Netanyahu is paying the price for gaining haredi, far-Right's loyalty

INSIDE POLITICS: The alliances with the haredim and far-Right may have secured Netanyahu's comeback, but now he has to pay the price for their loyalty.

 FROM LEFT, prospective coalition partners Yitzhak Goldknopf, Bezalel Smotrich, Yoav Kisch and Moshe Gafni in the Knesset plenum this week (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
FROM LEFT, prospective coalition partners Yitzhak Goldknopf, Bezalel Smotrich, Yoav Kisch and Moshe Gafni in the Knesset plenum this week
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In the summer of 2015, just a short while after his fourth election victory, Benjamin Netanyahu started to dream out loud about his own Israeli “Republican Party,” a large bloc of center-right parties that would run together in the elections.

Just like in America,” he was quoted in Haaretz as telling his political allies. “This is the only way it will be possible to rule”.

Seven years and five elections later, Netanyahu made his dream come true: He built a strong and solid political bloc of parties that loyally followed him to the opposition and back and played a significant role in his sweeping triumph on November 1.

Netanyahu's 'Republican Party' plan

The only deviation from Netanyahu’s original dream scenario is the cast. In 2015, Netanyahu was lobbying for his “Republican Party” plan with Moshe Kahlon, the leader of the centrist Kulanu Party, and with former prime minister Naftali Bennett, who, at the time, was still an integral part of the Right, heading the Bayit Yehudi Party. Netanyahu was intent – at the time – on excluding the extremist Tekuma Party and keeping the far Right out of the joint venture, which included his ultra-Orthodox allies from Shas and United Torah Judaism as well.

But much has changed since then. Kahlon, Bennett and their respective parties now rest in political peace; they’ve been replaced by a rogues’ gallery of the extreme Right, most notably Bezalel Smotrich, the torchbearer of the fundamentalist Tekuma, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former disciple of Meir Kahane.

 Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud leaders celebrate at party headquarters in Jerusalem on the night of November 1. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud leaders celebrate at party headquarters in Jerusalem on the night of November 1. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Netanyahu originally concocted his plans for an Israeli-style GOP long before his legal troubles began, before he was indicted and put on trial for corruption, before suspicion of ulterior motives accompanied his decision-making, before 50% of Israelis came to view his continued tenure as illegitimate. Thus, Netanyahu had no choice but to change his original lineup and to invite radical zealots to join his “Republican Party.”

Over the course of the five election campaigns Israel has endured since April 2019, Netanyahu cultivated and legitimized Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, while deepening his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox. He forged the consolidated and coordinated bloc that ultimately fulfilled its goal, giving him the 64-seat triumph that paved his way back to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu’s ultraist bloc successfully accomplished his dream of returning to power, but since the elections, it has been turning his life into a nightmare. The Likud was hoping to quickly and easily form a government, but its partners, led by Smotrich, refused the proposal to hold speed negotiations, and insisted on diving into the details of their demands.

And, boy, do they have demands! Every day begins with new headlines of reactionary plans, dramatic reforms and large budgets that Netanyahu’s partners have put on the negotiation table. After a year and a half in the opposition, the ultra-Orthodox appetite to erase the Bennett-Lapid-Liberman liberal mark is big, and Smotrich is even more eager for halachic changes to the relationship between religion and state, alongside revolutionary plans for the settlements and the judicial system. Ben-Gvir, who is slated to become public security minister, conditioned his deal on his receiving extra authority, which would weaken the independence of the police.

The Likud’s plan for a speed-date coalition agreement was foiled by the bloc’s spiraling demands and conditions.

A week before the elections, a leaked recording of Smotrich calling Netanyahu the “liar of all liars” was revealed on Channel 11, leaving no room for doubt on what he thinks about his bloc leader’s credibility, an opinion that underlies their current negotiation games.

Smotrich refused to budge from his demand for one of the two top posts, the Finance or Defense Ministry, which Netanyahu was originally planning to keep for the Likud members. He underrated Smotrich’s persistence and succeeded to hang on only to the Defense Ministry, while the Finance Ministry was sacrificed to the bloc, as Smotrich is set to share it with Arye Deri in a peculiar rotation deal that would divide the ministry between an extreme neoliberal capitalist and a food stamp socialist politician.

The bloc is Netanyahu’s golem

THUS, DESPITE Netanyahu’s outstanding comeback on Election Day, the weeks since then have exposed how much he is dependent on and controlled by his bloc.

In an alternative reality, with no heavy criminal corruption baggage, Netanyahu could easily brush off Smotrich and his ambitious demands by offering, or at least pretending to offer, a deal to one of the parties in the opposition. But as long as his trial is on, such a deal is not on the table, and his partners are negotiating on that premise and squeezing him into tough positions. After fulfilling the coalition factions’ ministerial demands, Netanyahu will be left with mostly unglamorous portfolios to hand out to Likud members, who are already ranting against the sellout to their partners.

No worries, no disappointed Likudnik is likely to dare to rebel or endanger the government, but, Like Smotrich, they can definitely add to Netanyahu’s future headaches.

The coalition talks’ growing pains are just the beginning; Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are likely to constantly try to push Netanyahu to the Right, and with no traditional center-left fig leaf, he will have to stand firm by himself to stop their fanatic ideas and ideologies. Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox stronghold in Netanyahu’s coalition is already fueling the anti-haredi public sentiment and challenging the Likud’s secular soft spot, but he cannot say no to his most devoted allies, and has no choice but to treat their wishes as his commands.

The bloc is Netanyahu’s golem, the legendary Jewish man-made creature that is made to defend but can also turn against its creator. The alliances with the haredim and the far Right have protected Netanyahu and secured his outstanding comeback, but now he has to pay the price for their loyalty and deal with the consequences, and his extreme partners might be impossible to control.