Will Netanyahu's allies abandon him?

For now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is confident that Likud members and voters support him despite the police investigations, but some are very troubled by the allegations against him.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) arrives at a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Jan. 16, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

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right wing, knesset, corruption, likud, benjamin netanyahu

Jan 26, 2017

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Knesset appearance on Jan. 25 was aimed first and foremost at his fellow Likud members. In responding for the first time in detail to the ongoing criminal investigations against him, Netanyahu's remarks were actually intended to address the Likud Central Committee and registered party members, who determine the tone of the movement for its ministers and its representatives in the Knesset. For now, they are providing the prime minister the backing he needs. Netanyahu knows that as long as they are on his side, appearing in the media and using social networks to defend his right to “receive gifts” from friends, senior members of the party will inevitably align themselves with him.

Netanyahu appeared before the Knesset during a routine Q&A session, during which Knesset members can pose questions to him without his having the opportunity to prepare. Yet, Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Likud and familiar with party members' position, made it clear that he would reject any questions about the criminal investigations. Edelstein, who is normally quite official, rightfully earned the wrath of the opposition, which claimed that he had tried to protect the prime minister. The thing is that Edelstein, like other senior Likud officials these days, is well aware of the mood in the party. Its members are siding with their leader despite the allegations of criminal misconduct. Edelstein will need those members’ votes if he is to be elected to a top slot on Likud’s Knesset list for the next election. This explains his “heroic” stand with Netanyahu, aired during a prime time news hour. In other words, it earned him plenty of points in a movement that is known for never speaking out against its leaders.

In the end, Netanyahu “conceded” to popular demand and answered a few questions about the investigations anyway. His responses were hardly spontaneous, reading something like a defense statement from a piece of paper. It was obvious that he had consulted with his legal team about it. He then fought back against a flood of difficult questions with his stock claim that he is the victim of a witch hunt.

“They’re investigating me? They accuse me? It’s just a bad joke,” he said, lashing out at members of the opposition, who heckled and interrupted him. Ostensibly, an appearance by any prime minister who is under attack and being called on to resign conveys a sense of political crisis. From Likud's perspective, however, a prime minister who is under attack from the opposition evokes a strong sense of identity and motivates them to come out in his defense. This is a well-known piece of Likud's DNA.

Netanyahu is fully aware that as long as activists on the ground are with him, ministers and Knesset members might condemn him behind closed doors and plot for “the day after,” but they would never dare publicly come out against him. They may not be thrilled to defend him to the media, but even they will do nothing whatsoever to oppose him.

The defense that Netanyahu offered to the Knesset plenum also targeted Likud's soft underbelly. He referred to the scandal in which he is suspected of bribery involving Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes and the Israel Today newspaper, and another scandal concerning gifts he allegedly received. He explained that in both cases, the stories begin and end with an attempt to bring down the right-wing government that he heads. “I hear the ridicule and the defiance,” he said. “What a celebration of hypocrisy! … What a sanctimonious carnival! … Since people are, in fact, allowed to receive gifts from friends, they have decided to distort the law. They have one law for Netanyahu and another law for everybody else.”

There are currently about 30 WhatsApp groups for Likud activists, with ministers and Knesset members among their members. While the ministers and representatives typically do not actively take part in the discussions, they can keep tabs on the mood among party members. Only two of the groups are considered opposed to Netanyahu’s leadership, and thus viewed as a clear minority. Netanyahu’s own people report to him about everything that happens in these groups. Like other Knesset members and ministers, he can use them to assess what the attitude toward him is at any given moment

Currently, the WhatsApp groups have posted dozens of supportive responses, expressing the motif of persecution. That, more than anything, is evidence that Netanyahu’s performance achieved what it set out to do. So, for example, a businessman from Ashkelon named Moshe Sabah wrote, “Listen well! There is no other leader in the world like him. … I love you. I admire you. I trust you. I rely on you.”

Since Netanyahu's first police interrogation under caution, he has increased his activities and presence within the Likud movement. His people make sure to fill the party's chambers in the Knesset with activists who greet Netanyahu with hugs and cheers when he comes in every Monday to attend the faction’s weekly meeting. These cheerleading sessions are designed to send a message of political strength to the outside world of the media and law enforcement and internally to senior party members. Thus, Likud's senior members know that Netanyahu has support in the field.

Behind closed doors, quite a few Likud ministers and Knesset members will admit that this time Netanyahu has gotten himself into so much trouble that he might eventually be forced to resign. None of them will shed a tear over his departure. The autocratic one-man show that he has imposed on the party has taken a heavy toll on them. Whenever anyone tries to break free, Netanyahu lops off his head. The story of Knesset member Dudi Amsalem provides an excellent case study of this dynamic within the movement.

Amsalem was never among Netanyahu’s biggest fans in the party, yet he rose to defend him in the media. Amsalem did this because he saw and listened to members of Likud's Central Committee and realized that he stood to benefit by leading a charge in defense of Netanyahu. In his efforts to appease Central Committee members, however, Amsalem apparently went too far. In media interviews, he accused international mogul Arnon Milchan — whom the police investigated on suspicion of offering Netanyahu benefits and gifts — of being the person who first approached the police in an attempt to bring down the prime minister. Milchan was livid. Netanyahu, realizing that Amsalem had done him enormous harm, rushed to disassociate himself from Amsalem. Milchan threatened to sue Amsalem for slander, and Amsalem was forced to apologize.

Motti Ohana, a former adviser to former Minister Dan Meridor, is planning to run for a slot on Likud's next Knesset list. He is one of the few Likud members willing to openly state that the allegations surrounding Netanyahu’s behavior are problematic from a public perspective. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, he said, “I know that I am the exception, and it is obvious to me that at this particular stage of the game, the situation will stay that way.”

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