Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s credibility as a right-wing leader took a beating this week, even as his numbers remained high in the polls.
He lost ground in three arenas: politics, settlements and diplomacy.
In the political arena, top rival New Hope party head Gideon Sa’ar continued to shore up his credentials as the true right-wing alternative.
While Sa’ar couldn’t oust Netanyahu within the Likud, he continues to attract former Likud stalwarts now that he has his own party.
The most significant of these was Benny Begin, son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Known for his integrity though not his charisma, Begin is viewed as his father’s spiritual successor, and his support has mattered in the past.
He was brought into the Likud in the 2013 election to rescue Netanyahu, who feared he was falling behind one of his chief rivals at the time, Avigdor Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beitenu Party.
Lieberman’s party actually declined, but eight years later Begin has been politically resurrected to shore up Sa’ar’s party. He is not the only descendant of Likud royalty to join Saar. Michal Diament, granddaughter of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, joined Sa’ar earlier this month.
Their presence sends a symbolic message that whoever seeks the true values on which the Likud party has traditionally rested has a better chance of finding them in New Hope than with Netanyahu.
Yesha Council head David Elhayani, also a longtime Likud member who has campaigned on Netanyahu’s behalf in the past, made this point when he announced this week that he was leaving the Likud and joining Sa’ar.
Danni Dayan, former Yesha Council head and Consul General in New York, also threw his weight behind Sa’ar earlier this month.
Netanyahu often portrays himself as the best champion of the settlement movement. It is a claim that has been strengthened by the presence of significant settler leaders in his party. But now that presence is weakening.
It should be remembered that Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett, also a rival of Netanyahu on the Right, is the former Yesha Council director-general.
Begin and Elhayani joined Sa’ar just as Netanyahu failed to find a way for the government to issue a declaration of intention to legalize West Bank outposts.
He stated on Sunday that he hoped to resolve the issue within a “few days.” It became clear by this weekend that no such declaration was forthcoming, because Defense Minister Benny Gantz had successfully blocked such a declaration.
A world-class diplomat who once defied US president Barack Obama on Iran by addressing Congress, and who had swayed US president Donald Trump to accept the idea of West Bank sovereignty, now could not figure out how to bypass his own defense minister.
For those on the Right, it was a sign of either sudden political weakness or a lack of desire to push the matter forward.
A declaration of intent to legalize the outposts would have been viewed as a major policy decision regarding Israel’s territorial hold in the West Bank. It would have created enormous friction with US President Joe Biden, so there are those who believe that Netanyahu simply created the appearance that Gantz was to blame, for diplomatic reasons.
But the argument that he held back to appease Biden also does not play well for him. He failed to stand up to Trump on the annexation of West Bank settlements, thereby failing to make good on his pledge last July to apply sovereignty to those communities.
Now it would seem that he can’t stand up to Biden on a lesser issue, that of the outposts. The declaration would not have legalized them, it would simply have advanced the issue.
Given that there is little he can now offer the settlers by way of advancing their policy agenda, his best argument will likely be that only he can stand strong against Biden. That argument will now be harder to make.
Lastly, both these blows occurred as Netanyahu lost what had been one of his strongest campaign assets with the Right: the supportive arm of Donald Trump in recognizing the rights of Jews in Judea and Samaria.
This fourth election within two years has set out a strange paradigm. A right-wing government is easily attainable in terms of votes, but those votes can not be actualized, because of sharp divisions on the Right.
As a result, all right-wing parties will have to turn to the Center and the Left if they want to form a government.
Netanyahu reminded Sa’ar of this when his party sent out this message.
“It does not matter who Sa’ar adds to his list, whether it is a soccer player, Elvis Presley or Kim Kardashian. It does not change that fact that Sa’ar would need the Left to form a government.”
It was a strange message for someone like Netanyahu to send out. He himself has often formed governments by bringing a left-wing party or center party into the coalition.
He will likely have to do that this time around as well. But Sa’ar and Bennett can turn to the Right to shore themselves up. After this week, that is an option that will be harder for Netanyahu to execute.