Only the Right Wing Can Bring Netanyahu Down – and He Knows It

The prime minister should be at the peak of his powers, but Netanyahu is facing yet another challenge from within the right over conflicting visions of annexation

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Demonstrators showing their support for Benjamin Netanyahu outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.
Demonstrators showing their support for Benjamin Netanyahu outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, May 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Israeli social media is agog with an acrimonious debate pitting nationalist commentators against each other over the question of whether they are more right-wingers or “Bibistim.”

Two near-simultaneous events have spurred this conversation, which is being egged on by an unemployed 28-year-old conspiracy theorist who lives with his parents.

LISTEN: Annexation vexation comes between Bibi and the settlers

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The first event was the swearing-in of the new government last month, and with it the final rupture between Benjamin Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, leading to the latter’s Yamina party remaining outside the ruling coalition. The other is the increasing uncertainty regarding annexation and opposition to the Trump Mideast Plan arising from parts of the settler movement.

At the crux of the conflict is the question of whether those who criticize Netanyahu can even be considered right-wingers. For outsiders, much of the discussion is pure comedy – especially the apparent need from some of Israel’s most influential journalists to justify themselves to the prime minister’s layabout son. But it is revealing.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s position is a baffling one. Having just sworn in his fifth government, after effectively co-opting his rival Benny Gantz to dismantle Kahol Lavan as an alternative to Likud, he is seemingly at the height of his powers. The opposition has been reduced to irrelevance.

But at the same time, Netanyahu is on trial for corruption charges that could potentially send him to prison, as they did to his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. In many ways, he has never been so vulnerable.

Netanyahu isn’t just fighting his case in court but in the public arena as well. His preferred defense is that the leftist, deep state legal establishment isn’t putting just him on trial but the “entire nation” that supports him. Hence his need to increase the right-wing’s personal identity with him.

Over the last two and a half years, there have been a series of challenges to Netanyahu’s preeminence as leader of the right-wing bloc. There was a nascent attempt at the end of 2017 – when more corruption allegations against Netanyahu began emerging – to hold a right-wing rally against him in Jerusalem. It was sparsely attended and failed to catch fire. One of its organizers, Yoaz Hendel, is now part of the Derech Eretz right-wing party that split from Kahol Lavan and is the new communications minister.

The next challenge came in May 2019 when Avigdor Lieberman refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition, following the first of three elections in the space of 11 months, protesting what he claimed were too many concessions to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Lieberman’s move against the prime minister, whether it was indeed ideologically motivated or a result of personal rancor, meant that Netanyahu has since been denied an automatic majority for his right wing-religious coalition. Lieberman may have failed in his stated aim of ending the Netanyahu era, but he significantly hobbled Netanyahu’s designs at passing an immunity law that would perpetuate his rule and make it impossible to indict him while in office.

Gideon Sa’ar’s brief primary challenge to Netanyahu last December ended with him losing by a landslide, receiving less than 28 percent of Likud members’ votes. Sa’ar’s claim was that Netanyahu could no longer win an election. That has since been disproven and Sa’ar is languishing on the back benches.

And now Netanyahu is facing yet another challenge from within the right over conflicting visions of annexation. But while the settlers are either clamoring for Netanyahu to annex immediately or urging that he reject the Trump Mideast Plan, neither camp within the Yesha Council of settlements is disputing his overall leadership. For now. He is still their best vehicle for maintaining their control over the West Bank.

But as Netanyahu heads into a long and perhaps lonely legal battle, he is fully aware where his vulnerabilities lie. With Gantz emasculated within his cabinet, the center-left no longer threatens him. It’s right-wingers who could bring him down – as they did back in 1998, when their anger over his signing of the Wye River Memorandum with the Palestinian Authority spelled the beginning of the end for Netanyahu’s first government.

Lieberman, Bennett and Sa’ar are not yet in a position to replace him as Likud leader or prime minister. However, if they were to join with the settlers and, who knows, perhaps even with Gantz – who is sounding more right-wing by the day – an alternative leadership is not impossible.

It still seems far-fetched, but the paranoid Netanyahu is worried. Which is why his online proxies are now trying to extract loyalty pledges from every right-winger with a few thousand followers. Or brand them as collaborators with the left who are at fault for delaying annexation.

The blame game is afoot. If annexation does not take place over the next few months and President Donald Trump loses the November election and the next U.S. administration firmly and publicly vetoes the move, there will be a frenzy of finger-pointing on the right. Netanyahu is already preparing his alibis.

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