose National Unity party has soared in the polls — the latest poll shows it getting 26 Knesset seats, the same as the Likud — is unlikely to come to Netanyahu’s rescue after the disastrous results of his 2020-2021 alliance with Netanyahu, which almost cost him his political career. Lapid, too, is a nonstarter in this respect. Absent the support of his two rivals, Netanyahu may be forced to stick with his current allies, and all talk of veering to the center could turn out to be invalid.