Netanyahu finds he’s lost control of the populist tiger he rode to power

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Everyone knew how it was supposed to end.

“One of the least dramatic days I can remember in the Knesset. You can cut the tension with a Gerber spoon,” quipped the dean of Israeli political commentators, Channel 12’s Amit Segal, on Wednesday morning.

A usually simple process — selecting the parliament’s two representatives on the nine-member committee that selects Israel’s judges — was supposed to conclude with an easy compromise between coalition and opposition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made the call. To preserve the judicial reform talks at the President’s House, Netanyahu ordered coalition leaders to ensure one of those seats went to the coalition and one to the opposition.

Netanyahu, it was understood, yearns for stability. He passed the state budget last month; until the spring of 2025, it’s almost impossible to remove him from power. And that means freedom for the long-serving premier: freedom from his enemies, but also, or perhaps mostly, freedom from his erstwhile friends and allies.

Netanyahu has always preferred stability and compromise to noise and fury. He’s a downright predatory campaigner, it’s true, and his campaigns are usually loud, energetic, full of pathos, victimhood and a never-ending drumbeat of dire warnings. But once victory is assured, it’s back to the quiet old governing style, to a man who goes many months without so much as a media interview, to a keen political strategist and negotiator who nearly always prefers the path of least resistance.

Until he had his budget, the path of least resistance lay in agreeing to almost any demand his coalition partners could come up with. To finally end the nearly four-year stalemate of repeat elections, he’d shepherded the most radical and marginal political forces in the country into the Knesset, convinced he could keep them in check once in power.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigns at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, a day before the elections, on March 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

That was true of extremist parties like Otzma Yehudit, but it was also true within Likud, where the loudest populists did poorly in the primaries but got a boost from a Netanyahu convinced they’d be loyal foot soldiers in the Knesset. Likud’s Tally Gotliv, for example, who has declared she’d ignore High Court rulings and was sanctioned by the Knesset in March for blaming Chief Justice Esther Hayut for a terror attack, was down in the 50s on the party slate until she won from Netanyahu a coveted direct appointment to the higher echelons.

But all that was supposed to be over. Netanyahu had survived the long slog between the government’s swearing-in at the end of December and the passage of the budget law in May. His more radical and belligerent partners and allies had key government posts and vast powers to occupy them. Netanyahu, now unassailable, could finally pull back from the judiciary fight and the constant political skirmishes of the Itamar Ben Gvirs and Gotlivs and get to the issues he believes will define his legacy: domestically, tackling skyrocketing food prices and inflation, and internationally, getting the Abraham Accords and a potential Saudi peace deal back on track and pushing back against never-ending Iranian encroachment.

Netanyahu was back in charge, and that meant — so Netanyahu’s closest supporters and he himself apparently believed — stability.

Then came Netanyahu’s no-good very bad day in the Knesset.

The rabbit that wasn’t

The idea was simple. Netanyahu would order the coalition to vote for one of their own — the coalition agreement handed a judicial selection seat to Otzma’s Yitzhak Kroizer — and for the opposition’s candidate, Karine Elharrar. The judicial overhaul as a whole would then shift from a fast-moving, radicalized train wreck to a careful, piecemeal, preferably negotiated legislative agenda that gives the right a great deal of what it wants without reigniting the massive public blowback and economic and diplomatic damage seen in the past five months.

Netanyahu is a careful observer of the public mood. He probably didn’t miss the Wednesday survey by pollster Rafi Smith that gave his 64-seat coalition just 54 seats’ worth of current public support, or its finding that a majority of Israelis wanted a compromise on the Judicial Selection Committee — one seat to the coalition, one to the opposition — even if a majority of his own coalition’s voters did not.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid, left, and party MK Karine Elharrar during a joint press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There’s just one problem. The Knesset vote for its representatives on the committee is one of the few votes that are done in the parliament by secret ballot. And that was Netanyahu’s challenge in a nutshell: How to engineer a half-win, half-loss for his own coalition to keep the larger issue, the judicial negotiations, on track.

Nine coalition MKs announced they were running for a position on the committee. Right-wing analysts explained that most of them weren’t competing seriously. It was a way to get noticed by Netanyahu. They made their announcement and then sat waiting for his phone call to ask them to drop out of the race.

But until Wednesday morning, Netanyahu’s call never came. Netanyahu seemed to think multiple candidates on the right would give him just what he wanted: Coalition votes would scatter among them and strengthen the possibility that the opposition’s Elharrar would make it in.

Then that calculus seemed to change. On the morning of the vote, coalition leaders starting frantically calling candidates and telling them to drop out. Netanyahu seemed to realize only at the last minute that he had pieced together a coalition of true believers, that his search for right-wing ideologues had resulted in a coalition, and even a Likud faction, with an unexpectedly high percentage of, well, right-wing ideologues. The belligerent brand of politics that he wielded tactically was for them no mere tactic; they believed it. Behind the curtain, they wouldn’t be able to bring themselves to vote for Elharrar, even after his solemn request. Even Netanyahu loyalists like former Israel Hayom editor MK Boaz Bismuth were publicly declaring they’d vote only for coalition candidates.

Netanyahu’s only way to ensure Elharrar was elected was to leave the coalition with just one option for a right-wing MK — Kroizer.

And so the race was on to squeeze everyone else out of the running — an effort that ran headlong into the very Gotliv to whom Netanyahu had gifted a Knesset seat, the supposedly loyal soldier who sat stone-faced and stubborn as he was reduced to fuming and almost begging. She rejected appeals to coalition discipline, to the party’s larger needs, to the urgent need to deal with Iran and Saudi Arabia and the faltering economy before returning to the judicial overhaul fight. Netanyahu offered promises of the judicial reforms he’d pass in the next month if she quit the race. But nothing worked.

Likud MK Tally Gotliv speaking at a hearing of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Facing a damaging public loss at the hands of his own most trusted soldiers, Netanyahu pulled a rabbit out of a hat.

A previously unnoticed article (until MK Simcha Rothman pointed it out to him on Wednesday) in the Knesset bylaws stipulates that if only two candidates are running, the vote becomes a simple “for-against” vote. If either received more “against” than “for” votes, the vote can be held again within 30 days’ time.

It was a delay. Netanyahu’s solution was suddenly simple: Kroizer would bow out, leaving Gotliv and Elharrar alone in the running. Both would get more no’s than yeses, and Netanyahu could call a new vote within 30 days, after sorting out his homegrown rebellion.

Kroizer did his part, the message went out to the coalition parties to do theirs. It seemed to work. Gotliv got just 15 votes. Her candidacy ran against the Otzma Yehudit-Likud coalition agreement, so they probably didn’t come from either Otzma or Religious Zionism. The Haredi parties have generally backed Netanyahu’s efforts to restore calm. That leaves Likud, and makes the Gotliv vote a decent sampling of the scale of Likud’s ideological wing, of the size of the party’s faction that will vote against Netanyahu’s will when a question of rightist principle is at stake.

But there’s another part to Likud, a part that Netanyahu didn’t expect, a part that is tired and disgusted by the conduct of the overhaul proponents, by the vast costs the coalition and the party have paid for how the overhaul was advanced, and, perhaps, by the growing belligerency of right-wing politics. That faction, which comprises at least four members and may well be three times that size, voted for Elharrar, who won a seat on the committee by a vote of 58 to 56.

The vote against her was eight short of the coalition’s size. The vote for was two more than the opposition. In the not unlikely event that some opposition members wanted her to lose in order to disrupt the presidential negotiations and get the street protests going again — rumors circulated that Avigdor Liberman’s five-seat Israel Beytenu faction planned to vote against her, as well as some Labor MKs who have publicly opposed the negotiations — the number of votes that apparently came from the right only grows.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote for candidates to the Judicial Selection Committee in the Knesset, on June 14, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

In the coalition itself there were those on Thursday morning who believed that the number of coalition votes in favor of Elharrar reached into double digits.

The loyalist rebellion

A great many things can be learned from Wednesday’s chaos, and all are vital to understanding the new government and the political landscape that Netanyahu helped create and that now stymies him at every turn.

At a straightforward, immediate level, everyone seemed to get something they wanted. The ideological camp in Likud demonstrated its existence and its capacity, long doubted by observers, to resist Netanyahu.

Netanyahu got Elharrar onto the committee, avoiding a return to mass protests and buying more time.

The opposition, led by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, proved it could unite around a single candidate and even draw votes from across the aisle (at least in a secret ballot).

Likud moderates gained the argument that the ideologues hurt the party and make basic governing impossible — that the right may end up with less, not more, if it goes down their path. That’s an argument to which Netanyahu himself now seems to subscribe.

National Unity party chair MK Benny Gantz gives a press statement in the southern town of Sderot, May 3, 2023. (Flash90)

But there’s a larger picture than any of these considerations. The whole event was first and foremost a test of Netanyahu, the first real trial run of the new post-budget premier presumably in control of his raucous, radicalized coalition.

Netanyahu went into Wednesday convinced he had everything in the bag. Veteran observers like Segal shared that assessment. There would be, as always, much sound and fury, but it would inevitably cohere into the result everyone understood Netanyahu wanted.

Then Netanyahu’s own camp, his loyalist henchmen, the MKs he selected specifically because they would be his fiercest defenders no matter how his corruption trial went, no matter how the party sank in the polls, no matter how many rounds of election it might take for him to finally win the last four years’ stalemate; it was that camp, the Gotlivs and Bismuths, who suddenly turned on him. Their very pugnacity — the characteristic that made them such useful soldiers in a drawn-out war against judicial and prosecutorial elites, against opponents as stubborn as himself — had now cost him so much.

In one fell swoop, it reinvigorated the rightist campaign against him and convinced his coalition partners that he remains susceptible to pressure.

At close to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Otzma leader Ben Gvir demanded an “immediate” plenum vote on reforming the Judicial Selection Committee — as a way of forcing the presumed Likud traitors into the open via an open vote.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near his home in the coastal town of Caesarea on August 1, 2020. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the right-wing activist group Im Tirtzu announced a right-wing protest Thursday evening in front of Netanyahu’s Caesarea home. “The time has come to tell the prime minister the truth: 64 seats demand an end to the surrender,” said one quote in a press release announcing the protest.

And a Thursday morning report in the Haredi paper Bakehilla explained: “In the Haredi parties they’re hardening positions over the military draft law and raising serious questions about Netanyahu’s ability to impose his authority on the coalition.”

Who’s in charge?

Even the lowliest backbenchers in Likud seemed to get the message that Gotliv’s failure was anything but a failure. For a brief moment, she was the center of national attention, and even in her loss became a champion to the party’s hawkish ideologues. The easiest path to a primetime television interview, in other words, lay in resisting Netanyahu, disrupting compromise, grandstanding one’s ideological bona fides.

“The story is over,” Hanoch Milvitzky — no. 26 on the Likud list, a slot reserved for Tel Aviv-area candidates, not for popular ones — declared on Wednesday night. “We are liberated. The true face of Gantz and Lapid is revealed. We have no limitations anymore, and now all the heroes behind the curtain will be publicly tested and forced to prove to the people of Israel whether they’re on the right or not. It’s time to decide for ourselves which [judicial overhaul] laws should be advanced now, and get to work.”

No one knows who Milvitzky is, which is why it’s no longer safe for Netanyahu to dismiss such talk. There are no loyal soldiers anymore, only different gradations of ideologues rewarded in this new political culture for their capacity to disrupt.

Even Netanyahu’s own response to the vote result, in a video in which he accused Lapid and Gantz of trying to “blow up” the judicial negotiations from the start, was less a response to the events of the day than an attempt to change the subject.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid delivers a speech in the Knesset plenum during the budget debate, May 23, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In his failed effort to push coalition candidates out of the running and impose some discipline on MKs’ secret votes, Netanyahu made a great many promises, including a solemn commitment to advance parts of the judicial overhaul before the current Knesset session ends in late July, including the shrinking of the court’s “reasonableness test” and changes to the legal advisers’ role in government ministries.

Many of his MKs didn’t play ball, but the commitments soon became public and are now a baseline expectation of even his moderate supporters in the party.

The ideological camp, meanwhile, led by Levin, hasn’t wavered from its central goal: dramatic change to the Judicial Selection Committee to give elected politicians, but especially the coalition — and especially this coalition, before its term runs out — vastly greater influence over the selection of Supreme Court justices and the rest of Israel’s judges.

The delay didn’t hurt them, the unveiling of “traitors” in the Likud ranks only mobilized the faithful. Every one of Netanyahu’s troubles within the party was worsened by the results of Wednesday’s vote.

So who actually runs Netanyahu’s government? When the chips were down, when his own most fervent loyalists were all that stood between stability and more political chaos, when even the opposition was helpfully playing along, Netanyahu proved incapable of imposing his will on his coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, MKs and ministers after the Knesset passed the 2023-2024 budget, May 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And if Netanyahu is not in charge — at least, not when it matters — then stability may not be in the cards for this government.

Netanyahu’s own desires have become fairly clear: He wants to advance judicial reform quietly, with enough compromises and moderation to avoid reigniting the protests. He wants to clear political bandwidth for other issues he believes are more critical to the country’s well-being, both immediately and over the long term. Will he get what he wants?

If the focus of that question until now has centered on the extremists on the far-right edge of his coalition, it has now moved squarely within Likud’s ranks. Netanyahu built this new right, shepherded its champions into the Knesset in the hopes of producing ranks of loyal foot soldiers for his never-ending wars with his political rivals. The history buff prime minister may now be recalling the fate of the Roman emperors after they formed a special Praetorian Guard to protect them: It wasn’t long before the emperors found themselves subservient to the tight-knit group of likeminded soldiers who now surrounded them.

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