Analysis

Right-wing Dissent Against Netanyahu Is Growing, but They’re Not Turning on Him Just Yet

A protest organized by right-wingers this weekend in Jerusalem could decide Netanyahu's fate – but harsh lessons learned in the 1990s mean the right will only press the 'Reset' button as a very last resort

People carry a statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after toppling it, Tel Aviv, Israel, December 6, 2016.
Oded Balilty, AP

On Saturday night, an assorted group of right-wingers, settlers and religious folk will gather in Jerusalem’s Zion Square for a rally in support of the rule of law and against corruption. It is intended as a riposte to the now weekly anti-corruption Saturday rallies in Tel Aviv, which are largely dominated by left-wingers and open calls for the removal (and imprisonment) of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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The Rothschild Boulevard rally, which Netanyahu’s proxies in the media have branded as “leftist” and “organized by Yedioth Ahronoth” (the centrist tabloid that loves to attack the prime minister), has been accompanied by a steady stream of surprisingly critical statements from figures on the Israeli right.

Most of them have avoided directly advocating for Netanyahu’s departure, but instead called upon their ideological camp to “clean the stables” of corruption – as right-wing weekly Makor Rishon’s legal commentator, Yehuda Yifrah, wrote last week. And Sara Haetzni-Cohen, a prominent right-wing activist, warned in the same paper of “complacency, bordering on euphoria” among the right. She called for a “real agenda, focused on issues, that will help the small and big citizen. And it won’t harm to stop mocking, deriding and inciting; to stop whining about the leftist media and lead instead to real change.”

Their comments echoed similar recent sentiments written by other leading right-wing journalists, including Kalman Liebskind and Yoaz Hendel, who is one of the organizers of the Jerusalem rally and also served as Netanyahu’s communications director from 2011 to 2012. Without necessarily targeting Netanyahu, they have served as a counterpoint to the regular right-wing rhetoric that attacks the police, the prosecutors, the left and the media for unfairly persecuting the prime minister.

The most powerful voice so far has been that of Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who’s one of the more mainstream rabbis on the religious right. Defying his own public, he appeared at the Tel Aviv rally last Saturday, where he said “corruption is a strategic threat to Israeli society. The meaning of corruption is abuse of power by those who have been given it – power that is used for the wrong reasons. Power is essential, but it is dangerous and can topple the state into the depths.”

Cherlow and like-minded rightists are motivated by true revulsion at the alleged corruption revelations regarding Netanyahu and others in his orbit, as well as the fear that eventually many Israelis who voted for right-wing and religious parties will stay home or even switch votes in the next legislative election. They fear for Israel and of going down in Netanyahu’s sinking ship. 

So far, there has been no corresponding move among actual right-wing politicians, who in public at least continue to support Netanyahu. Instead, they have been met with a rising crescendo of criticism – some of it civil but much of it toxic – in the right-wing media and on social media. They have been accused of “betrayal” and “treason,” and, even worse, unwittingly serving the agenda of the leftist media in trying to take down the national leader.

But there has been a fair amount of cautious support as well. It is still much too early to talk of the right wing turning against Netanyahu. For many right-wingers, especially those over 40, there is a historical precedent holding them back from criticizing him openly. 

Yitzhak Shamir was without doubt Israel’s most right-wing prime minister, ever, and on a personal level he was never accused of even a hint of corruption. Yet two of the main reasons that brought down his government in 1992, and which led to Likud’s election defeat, were infighting among right-wingers – with the more nationalist parties in the governing coalition pulling out in protest over Shamir’s extremely reluctant agreement to attend the 1991 Madrid Conference with the Palestinians – and a wave of public anger over a series of corruption cases involving his Likud party and other coalition figures. 

Demonstrators taking part in a protest against corruption, Tel Aviv, December 2, 2017.
Reuters/Amir Cohen

The trauma of 1992 is still deeply felt within the Israeli right. Yitzhak Rabin won that election, even though the religious and right bloc received more votes than the center-left parties. Fragmentation on the right led to the ultranationalist Tehiya party not crossing the electoral threshold, with its votes rendered useless.

Rabin won the election and just 15 months later signed the Oslo Accords – changing the entire dynamic of the Israel-Palestine conflict and, as far as the settlers were concerned, putting their enterprise at serious risk for the first time. For many right-wingers, 1992 was the year “we gave away power.” It remains a stark warning against ever challenging a right-wing prime minister again. 

Interestingly, the right doesn’t remember its second election defeat in the 1990s as a trauma. This is perhaps because when the one-term Prime Minister Netanyahu lost to Labor’s Ehud Barak in 1999, Bibi was largely discredited within the settler camp for having signed the Wye River Accord (the sequel to Oslo) with the Palestinians.

At the time, many on the right saw Netanyahu as an aberration: A weak leader, prone to pressure and in no way a worthy successor to Shamir. They weren’t happy about losing power to Barak, but losing Bibi was hardly traumatic.

As strange as this may seem to outsiders, Netanyahu is hardly loved or even respected among large swaths on the right. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, one of the leading ideologues of the religious settlers’ movement, repeatedly writes in his weekly column in the settler newspaper Besheva that “with Netanyahu, we have to constantly be on our guard.”

They haven’t forgotten how as prime minister in his first term he signed both the Hebron and Wye River agreements, committing Israel to further pullbacks in the West Bank. Since his reelection in 2009, he has not made any similar concessions, but neither has he matched his rhetoric on building in the settlements with much action.

For almost a year after coming back into office, he implemented an official “freeze” on settlement building, and after that freeze ended quietly enforced unofficial freezes. Sure, there have been grand announcements of new building permits. But on the ground, the construction rate has been slower than under previous prime ministers, including those from Labor and the centrist Kadima party.

The ideological right-wingers and settlers have by and large stuck with Netanyahu over the last nine years because they realized that while he builds little, he is also intent on doing everything to avoid any territorial agreements with the Palestinians. And also because of his track record of four election victories against the odds.

Netanyahu withstood the pressures of the Obama administration, earning, if not the settlers' trust, then at least a grudging degree of admiration. But he is still not one of them.

For all his talk of Jewish history and struggle, the secular and hedonistic Netanyahu leads a very different life to the spartan settlers. And for some secular, hard core right-wingers who share his irreligious, Zionist-Revisionist ideology, the fact that he was prepared to pay lip service to the two-state solution in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, even if he never meant it, was sacrilege and proof that he still lacks the toughness of a Shamir. 

But will they ditch him? Are the outliers who are now openly criticizing him the first in a growing wave of right-wing rejection?

The fact that none of these critics currently serves in a political position is indicative. Netanyahu is vulnerable to his own ministers and coalition partners. Few of them like him, and all of them are aware of the alleged level of corruption in his inner circle. But as long as they have key ministerial positions and influence over policy and budgets, they have no interest in bringing down his government.

But neither are they impervious to their own constituents’ feelings. Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett has said numerous times over the last year that “over cigars [that Netanyahu allegedly received from his rich benefactors], we won’t topple the government.” But when asked about more serious allegations, he wavers.

Like other right-wing ministers, he will be anxiously checking the turnout at Saturday’s rally in Jerusalem and trying to gauge whether his own voters have had enough.

Bennett has no illusions about Netanyahu, whom he served a decade ago as chief of staff and subsequently fell out with. But he and his colleagues do not want to be blamed for helping the left to win the next election.

Their dilemma is a very pragmatic one: Do they stick with proven election winner Netanyahu, even though his public support may be slowly eroding? Or do they risk the infighting and fragmentation of the right, which could open the road to victory for a centrist candidate in the shape of Labor’s Avi Gabbay or Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid

The right may ultimately bring down Netanyahu. But if it does, it will have little to do with the corruption allegations against him and everything to do with their desire to cling onto power.