Why coalition ministers protest against themselves

The ministers are calling to crack down on terror, but what they are really doing is signaling to their base.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a cabinet meeting, December 9th, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a cabinet meeting, December 9th, 2018
What does it mean when a government protests against itself?
With such a strange and counterintuitive occurrence, sometimes it’s what isn’t said that tells us more than the usual posturing about security. Yes, the ministers are calling to crack down on terrorism, but what they are really doing is signaling to their voter base.
The show of force by ministers in the Likud and Bayit Yehudi parties at a settler-organized demonstration outside the Prime Minister's Office wasn’t the first time that Israeli ministers protested the government of which they are members, but it still was jarring to see nine of them – half of the cabinet – speaking out essentially against themselves.
The ministers spanned parties: Likud, Bayit Yehudi and Kulanu were all represented. Some of them, like Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi, are even members of the security cabinet.
They called for the government to legalize outposts and to deport terrorists, and stood in front of signs that said “We’re done being silent because we’re sick of dying” – as though they are not at the pivotal decision-making points where they could have spoken up, and as though they don’t have shared responsibility for the outcome of cabinet votes, unless they resign.
“Resign” is the taboo word that no other minister seems willing to say after then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman did it a month ago. These ministers, especially the ones in the security cabinet, share the responsibility for decisions about the response to terrorism. Yet they are acting like they have nothing to do with it.
The other taboo at the demonstration: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Most of the ministers didn’t dare criticize Netanyahu directly, even though he is at the top of the pyramid, and now holds the defense portfolio as well.
Despite talking tough, Netanyahu is pushing policies that are making the Right unhappy. But he is also currently the only viable right-wing prime ministerial candidate. No one in the Likud will dare openly attack Netanyahu, who remains very popular. Anyone viewed as disloyal is punished by the voters and by the prime minister himself. The other parties’ ability to attack him is limited, since they know that their voters see him as the prime minister they prefer to anyone the Center-Left has to offer.
The politicians who broke the silence – Bennett and Shaked – were the objects of Netanyahu’s ire. Not that that’s unusual for the Bayit Yehudi duo, against whom Netanyahu holds a longstanding grudge.
“The defense minister and prime minister [Netanyahu] stood up two weeks ago and promised a change of policy, to bring back force,” Bennett said at the rally. “We’ve had enough promises.”
Bennett and Shaked then abstained from the cabinet vote to authorize Netanyahu as defense minister, saying Israel needs someone in the role full time.
This led to a war of statements to the press between the Likud and Bayit Yehudi, with the former saying: “Bennett opened the morning at a demonstration against the government of which he is a member, and after that, he continued to a childish horror show at the cabinet meeting, in a desperate attempt to get the defense portfolio. Israel’s security is above politics and the defense portfolio is not just a job for Naftali Bennett.”
Bayit Yehudi responded by accusing Netanyahu of being “paralyzed for fear of judges and The Hague,” a reference to comments the premier made about pressure from the International Criminal Court. “The enemy sees this, and therefore stopped being afraid. Instead of fighting Bayit Yehudi, it’s time for the prime minister to free himself from the ties of fake legal issues and fake morality, and fight terrorism.”
Netanyahu did not reserve his barbs only for Bennett and Shaked, however. He also had harsh words for ministers from his own party who participated in the demonstration, saying that they should not have gone.
“You’re protesting against yourselves. That’s petty politics,” he said, according to Channel 2 News. And when Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin tried to defend his and his colleagues’ participation, Netanyahu reportedly cut him off and wouldn’t let him continue speaking.
But the fact is that Elkin – as well as Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, and Welfare Minister Haim Katz – were there, even though they must have known that Netanyahu wouldn’t have liked it.
And that points to another unspoken word at the rally: primaries. An election year is about to begin, and that means the Likud primary will happen in 2019. Being more right-wing than Netanyahu – while not attacking him head-on – is a strategy that works well in the Likud. And these ministers know it, because it’s worked well for them in the past.
When ministers protest against themselves, it’s because their fear of the upcoming election outweighs their fear of Netanyahu. The prime minister might want to brace himself for more of this in the coming months.