Israel Pulse

Netanyahu’s paranoia on national-religious politicians

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Article Summary
Now that the national-religious parties are united, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can move to the second phase of his plan, namely trying to steal their votes in favor of his own Likud.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son, Yair, popped up on Twitter Jan. 18 with the following tweet: “OK, it’s been two days now, and they [Yamina party leaders] haven’t denied it yet. You call this a party ‘to the right of the Likud’? Even when they won’t deny that they might join up with Blue and White, Meretz and the [Arab] Joint List?” Beneath this tweet, he linked another tweet of his from one day earlier. Intended as a warning to supporters of the right, it called on them to pay close attention to the fact that the leaders of Yamina have not denied reports that they would join the Blue and White party after the election.

Between those two tweets, the younger Netanyahu spent his weekend firing off a barrage of other posts and messages targeting the leaders of Yamina. He was trying to cast aspersions on them by claiming that they plan to cross the lines after the election and join the Blue and White party. This multi-stage attack wasn’t just a reflection of Yair Netanyahu’s private feelings. Rather, it echoed what had been coming out of the prime minister’s office throughout that entire time.

Over the past few days, quite a few senior members of the Likud have heard Prime Minister Netanyahu express his distrust of what Yamina leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked really want. The enormous pressure that he exerted to bring about a major consolidation of the right-wing parties continued until Jan. 15, the last deadline for the parties to submit their lists of candidates for the election. And yet, despite all his efforts, he ran up against a veto from Bennett. In the end, far-right Otzma Yehudit Chairman Itamar Ben Gvir and the legacy of Rabbi Meir Kahane were left out of the newly united list on the right (Yamina), and Netanyahu’s dream of winning the 61 seats he needs to gain immunity seemed more distant than ever.

What Netanyahu really wants to see is that not a single vote for the right goes to waste. He has managed to consolidate three out of the four parties to the right of the Likud: the New Right, HaBayit HaYehudi and the National Union. To do this, however, he has left a trail of scorched earth, parties torn to shreds and infighting unlike anyone on the right has ever seen. The bottom line is, this may have reduced the risk, but it is still not enough. And he left Bennett and Shaked with a bad taste in their mouths.

Though the leaders of Yamina have issued explicit statements that they will recommend Netanyahu — and only Netanyahu — to form the next government, that is not enough for the prime minister or the people surrounding him. “We are an integral part of the right, and we support Netanyahu. I want the public to understand that there are just two possibilities: There will either be a government of the left and the Arabs, or a government of the right. They need to decide which it will be,” Shaked declared during an interview with Channel 13 on Jan. 19.

From this perspective, once the lists were sealed, Netanyahu’s game on the right hit reset. He has a clear and brutal strategy now, and his victims will be those parties to the right of the Likud. After all, he has nowhere else to find new voters to support the Likud. What this means is that if he really is to grow his own party, he will have to do it at their expense. Of course, it is more complicated than that, and more sophisticated, too. Netanyahu wants to force the leaders of the right, with emphasis on Bennett and Shaked, to swear loyalty to the bloc and to promise that they would only recommend him to the president to form the next government, no matter the cost. That is why Netanyahu will make sure that the possibility of the Yamina leadership using right-wing votes to form a leftw-ing government with the Arabs always hangs ominously over the election.

To achieve this end, he will pull out testimonies and half-truths about how Bennett and Shaked met with two senior members of the right-wing branch of the Blue and White party, Knesset members Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel. While no one denies that this meeting took place, it is not clear what happened there. Bennett and Shaked claim they tried to recruit these two Knesset members to their party, but there is also another version of events, in which Hauser and Hendel tried to convince Bennett and Shaked to switch sides and throw their support behind Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz.

What is true and what isn’t? None of that really matters in this age of fake news. The meeting did take place, and Netanyahu will exhaust that fact in his efforts to harm the leadership of Yamina and cast aspersions on their right-wing credentials. He is also expected to exploit Bennett’s refusal to bring Otzma Yehudit into the merger of right-wing parties, even after its leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, promised to remove a portrait of mass murderer Dr. Baruch Goldstein from his living-room wall. Goldstein, it will be recalled, killed 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994 in cold blood. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, however, Bennett’s refusal to join forces with Ben Gvir is sufficient grounds to accuse him of wasting precious votes from the right.

On Jan. 20, Ben Gvir told a press conference that despite the pressure on him to resign and dire warnings that he would be the one to cause the right to fall from power, his Otzma Yehudit party would still run for the 23rd Knesset. He claimed that over the past few days, he received several tempting offers, including promises that he would be appointed a minister or ambassador, on the condition that he drop out of the race. Of course, people surrounding Netanyahu deny he was promised anything. Regardless, Ben Gvir did not drop out, even though his party “wasted” two seats for the right-wing bloc after the September 2019 election by failing to pass the electoral threshold. This was yet another blow to Netanyahu and his race to win 61 seats. It is now thought that Netanyahu will attempt to hurt Ben Gvir by leaving him with as few voters as possible. To do this, he will present all sorts of devastating polls showing that Ben Gvir is responsible for the defeat of continued right-wing rule.

Netanyahu believes that the chairman of the National Union, Minister of Transportation Bezalel Smotrich, and the chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, Minister of Education Rabbi Rafi Peretz, both of whom are subject to the ruling of their rabbis, would never dare cross the lines to join a Blue and White coalition, no matter what position is offered to them. Nor would they ever recommend Gantz to form a government. The weak links, as far Netanyahu is concerned, are Bennett and Shaked. Could this be little more than some paranoid scenario on the part of Netanyahu? That is quite possible. Given his situation, however, he must do whatever he can to impede any threats, big or small. And deep inside, he doesn’t trust Bennett or Shaked.

If Bennett and Shaked want to switch sides after the election, they will likely have to split Yamina into its separate factions. Under those circumstances, the smaller Yamina is, the lower its value in the political marketplace. If Yamina wins just six seats, Bennett and Shaked’s New Right party would hold just three of those seats (together with Knesset member Matan Kahana). It is unlikely that this would be enough to shift the balance of power.

Once again, Bennett and Shaked have stepped into Netanyahu’s trap. Even when they manage to thwart his plans, as happened more than once in the past, they can expect a painful, humiliating blow in response. Both of them see themselves leading the right at some point in the future. This is especially true of Bennett, now that he has been appointed minister of defense. If they join a government headed by Gantz, they would forever bear the stain of having removed the right from power, even if it is absolutely clear that Netanyahu doesn’t have the 61 seats needed to form a new government.

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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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