ALTHOUGH HE seems more powerful and unassailable than ever, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the dying days of 2015 assiduously cementing his position as national leader.He got the Likud Central Committee to bring forward party leadership primaries, thereby preempting any serious challenge.
He also made moves to establish a large electoral bloc of the right, a kind of broadbased Israeli Republican Party that would be unbeatable in new elections. And just to make sure he couldn’t lose, he contemplated instituting a change in the electoral system by which the leader of the largest party – his putative all-encompassing Republican alliance – would automatically become prime minister.But despite Netanyahu’s best efforts, the battle for the right-wing vote is far from over. Rather than join the prime minister in a single bloc, others on the right are, at least for now, insistent on challenging him for the lion’s share of the same political space.Over the past several weeks, all the potential contenders for the right-wing vote and the prime ministerial post that could come with it have been jockeying for position – from soft-right Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon and Gideon Sa’ar, the popular and highly rated former Likud cabinet minister who took time off from politics and is now sealing the terms of his return, to far-right Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beytenu, with center-right Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid also making a concerted bid.By setting Likud leadership primaries for February 23, Netanyahu did not leave potential rivals time to launch a serious campaign. Sa’ar, who has wide support in the Likud and might have considered a leadership challenge, immediately declared that he would not participate in what he called Netanyahu’s “puppet theater.” Netanyahu had shrewdly squeezed the vote for early primaries onto the agenda of the Central Committee’s late December election of a new chairman. This ensured that his initiative would be passed and, more importantly, prevent the new chairman from blocking it. As it turned out, Welfare and Social Services Minister Haim Katz, a Netanyahu opponent, was elected chairman and had the prime minister not got in first, Katz would have had the authority to delay the leadership primaries until other candidates were ready.Netanyahu’s preemptive move, however, came at a price. Likud strongman, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (no relation but a staunch Haim Katz ally) insisted that, in return for the early leadership primary, Netanyahu agree that any political alliances made by Likud be authorized by more than 50 percent of the 3,580 Central Committee members. This could prove an insurmountable obstacle to the prime minister’s Republican Party dream.Netanyahu had been able to form election- winning political alliances in the past: with Gesher and Tz omet in 1996 and with Yisrael Beytenu in 2013. In both cases, party members complained that these hook-ups had been good for Netanyahu, but bad for the party – especially since party members had to make way on the combined lists for the new allies. The same reticence remains widespread.THEREFORE, NETANYAHU’S grand design, much bigger than anything he attempted in the past – Likud with Kahlon, Bennett, Liberman and even the ultra-Orthodox – would at the best of times be extremely difficult to get past the Central Committee, and especially one chaired by the obdurate Haim Katz.In the meantime, Netanyahu has been openly courting Kahlon and making gestures toward the settlers, hoping to get as many of their votes as possible, with or without an alliance with Bennett’s settler party. After the “Duma wedding video,” in which young hilltop settlers were seen dancing in joy at the burning of the Dawabsheh family in Duma last July, some toting rifles and one of them repeatedly stabbing a photograph of the slain toddler, Ali Dawabsheh, Netanyahu took care not to blame the settler movement as a whole for producing this gruesome and murderous fanaticism, declaring that this was “not the face of religious Zionism.”The prime minister is well aware that he won the March 2015 election on settler votes and he wants to retain them. He is also playing on the far-right’s inherent racism.In a statement after the early January shooting spree in Tel Aviv by a lone Israeli Arab gunman, Netanyahu appeared to blame the entire Israeli Arab sector, despite the fact that the gunman’s father had identified his son to police as the assailant and despite widespread condemnation of the act by Israeli Arab leaders.The biggest threat to Netanyahu next time round seems to be the 49-year-old Sa’ar. A Maariv poll in mid-September showed the prime minister defeating all other potential rivals hands down – by between 24 and 30 percent; whereas against Sa’ar, not yet back in politics and unclear in what political framework he would run, Netanyahu led by just five percent. Moreover, a late October Knesset TV channel poll showed that if Sa’ar stayed in Likud, 42 percent of Likudniks said they would support him if he ran against Netanyahu and only 36 percent said they wouldn’t. It could well be that these astounding figures prompted Netanyahu to put forward the party leadership primary to head off a potential challenge from Sa’ar.In an act of supreme no confidence in the prime minister, Sa’ar resigned as Interior Minister in November 2014. He spent the first year of his “time out” from politics at the left-leaning Institute for National Security Studies. It is not clear whether this experience affected his emphatic stand against a two-state solution with the Palestinians.OVER THE past few months, Sa’ar has been signaling an imminent political comeback with a string of seething attacks on Netanyahu’s leadership. It is, he says, a time for big decisions and Netanyahu is too cowardly to take them.In a mid-October speech at the Israel Democracy Institute on the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Sa’ar waded into the prime minister without mentioning him by name, “Israel urgently needs leadership that takes responsibility and doesn’t pass the buck,” he declared. “Israel needs leadership that strives to take decisions, including tough decisions, and not avoid them… Israel needs leadership focused on confronting its challenges and the needs of its citizens, not on political survival.”By implication, Sa’ar is offering himself as a leader capable of taking the tough decisions – but without yet saying what these might be.As far as his future in politics is concerned, he has three basic options: To return to the Likud and challenge Netanyahu from within, relying on close allies like Haim Katz, with whom he successfully ran Reuven Rivlin for president in 2014 to Netanyahu’s chagrin; launch a new party of his own with all the start-up difficulties that entails; or run in unison with one of the established parties, for example Kahlon’s Kulanu, while trying to attract a sizeable Likud rump to join them.The Sa’ar-Kahlon scenario seems to be gaining traction. In a late December interview with a local Tel Aviv radio station, Kahlon welcomed the idea. “Gideon Sa’ar,” he said, “is a good friend of mine. I have a high regard for him and I think he has the attributes of a leader… If an interesting political framework emerges, I will consider it favorably.”If Sa’ar and Kahlon run together, they could go far – with Sa’ar supplying foreign policy, rule of law and prime ministerial gravitas and Kahlon, the socially oriented finance minister, the vote-drawing card for socioeconomic needs. Indeed, although the alliance is at this stage only on paper, a Yedioth Ahronoth New Year’s day poll showed them winning 12 seats to the Likud’s 21 – a performance that could improve dramatically if they really do establish an attractive joint political framework.The big winner in the Yedioth Ahronoth poll, however, was Lapid. His Yesh Atid party won 18 seats, up from 11 in the current Knesset. Lapid seems to have taken soft right seats from the two largest parties, Likud and Zionist Union, which lost 15 seats between them.On the advice of pollster Mark Mellman, Lapid has been deliberately moving to the right – for example, persistently slamming the Breaking the Silence NGO, which reports on IDF excesses in the occupied territories, as crossing “the fine line between criticism and subversion” and criticizing President Rivlin for not calling out Breaking the Silence when he appeared at a New York conference in which they had also taken part.Lapid has also been highlighting his patriotic credentials traveling around the world defending Israel, although he is not in government. This is the same highly successful quasi foreign minister model adopted by Netanyahu in opposition in the run-up to the 2009 election, in which he won back the premiership.If Netanyahu has been playing to the settlers and the far right, Education Minister Bennett has been trying to move in the opposite direction, portraying himself as leader of an all-Israel, not only settler, party. When settlers and members of his own party accused the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) of “torturing” hilltop youth suspects in the Duma terror case, Bennett strongly defended the agency and praised the work it does “to protect all Israelis.” He also turned on the Duma suspects accusing them of trying to bring down the Zionist state he supports as is.AND WHEN two Hebrew University professors attacked Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked as a “neo-Nazi” (for her initiative to force representatives of leftwing NGOs, which receive most of their funding from abroad, to wear identifying tags in the Knesset), he did not, as might have been expected, denounce them as marginal outgrowths of the left, but as marginal outgrowths of Israeli society as a whole, specifically claiming that as a national leader he shares responsibility for all Israel, not just the settler right. Nevertheless, he seemed to take two steps back when he supported his ministry’s decision not to allow a novel, Dorit Rabinyan’s “Borderlife,” which depicts a close relationship between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, to be taught in high school, and when he opposed the new substantially increased government allocation to the Israeli Arab sector.Unlike Bennett, the unpredictable Liberman made a conscious decision to rebuild his right-wing leadership credentials in opposition, surprisingly refusing an open invitation to join the government.His main tactic has been to target Netanyahu as lacking leadership attributes and running Israel’s key relationship with America into the ground. “We need to replace the prime minister,” he said in a July interview. “He is getting us nowhere.”It is true that under Netanyahu, Israeli sensibilities seem to have shifted further to the right – partly due to successive right-wing governments producing a stream of right-serving PR. This has created a vicious circle in which the right gets elected again and again – and concomitant competition for the right-wing vote, on the assumption that that is where electoral success lies.The irony is that the ideology and the promises made to secure that vote are leading Israel toward binational chaos and international isolation. No matter who wins the right-wing vote, there is a crying need for leadership – whether from the right, the left or the center – capable of dispassionate analysis of Israel’s true interests and capable of taking the tough decisions that need to be taken.