The coalition is not coming together around the prime minister

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: No one had any illusions that the prime minister would have an easy time during the first half-year of his third term in office.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu convenes his cabinet in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu convenes his cabinet in Jerusalem.

The coalition isn’t coalescingAssessing the first six months of Netanyahu’s turbulent third termWhen it’s not always raining, there’ll be days like this.When there’s no one complaining, there’ll be days like this.When everything falls into place like the flick of a switch,Well, my mama told me there’ll be days like this.                                       – Van Morrison

Just over six months ago, on December 29, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new government were sworn into office. 

Netanyahu clearly did not expect that his government’s first half-year would mirror the blissful sentiment of that Van Morrison song. But he also probably did not think that it would be as difficult, trying, and unforgiving as it has turned out to be.

Contrary to the song’s idyllic portrayal, these months have been characterized by constant metaphorical rain, ceaseless complaints from a significant portion of the country, and a prevailing sense that nothing is falling into place. 

The opposition and the massive rowdy protests have played a significant role in fueling this perception, purposefully generating a feeling that the country is falling apart and on the brink of chaos.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Jerusalem District Court to hear testimony of businessman Arnon Milchan in the Case 1000 corruption trial, this week.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Jerusalem District Court to hear testimony of businessman Arnon Milchan in the Case 1000 corruption trial, this week. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Truth be told, this sentiment can be traced back to the indictments of Netanyahu in 2019, which propelled the anti-Netanyahu forces to mobilize against a leader they believed to be illegitimate and to demonstrate loudly and continuously against him.

In 2021, when Netanyahu was forced into the opposition, he led the charge of anti-Bennett forces who used a variety of tactics – both inside the Knesset and on the street – against MKs and cabinet ministers to bring down a government they considered illegitimate. Now, once again, the anti-Netanyahu forces have mobilized to create chaos and generate a sense of a society crumbling.  Again, they are saying that this government, pushing a judicial reform agenda, is not legitimate. 

At some point over the last six months, Netanyahu could have been forgiven for crying out, “My mama didn’t tell me there would be nothing but days like these.” At some point over the last six months, he could have been excused for saying to himself, his wife, or his confidants, “This isn’t what I bargained for, this isn’t why I desperately wanted to return to office.”

Netanyahu, by his own admission, wanted to return his former position to solidify his legacy as the guardian of Israel and the champion of its economy. He definitely did not want to spend all his time dealing with internal matters such as fighting over the coalition’s representative on the committee to select the Supreme Court judges or fending off accusations that he was steering the country toward dictatorship.

He wanted to return to office to deal with Iran, forge relations with Saudi Arabia, and make Israel an economic powerhouse. Instead, the judicial overhaul program has completely taken over his government’s agenda, with ramifications negatively impacting the country’s security, diplomatic standing, and economy.

In the past, over his nearly 16 years as prime minister, Netanyahu marked various milestone days – the first 100 days of a particular government or the first year of that government – by showcasing that government’s achievements to the cabinet and the public. Tellingly, he has not done so this time around.

Public opinion is often measured through surveys, and poll after poll indicates that this government has received anything but a passing grade from the public during its first six months. That being said, of late, the government’s “grade”, as evident through polling data, is improving somewhat.

What do the polls say?

Since Israel is a nation subject to extensive polling conducted by various companies on behalf of different media outlets, let us, for consistency’s sake, consider Channel 13’s polling.

Three days after the government’s formation, in Channel 13’s first poll of the new government, support for Likud declined from 32 to 31 seats. On March 27, it reached its lowest point of 20 seats following Netanyahu’s firing – later rescinded – of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. However, that support gradually rebounded since then. In the latest Channel 13 poll taken on Thursday, if elections were held today, Likud would secure 26 seats, its strongest showing in over three months.

One possible factor contributing to this rise is the perception of the public regarding two successful military campaigns: the one in Gaza from May 9-13 and this week’s operation in Jenin.

WHEN ASSESSING a government’s performance, three key areas are typically considered: security, diplomacy, and the economy. Starting with security, how is this government faring in those aspects?

The last six months have not been banner months in terms of national security.

Iran continues to develop its nuclear capabilities. Hezbollah has felt emboldened enough to send a terrorist into Israel, allow the firing of a rocket into Israel from southern Lebanon, and set up an outpost comprised of a couple of tents inside sovereign Israeli territory. And Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and smaller terror groups are constantly challenging Israel from Gaza and the West Bank, putting this year on track to possibly be the worst year in terms of terrorism since the Second Intifada.

Some of these security challenges can be indirectly attributed to the internal divisions caused by the judicial overhaul debate. The never-ending protests, the threats by reservists – including pilots – not to serve, radiate a sense of weakness that invites attacks by the country’s enemies. If Israel is perceived as weak, then there are those concluding this is the time to act.

Operation Shield and Arrow in May degraded PIJ’s capabilities in Gaza, and this week’s two-day operation in Jenin hit the terrorist infrastructure there. But there remains a sense of insecurity, a feeling that terrorism is not under control.

One of Netanyahu’s secrets of longevity in the prime minister’s office has been his ability to radiate a sense of being Mr. Security: radiating a sense that when he is in power, one’s children are safer, less likely to be harmed by terror. The first six months of this government, and the inability of the government to bring down the terror numbers, is chipping away at that sense.

Then there are galloping numbers of people murdered in the Arab sector, with 110 people killed so far this year, compared to 106 in all of 2022. This is a symptom of a lack of governance, which has spread to the north and the south. Compounding this sense of lawlessness were the rampages carried out by Jewish extremists two weeks ago following the terrorist attack at Eli. 

Along with the image of Mr. Security, of the man best equipped to keep the country’s children safe, Netanyahu in the past has prided himself on being an Isaeli statesman and diplomat head and shoulders above the competition, and of having been the architect of policies that expanded Israel’s diplomatic reach and clout from Latin America to Africa and into Asia.

In the first six months of this government’s tenure, however, diplomacy has largely been secondary. Yes, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has made some diplomatic inroads in Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, but there has been no dramatic push to improve Israel’s diplomatic standing.

Netanyahu’s hopes that he would be able to forge an accord with Saudi Arabia have gone nowhere, the victim  of a hard right-wing government the Saudis are not keen on engaging with and of continuous tensions with the Palestinians. These same factors are preventing an expansion of diplomatic relations with the Abraham Accord states – Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. And just as Netanyahu has demonstratively not been invited to the White House to meet President Joe Biden, so, too, has he not been invited to the UAE.

While in the years past when Netanyahu was prime minister there was a steady stream of presidents and prime ministers beating a path to Jerusalem, over the last six months that stream has slowed to a trickle.  Likewise, Netanyahu is not the same sought-after guest he once was in foreign capitals looking to enhance their image in Washington and the West,  since neither his nor his government’s image in Washington and the West is what it once was. 

The final area where Netanyahu has always taken abundant pride is the economy, which has also taken a hit over the last six months.

The shekel has dropped around 5% against the US dollar since the new government was sworn in (a dollar bought NIS 3.52 shekels on December 29, compared to NIS 3.7 on Thursday). The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange fluctuates wildly depending on developments in the judicial reform saga and is down around 3% since the beginning of the year. Inflation is running at 4.6% annually.

Furthermore, high-tech companies raised around $3.7 billion in the first half of 2023, down 68% from the same period a year ago. While much of that drop can be attributed to global economic and high-tech trends, it also stems from the judicial overhaul plan and the protests it has triggered.

Investors, like markets, don’t like instability and unpredictability.

Yet six months into the current government’s tenure, Israel – because of the government’s judicial overhaul plan and the furious internal reactions to it –  is radiating precisely that, something that is negatively impacting on the country’s economic, diplomatic, and national security health.

Dependent on unpredictable coalition partners, hamstrung by his own party’s judicial overhaul plan, and hobbled by a deadly uptick in terrorism, Netanyahu – rather than traveling the world warning of the dangers from Iran and making new diplomatic and economic inroads for Israel – is just struggling to stay in power and keep the country from imploding.  

No one had any illusions that the prime minister  – given the coalition cards he was dealt – would have an easy time during the first half-year of his third term in office. But few, including Netanyahu himself, imagined his days in office would look like this.