Could Bibi’s Big Right-Wing Gamble Be His Undoing?

In a surprise reshuffling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ditched the moderates in his government and taken up with hard-liners. Is it too much for Israel to bear?


TEL AVIV — “It’s delusional,” said Benny Begin, a senior Likud parliamentarian, when asked what he thought of Avigdor Lieberman’s incipient appointment as Israel’s new defense minister. “[It] exhibits irresponsibility towards the security establishment and all of Israel’s citizens … the prime minister apparently prefers to exchange the day-to-day hardships of running a narrow coalition for hardships and dangers exponentially greater stemming from this appointment.”

Begin, the son of Likud founder and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was just one voice in a cacophony across the Israeli political spectrum shocked at the recent turn of events. A week that began with rumors of a national unity government between the center-left Zionist Union opposition party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud ended with an abrupt volte-face by Netanyahu: Out went the option of the Zionist Union, and in came Netanyahu’s former foreign minister, the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, as defense minister.

In response, outgoing Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon resigned in protest from both the government and Knesset. In a parting shot at Netanyahu, he said that he had lost confidence in the premier and that dangerous extremists had taken over both the country and his Likud party. “I fear for the future of the State of Israel,” he stated flatly, promising that his was only a “time-out” from politics and that he would be back to fight for a national leadership position in future. “The job of the leadership is to lead in a moral way, according to a compass and sometimes against the prevailing wind,” the former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff added.

Despite the war of words, the entire episode leaves Netanyahu in a politically stronger position — but it’s certainly a gamble. The drawn-out negotiations succeeded in smashing the Zionist Union, Israel’s largest opposition party, into violent, bickering factions, and likely signaled the end of Isaac Herzog’s tenure as party chairman. Netanyahu successfully neutralized a right-wing nuisance by bringing Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party into the governing coalition, in the process expanding his previously razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to 66 seats. This will likely allow the passage of two major pieces of legislation: a natural gas framework agreement to replace the one previously struck down by the Supreme Court, and a two-year budget. The budget deal will go a long way in ensuring his government’s survival, as failure to pass a budget triggers, by law, early elections. Meanwhile, it’s likely not a coincidence that the first order of business announced by Netanyahu in the immediate wake of the Lieberman-Yaalon kerfuffle last week was the reworked gas deal.

But a government that had already been described as “the most right-wing” in Israeli history has now become even more extreme, a development sure to cause unease internationally. President Barack Obama’s administration has already said the Lieberman appointment “raises legitimate questions” about Israel’s policies moving forward.

But for Netanyahu, the political gains appear to outweigh the domestic and international opprobrium. Among the prime minister’s right-wing base, his recent political maneuvers have been cause for celebration. Yaalon is no dove — he consistently spoke out against a Palestinian state, once calling Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic” for his peace efforts — he did believe in upholding the rule of law and the IDF’s moral standards. This made him an outlier both in the Netanyahu government and Likud.

The divide between Yaalon and Netanyahu burst out into the open in the aftermath of IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria’s killing of an already-neutralized Palestinian assailant in the West Bank city of Hebron in March. Yaalon, along with the IDF high command, condemned Azaria’s actions, promising a full investigation and trial. In contrast, many right-wing politicians, like Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, came out in support of Azaria, calling him a hero. While Netanyahu paid lip service to the IDF’s ethical doctrine of “purity of arms,” he also made a show of ringing up Azaria’s father and urged the military judges trying the case to show understanding towards the soldier.

But the friction between Yaalon and the Israeli right predates that incident. Less well-remembered is the dismantlement last summer of an illegal building in the West Bank settlement of Bet El. In the face of withering pressure from the right — including many senior Likud members — Yaalon chose to uphold the Supreme Court’s decision mandating demolition of the structure, transforming himself from a darling of the settlement movement to one of its enemies. Responding to criticisms from those same circles after the Azaria affair, Yaalon again defended both the rule of law and his officers, stating that “the IDF chief of staff, and not gang leaders, will decide the rules of engagement” for the army.

In recent weeks, some Likud activists took to threatening Yaalon with a “political assassination” in the next party primaries, replete with a viral internet image of Yaalon in their crosshairs. It was likely not an idle threat. A number of liberal Likud politicians who believed in mamlachtiut — a Hebrew term connoting the primacy of the state and its institutions — have in recent years been purged from the party. Benny Begin, the aforementioned son of the Likud founder, was one such victim (before Netanyahu brought him back prior to last year’s election in a slot reserved by the party leader). Other Likud stalwarts like Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan are out of politics; prior to his election as Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin was on a similar trajectory.

It is an open secret that a large segment of the Likud’s Central Committee is today made up of highly disciplined religious-nationalists who vote in Likud primaries to influence the makeup of the country’s ruling party, and then in general elections turn around and vote for other pro-settler parties. One such Central Committee operative, Yossi Dagan, head of the West Bank’s Shomron Regional Council, was asked by the Yediot Aharonot daily last weekend what he expected from the new defense minister. “To return the deterrent [value] to the IDF and to remove obstacles to [settlement] construction” in the West Bank, Dagan replied flatly. Another Likud Central Committee member, Avi Roeh, the head of the Binyamin Regional Council, told the newspaper that he hoped Lieberman would think of new ways to save illegal settlement outposts mandated for demolition. “Yaalon, who obsessively attributed holiness to every court decision, didn’t even want to try,” Roeh said. “We need someone here who will dare.”

Netanyahu, for his part, defended the Likud strongly against Yaalon’s attacks, calling it a nationalist as well as liberal party that “believes in democracy.” The party is “committed to keeping Israel a Jewish and democratic state,” he added, and it “represents the mainstream current in the country and as such it is committed to the country’s security and peace.”

It is these two contradictions — between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, and between settlements and peace — that lie at the crux of the current political moment. Yaalon ran afoul of his own party, and his own prime minister, precisely on issues relating to the continued occupation of the West Bank: settlements, rules of engagement, security and economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and above all, the relationship between the political echelon and the defense establishment.

It is indicative of the disconnect between the government and the army that Yaalon was the only retired general in recent memory to have entered politics on the side of Likud; with him gone, Netanyahu’s cabinet is bereft of major security figures save for Yoav Galant, a retired general from the center-right Kulanu party. Nearly all other senior IDF officers have joined, or will join, more left-wing parties. Indeed, the two most recent IDF chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, are constantly mooted as the “great white hopes” of the opposition. The crux of their position can be summed up by Gantz’s plea in November regarding the need to at least try to break free from the corrosive status quo: “I don’t know if a diplomatic initiative [with the Palestinians] can lead anywhere, but I think it is very important,” he said. “Either it will succeed, or future generations will know with absolute strategic honesty that there really was an attempt to do things differently.”

Netanyahu says he wants peace, maintaining at every instance that there is a real opportunity for a “regional peace initiative.” But his government, even with Yaalon, had great difficulty evacuating just one building in one settlement, as was clear from last year’s Bet El precedent; with Lieberman, it will now be even more beholden to right-wing elements. Palestinian obstinacy notwithstanding, it is hard to see how a regional peace initiative can work absent a genuine Israeli willingness to make territorial compromises on the West Bank.

Many Israelis are sincerely fearful about the course their country is on. “I feel for the first time, after this week, that I’m not sure I want my children to stay here [in Israel],” said Roni Daniel, the hardened military correspondent for Israel’s Channel Two, who is thought of as a bellweather of “Middle Israel.”

But Netanyahu has a point about the Likud being mainstream — the party has governed Israel, with only slight interruptions, for most of the last 40 years. Indeed, it was only a year ago that Netanyahu once again won an overwhelming mandate from the Israeli public. After Roni Daniel’s televised anguish for his children’s future in Israel, a colleague immediately chimed in, evoking Yaalon’s words in his resignation speech about his intention to return to the political fray. “We have no other country,” the other Channel 2 panelist said. “You want change — make a change.”

The insinuation was clear: Israel is still a democracy, and any change will have to come through the ballot box.

Netanyahu’s latest maneuver may prove to be his undoing — a bridge too far that finally galvanizes the long-serving prime minister’s many challengers. Perhaps, as former Defense Minister and Likud member Moshe Arens opined, a “political earthquake is in the offing.” Recent polls have shown that if Yaalon joins with other prominent center-right politicians then this new party would have a chance at toppling Likud — although who this party’s choice for prime minister would be is still far from clear.

Netanyahu is gambling that the short-term damage wrought by the Lieberman appointment will be outweighed by the creation of a stable, ideologically coherent government. He is also betting that the international community, for all its bluster, won’t punish such a government for its policies, and that his political opponents will be too fractured to mount a serious bid to topple him. But above all, Netanyahu is gambling that through a mixture of apathy, fear, or conviction, the Israeli public is more like the modern Likud than most would like to believe.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Correction, May 31, 2016: With the addition of Yisrael Beiteinu’s six Knesset members, the governing coalition has a total of 67 seats. A previous version of this article mistakenly said 66 seats.

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twitter: @NeriZilber

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