Israel Pulse

Right-wing infighting: A warning sign for Netanyahu

Article Summary
By firing Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angered his loyal partners, the national-religious camp.

“I propose a cease-fire in the right-wing camp from now until the election is over," tweeted journalist Shimon Riklin on June 11. "In the context of this cease-fire, everyone will be allowed to express opinions on any issue, as long as that does not harm the right’s chances to win the election and form the next government.”

Riklin’s tweet went viral the moment it appeared. Many respondents offered a fairly reasonable explanation for it, claiming that Riklin must have received a “conciliatory call” from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, in response to another tweet, in which Riklin surprised everyone by publicly criticizing the prime minister.

Riklin is staunchly aligned with the right and considered to be one of the media figures most closely identified with Netanyahu. He has over 81,000 followers on Twitter and hosts a show about current affairs on Channel 20. In the last election, he used all these platforms to support Netanyahu. On more than one occasion, his tweets and statements reflected the mood in the prime minister’s office or in his residence on Balfour Street.

Riklin’s tweet that was critical of Netanyahu came one day after two popular figures on the right, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked (of the New Right), were summarily dismissed from their posts on June 3. The brusque way that they were fired was received angrily by journalists from the national-religious camp, as well as by members of that community. They were still in shock after the Knesset was dissolved right after Netanyahu failed to form a government, and especially after they learned about his failed plans to bring the Labor Party into his coalition. The ideological right regarded all of this as a cynical and troubling move on the part of the prime minister.

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“The truth is that I feel disappointed,” tweeted Riklin. “On one hand, I fought like a lion against the legal system, because the scope of the change it needed was so obvious to me. On the other hand, Netanyahu offered the Justice Ministry to [Shelly] Yachimovich … What do we do in a situation like that? Is the man bigger than the idea? Than the need for change?”

This was the signal that launched a barrage of articles, posts and interviews from top media figures in the religious Zionist camp, all of them attacking Netanyahu. Some of their remarks were particularly scathing. Publicist Karni Eldad wrote a response in the Makor Rishon newspaper on the firing of the adviser on settlements to the minister of defense: “We are talking about a megalomaniacal prime minister, who is drunk on power. … This man must not be given any more power for him to use so callously and indiscriminately.”

On June 7, Maariv’s publicist, journalist Kalman Liebskind, who is also aligned with the religious Zionist camp, pondered: “Is Netanyahu really promoting the national camp’s world view? As soon as the prime minister succeeded in equating attacks on Netanyahu with attacks on the right, the right lobe of the national camp’s brain began to deteriorate.”

Netanyahu and his supporters heard these comments and at first responded dismissively. Sources close to the prime minister claimed that the firing of Bennett and Shaked was necessary, since they were not reelected to the Knesset. Their overriding assumption was that this ugly wave of protest would pass within a day or two. But the foul mood did not pass. It continued, gained momentum and turned into real fights between the Likud and the parties on the right.

Netanyahu has taken religious Zionist support for granted over the last few years, particularly when his nemeses, Bennett and Shaked, headed HaBayit HaYehudi. He even tried to keep them out of his government after the 2015 election, and only asked them to join the coalition after Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman refused. He may have been acting capriciously, but Netanyahu also felt that the religious Zionists were a captive audience that would support him, whether they were in his coalition or not.

The same situation is repeating itself now. Despite their unprecedented wave of criticism, the ideological right and the religious Zionist camp have no alternative to Netanyahu, as long as he heads the Likud. Both sides are fully aware that the right-wing parties cannot recommend any other candidate to head the government. It is true that Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich (United Right) responded sharply when Netanyahu appointed a Likud loyalist, Knesset member Amir Ohana, to be the next justice minister, even tweeting, “The story with Netanyahu is that he doesn’t treat any of his other partners the way that he allows himself to treat the religious Zionist camp. It’s time for us to learn our lesson from this.” Exactly what lesson is Smotrich talking about? It is just an empty threat. At this particular time, the right has only one candidate for prime minister. In other words, Smotrich may have a gun, but he has no bullets.

Things spun out of control on the morning of June 10, when Haaretz journalist Benny Ziffer, who has become an enthusiastic supporter of Netanyahu and his wife over the past few years, claimed in an interview that, without Netanyahu, the right is like a pile of trash. He apologized for his remarks the next day, but also clarified that the right would not be able to reestablish itself without Netanyahu.

On June 11, after Ohana’s appointment, Netanyahu tried reducing tensions with United Right seniors Rafi Peretz and Smotrich by offering them ministerial positions.

Ziffer’s apology, Riklin’s tweet attempting to restore peace and Netanyahu’s "peace talk," all indicate that Netanyahu is beginning to realize that right-wing infighting is harmful to his image.

A senior Likud minister told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “What has been happening over the past few days is very bad. On one hand, the right, including all the Smotriches, have no choice. They will support Netanyahu no matter what. On the other hand, it is very harmful externally. When they speak disparagingly about the prime minister and when the right-wing camp attacks him by calling him a megalomaniac drunk with power, it will come back to harm him in the election season.”

Netanyahu’s relationship with the right is complicated. When he was first elected in 1996, he won with the support of the settlers. Later, the right-wing parties toppled him to protest the Wye River Memorandum. In the ensuing election in 1999, Ehud Barak, chairman of the Labor Party, came to power. It was a traumatic turn of events for Netanyahu and the right. Since then, Netanyahu has been careful not to tug the rope too tightly in dealing with the right on diplomatic issues, while the right-wing parties have come to the conclusion that attacking him could have devastating consequences and bring a leader of the center-left to power. Netanyahu relies on this balance of terror. The problem is that it remains to be seen whether he can control the genie now that it's out of the bottle.

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Found in: Israeli elections

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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