Netanyahu appears to be losing control over extremist partners

INSIDE POLITICS: The coalition is buckling with dissension, yet Netanyahu appears to be either unable – or unwilling – to take control.

 Noam party leader Avi Maoz sits with Shas leader Arye Deri in the Knesset plenum, March 1, 2023 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Noam party leader Avi Maoz sits with Shas leader Arye Deri in the Knesset plenum, March 1, 2023

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth government marked its second-month anniversary this week, with a dubious achievement: Within eight weeks, the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history has ended up embroiled in turmoil on many fronts.

The aggressive judicial overhaul prompted unprecedented internal dissidence, widened the polarization, deepened the national divide, and is dangerously escalating by the day. The rapid regime changes have clouded the financial outlook with grave economic warnings, which are stacking up to a looming crisis.

At the same time, a wave of heinous Palestinian terrorism, which has already claimed the lives of 14 innocent civilians, has rattled the security front, and rockets from Gaza shattered the relative quiet of the southern border. The pogrom by Jewish outlaws in the Palestinian village of Huwara earlier this week, which senior members in the coalition condoned and supported, undermined the security situation even more, while spreading international shock waves.

First cracks in the coalition

MEANWHILE, AS the internal, political, economic, security and diplomatic friction has mounted, Netanyahu’s coalition has confronted and clashed, in one way or another, with almost every national or official figure – the president of the Supreme Court, the attorney-general, the governor of the Bank of Israel, the police commissioner, the IDF chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), and so on. A day doesn’t go by without at least one public squabble.

The pugnacious tendency of Netanyahu’s allies is also rumbling the coalition from within: As the government celebrated its second benchmark this week, the first cracks in its consolidation appeared, only two months in.

 MK Avi Maoz attends an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on June 21, 2021.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) MK Avi Maoz attends an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on June 21, 2021. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

On Monday evening, Avi Maoz, the sole representative of the anti-LGBT Noam Party, resigned from his post as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, saying he was “shocked to find there was no serious intention of honoring the coalition deal” he signed with Netanyahu two months ago. According to the deal, Maoz was granted oversight of extracurricular programming in the education system, and would establish a “Jewish national identity” authority, to promote his fundamentalist vision.

However, after the government was established, Education Minister Yoav Kisch was not very generous in transferring powers, and the Finance Ministry was not very generous in allocating budgets and personnel to Maoz’s disposal. After the government approved the state budget last weekend, without appropriating his promised resources, Maoz decided to quit in protest. He clarified he is not quitting altogether, and will not jeopardize Netanyahu’s 64-seat majority, yet his resignation marked the coalition’s first official fracture.

Netanyahu did not see it coming, and Maoz’s resignation letter took him by surprise, but he did not necessarily mourn his departure: His outspoken homophobic and misogynist agenda armed the opposition with liberal propaganda, and his appointment is what sparked the first anti-government protests, even before its inauguration. Thus, his resignation was acclaimed by the anti-Netanyahu camp as a victorious sign of the demonstrations’ effectiveness.

The only reason the Prime Minister’s Office is now trying to amend the crisis and convince Maoz to return to his post is that, back in the Knesset, he could refuel the dissent. As a deputy minister, Maoz could not promote any private parliamentary legislation, but as an MK, he can challenge the government with provocative bills promoting his agenda. Outside of the government, Maoz could turn into a bigger headache.

Less than 24 hours after Maoz’s resignation, another resignation letter arrived on Netanyahu’s table. This time, it was United Torah Judaism’s Meir Porush, who announced he is quitting his governmental role as minister of the Meron pilgrimage. Like Maoz, Porush was granted the title in the coalition agreements, but clashed over responsibilities and authorities with the Religious Services Ministry, led by Shas, after the government’s establishment. Porush will retain his role as Jerusalem and tradition minister, and like Maoz, won’t risk the coalition’s existence, but his resignation points to another crisis, the growing haredi frustration and anger with the lack of budgets and funding promised in the coalition deals.

UTJ leader Moshe Gafni made his own move on Monday to catch Netanyahu’s attention, by presenting a bill to limit the Bank of Israel’s interest rates. UTJ MKs also boycotted the plenum debate to stress their discontent. Sure enough, later that evening, Gafni was invited to Netanyahu’s chambers and was granted a personal promise to meet all of his demands. As chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Gafni can make Netanyahu’s life miserable if he doesn’t get what he wants.

Otzma Yehudit also staged a protest, boycotting the Monday Knesset session because of unfulfilled coalition agreements. The national security minister fumed over the “containment” of terrorism, evacuations of illegal outposts and the four-month settlement construction freeze agreed to by the prime minister’s envoys at the diplomatic summit in Aqaba on Sunday.

Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party also denounced the Aqaba understandings but refrained from posing any ultimatums. In his role as finance minister, Smotrich holds the most significant seat in the government, and did not have to explicitly threaten Netanyahu in order to realize the promises from the coalition agreements. He simply has his hands on the faucet. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant tried to stall the transfer of powers in the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria for weeks, but after receiving a few hints from the Finance Ministry regarding the defense budget and no backing from the prime minister, he gave up.

The original sin - coalition agreements

The original sin generating all of the coalition’s early internal tremors are the coalition agreements, the most tedious and detailed in the country’s history.

Netanyahu submitted to all of his allies' demands for powers, budgets, laws and authorities, without putting up a single stop sign, and now, as they expect him to comply with his promises, they are colliding with reality checks. Just like during the coalition negotiations, Netanyahu’s partners cannot afford to topple the most right-wing government ever, and have no any alternative coalition in sight. None of the threats pose any real danger to the existence of the government, but the charged atmosphere could turn the budget debates in the Knesset into a big headache in the weeks ahead.

Continuing the dynamics from the coalition negotiations, Netanyahu is refraining from setting limits to his extremist partners and appears to be losing control. Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir are heating up the security and diplomatic situation, with words and actions, just as Netanyahu is engaged in calming down tensions ahead of Ramadan. Ben-Gvir is also fueling the domestic protests, dubbing the demonstrators “anarchists” and pushing the police to use more violence to crack down on the disturbances.

Netanyahu is now tasting the stew he brewed for himself by forging a full-fledged right-wing coalition. That deed exposes the real origins of his political situation – the three cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in which he was indicted, which compelled him to form a loyalist bloc with extremist, fundamentalist and supremacist allies.

As long as he refrains from issuing them any red cards, the all-around commotion will probably persist.