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The Coup Against Netanyahu Failed

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 18, 2018.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 18, 2018.Credit: AFP
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Last weekend, the Habayit Hayehudi party felt the moment had arrived. Not just the moment for party leader Naftali Bennett to get the defense portfolio – a portfolio he has coveted ever since he entered politics – but also for something bigger than that.

Even though Bennett repeatedly says he won’t run for prime minister as long as Benjamin Netanyahu remains in the picture, the feeling in the successful political start-up run by Bennett and his party colleague Ayelet Shaked was that a rare crack had opened that could start the process of toppling Netanyahu’s reign – a harder job than toppling Hamas.

Listen: Why Netanyahu wants truce in Gaza and to delay elections as much as possible

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“You know how things are in a dictatorship,” a senior party figure told me. “You need one person who will come out against it and sacrifice himself, and then he creates an opening for the rest.”

The person this senior party figure had in mind was Gideon Sa’ar, a former senior minister and Knesset member from Netanyahu’s Likud party. Through the crack of resistance Sa’ar had opened, the rising stars of the next generation of right-wing leaders were supposed to enter – Bennett, Shaked and fellow party member Bezalel Smotrich.

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They sensed that right-wing voters were very angry at Netanyahu for imposing a cease-fire in the south, and they scented weakness. After long months of pent-up power, they felt the time had come to attack and start the wheel of generational change rolling. And the pretext they used had a precedent – their fanatic and ultimately successful insistence on receiving the justice portfolio during the negotiations to form a government in 2015.

But by the time the weekend was over, the supreme leader had quickly and aggressively eviscerated the youngsters’ ambitions. Netanyahu has for years been a leader loved and admired by part of the nation rather like Juan Peron was in Argentina. No matter what he does – even a cease-fire that rightists viewed as a depressing humiliation – he will find some explanation, and they will find some justification.

Fortunately, he can also utilize this power to do good, such as refraining from a difficult, pointless, unnecessary war.

Netanyahu’s voters accept whatever he says with love, even when they’re somewhat aware of the many ways in which he’s manipulating them, as he did in the pompous, dramatic, fear-mongering speech he gave Sunday night. These voters keep a tight grip on the ladder Netanyahu sometimes needs and make sure it doesn’t wobble.

Netanyahu set a trap for Bennett and Shaked and left them with two terrible options. The first was to resign and bear the responsibility for toppling a right-wing government, something that would paint them as petty opportunists greedy for jobs. The second was not to resign and become laughingstocks.

Bennett wisely chose the second option and admitted honestly that he was defeated on the political battlefield. In his speech, he tried to display his combat wounds – his good friend Emmanuel Moreno, who was killed in action, to offset Netanyahu’s brother Yoni, who did the same – as well as his military record; this was all part of the stormy debate over who has better security credentials.

He also tried to distinguish himself from Netanyahu as a radical right-winger (a little incitement against the justice system and the rule of the bureaucrats never hurt anyone who wanted to mobilize the base).

But in practice, the speech was a confession of the failure of his revolt against the patriarch.

“We have neither the spirit nor the strength to demolish terrorists’ homes,” Bennett said, enumerating what he considered another example of the government’s weakness and poor-spiritedness. What he really meant was, we have neither the strength nor the spirit, at least for now, to carry out the coup we’ve been awaiting for such a long time. We don’t have the power to oust Netanyahu.

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