Israel Pulse

Israeli ministers fear attacking Netanyahu

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Article Summary
Leaders of coalition parties are avoiding any anti-Netanyahu campaign, assuming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also be the one forming the next government.

The announcement that professor Amir Yaron would be the next governor of the Bank of Israel should have been Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s big moment in the spotlight. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stole the show from him.

Economic reporters were invited to the prime minister’s office Oct. 9 to meet with Netanyahu and Kahlon. They were told that the two men would reveal the name of the next governor of the Bank of Israel. The prime minister could have been nice to the finance minister and allowed him to deliver the news. Instead, Netanyahu stood alone in front of all the cameras to explain why Yaron was chosen for the job.

While Kahlon did speak after Netanyahu, the prime minister later turned the event into his own private press conference. By then, no one remembered the new governor or what Kahlon had said. Netanyahu has stopped giving interviews to the Israeli press, so the journalists were elated to be present at this rare event, in which Netanyahu agreed to answer their questions. All that Kahlon could do was watch in silence as Netanyahu flatly took over all media attention.

Kahlon’s little act of revenge came a few hours later, when he was interviewed for Hadashot TV’s economic show. At that point, he said, “A prime minister under indictment and after a hearing cannot function.” Although he was quoted extensively, there was nothing new in what he said. There was no threat or ultimatum. Kahlon simply tossed out a generic and noncommittal statement, fully aware that the next election will likely take place before Netanyahu is indicted — if he is indicted at all.

Had he wanted, Kahlon could have been a lot more aggressive toward Netanyahu. He certainly knows how. The archives are full of ultimatums, threats and disparaging remarks that he has made about the prime minister. In his 2015 campaign, for example, Kahlon ridiculed the prime minister, claiming that Netanyahu was all talk, but that he hadn’t really done anything important. That makes Kahlon’s relatively restrained approach toward Netanyahu today all the more apparent. He is well-aware of the assessments that the next election will be moved up to early 2019.

Kahlon has been trapped for the past few weeks, just like all the other party leaders in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. On the one hand, as head of a center-right party, he wants to and should distinguish himself from Netanyahu and the Likud. Assuming that the current assessments are correct and that the next election will take place in early 2019, this is the time for him to launch a negative campaign targeting the Likud and its leader. Their many opponents make up a significant pool of potential voters for Kahlon.

On the other hand, Kahlon of October 2018 is, according to all the polls, leader of a small party. A poll published Oct. 11 by Channel 10 predicts that he will only win six seats, which represents a 40% decline in his party’s current strength. Furthermore, Kahlon does not hide the fact that he would like to continue serving as finance minister, and he knows how likely it is that Netanyahu will be putting together the next government.

On the eve of the 2015 election, Kahlon played a successful game, maneuvering between the center-left and the Likud. He left all options on the table. Then-Chairman of the Zionist Camp Isaac Herzog was sure that Kahlon would join forces with him. At least that was the feeling he got from Kahlon. Now, any vicious or unrestrained attack on Netanyahu could harm him, particularly among right-wing voters, who plan to vote for him based on the assumption that he will be part of the next Netanyahu government.

One person, who is even more trapped than Kahlon, is the chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, Education Minister Naftali Bennett. His party is stronger now, at least according to the Channel 10 poll. If elections were held today, it would win 12 seats (compared to the eight it now holds). On the other hand, the last 2015 election proved that Netanyahu knows how to “suck up” those seats at the last moment. A last-minute campaign by Netanyahu at the time succeeded transferring to the Likud thousands of right-wing votes, which according to pre-election polls were intended for Bennett.

Kahlon can still flirt with the center-left, but Bennett is head of a far-right party, meaning that he is a natural fit for a Netanyahu coalition. Harsh attacks on the prime minister could be detrimental to him, in terms of his relationship with Netanyahu, but also with his own voters on the right. That's why there is no sign of the old Bennett, who denounced Netanyahu’s lax policies in the Gaza Strip on more than one occasion. Unlike his merciless attacks on Netanyahu during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Bennett now avoids any full-frontal attacks against the prime minister. Instead, he directs all his fury toward the “weakness’’ of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, over what Bennett considers to be his deficient handling of the Gaza front, as it is heating up.

In an interview with Army Radio Oct. 11, Bennett was asked repeatedly whether Netanyahu was responsible for the government’s lax policy. He consistently avoided giving a direct answer. Instead, he made do with the claim that the defense minister was ultimately responsible. This was not by chance; it was a direct result of the same quandary. Like Kahlon, Bennett knows that it is highly likely that he will eventually have to negotiate with Netanyahu over Cabinet portfolios. That's why he chooses to be more restrained, when dealing with Netanyahu.

The third person, who wants to keep his job in the next government, is Liberman. He made Netanyahu his punching bag in the last election, calling him a liar and a cheat, among other choice words. He even claimed that Israel had lost its capacity for deterrence under Netanyahu’s watch.

Their relationship has become much calmer since then. Liberman realizes that an anti-Netanyahu campaign would not serve his interests. On the contrary, it could harm him. Furthermore, he shares with the prime minister the responsibility for Israel’s security.

The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties are not competing with Netanyahu over the same voter base. They are even sure that they will be part of the next coalition, as long as Netanyahu forms it. Nevertheless, they insist on maintaining a correct relationship with the prime minister.

The only member of the right-wing bloc, who is not concerned by all these calculations is Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, who is not part of the current coalition. With polls giving her new party 5-6 seats, she represents a “new promise” to the voters. This means that she actually stands to benefit from attacks on Netanyahu and his government.

Found in: Election campaigns

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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