Is Netanyahu's historic right-wing pact at an end?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Does Netanyahu truly face any political consequences for the recent political shenanigans? The answer is not so simple.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the crowd during a Jerusalem Day celebration at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem last June. (photo credit: AHARON KROHN/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the crowd during a Jerusalem Day celebration at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem last June.
(photo credit: AHARON KROHN/FLASH90)
For over a decade, the foundations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s power have rested in his alliance with ultra-Orthodox parties and religious-Zionist right-wing parties.
The loyalty of this set of parties to Netanyahu and the Likud has guaranteed that there has been no viable path to a 61-MK majority in the Knesset for the Center-Left and secured the premiership for the current prime minister for an unprecedented 11 years over four governments.
But this alliance appears now to be fraying at the edges.
Netanyahu jettisoned Yamina, the latest iteration of the right-wing, religious-Zionist parties from his latest government, angering its leaders and significant parts of the religious-Zionist public, breaking promises he made to senior rabbis of the sector into the bargain.
And now, three months in to one of the most unstable and volatile governments in the country’s history, Netanyahu’s erratic behavior is upsetting the ultra-Orthodox parties of United Torah Judaism and Shas too.
With a severe budget fight still unresolved, despite the likelihood that the deadline for its passage will be extended, and with Likud’s polling numbers sinking badly, how damaging might Netanyahu’s difficulties with his religious allies prove?
Ostensibly, Netanyahu’s biggest headache is with the head of the Yamina Party, Naftali Bennett.
Netanyahu has for years politically abused Bennett, seeing in him a rival for the leadership of the Right.
He has sought to marginalize him politically, sideline him in coalition negotiations and led both open and covert attacks on him, as well as his wife and even his father, in the press.
The final indignity was during the current coalition negotiations when, having been forced together with Blue and White, Netanyahu realized he did not need Bennett for his government and Yamina was eventually left with governmental crumbs, which the latter declined to swallow.
Now in opposition, Bennett is thriving, bouncing around the country energetically to point out the government’s flailing efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, and receiving a huge bump in the polls, which have put Yamina at as many as 19 seats, up from its March 2020 showing of just six.
And Bennett has not been coy about his anger with Netanyahu.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, Bennett accused the prime minister of dismantling the alliance with the religious-Zionist parties, and said Yamina would not automatically back Netanyahu to form the next government, as it did in all three elections of the recent election cycle.
And the rest of Yamina is also displeased with Netanyahu, since it looks unlikely now that any settlements or territory will be annexed in the near future despite the premier’s fervent promises to do so in the last election with which he vacuumed up large numbers of Yamina voters.
Yamina’s ardently-sought goal of limiting judicial review of the government and the Knesset has also been stymied by the current coalition.
The ultra-Orthodox are also none too pleased with Netanyahu either. UTJ is fuming that Netanyahu has engaged in political brinkmanship over the budget during the current health crisis, which has put the budget for yeshiva student stipends in danger.
Household budgets in haredi communities are often balanced on a knife-edge of relatively small amounts of money, and the failure to pay married, full-time yeshiva students would be financially harmful to the ultra-Orthodox public, and politically damaging to UTJ and Shas.
UTJ chairman and Housing and Construction Minister Ya’acov Litzman said on Wednesday in the party’s faction meeting that UTJ would not automatically support coalition legislation until the yeshiva budget is approved, according to the ultra-Orthodox Hamodia daily on Thursday.
Speaking to the Post, UTJ MK and faction chairman Yitzhak Pindrus noted that not all UTJ MKs had voted in favor of the coalition bill to postpone the budget deadline on Wednesday, describing it as “a warning shot” to Netanyahu over UTJ’s hitherto unconditional support for him.
Pindrus added that UTJ has been upset with Netanyahu for some weeks, ever since he allowed Likud MKs to vote in favor of an opposition bill to create a committee of inquiry into judges’ conflict of interests, a move that severely destabilized the coalition.
A senior source in the Shas Party made similar comments, expressing dismay that Netanyahu has engaged in a fight over the budget at such a delicate and difficult time for the country.
Following the incident over the judge’s inquiry committee, Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Deri reportedly held an angry phone call with Netanyahu in which the Shas leader demanded that the prime minister “Say explicitly if you want elections,” and then hung up on him.
BUT DESPITE all this anger and frustration, does Netanyahu truly face any political consequences for the recent political shenanigans?
The answer is not so simple.
On the one hand, Yamina and the haredim have seemingly little place to go and no realistic alternatives at present.
Yamina’s diplomatic policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians are hard- or even far-Right, depending on which of the now two constituent parties is in question, and the hardline, conservative constituency has policy positions on religion that are incommensurate with any party to the left of the Likud.
Netanyahu is the prime ministerial goose that has laid the political golden egg for the advancement of the settlements, the mainstreaming of annexation and the reinforcement of the Orthodox monopoly on religious life.
Furthermore, the liberal drift of the Center-Left parties in recent years has made it exceedingly hard for Yesh Atid and Meretz to contemplate uniting with the religious conservatives and Greater Israel proponents of Yamina.
What of the ultra-Orthodox?
Pindrus observed that the political divide is not currently between Left and Right, but over religion and social conservatism versus liberalism.
Who then can UTJ, which sticks fast to the 75-year-old status quo on religion and state, back to form a government, other than Netanyahu?
The socially liberal Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid has created a blood enemy in Litzman, who refuses to talk to Lapid after the 2013-2015 government in which the former made swingeing cuts to ultra-Orthodox welfare benefits and the yeshiva budget.
How can those two sides be reconciled?
Pindrus said UTJ has “no problem” with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, but his political horizons appear to be contracting by the day, and he will not be in a position to form a government by the next election.
This is what Netanyahu is counting on, said the Shas source, keeping his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies dependent upon him and without a viable alternative.
But despite the ostensible lack of options right now, the fractures in the relationship are still significant and portentous.
The coronavirus health crisis has damaged Netanyahu’s public standing badly and the Likud is sinking in the polls as a result, apparently bleeding much of its support to Bennett and Yamina.
Pindrus said that if after the next elections, whenever they may be, Bennett’s party came close to the Likud in the number of seats won, or an alternative on the Center-Right presented itself, it would not be out of the question for UTJ to back them.
A precipitous decline in Knesset seats for the Likud could also spark an internal party rebellion, leading to either outright revolt or a split in the party with MKs deserting to form a coalition without Netanyahu.
In another possible scenario, a compromise candidate from amid all Netanyahu’s rivals, including within Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Yamina and Yesh Atid, might be found to finally end his reign.
With so many enemies and disgruntled partners, Netanyahu’s dismantlement of the alliance with Bennett and the disquiet of the ultra-Orthodox parties with his behavior could yet prove politically damaging, if not fateful.
“All political lives... end in failure,” British politician Enoch Powell once noted, an aphorism that remains as true today as when it was first uttered.
Netanyahu’s allies, past and present, may in the current circumstances have no viable options other than to stick with him.
But as his political, not to mention legal, complications grow he may not always be able to take that for granted.