Knives are slowly being unsheathed by Likud Party stalwarts and being pointed at their beleaguered leader, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Likud mythology holds that party loyalty is sacred. Since its founding in 1973, no leader has been challenged openly, allowing them the dignity of resigning without public humiliation and exposure.
Then again, Likud has never had to weather a figure as tenacious as Netanyahu.
It goes beyond loyalty and reflects the party’s historical outsider status among the founding elites of the Israeli left. Being threatened from within is simply not tolerated by Likud. If you have a problem with the party or its leader, you leave and form a new one.
Yet, to this day, despite the many reasons why Likud stalwarts may wish to depose Netanyahu, he remains the opposition leader. There are early warning signs, however, of extreme discontent with this arrangement.
Several weeks ago, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who hovers around number seven on the Likud list in the last election, threw a lavish North American-style evening party to thank his volunteers. About two thousand of them. It was all quite over the top by Israeli standards; an evening soiree with a full bar, a fancy event hall, and, of course, piles of food.
Barkat was challenged by his party and the avaricious Israeli media for brazenly challenging Bibi’s leadership, which he was clearly positioning himself to do. Barkat denied the suggestion vigorously. Too vigorously.
This extravagant event, Barkat insisted, was in no way a thinly disguised launch of his candidacy to lead Likud. Quite the opposite, he explained, unconvincingly; it was an expression of gratitude to all those supporting Likud. No insurrection here.
Also in recent weeks, two top Likudniks have openly maligned Bibi. Yuli Edelstein—a former prisoner of conscience in the Soviet Union and, most recently, minister of health—very publicly expressed his displeasure with Netanyahu. Credit for the wildly impressive vaccine procurement and rollout in Israel, Edelstein stated, was due to the hard slogging led by him. Far less credit was owed to Netanyahu’s much-ballyhooed telephone chats with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.
And now, Israel Katz, number three on the Likud list and latterly serving as minister of finance, has attacked Bibi’s performance in shepherding the country through the pandemic’s extreme fiscal challenges. Katz alleged that Netanyahu had absolutely no interest in financial policy throughout the crisis, leaving that to him to address.
Katz and Edelstein have serious clout in Likud. Their very direct public criticisms of Netanyahu indicates wide and deep discontent among the party faithful.
Meanwhile, the new governing coalition seems to be finding its legs. It has survived much longer than either Netanyahu or his loyal ultra-orthodox partners anticipated.
Early Likud attacks on the new government focused on charge that it lacked any legitimacy. After a week or two of that, Likud and its allies ramped up the personal attacks on certain MKs—focusing particularly on Yamina MK Idit Silman, who also sits as chair of the powerful Arrangements Committee.
In late June, Likudnik Miki Zohar sauntered into a committee meeting late, demanding that Silman brief him on what he had missed. Quite rightly, Silman refused to do so, and suggested he ask a colleague to bring him up to speed.
Zohar sneered at Silman: “Answer me like a good girl.”
Social media commended Silman for dealing with this thuggish behavior professionally and slammed Zohar for his Neanderthal-like tactics.
Perhaps Zohar modeled himself after United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush. A week earlier in the same committee, Porush admonished the very competent Silman for “acting like a little girl.
Both gentlemen have been noticeably quiet since their well-publicized outbursts. Zohar is one of Netanyahu’s fiercest attack dogs, tending to wild, unrestrained aggressiveness. Clearly, internal party polling told him to shut up. Even Likud voters don’t like seeing their mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters treated so boorishly.
So, they have focused on their primary tactic; testing the endurance of all MKs, driving weeks of all-night filibusters to make governing torture for all. Quietly, though, Likud members are saying that this approach has a short lifespan. August—a traditionally slow period in which Israeli families and yeshivot students take vacations—is fast approaching. No one has the stamina or motivation to do haul Netanyahu’s water indefinitely.
Overall, the change coalition has gotten off to a strong start. The government has shown clever intuition about when, where, and how much to demonstrate to the public that they can effectively manage Israel’s affairs with key foreign interests—particularly with the United States. A clear and stated priority of the prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and minister of foreign affairs, Yair Lapid, has been the need to restore a strong bipartisan relationship with Israel’s key ally.
Domestically, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently shepherded legislation through the Knesset that will deny daycare subsidies for children under age 3 for families where the husband chooses to study full-time in a Kollel. The outrage among the ultra-orthodox was predictable, but the vast majority of Israelis support such fiscal measures.
Each camp—Likud and the Haredi parties on one side and the government on the other—has made its share of blundering errors. But each day is an opportunity for the government to implement policies supported by the majority of Israelis, and offer us all a respite from the divisive tribalism that became so entrenched and extreme over the last two years.
Based on the seepage of discontent from leading Likudniks, it may be a matter of time until the traditional loyalty to the leader becomes a legend of the past.