Is Netanyahu now facing an uphill struggle?
Dec 17, 2020 | Haviv Rettig Gur
The first shipment of coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer landed in Israel on Dec. 8, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on hand at Ben Gurion Airport to welcome the flight and make sure he got the full measure of credit for its arrival.
It’s a moment that could have signalled the beginning of a turnaround for Netanyahu’s political prospects, the start of the return of right-wing voters to his Likud party after they had been abandoning it in recent months in anger at the Government’s handling of the pandemic.
But an hour after the plane’s arrival, Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar handed in his resignation to Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, and set back Netanyahu’s hopes for victory by a long way.
Netanyahu was already in trouble before Sa’ar’s announcement on Dec. 7 that he was launching his own party. Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party has been polling at between 19 and 24 seats for several months now, and Bennett is widely believed to be seeking to oust Netanyahu from power. If the polls are even close to right – if Bennett can draw even 15 seats on election day – Netanyahu will not have enough seats alone to ensure the current prime minister is also the next one.
Nor will Netanyahu have any willing partners across the aisle. After his refusal to fulfil his rotation deal with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, it will be hard to find a political leader in the current Knesset willing to sign a similar agreement with him in the next one.
One Israeli radio station managed to commission and publish a flash poll between Sa’ar’s announcement of his new party on Dec. 7 and the Dec. 8 morning news broadcasts. Sa’ar would win a stunning 17 seats, it found.
The poll, produced by Panels Politics, showed Sa’ar’s broad appeal on the centre-right. He would draw three to four seats apiece from Likud, Blue and White, centrist Yesh Atid, and rightist Yamina.
That’s bad news for Netanyahu, especially after Sa’ar openly declared his opposition to Netanyahu’s leadership and vowed not to serve in a government with him.
Likud had changed, said the former party no. 2, becoming “a tool for the personal interests of the person in charge” and “a cult of personality.”
“I can no longer support the Netanyahu-led government or be a member of a Likud party led by him… Today Israel needs unity and stability – Netanyahu can offer neither.”
That’s a more direct challenge to Netanyahu, and a more explicit vow not to serve with him, than anything Yamina leader Bennett has said in public.
All of which turns Sa’ar’s initial polling numbers into a potential existential political threat to Netanyahu.
According to the poll, Sa’ar, among the most popular figures among the Likud rank and file until he challenged Netanyahu’s leadership last year, moves some four seats from pro-Netanyahu Likud to an anti-Netanyahu offshoot. And while he also weakens Yamina and Yesh Atid, it is Netanyahu who cannot afford the drop.
The danger is now so acute for the Prime Minister that it quickly became a matter of conventional wisdom among Israeli pundits that Netanyahu would look for ways to avert an election at the last minute, even if it means passing a state budget for 2020 and 2021 and being forced to hand the rotating premiership to Gantz, as promised in the agreement the two men signed back in May.
The tragedy for Netanyahu is that his current predicament – the dwindling ranks of those likely to be willing to join a future government under his stewardship – is of his own making.
If one takes even a cursory look at the leaders of the centrist and right-leaning parties whose backing Netanyahu needs if he is to sidestep Sa’ar or Bennett and produce his future coalition, one finds a long list of people who believe they were abused and betrayed by Netanyahu over the years.
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman was once Netanyahu’s closest confidant, rising to the post of director-general of Netanyahu’s Prime Ministerial Office during his first term as premier in 1996. After they fell out in 1998, Lieberman spent years building his own Yisrael Beiteinu party in the hopes of one day merging it into Likud and returning to his old home, a goal stymied repeatedly by Netanyahu.
It was Lieberman’s refusal to ever again serve with Netanyahu that denied the Likud leader a government after the April and September elections in 2019.
Bennett, together with fellow Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked, once ran Netanyahu’s office and served as his chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, before experiencing a similar falling out. Netanyahu has spent the years since working hard to undermine Bennett at every turn.
In the current Knesset, Bennett and Lieberman hold a combined 12 seats between them. In every poll for the past five months, they account for 25 or more. In the past, Netanyahu wasn’t able to form a right-wing government without seven-seat Yisrael Beteinu. He will now have to contend with a 25-seat Lieberman-Bennett alliance bent on seeing him out of office.
Sa’ar is only the latest Likudnik to abandon the party over his disgust with its leader. Netanyahu is now surrounded by people with both personal and political grudges against him that they’re willing to take to the ballot box.
Netanyahu managed to thread the needle for years, handing both Lieberman and Bennett ever-increasing political prizes up to and including the Defence Ministry – after publicly declaring both unfit for the post – to keep them from abandoning him.
If Bennett draws 19 seats in the next election (never mind 24, as some recent polls have given him), no defence minister post will suffice. But it’s not clear Netanyahu has more to give. Would Bennett agree to a rotating premiership, given Netanyahu’s very recently broken commitments to Gantz? What of Sa’ar, flush with 17 seats (or, to be safe, even just 12)? What will he demand of a Netanyahu he knows he cannot trust?
Likud has 36 seats in the current Knesset, and 16 more in the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which have stuck loyally by Netanyahu in recent years. That’s 52 seats reliably in Netanyahu’s corner, nine short of a minimum 61-seat parliamentary majority.
But that’s the outgoing Knesset. The next Knesset, according to the latest polls, could see the Likud-ultra Orthodox bloc drop to just 41.
That’s less than the whopping 43 seats that right-wing anti-Netanyahu parties (Sa’ar, Yamina, Yisrael Beytenu) may get. With the centre-left now led by the firmly anti-Netanyahu Yair Lapid, Netanyahu appears to be running out of options.