The taming of the Likud? – analysis

What is the truth?

Likud parliament member Miki Zohar reacts during an arrangements committee meeting at the Knesset. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
Likud parliament member Miki Zohar reacts during an arrangements committee meeting at the Knesset.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
It has been 10 days since coalition chairman Miki Zohar told his Likud faction that he had decided to abandon his aggressive political approach and would become more statesmanlike.
Zohar’s announcement surprised many, because he had gone so far in the opposite direction in recent months. From threatening Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to portraying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a poor victim requiring tax relief during a pandemic, Zohar built an image of going to extremes in defending Netanyahu.
It surprised many more that Zohar has kept his promise since then, smiling more, attacking less and playing it straight. This led to speculation that Netanyahu had threatened Zohar because polls were showing that he was damaging the prime minister’s image.
Many sources very close to Netanyahu vigorously denied any private talk between the two, or that any polls had led to Zohar’s decision. There was only the public statement that Netanyahu issued following Zohar’s Mandelblit threat, distancing himself from his coalition whip and saying that he does not speak for him.
There was also speculation, fueled by Zohar himself, that his mea culpa was part of a grand strategy for the entire Likud, in order to make Blue and White leaders look frivolous and irresponsible for threatening elections. Sources close to Netanyahu denied this as well, suggesting that Zohar was not exactly the top choice to be a harbinger of a new strategy for the ruling party.
There are also the facts that belie such speculation. Blue and White leaders have been asking the Likud for flexibility on the 2021 state budget for months, and neither Netanyahu nor other top Likud leaders have budged. If anything, the Likud has edged closer to the precipice of a fourth election in under two years that its leaders insist is the last thing they want.
So what is the truth behind the taming of Miki Zohar?
Zohar’s answer is that he genuinely realized he had made a mistake. In private conversations that are not televised, he actually comes across as a warm, charming person who is nothing like his image when the cameras are rolling. He simply decided to start being himself all the time. (By contrast, ministers David Amsalem and Miri Regev are exactly like their public personas in real life.)
He said he realized that at the height of the crisis over coronavirus, the public could not care less about internal political bickering and expected statesmanlike behavior from politicians now more than ever.
This answer is hard for people to believe, for two reasons. First, any apology by any politician is shocking. Second, Zohar has been so typecast in the role he acted for so long that he can no longer play another part.
Like the characters of Seinfeld, they will always be Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer, no matter what they are called in real life, and Miki Zohar will always be Miki Zohar.
But sources close to Zohar pleaded to believe him. They said he was smart enough to realize he had gone to too far and needed to correct it immediately.
So will Netanyahu take the same route? Sources close to him argue that he has been playing the statesmanlike card for months.
“He isn’t interested in the petty politics of others,” a source close to Netanyahu said. “He advocates for national unity and calls on all parties to join the fight against corona.”
In other words, it is too soon to say what steps Netanyahu will take in the weeks ahead regarding elections and the fate of the current government.
Zohar’s approach has been compared to that of US President Donald Trump. Blue and White officials have admitted that they are waiting until the results of the US elections are in before deciding whether to topple the government. Likud officials have not been very believable when denying that they are doing the same thing.
It is a better bet to look to the fate of Netanyahu’s ally, Trump, when determining the future of Israel’s government, instead of listening to Zohar.