Naomi Chazan
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The Bibi blues

Diplomatic missteps aside, the Prime Minister is losing control of his party and faces growing vulnerability at home

Binyamin Netanyahu is going through very difficult times indeed. He not only failed in his effort to thwart the interim agreement between the P5+1 in Geneva, but his persistence in berating the deal has tried the patience of friends in Washington and Brussels to the limit (if not beyond). The Prime Minister was bailed out at the last minute from the folly of forfeiting Israel’s opportunity to participate in the Horizon 2020 program by the unlikely duo of Tzipi Livni and Naftali Bennett, but not without acceding (albeit not agreeing) to the European directives prohibiting investments beyond the 1967 lines. His international standing and that of his government has plummeted, placing Israel’s position in the international arena at a new nadir.

While the external implications of Netanyahu’s recent actions are being analyzed from every conceivable angle, insufficient attention has been devoted to their domestic ramifications. Despite the solid (some might claim almost robotic) backing he has received from his senior cabinet ministers, in fact this show of unity hides what may very well be the beginning of the sun setting of the Netanyahu era in Israeli politics. The Prime Minister’s repeated missteps on the diplomatic front—his supposed forte both in the eyes of his own party and of the electorate—have laid bare his growing vulnerability at home. In the back rooms of Israeli politics the struggle for succession has commenced.

The initial indications of the fading Netanyahu primacy are small but telling. He is, noticeably, losing his grip on parts of his coalition. Yesh Atid is emitting growing signs of independence (admittedly also because of its own plunge in the polls). The three-week long tug-of-war between Yair Lapid and Netanyahu over the identity of the new chair of the prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset is a case in point. So, too, is the ease with which the Minister of Finance announced the decision not to enforce the raise in income tax without more than “updating” the Prime Minister. And Education Minister Shai Piron’s plan to subsidize summer programs in the schools has hardly buttressed Netanyahu’s well-known distaste for increasing government spending.

The Prime Minister’s already troubled relations with Bennett’s Jewish Home party are deteriorating. The timing of Housing Minister Uri Ariel’s decision to approve planning for thousands of housing units across the Green Line (especially in the controversial E1 enclave) could not have been more embarrassing for the Prime Minister. The continued bickering over the Haredi conscription law between the chair of the special committee, MK Ayelet Shaked, and other coalition partners is a hot potato waiting to fall in Netanyahu’s lap in the near future. Most importantly, Bennett and the Prime Minister disagree entirely on everything to do with a possible accord with the Palestinians (except that the talks can continue indefinitely).

All this might be manageable if not for the fact that Netanyahu is fast losing control of his own party. The proposed union with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beytenu, still touted by the two leaders, will be difficult—if not impossible—to cement. The party institutions of the Likud are now controlled by a new crop of ambitious and frustrated hardliners (including Danny Danon, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotobeli and Miri Regev) who are bent not only on quashing the Lieberman-Netanyahu alliance, but also on expropriating the party agenda. The veteran Likud ministers who see themselves as possible successors (Sa’ar, Ya’alon, Erdan, Shalom and Katz) are increasingly veering in their direction. The Likud party convention, scheduled for mid-December, may yet signal the end of Netanyahu’s hold over the party faithful.

Under other circumstances, Netanyahu may have been able to ride these domestic difficulties. But in the coming months, just as his proven ability to deflect attention to external issues is particularly constrained, several major internal matters will be coming to a head. The most immediate is the question of Bedouin rights in the Negev. The so-called Prawer Law, which is now being prepared in committee for its second and third readings, has already sparked violent demonstrations. It is doubtful that, in the absence of immense sensitivity, it can be legislated without unleashing serious unrest (with not inconsiderable external repercussions). Then there is an array of proposals for legislating civil unions (many of which fall far short of an equitable solution for those seeking civil marriages) which, when taken together with the Haredi conscription issue, threaten to ignite tensions on questions of religion and state. A spate of anti-democratic bills are still pending, each of which might further unravel inter-communal relations in the country. And, as usual, the economy, which has slowed down in recent months—along with the gaping inequitable distribution at its core—will continue to be the source of great concern.

Naturally reluctant to make decisions on divisive matters in general, and on these issues in particular, Netanyahu will be hard put to keep his present coalition together until this summer. And no substitute composition is in the offing. A pattern of leadership regression, reminiscent of his first term in office in the mid-1990’s, may be replaying itself at this time.

All this is happening precisely as a new contender, Isaac Herzog, has come to the helm in the Labor party. With Netanyahu’s own cohorts breathing down his neck, and with Labor presenting an alternative candidate who might be able to break the right-wing hegemony which has held sway with minor breaks for the past two decades, the heretofore unassailable Netanyahu tenure might finally be giving way to a political transition whose direction, at this time, is far from clear. Either ultra-nationalists carved from his own cloth or moderates who have been the subject of his scorn are poised to replace him at their earliest convenience.

These trends are not irreversible. Binyamin Netanyahu can hope against hope that the Western world will turn a cold shoulder to the rapprochement with Iran (thus proving him right) or that some other crisis spot might emerge, thereby removing pressure from Israel—and by extension from him—in the next few months. Or he might finally realize that if he has any chance to make a mark (and maintain himself in office), he may have no choice but to do what he should have done ages ago: reach a just agreement with the Palestinians and oversee the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. In this situation, inaction is not an option: the Prime Minister’s term of office is running out and can only be prolonged by exceptional and uncharacteristic measures that he himself initiates in the foreseeable future.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.