It does not bode well for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nascent government that the subject of the first meeting of his Likud faction following the swearing-in of its final minister was preparations for the next general election.
When Netanyahu convened the faction at the Knesset Wednesday, the meeting focused on the system the party uses to elect its slate of MKs, which will be brought for approval at the next Likud central committee meeting in three weeks.
Netanyahu used the meeting to attempt to restore order in a faction that had already started becoming unruly. He did that by distributing various deputy minister posts and Knesset committee chairmanships in rotation agreements among backbench Likud MKs.
But then the prime minister threw out a bombshell to ensure the MKs will be kept in line: Netanyahu announced that he would be seeking a fifth term in office. Winning a fifth term would help him surpass US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four. According to a study by the Israel Democracy Institute, Netanyahu will pass David Ben-Gurion to become Israel’s longest-serving leader September 23, 2018.
The announcement ended speculation that after a rough campaign and even tougher coalition-building process, Netanyahu would not risk a potential loss. There had been hope among future Likud contenders that Netanyahu would ride out the current Knesset, then finally ride off into the political sunset.
After all, the Iran nuclear issue, which is Netanyahu’s political raison d’etre, is expected to already be decided in this term, for better or for worse. And how long can one hold onto a job that involves working all day and late into the night? With that announcement, Netanyahu has condemned future candidates to focus on their task at hand and not worry about a future race that has only become more distant. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon can concentrate on security, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom can work on reviving the peace process he has been appointed to lead, and former minister Gideon Sa’ar can continue enjoying his time with his family.
Whenever Netanyahu does leave, it will initiate a fascinating succession battle in the Likud. Perhaps it will be fitting that the race to succeed an Israeli leader so identified with the Republican Party could have double-digit candidates like the Republican primaries in the US.
Netanyahu’s No. 2 in the Likud, MK Gilad Erdan, could have had an interest in rebelling, staying out of the cabinet and waiting for Netanyahu to fall, had the prime minister been perceived as weaker. But Erdan caved in this week and accepted the Public Security portfolio Netanyahu intended for him all along.
The only real sweetener Erdan received was responsibility for the fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement; that title could give Erdan the international gravitas he sought when he considered accepting an appointment as ambassador to the UN.
Israel advocates in the US have lamented the perception that the Jewish state has a very right-wing government, which has made their jobs even harder than usual; the international media has appeared to surgically attach the adjective “hard-line” ahead of the words “Netanyahu government.”
But is Netanyahu’s new government really so hawkish? That perception is legitimate because Netanyahu took advice during the campaign to shift rightward in order to win available votes from Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu and Shas. He went so far as to rule out building a government with the Zionist Union, a promise he now clearly regrets.
When it came time to appoint Likud ministers, he didn’t appoint Palestinian state backers like MKs Tzachi Hanegbi, Avi Dichter and Yoav Kisch; he did appoint hawks like Danny Danon, Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin.
He at least technically put the Foreign Ministry in the hands of Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who personally supports a one-state solution.
Hanegbi had ruled out remaining a deputy minister, but Netanyahu could have appointed Dichter instead of Hotovely.
It is tough to persuade those abroad who want to paint Netanyahu as an extremist, but none of those political developments actually reflected a desire on the prime minister’s part to go to the Right.
Perhaps in America, politicians are expected to keep campaign promises.
Here, Netanyahu’s scare tactics during the campaign were seen as political expediency and nothing more.
Netanyahu appointed Danon because he is politically powerful in the Likud – the same reason he appointed as welfare and social services minister Likud vote contractor Haim Katz, whose views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are less clear. It had nothing to do with the Palestinians.
Hanegbi is coalition chairman and not a minister, because Netanyahu respects his political acumen and needed him in that role, and the time had come to reward former coalition chairmen Elkin and Levin for their hard work. Hotovely helped Netanyahu win the election much more than Dichter did, and he had to offer her a consolation prize for not appointing her a minister.
The Knesset did shift from 61 MKs on the Right to 67 – but it can be argued that this reported shift was exaggerated as well.
Eli Yishai’s Yahad, the only party that ruled out joining any government which would negotiate with the Palestinians, did not pass the electoral threshold. Bayit Yehudi, the only party in the Knesset whose leader (Naftali Bennett) opposes the formation of a Palestinian state, fell from 12 seats to eight.
The Likud became less extreme when it lost its most vocal right-wing spokesman in Moshe Feiglin, who party members rejected. He is now working on forming a new political movement.
Then there is Netanyahu, who has increasingly spoken about his desire to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in every high-profile speech since the election. His pre-election lament that current circumstances in the region would not permit forming a Palestinian state was unprofessionally interpreted by the international media as opposing the two-state solution, and is still taken very seriously by world leaders hostile to him.
But in Israel, Netanyahu’s statement was not taken too seriously in the first place. The interview with the prime minister on the NRG website was followed up by Israeli media in the context of the way it was reported abroad.
To get a better idea of Netanyahu’s true views on the Palestinian issue, it is worth reading the recent interview of his confidant Dore Gold to Fathom, the magazine of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center. Netanyahu appointed Gold as director-general of the Foreign Ministry this week, and the two old friends think alike.
“I think critics of Israel often have a short memory and they forget the actions the Israeli government has taken to try and make the peace process work, even when it has many faults,” Gold contended. “It was Prime Minister Netanyahu who moved his own position with respect to a number of key issues, to try and reach out to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.”
Gold pointed out that to reach out to the Palestinians, Netanyahu has endorsed a demilitarized Palestinian state, implemented an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze, and freed a large number of Palestinian prisoners.
“New initiatives will have to be taken after the Israeli elections, but the prime minister has hinted at a changed environment in the Middle East which could be a source of optimism,” Gold stated. “For the first time, many of the large Sunni states in the region face the identical threats Israel faces.
I’m speaking specifically about Egypt under President [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi; Saudi Arabia, now under King Salman; Jordan under King Abdullah; and others in the region.”
He noted that due to those threats, such countries were now more predisposed to quietly speaking to Israel about how to solve the region’s problems.
“This is precisely where creative diplomacy has to be undertaken by Israel, its Sunni allies and by concerned Western governments, to build on the emerging common perspectives forming in the Middle East where the two sides face a mutual threat,” Gold said.
“This is very similar to what happened in Europe after the Second World War: Former adversaries, like France and Germany, found themselves having to cooperate because they faced a much larger threat from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. There are dramatic changes occurring in the Middle East, and I’m sure Prime Minister Netanyahu will be putting thought into building on those changes to create a much more stable region in the future.”
So, at least according to Gold, Netanyahu intends to make such an effort in his fourth government. And if he does not succeed in that term, the prime minister is already getting ready for term No. 5.
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