Fights in Israel's coalition thrust Netanyahu back into the public eye

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Benjamin Netanyahu has been said to be the glue holding the coalition's cracks together, but it may be the cracks keeping the glue around.

LIKUD LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
LIKUD LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market this week.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid decided just last week to host a party for coalition MKs and their spouses to reward them for their work in the Knesset ahead of next week’s marathon voting on the state budget.

They will enjoy a good meal on Friday at Modi’in’s Ha’ahuza wedding hall and some Netanyahu jokes from comedian Adir Miller, who was once a regular guest on the TV show Lapid hosted.

But the many fights that have intensified in the coalition since the pep rally started being planned are no laughing matter.

Labor leader Merav Michaeli can no longer hide her animosity for Defense Minister Benny Gantz and for Lapid, neither of whom she believes understands the depth of the damage done to Israel among American progressives from settlement construction and designating Palestinian human rights organizations as terror groups.

Michaeli lived among those American progressives during the month she took off to be with her new baby and got to know them better, which made her even angrier at Gantz’s decisions and Lapid’s acquiescence. For her, it’s now more personal than before.

 Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked is seen speaking at the Jerusalem Post annual conference at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, on October 12, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked is seen speaking at the Jerusalem Post annual conference at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, on October 12, 2021. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

Like Michaeli, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked is much more open with her criticism of her coalition colleagues in private conversations, when she is unaware of being recorded. The tape revealed by Channel 12 of her criticizing Lapid and Gantz on Wednesday night is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Bennett made an effort to downplay the fighting inside his faction on Wednesday. But there, too, the reality is much worse than has come out. Deputy Minister Abir Kara, who picked a fight with deaf MK Shirley Pinto, is despised by his Yamina colleagues – who he called a “party of idiots” – in part because of his refusal to resign from the Knesset as part of the Norwegian Law.  

Will the salmon they eat together in the wedding hall restore the love among the ministers and MKs in the coalition? 

It’s unlikely, but then again, good food has had that effect before. 

POLITICIANS KNOW how to use food to enhance their image. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was caught eating at Nobu, an extremely expensive fish restaurant on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, with Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who is a witness in his corruption cases.

What better way to balance out that hedonism and make him look like a man of the people than by sending him to Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market on Tuesday to buy a falafel? 

Netanyahu’s visit to the Levy Brothers falafel stand in the entrance to the market lasted just five minutes. Unlike past visits, he did not go into the market, peruse the produce or talk to the vendors or the customers. There are no witnesses that he even tasted the falafel he bought, though his associates said he liked that particular falafel stand before he entered politics.

But he smiled at his adoring supporters, who chanted “Bibi, King of Israel” and “Bennett, go home,” and he made his presence felt.

It was important to Netanyahu to make up for a report the night before that he had wrongly boasted about being swarmed by supporters when he went to get a haircut in Jerusalem. A video of him in front of Yaniv Malka’s barber shop on Bethlehem Road showed that it was actually just a couple people. 

Netanyahu’s associates said the swarming happened moments later, when he approached his car, and the opposition leader was upset it was not caught on video.  

“When he doesn’t go out to the public, they say he disappeared, and when he does go out, he faces criticism, too,” a Netanyahu associate complained. “He enjoys contact with the public. Now that there is less of a threat from the coronavirus, we can let people touch him again.”

More public events are planned, starting with an event that was held on Thursday inaugurating the new hippodrome amphitheater in Beit She’an. But Netanyahu is still being cautious. He canceled plans to take the train from Haifa to Beit She’an with ordinary citizens.

Both the hippodrome and the Haifa-Beit She’an train line were planned and built during his tenure, which could make local residents appreciate him. But there is always a risk of hecklers when going into the public.

These events are intended to show that at 72, Bibi has still got it. They also send a message that Netanyahu’s not going anywhere – at least for now. 

Netanyahu has met in recent weeks with future Likud leadership candidates Nir Barkat, Israel Katz and Miri Regev, in which he denied the rumors they helped spread that he intends to quit after the state budget passes. 

The meeting with Barkat was purposely on the porch of the Knesset cafeteria to make sure they would be seen together. The Katz meeting was quickly reported with pictures on the social media accounts of Netanyahu and Katz. 

“We want people to know we are focusing on replacing Bennett, not Bibi,” Katz said.

BUT MKS in Likud still said this week that Netanyahu has one foot out the door. They said that since he returned from Hawaii, he has missed key Knesset votes and allowed Likud MKs to pair off to miss plenum votes instead of remaining a fighting opposition. 

They continued pushing the theory that Netanyahu will surprise by announcing his immediate departure not long after the budget passes.

“Until the last day, Bibi won’t say he’s leaving, because he doesn’t want to be a lame duck,” a Likud critic of Netanyahu said. “He knows the second he hints he’s leaving, they’ll eat him alive.”

Sources close to Netanyahu said that as far as they know, that cannot be further from the truth. They stressed that the opposition leader’s return to the public was because of the absence of COVID-19 and not because of any of the future Likud leadership candidates – not even Yuli Edelstein, the only MK willing to run for Likud leader before the post-Netanyahu era begins.  

“It hasn’t happened until now because of corona, not because of Yuli or any other adversary that is not corona,” a Netanyahu associate said.

The other reason for Netanyahu’s return was to show he has support precisely when the coalition is going through tough times. Ironically, if Netanyahu did have any secret plans to leave, the divides in the coalition are what could persuade him to stay. 

Ra’am (United Arab List) head Mansour Abbas revealed to the Knesset how close he was to reaching a deal to join a Netanyahu-led government. A speech Netanyahu was set to deliver justifying the partnership was written by Likud MK Yoav Kisch, and it was possible that Abbas could have partnered with Netanyahu, enabling him to stay in power.

Abbas is now aligned with the anti-Netanyahu camp. But he could shift back if the price is right and the current coalition crumbles. 

“The Americans will try to open a consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem soon, which will only divide the coalition more,” a Netanyahu associate said. “After the budget passes, the ideological tension will come out more and more. The only question is how intense it will be.” 

The cliché has been that Netanyahu is the glue that holds the coalition together and keeps it from cracking. Now it could be the cracks in the coalition that keep the glue sticking around.•