Israel Pulse

Fear of Netanyahu paralyzes Likud leadership

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Article Summary
Some senior Likud politicians may feel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must quit over the ongoing investigations, but no one is brave enough to say it aloud.

Minister of Transportation and Intelligence Yisrael Katz was the first to renounce Yedioth Ahronoth's front-page headline announcing a quiet rebellion in the Likud Party against its chairman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to the Dec. 5 report, five leaders of the Likud discussed the possibility of uniting forces and calling on Netanyahu to resign in light of the criminal investigations that could hurt the party and lead to a loss in the next election.

Although Katz’s name was not mentioned in the report, he was considered the leader because of his unstable relationship with the prime minister and his ambition to vie for the leadership of the Likud on the day after Netanyahu’s era. Thus he hastened to distance himself from the report. Katz tweeted, “This morning I read a strange report of Likud leaders organizing against Prime Minister Netanyahu. It looks more like the author’s organizing against Likud leaders, or just lousy journalism. Such things never happened.” The tweet was disseminated by his people on the Likud’s WhatsApp groups, and Katz reinforced the message in interviews in the established media.

What’s interesting in this story is not the report itself, which seemed to portray a wish on the part of some Likud leaders as well as the media, but the quick response by Katz and other leaders who rushed to declare allegiance to Netanyahu. Minister of Social Equality Gila Gamliel was interviewed on the "Lifnei Hahadashot" ("Before the News") show on Reshet, and clarified that she is not part of any scheme. She emphasized that Netanyahu enjoys wide support from the party. Knesset member Miki Zohar delivered a similar message on the same show.

Gideon Saar, who took a break from politics following a bitter conflict with the prime minister and intends to vie for the leadership of the Likud, used this agenda to make headlines. Saar responded to the head of the Zionist Camp, Avi Gabbay, who said that not only is Netanyahu corrupt, but so is all of the Likud. Gabbay also referred to the new criminal investigation into the chairman of the coalition and Netanyahu’s strong operational arm in the Likud, Knesset member David Bitan, and the Channel 2 investigation of the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Likud man Danny Danon.

Theoretically, as a democratic party for which a million citizens voted in the 2015 election, the Likud should have formed internal opposition to Netanyahu at this point in response to the corruption surrounding him and his associates. But the ruling party's leaders, including those who think Netanyahu should go home because of the investigations and those who promote the heavy-handed legislation meant to enable him to shirk justice, are silent. They fear for their political lives if they dare hint that a recommendation to charge Netanyahu in one of the cases means he should vacate his seat.

If one of them nevertheless considered challenging Netanyahu's leadership, the response of most Likud members active on the social networks has clarified that they can hope for no political resurrection after such an act.

For instance, Nili Aharon, a well-known Likud activist from the southern branch in Yeruham, wrote in one of the WhatsApp groups: “It’s very sad that there are ministers who decide to get together and plan how to depose Bibi. … We protest against those ministers or leaders who want to take the leadership in such a vile way. What they don’t understand is that if Bibi goes home, the Likud would be destroyed, and no one could lift it off the floor or out of the opposition when we arrive there.”

In practice, there is no possibility of a rebellion against Netanyahu in the Likud. The prime minister has made sure to politically destroy any leaders who threatened his leadership or who amassed too much popularity in his eyes. The list is a long and respectable one that includes former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Minister of Finance and Chairman of Kulanu Moshe Kahlon and Gideon Saar. Those who remained within the Likud — Ministers Katz and Gilad Erdan — understood that it’s best for them to express support for the chairman even if they harbor a bellyful of resentment toward him.

Today there’s no significant force in the Likud that offers an alternative to Netanyahu.

There are two reasons for the moral corruption of Likud leaders: Netanyahu’s strength among Likud activists despite the investigations; and the realistic possibility that despite everything Netanyahu will lead the Likud in the next election. The only righteous man in Sodom is the only Likud member who has nothing to lose: Knesset member Benny Begin doesn’t need the votes of Likud members, is not interested in being prime minister, and retirement from political life won’t be a disaster for him. Thus the son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin is the only Likud figure to speak against the corrupt "recommendations law," which was intended to rescue Netanyahu from the investigations. In response, the Likud expelled Begin from the Interior Affairs Committee of the Knesset.

The latest numbers broadcast Dec. 4 on Channel 2 showed that the Likud, led by Netanyahu, still leads and Netanyahu is still seen as the best candidate for prime minister, making any possibility of a real challenge to his leadership in the near future unlikely.

A senior Likud figure who is not one of Netanyahu’s backers described the atmosphere in the party to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Netanyahu is very strong. He’s iron. No one dares defy him, certainly not after the latest poll, because the activists would destroy him. I’m slapping my forehead: How could no minister be able to say something moral that would challenge Netanyahu and the corruption? That would challenge the recommendations law? It’s unreal. There’s never been such a situation in the party.” 

Found in: likud party, benjamin netanyahu, corruption, indictment, israeli politics

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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