Will Israel's right-wing camp lose its leader soon?

The right-wing camp, including the ultra-Orthodox, national-religious and settlers, have considered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as its leader for so long that it is now finding itself in a crisis.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, Dec. 8, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Dec 10, 2019

On Dec. 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Twitter account featured a video clip from 1988, documenting his meeting with the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic movement, in Brooklyn, New York. Netanyahu, then 39 years old, had just completed his term as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and was about to run for a slot on the Likud party’s Knesset list. The “Rebbe” wished him success, saying, “You will need to struggle against 119 other people. You certainly shouldn’t be intimidated by that, because the Holy One, Blessed be He, is on your side."

This video clip has been making the rounds for years, particularly among members of the Chabad Hasidic group. In the past few years, however, it has gone viral, particularly on popular ultra-Orthodox websites, where it has become iconic. Netanyahu himself has used it extensively too, but until now he used it mostly with his ultra-Orthodox audiences. Now, however, just hours before a third election is likely to be announced, he has decided to post it to his Twitter account for his 1.7 million followers. He had good reason for doing that too.

Netanyahu is preparing for a tough fight within the Likud against his rival, former Minister Gideon Saar. He is certainly aware of the people on the right and in the religious Zionist camp arguing that, given the current circumstances, there is no choice but to replace him in order to save “right-wing rule.” That is why he is trying to draw a connection between the “prophecy” of the highly regarded rabbi and the current political situation. Anyone familiar with the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe is aware that he opposed territorial compromise. That is why, through the Rebbe, Netanyahu can present himself as a historic figure in the annals of the Jewish people, destined to prevent “devastating” political moves such as the partition of the Land of Israel.

Just one day earlier, at a conference organized by the Makor Rishon newspaper, a leading mouthpiece of the religious Zionist movement, Netanyahu warned, “If I am taken down, they will take you down too.” He ended his remarks by saying, “Anyone who causes rifts in our camp is effectively abandoning Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), because defense of Judea and Samaria will be a central tenet of the policy I have advocated, and that I will continue to advocate. … It is time for us to join forces. It is time for us to come together, to ensure the integrity and wholeness of the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.”

The message of these remarks is basically identical to that of the video clip from three decades ago. Netanyahu is the first to realize that if he loses his grip on the right, he will lose the Likud, the Prime Minister’s Office and the immunity that he still hopes to receive.

More than any other Likud prime minister before him, Netanyahu has managed to become the leader of the right at large, which officially includes also the ultra-Orthodox parties. Proof of this can be seen in the bloc of 55 Knesset seats, which he created on the night of last September’s election when he failed in his original mission to win 61 seats. Anyone who questioned the durability of this bloc and its loyalty to Netanyahu was proved wrong. Efforts by the Blue and White party to break this bloc apart and separate the ultra-Orthodox or right-wing factions from it ran up against a wall.

Where did this sense of common destiny originate? It was a process that gathered steam over the last few years, particularly with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Netanyahu became a powerful brand during the Trump years, not only in the Likud but also on the right as a whole. There is no doubt that this was the “golden era” of Netanyahu as leader of the right. After all, the right saw so many of its dreams fulfilled, including recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and recognition of the legality of the settlements. All of these achievements are attributed to Netanyahu’s outstanding relationship with the leader of the world’s greatest superpower. Thanks to this relationship, the things that so many Israelis have longed to see for so many years became realities, one after the other. And, above all else, the vision of a two-state solution was buried.

These feelings were expressed by one of the most influential voices within the settlers, who spoke on condition of anonymity: “Netanyahu’s ability to survive for so many years as the leader of the right can also be attributed to the idea that we recognized him as the lesser evil of all the candidates. The test of time has proved that. He took us out of the Oslo Accords.”

The ultra-Orthodox parties also recognized Netanyahu’s potential. Under his leadership, they received fat budgets and a continuation of the status quo, but they got even more than that. They also recognized that the “Netanyahu” brand was so strong among their constituents that it was worth their while to stick with him even after the election. Shas Party chairman Aryeh Deri said as much explicitly in the last two election campaigns, claiming that a vote for Shas was also a vote for Netanyahu. He then promised to remain loyal to Netanyahu even if he is indicted. Needless to say, Deri kept his word.

The problem was that the stronger Netanyahu became, the more alternative political leadership deteriorated on the right. He overshadowed all the other parties and turned them into sectoral satellites of the Likud. He stirred them up and reshaped them in the image of his political interests until he finally undermined their autonomy. “Netanyahu” was the common denominator shared by all of them. But now, since his indictment for bribery, fraud and the violation of trust, and his second consecutive failure to form a government, new voices are starting to be heard on the right.

Now that the Netanyahu era as we knew it seems to be nearing its end, the right is facing a leadership crisis. There is no clear successor to Netanyahu, and it is not at all certain that any other person can win such obedience from almost half of the Knesset. Netanyahu’s departure from the political arena will be explosive, in the Likud party and on the right in general. And there is no obvious successor in the Likud either. In a party without Netanyahu, Saar won’t be the only person to run for the leadership position. So will Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, and we cannot discount the possibility of ministers Gilad Erdan, Yisrael Katz and Miri Regev running as well. Then there are the outsiders such as former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of the New Right party. They may also join the fray to succeed Netanyahu, and a new order will emerge.

Nevertheless, there are many people in the Likud and on the right who believe that Netanyahu has yet to have the last word. That is why the tensions and in-fighting are, for the most part, still seething beneath the surface.

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