Netanyahu Is Running Out of Natural Partners

In private conversations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is saying he will do everything to cling to his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism after the September 17 election.

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There is nothing sentimental about this attachment. For the past 20 years, the pact between Israel’s atheist leader and his religious-fundamentalist allies has been of the utmost mutual benefit. The Haredim gave Netanyahu blanket support, while he granted them total hegemony in the narrow areas of public policy and communal autonomy they care about.

In recent days, this alliance — which was forged as early as 1996 and has weathered a generation of political storms — has increasingly been looking like a survival pact. Netanyahu and the Haredim are clinging to each other because they seem to be losing their other political allies. Or, as Netanyahu calls them, “Likud’s natural partners.”

Bezalel Smotrich with fellow members of the Union of Right-Wing Parties in April. Emil Salman

The latest casualty could have been thought of as the most natural of allies: Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whom the Prime Minister’s Office said had been on the brink of being fired by Netanyahu. On Sunday, Smotrich publicly and directly blamed Netanyahu’s perceived weakness for the most recent court decision that prevents gender-segregated public events. He was doing so on the back of criticism by the religious far-right of a police decision — later reversed — not to allow Jews onto Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av (as it clashed with the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday).

That kind of criticism of Netanyahu from the fundamentalist right is not new. What is new, though, is that this criticism is being articulated by the leader of a faction that has little choice but to sit in a future Netanyahu governing coalition, and who is himself a newly appointed member of Netanyahu’s cabinet. (Smotrich is the senior representative of the National Union and part of the Yamina alliance formerly known as United Right.)

Smotrich should normally be seen as the epitome of a “natural partner.” But something has cracked in that partnership.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as Bezalel Smotrich signs an agreement during a visit by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, June 26, 2019.Amit Shabi

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman’s move in May to create a split in the Netanyahu coalition by targeting the premier’s alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties is causing a series of seismic aftershocks. Netanyahu’s primacy as the ultimate right-wing leader is being openly questioned not just by Lieberman but also by Hayamin Hehadash’s Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, who are trying to market a new brand of nationalism and openly acknowledging that they could join a government headed by someone other than Netanyahu. And now ethno-nationalists like Smotrich are joining the revolt.

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Their challenge puts Netanyahu in a double bind. On the one hand, he needs his natural partners if he is to ever have a chance of forming another coalition. On the other, his very proximity to these partners is now being used against him by Lieberman and other rivals on the center-right to paint him as an enabler of extremists and parochialists.

The polls show that this is pushing a significant number of voters away from Likud and toward Lieberman’s party — a significant enough number to deny Netanyahu his coalition.

Smotrich, who is an inexperienced politician, repeatedly falls into Lieberman’s trap — as he did two months ago when he made his Jerusalem Day speech on transforming Israel into a halakha state (one governed by religious law). Netanyahu promoted him to the cabinet as he was being forced to publicly reprimand him.

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman talking with Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar in Netivot, southern Israel, May 24, 2019. Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Haredi leadership is cannier. Ultra-Orthodox politicians have lowered their profile in recent months, giving fewer interviews to the general media and not making the same kind of sweeping statements Smotrich and his ilk have been uttering. They realize the bind Netanyahu is in and don’t want to exacerbate his predicament.

Unlike Smotrich, they understand that Netanyahu is running out of natural allies and that they may be the only ones he has left.