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Who runs Netanyahu’s Israel? | The Times of Israel

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Over the past few weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made himself generously available to a great many foreign media outlets and sympathetic American podcasters for interviews. That generosity contrasts sharply to his near-blanket refusal to grant interviews to any Hebrew-language media outlet that doesn’t openly endorse him.

It’s fair to surmise, then, that this foreign media blitz was meant to sell more than his new memoir. Everywhere he went, whether legacy media or upstart podcasts, global outlets or Jewish communal sites, he stuck to one overriding and endlessly repeated message: He, and only he, was in firm control of his controversial new government.

“They are joining me. I’m not joining them,” he told NPR of his far-right coalition partners. “I’ll have two hands firmly on the steering wheel. I won’t let anybody do anything to LGBT or to deny our Arab citizens their rights or anything like that, just won’t happen.”

“Other parties are joining me, I’m not joining them,” he repeated to Jewish Insider. “I have my hands firmly on the steering wheel, despite the populist and imprecise, frankly, false attacks on me.”

Asked specifically about Itamar Ben Gvir, once considered too extreme for a cabinet post by none other than Netanyahu himself, he again reiterated to Free Press’s Bari Weiss that his new government’s “main policy or the overriding policy… are determined by the Likud, and frankly, by me.”

It’s a message Netanyahu feels a compulsion to tell the world — but not, it seems, Israelis. No similar campaign is underway in Hebrew.

There’s an obvious tactical reason for that: Netanyahu has nothing to gain from goading his coalition partners by seeming to marginalize them in Hebrew. But there’s a deeper reason, too. Most Israelis probably wouldn’t have believed him. His very insistence would have been deemed proof it isn’t true.

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich with Otzma Yehudit party head MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset, on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In Hebrew-speaking politics, it is generally assumed that for all his political prowess and unassailable position at the top of a stable ruling coalition, Netanyahu is politically weak. That assessment isn’t limited to his opponents across the aisle; Religious Zionism’s main argument to potential voters in last year’s election was that Netanyahu is vulnerable, that he has a history of bending to whatever his coalition partners demand, and therefore that it’s important to ensure those partners come from the right.

If all that is true — if Netanyahu has little influence over his coalition partners, perhaps because he’s more afraid of them walking away than they are of leaving — then exactly whose hands are “firmly on the steering wheel”? The question isn’t academic. Are the most radical elements of Israeli politics now leading the government’s momentous reforms of the judiciary, West Bank policy, the education system, and so on? It’s a question that dogs the government’s every step.

And the first tentative data point on that question came over the weekend: The dust-up over the Or Chaim outpost in the northern West Bank.

Concessions

In the experience of most Likud lawmakers, the coalition talks that stretched from mid-November to late December and determined the new government’s basic character and priorities were an almost unbroken litany of Likud concessions.

Netanyahu vowed to keep the Finance Ministry in Likud hands, but then parceled it out in two half-terms to Religious Zionism and Shas. Religious Zionism’s Betzalel Smotrich is probably the coalition’s most fervent free-market conservative; Shas not only advocates for a dramatically expanded welfare state, it campaigned on nothing else. The new government, in other words, has a built-in mid-term swerve in fiscal policy sharp enough to produce economic whiplash.

People walk past an election campaign billboard showing Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli prime minister and the head of Likud party, in Bnei Brak, Israel, October 25, 2022. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Finance Minister Smotrich, meanwhile, is also a minister in the Defense Ministry with vague powers over the West Bank that irk the army and the actual defense minister, Likud’s Yoav Gallant.

And even as essentially fake ministries (the Ministry of Social Equality has no say over welfare policy nor the Ministry of Intelligence over any intelligence body) were doled out to Likudniks, Shas leader Aryeh Deri was slated — before last week’s court ruling firing him from the cabinet — to spend his first two years as simultaneously minister of health and of the interior, a single person overseeing two of the largest and most complex regulatory bodies in government.

The list of such oddities is long. Itamar Ben Gvir demanded an upgrade for his Public Security Ministry (now christened the National Security Ministry; no one quite knows why), winning greater control over police forces in the West Bank that were once overseen by the Defense Ministry and leaving basic administrative functions in the area now splintered across three competing power bases, once again to the endless frustration of a confused military.

The new government is a chaotic tapestry with one consistent thread: On nearly every issue that its coalition partners care about, Likud ceded ground

Even when Likud won at the negotiating table, it somehow still lost ground. It now holds the Education Ministry, but signed coalition agreements that commit it to massively upping the funding and independence of Haredi schools, effectively exempting them from what minimal state oversight had existed over their curriculum, teacher qualifications, or school management. The so-called “expanded Nahari law” now being drafted by the coalition marks a dramatic shift in education policy with real ramifications for Israel’s future, but the point here is narrower: Even when it took control of a significant ministry with a vast budget, Likud’s imprint on the ministry will not be any discernible policy vision, but its weakening as a concession to coalition partners.

The new government is a hodgepodge of such anomalies, a chaotic tapestry with one consistent thread: On nearly every issue that its coalition partners care about, Likud ceded ground almost entirely. It’s as true in the Knesset as at the cabinet table; Smotrich isn’t just the finance minister, his party demanded and won the establishment and chairmanship of a new “reforms committee” that allows him to control a significant portion of the budget-drafting process.

When it comes to practical control over his government, Netanyahu can claim real influence over just two policy domains.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets soldiers during a visit to the Shizafon army base, on January 23, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The first: Israel’s foreign and defense policy, which is wholly controlled by his loyalists across all agencies and branches of government, including the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, energy and regional cooperation, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and more.

The second policy realm, of course, is the Justice Ministry, which under Likud’s Yariv Levin has become the epicenter for the government’s dramatic judicial overhaul.

Put simply, the coalition agreements that underlie the new government reveal a Netanyahu who sold off all other policy arenas in exchange for total control of the defense-diplomatic realm (outside the West Bank) and a major role in judicial reform.

Netanyahu views the former as his legacy: Confronting Iran and securing more normalization agreements with the Arab world. With the latter, while he undoubtedly authentically supports judicial reform, his fervent prioritizing of legal policy over other domains has led even many supporters to the view that he hopes to use the overhaul plan to engineer an escape from his legal troubles.

If the coalition talks are any indication, Netanyahu’s partners seem to have every advantage over him. His margin of victory in November — 64 Knesset seats out of 120 — means every faction except one-man Noam has enough seats to topple the coalition. That alone could explain Likud’s weak negotiating position. It also suggests that Ben Gvir is unlikely to feel constrained by either the prime minister or Likud going forward.

But there’s another, subtler reason for Netanyahu’s weakness that explains why many observers, including within Likud, believe the far-right will set the tone in the new government: Netanyahu’s total domination of his own party.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with other Likud MKs in the Knesset plenum on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

King of the castle

Over the past decade, Netanyahu has been managing a steady weakening of the Likud party apparatus, sidelining opponents and shrinking the influence of once-boisterous party institutions. The party’s Central Committee and Secretariat once served as platforms for aspiring politicians to make themselves known and drive the agenda, its primaries noisy affairs with unexpected results and real competition. Under Ariel Sharon in the early 2000s, these institutions were a constant source of political headaches for the party leader.

All of that is gone. Inside the party and at the primary voting booth, loyalty to Netanyahu is now the overwhelming factor in determining a politician’s success. The run-up to an election now consists mostly of declarations of fealty from MKs for their party leader.

Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman presents his party’s candidates for the upcoming elections at a campaign event in Tel Aviv, September 12, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The phenomenon isn’t limited to Likud. In 1999, Avigdor Liberman, a Netanyahu aide recently pushed out of Likud by his former boss, established the Israel Beytenu party as a vehicle for his political ambitions. He abhorred the chaos and corruption he believed internal competition had created in Likud, so his party neither held primaries nor allowed internal dissension.

Liberman was criticized for this lack of internal democracy, but not for long. In the fall of 2000, the Second Intifada broke out, sending wave after wave of suicide bombers into Israel’s cities and launching a two-decade decline of the Israeli left. As the left shrank, a new political “center” rose to claim its former adherents, new parties with new leaders — Ariel Sharon’s Kadima in 2005, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid in 2012, Kulanu in 2014 — all built on Libermanesque lines. A declining Labor prided itself on preserving its internal democracy as it cycled through 11 leadership changes in two decades, but to everybody else it had become a cautionary tale.

Israel is now two decades into this process. Exceedingly few MKs now sit in the Knesset who were chosen by their party’s rank and file and are not beholden primarily to the party leader who gave them their seat.

Then-prime minister Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid activists protest against Benjamin Netanyahu and his expected government, in Tel Aviv, December 9, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Though it still holds primaries, Likud hasn’t seen a serious leadership contest in a decade and a half. Netanyahu is a prime minister almost entirely liberated from party considerations. That’s why most Likud MKs have been almost entirely missing from the public debate over the government’s agenda, a silent rank of sidelined politicians who seem unaware they constitute the country’s ruling party.

Former Likud no. 2 Yuli Edelstein learned the lesson the hard way. He announced his candidacy for party leader last year, declaring he would challenge Netanyahu after the latter’s four failed election runs. But before the August primary, belatedly grasping where the winds were blowing, Edelstein retracted his candidacy.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein speaks at a conference in Herzliya, November 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

For his disloyalty, he was pushed down the party list to the 22nd slot in the primaries; for his last-minute return to the fold, he was granted the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the current Knesset. The message was clear: As in Yesh Atid or National Unity, you either fall in line or give up your political ambitions.

None doubt Edelstein’s personal courage. As a young man, he spent three years in the Soviet gulag for his Zionist activism. But whatever he may think of the current state of the party, he sees no point in committing political suicide by speaking out.

Edelstein is a grizzled 27-year veteran of Israeli politics; Yoav Kisch’s seven years in Likud make him a neophyte in comparison. Kisch supported Gideon Sa’ar’s bid for party leader in 2019, then switched to loyally backing Netanyahu before Sa’ar left the party in December 2020 to form New Hope, a swift volte-face that was rewarded handsomely. Kisch is the new education minister.

So it goes down the party list. Loyalty is rewarded, disloyalty quickly and comprehensively punished.

And that process — the collapse of the primary and the centralization of power around party leaders — has one curious and important effect: It is what made Netanyahu weak at the negotiating table. When an indispensable ally makes a demand at the negotiating table, the only cost-free way to say no is to pin the refusal on someone else, some other power base you must placate.

The more one unpacks the details of how this coalition was built and functions, the more Netanyahu’s partners seem the ones holding the levers of power

But Likud can no longer serve as that counterweight to Religious Zionism, Shas or Otzma Yehudit. Influential Likud figures like Israel Katz, David Bitan, Dudi Amsalem and others were openly frustrated with the way Likud’s coalition negotiations were handled throughout November and December, but since all parties understood that they had no leverage over Netanyahu, their views had no influence on the talks — to Netanyahu’s and Likud’s detriment. Coalition partners got everything they wanted, Likud got, in the words of one bitter party lawmaker, “the scraps.”

While the prime minister pleads his liberalizing influence over his coalition partners to American podcasters, his ability to rein them in is less obvious to Israelis. The more one unpacks the details of how this coalition was built and functions, the more Netanyahu’s partners seem the ones holding the levers of power.

Strength

Which brings us to the curious case of the Or Chaim outpost.

Five families and a handful of young men drove to the top of a hill in the northern West Bank on Friday to establish the outpost, named for the late Rabbi Haim Druckman, the most senior of religious-Zionist rabbis and Smotrich’s spiritual leader. The outpost was established 30 days after Druckman’s death last month at the age of 90; one of the young men in the group was Druckman’s grandson.

Activists attempt to reestablish an illegal settlement outpost dubbed Or Chaim in the northern West Bank on January 22, 2023. (Courtesy)

The move was calculated, in other words, to make it extremely difficult for Smotrich and the far-right factions to look away as the army, now under control of Likud, inevitably moves to dismantle it. It was a transparent attempt to test the new government, and thus to reveal Netanyahu’s weakness and inspire more such actions by the far-right.

But things went awry almost immediately. Instead of fretting about coalition fallout, Defense Minister Gallant leaped at the chance to clarify to “Minister in the Defense Ministry” Smotrich who was in charge.

The activists climbed the hill on Friday morning. Smotrich quickly issued an order to freeze any demolition until he’d convened a discussion in his office the following week. Gallant, ignoring Smotrich, ordered the outpost demolished immediately.

On Friday afternoon, Smotrich’s office released a statement — a warning — that accused Gallant of acting “without speaking to Minister Smotrich and in complete contravention of the coalition agreements that form the basis for the existence of this government.”

Gallant had made his stand, Smotrich had issued his threat. Then came Netanyahu’s turn.

“The government supports settlement only when it is done legally and in coordination with the prime minister and defense authorities, which didn’t happen in this case,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. “The prime minister will hold a discussion on this issue early next week.”

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets a Religious Zionism coalition negotiation team headed by party leader Bezalel Smotrich, second from right, in Jerusalem on November 27, 2022. (Likud/Courtesy)

Netanyahu had backed Gallant, and any “discussions” would take place at his table, not Smotrich’s.

Gallant then followed up with his own statement that he “offered complete support to the IDF and the security services. Every action on the ground must be done according to law, with full coordination, and subject to security assessments.”

Smotrich seems to have discovered what a great many others have in the past: It’s never wise to underestimate Netanyahu

Far-right activists believed they had laid a trap for Likud; Likud was prepared with a trap of its own, eager to call Smotrich’s bluff. Smotrich raged, boycotted Sunday’s cabinet meeting — but then showed up to the coalition leaders’ meeting in the Knesset that afternoon, cooperative if not mollified.

Smotrich seems to have discovered what a great many others have in the past: It’s never wise to underestimate Netanyahu. Even as he negotiated away the store, Netanyahu was already planning to claw back control once his government was in place.

The last word has not yet been said. Smotrich has the reputation of a fast learner, and has proven in the past that he’s capable of walking away from power when matters of principle are at stake. Whether the Or Chaim incident is a turning point or a momentary setback for the Smotrich-Ben Gvir wing of the coalition is not yet clear. At the very least, the standoff brought the battle lines within the government into stark relief.

Netanyahu built for himself a coalition that seems to hem him in on all sides. As it prepares to advance revolutionary changes to the judiciary, education system, West Bank and Palestinian policy, and more, Israelis are watching to see just how much control Netanyahu actually wields over the radical factions to whom he handed so many of the keys to the kingdom. Having ridden them to power, can he now control them?

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