Analysis

Right Wing Starts to Sour on Netanyahu, but Can’t Replace Him

For first time in over a decade, prominent religious-nationalist pundits are openly questioning the prime minister's motives and effectiveness

Benjamin Netanyahu before voting in the Knesset on, May 29, 2019.
AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a deluge of criticism in the right-wing media and online — unprecedented at least since his days as finance minister under Ariel Sharon, when he voted four times in favor of disengagement from Gaza. For the first time in over a decade, prominent religious-nationalist pundits are wondering aloud whether they wouldn’t be better off without the eternal leader.

“Is the man bigger than the ideal?” asked Channel 20’s senior political analyst Shimon Riklin on Twitter last week. Riklin has been regularly lampooned on the left as “the nodding head” for his uncritical style of interviewing Netanyahu, who he previously called “God’s messenger.”

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“Netanyahu has become a burden on the right,” wrote columnist Doron Nir-Tzvi in Makor Rishon, the weekly owned by no less than Netanyahu’s benefactor Sheldon Adelson. (This weekend, it should be stressed, Makor Rishon also published columns fulsomely praising Netanyahu.)

Veteran political commentator Menachem Rahat wrote in the Matzav Ha’Ruach weekly, which is distributed every Shabbat in national-religious synagogues, that even in the Roman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, “The subjects realized, sooner or later, that even the emperor can be replaced. Will this also happen here?”

Under the headline “Does Benjamin Netanyahu really advance the national camp’s worldview?” popular columnist Kalman Liebskind wrote: “For Netanyahu, before everything, what’s important is to continue sitting in his chair. What he does in that chair? Who remembers anyway.”

Sadly, none of this awakening on the right is due to the impending indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust against Netanyahu. The few right-wing figures who have called for replacing Netanyahu due to his personal corruption — like Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and veteran Haaretz columnist Israel Harel — remain lone voices.

Netanyahu has become the object of nationalist ire because he failed to form a right-wing government, refused during the aborted coalition negotiations to appoint Bezalel Smotrich justice minister, wouldn’t commit to annexing parts of the West Bank and, worst of all, at the last moment — before being forced to dissolve the Knesset — secretly offered the Labor Party key ministries and to relinquish much of his legislative program if they would only join his coalition.

Many on the right, especially the religious, are also furious at the way Netanyahu summarily fired Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from his cabinet last week.

And they’re not actually calling to replace Netanyahu. At least, they don’t have anyone specific in mind. Karni Eldad, another journalist at Makor Rishon who wrote last week that “Netanyahu is drunk with power and that’s dangerous,” admitted further down in her column that “I haven’t got an alternative to Netanyahu.”

In an interview with Haaretz this week, she was at pains to emphasize that she was only representing herself and not Makor Rishon; the right-wing is beginning to allow voices of dissent, but it’s still not easy.

“I’m not saying let’s replace Netanyahu,” she said. “But I am saying let’s limit his power. Let’s vote for other right-wing parties and not Likud. So Netanyahu will still be prime minister, as leader of the right, but not all-powerful.”

The ideological right has long been skeptical in regard to Netanyahu’s real sympathies. It wasn’t just his signing of the Hebron and Wye River agreements during his first term as prime minister, his votes in favor of disengagement while serving in Sharon’s government and his agreement to freeze settlement building early on in the Obama administration. Netanyahu simply never showed the same kind of fervor for clinging onto every clod of earth in the biblical homelands.

At the same time, they could never forget that it was the Likud prime ministers who waxed most lyrical over the land — Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon — who ultimately also pulled back from Sinai and Gaza, uprooting the settlers living there.

With Netanyahu, there is a pact. He may not be the greatest builder and in 13 years as prime minister has not moved toward annexing Area C in the West Bank. But his uncompromising nationalist policy of not making any concessions to the Palestinians also means he won’t contemplate dismantling settlements. So they’ve stuck by him over the past decade.

The other reason for the right wing’s sticking with Netanyahu is his record of winning elections. But they are no longer so certain of him lasting in power anyway. Shimon Riklin, the now not-so-enthusiastic fan of Netanyahu, said his Twitter criticism of the prime minister was “due to my disappointment with the offers he made to Labor. I’m now not so certain he will win the next election, or if he wins that he remains in office, because the legal stuff could derail him. But for now I’m still supporting him because we haven’t got anyone better. It depends on developments.”

What still keeps the right wing behind Netanyahu is that they can’t conceive of a replacement from Likud or any other right-wing party. “I’d love to see someone take his place,” says Eldad. “But there really isn’t someone vying to take his place, and the right is always loyal to its leaders. But the feelings toward him have changed, and now if he’s forced to resign because of the indictments, fewer right-wingers will rush to defend him.”

The right wing is incapable of replacing Netanyahu by itself. They fear for the settlements, are addicted to winning and can’t see anyone else doing it at this point. But they are beginning to come around to the idea of being forced to go cold turkey off Netanyahu.