Argument

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Israel’s Likud Isn’t the Party of Law and Order Anymore

In his constant quest for power, Benjamin Netanyahu is abandoning the Israeli right’s legalist traditions.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech in front of a picture of Zeev Jabotinsky.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during a meeting of his Likud party in front of a picture showing the late Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky in Tel Aviv, Israel, on May 6, 2012. JACK GUEZ/AFP/GettyImages

Israelis go to the polls on March 23 in the fourth election since April 2019. Despite a general mood of public weariness, these elections promise to be something other than another stale rerun. A change, indeed, appears to be underway, which may result in a transfer of power. For the first time in Israeli electoral history, the main challengers to a Likud party prime minister’s continued reign will come from further to the right—not from the center or left.

While all polls have the centrist Yesh Atid list running second to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a Feb. 24 statement by former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett that his right-religious Yamina party would not sit in a government with Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid as prime minister means that the latter will have difficulty forming a coalition. The latest polls suggest that Netanyahu and his natural allies in the religious parties, plus the United Arab List, and excluding Yamina are set to achieve a total of approximately 51 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

This means that the most likely alternative coalition to Netanyahu will consist at its core of an alliance between Bennett and the New Hope list of former Likud stalwart Gideon Saar. In other words, Netanyahu’s crown is threatened by two men who split off from his own party.

Israelis go to the polls on March 23 in the fourth election since April 2019. Despite a general mood of public weariness, these elections promise to be something other than another stale rerun. A change, indeed, appears to be underway, which may result in a transfer of power. For the first time in Israeli electoral history, the main challengers to a Likud party prime minister’s continued reign will come from further to the right—not from the center or left.

While all polls have the centrist Yesh Atid list running second to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, a Feb. 24 statement by former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett that his right-religious Yamina party would not sit in a government with Yesh Atid’s leader Yair Lapid as prime minister means that the latter will have difficulty forming a coalition. The latest polls suggest that Netanyahu and his natural allies in the religious parties, plus the United Arab List, and excluding Yamina are set to achieve a total of approximately 51 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

This means that the most likely alternative coalition to Netanyahu will consist at its core of an alliance between Bennett and the New Hope list of former Likud stalwart Gideon Saar. In other words, Netanyahu’s crown is threatened by two men who split off from his own party.

Understanding what has happened requires a closer look at the political DNA of the Israeli right.

Respect for law and constitutional norms was central to the outlook of Jabotinsky and Begin, the key founding fathers of the Israeli right.

Splits in the mainstream right in Israel are fairly uncommon. Unlike the endlessly squabbling left, Israel’s Zionist right has tended to coalesce around strong leader figures. Since its emergence a century ago, the mainstream Zionist right has indeed had a sum total of five leaders—Zeev Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu. It has a notable inclination to attribute kingly qualities to those chosen to stand at its helm.

Central to the outlook of Jabotinsky and Begin, the key founding fathers of the right, was a liberal conception of a limited role for the state, along with, importantly, respect for law and constitutional norms. (Shamir, whose background was in the more radical Lehi, or Stern Group, and Sharon, who came from the Labor settlement movement, were less focused on these issues of democratic procedure).

Saar, whose departure from Likud set the current flux in motion, is an experienced and canny politician, a former interior minister, cabinet secretary, and coalition whip. He would not have jumped ship had he not believed that there was sufficient electoral space for him to make a comfortable landing, which raises the question: What has created this space?

Saar’s own explanation of his motivations offers a clue: “Loyalty to Likud’s way, values, and, ideals have been replaced by flattery and platitudes that border on a cult of personality,” he said in a televised address following the announcement of his departure from Likud. The latter, he declared, had become a “tool for the personal interests of the person in charge, including matters relating to his criminal trial.” The criminal indictments against Netanyahu and his determination to nevertheless continue in office despite these are the crux of the matter.

This lesser-known but important element of the mainstream right from which Likud emerged, namely its traditional regard for the rule of law and the formalities of democratic practice, has deep roots and is evidently not yet extinguished. Its existence predates the foundations of Israel.

Jabotinsky, the ideological father of the secular Israeli right, located himself throughout his career as in the lineage of Western European and American liberal patriots. In 1938, he wrote, “It is an incorrect view which states that government supported by the majority is democracy. … Democracy means freedom. Even a government of majority rule can negate freedom; and where there are no guarantees for freedom of the individual, there can be no democracy. These contradictions will have to be prevented.”

This approach was evident in the strict approach to governance and the separation of powers adhered to by Begin, the second historic leader of the Israeli right. In this regard, Begin supported the passing of a constitution for Israel. He stressed what he referred to as the “supremacy of law” and the autonomy of the judicial branch. He supported the abolition of the military rule imposed on Israel’s Arab citizens in the first years of the state.

Legalism is a core part of the self-image of a significant part of the Likud elite.

Herut, the core movement from which Likud emerged, was at its formation the reorganization of the Irgun paramilitary movement for the purpose of civilian politics. But alongside this element, a self-perception as a movement supporting Western-style democratic norms was central to the political DNA of the party. This aspect has not disappeared. Legalism is a core part of the self-image of a significant part of the Likud elite.

This characteristic stands in odd juxtaposition to the better-known insurgent roots of the Israeli right. It is also a contrast to the well-known practices of the Likud Central Committee, a byword in Israel for political maneuvers of the least refined variety. But it should not be dismissed.

At present, there is a growing perception that Netanyahu’s actions and decisions are mainly motivated by a desire to secure a postponement or annulment of his scheduled criminal trial on charges of breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud in three separate cases.

There is a growing perception that Netanyahu sees the party as his private property and a convenient tool. 

According to this view, Netanyahu sees Likud as his private property and a convenient tool. The failure, for political reasons, to pass the biennial budget for 2020-2021 at a time of acute national crisis adds to this sense. More than any other element, this is the cause for the disillusionment with and estrangement from the prime minister among significant figures in his movement.

As Dan Meridor, a former deputy prime minister and former intelligence minister with impeccable Likud credentials going back to the movement’s earliest days, put it to me in a recent conversation in Jerusalem, “We have two flags: the liberal one—individualism, human rights, the rule of law—and of course the national cause. … Bibi changed this completely. … The attitude to the court is just one example. He changed dramatically when his own case began. … The attack on the system, the police, the courts, calling the judges ‘leftists.’ This is unheard of.”

Netanyahu, of course, didn’t always talk like this, but his rhetoric “has changed the Likud completely,” Meridor argued. “You can’t demand the presumption of innocence and then prevent the trial from taking place. Which is what I believe he is trying to do.”

Former Education Minister Limor Livnat, another Likud stalwart with family roots deep in the Zionist right, recently wrote an article on the Israeli news site Ynet decrying “Netanyahu’s arrogance, his refusal to listen to anyone else, his sycophantic cheerleaders parroting party propaganda.”

Zeev Elkin, the most senior Likud figure to join Saar, said in a December 2020 interview on Israel’s Channel 12 that the prime minister’s “personal interests are guiding his decisions,” adding that “Netanyahu feels persecuted, he suspects everyone, the atmosphere is one of a cult of personality.”

Netanyahu, with his support reduced because of the presence of rival rightist candidates committed to his demise, will be unable to form a coalition without the support of Bennett. The latter has not stated that he will refuse under any circumstances to sit with Netanyahu—which means that he is currently set to be the kingmaker. He has ruled out supporting opposition front-runner Lapid’s bid for the leadership. So, assuming that he intends to stick to this declaration, he will be left with the option of joining a narrow Netanyahu-led coalition or advancing either Saar’s or his own candidacy for prime minister.

It would take a bold gambler to bet against the longest-serving premier in Israel’s history. But something significant has shifted. The contest is set to be decided at the top level within the confines of the historic Israeli right. Netanyahu no longer looks unassailable there. His determination to annul the charges against him is colliding with the legalist traditions of his own movement.

The prime minister’s considerable political skills could still bring him victory, but there is also a chance that the torch will be passed to new hands—to leaders who left the prime minister’s party, but who represent the particular Likud traditions that Netanyahu has abandoned.

Jonathan Spyer is a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

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