Israel Pulse

Will the Likud ever abandon Netanyahu?

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Article Summary
Likud activists explain that unless the police reveal a smoking gun proving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took money for himself, no one in the party will challenge him.

On Feb. 13, Israel Police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted in two cases of bribery. It is now up to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to decide whether to indict, but Netanyahu has already indicated that he will not be leaving office, even if indicted.

When Minister Tzachi Hanegbi was asked in a March 14 Army Radio interview about the fate of the government coalition if the attorney general indicts, he responded that everything would be business as usual. Hanegbi, a former justice minister, deflected the interviewer’s assumption that such a decision by Mandelblit would represent a “crisis,” terming it instead an irrelevant “crossroads” from a legal point of view. According to Hanegbi, the decision to indict would only assume significance after Netanyahu is accorded an official hearing and presented with an array of material and evidence against him. This procedure could take many months, he added.

Two days earlier, addressing about 1,000 supporters at a gathering in Petah Tikva, Hanegbi made sure to praise and bolster Netanyahu. Hanegbi’s blanket support for the prime minister, who is entangled in a series of criminal investigations, reflects the sentiment of the ruling Likud, where Netanyahu enjoys growing popularity. The latest polls clearly indicate that Netanyahu’s standing is stable, and even improving, despite suspicions of bribery.

When Netanyahu lashes out at the media, saying the people are with him, or thanks his many supporters in the Likud at every opportunity for backing him and for the love they show him and his wife, he is describing an essentially accurate state of affairs. In addition to the backing of hard-core Likud supporters, equivalent to some 15 Knesset seats, Netanyahu also enjoys broader support, on the moderate right and at the political center.

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According to poll results broadcast March 12 by Hadashot News, if elections were held at that time, the Likud with Netanyahu at the helm would occupy 30 Knesset seats (out of 120). These findings are the source of Netanyahu’s power within the Likud and his six-party governing coalition. They are his insurance policy; they are the reason Hanegbi and other top Likud officials are providing him with a defensive shield against the police probes, with some joining his harangues against the police for “hounding” him.

Netanyahu is conducting a direct dialogue with the public via social networks and conveying his messages over the heads of the media, which he long ago tagged as an enemy. He often directly shares with them news of his achievements and his meetings with world leaders, persuading Likud members to also identify with him as someone being persecuted by powerful forces out to topple him. That is why not a single senior Likud figure dares utter a single word of criticism against Netanyahu or say anything about moral values.

The claim that the Likud traditionally does not oust its incumbent leaders is valid, but there has never been a time when the party leader did not face some form of open opposition at the top. The late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, even at the height of his power when he led the Likud to a 38-seat windfall in the 2003 elections, had his detractors among the party’s Knesset members and ministers. When he became embroiled in legal troubles, Likud Minister Uzi Landau called him “corrupt” and a liar, and along with others, claimed that Sharon had hatched the plan to pull Israeli settlements and troops out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 to avoid criminal prosecution.

Netanyahu, too, faced internal opposition during his previous terms, with party rebels plotting to unseat him at least twice. The first time was after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, when the Likud crashed in the polls, and the second time was after the 2006 elections, when the Likud recorded a low of 12 Knesset seats. At the time, senior Likud officials, among them Ministers Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat, considered a move to oust Netanyahu. Even on the eve of the last elections, in March 2015, when polls predicted the Likud's downfall, a group of senior officials made preliminary preparations to call on him to resign on the night of the election loss. Instead, Netanyahu led the party to a 30-seat victory, which he sees as a personal achievement — his alone.

Will Likud ever abandon Netanyahu? Arik Ziv, a party stalwart and founder and editor of the Likudnik website, says the prime minister is nowhere near such a point and is even stronger than he was after the 2015 elections. “As long as no one sees envelopes stuffed with money, no one in the Likud will challenge him, because the Likud believes the police is persecuting him,” Ziv told Al-Monitor, referring to the case against former Likud Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was accused of receiving cash in envelopes.

“When rumors surfaced that Netanyahu had sent private investigators to dig up dirt on officers leading the police probes against him, I said that if it turned out to be true, I would use every platform to call on him to go home,” Ziv further stated. “But if it turns out to be false, at that moment all the investigations against him have to be scrapped.”

Likud activist Moti Ohana, who plans to run for the Knesset in the next election, also points to a sense of collective identification with Netanyahu. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Ohana explained that contrary to the impression often conveyed by the media that Likud members blindly follow their leader, they are, in fact, law-abiding citizens. “Unless the police present a smoking gun proving he took money for himself, no one will challenge him,” Ohana said. “That’s the red line, and Netanyahu is not there.”

Ohana recalls being stunned when Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced his resignation in 1983. Ohana, who had just completed his military service, had heard on the news about demonstrators outside Begin’s house urging him to stay. He got on a bus in the northern town of Tiberias and went to Jerusalem only to find that no more than a few dozen supporters had gathered outside the revered Likud leader’s home.

“I was sure they wouldn’t let him go, that there would be tens of thousands of people who would persuade him to stay,” Ohana recalled. “But then I also understood that no leader is stronger than the party. If the police were to show that Netanyahu had taken money into his pocket, he would not have been able to stay in office a single day. But that is not the case, and that is why he is being given all this strength and support.”

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Found in: menachem begin, ariel sharon, tzachi hanegbi, police investigation, likud, bribery, benjamin netanyahu

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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