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Netanyahu vs. the Bombastic Right: A Battle within a War

by Shmuel Rosner

2 weeks ago

PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Photo by Reuters

Dealing with petty politics in a time of war – and I have to stress again that this isn't a "war", it is a heavy skirmish, or something of that sort – is not exactly noble. But yesterday's sacking of Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon was a stark reminder that politicians never cease having to think about politics. Danon was thinking about politics when he kept criticizing the government of which he was a member, and the Prime Minister that heads the government, for their conduct of the military operation in Gaza. He was catering to the ideological group that supports him within the Likud Party – the bombastic right-wing talkers for whom no military action is sufficient and no boldness is bold enough. Danon is popular with this group, but as a Deputy Minister, a title with little meaning, he had, well, little meaning. His departure will have zero impact on Israel's "defense". Its only impact is political.

Netanyahu sent a message yesterday to his party: there's a limit to my tolerance toward blunt and disrespectful dissent. He has problems within the party, problems which he'll have to deal with when times are calmer, but he is also the Likud's best candidate for Prime Minister for the foreseeable future. If the party wants to keep the office, Netanyahu is its best option. And the more he battles the Danons and the other young radicals, the more the general public will give him credit for his conduct in the situation in Gaza. In fact, this is exactly what drives Danon mad: today, as he responded in numerous interviews to his firing by Netanyahu, he kept reminding his listeners that the opposition – the left – does not criticize Netanyahu. He kept saying that Netanyahu is implementing a policy of "Yachimovitz and Galon", that is, Shelly Yachimovitz of the Labor Party and Zehava Galon of the leftist Meretz Party. Danon would like Netanyahu to be more Likud-like. Namely, to use more force in Gaza.

The sacking of Danon was timely and justified, but it still didn't eliminate all the trouble makers from the government. Netanyahu has a much bigger problem with his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. On Tuesday, Liberman convened the press and also criticized the Netanyahu's policy. He was more subtle and didn't mention Netanyahu by name – he didn't make it explicitly personal. But it is, of course, very personal. Lieberman urged the conquest of Gaza. From the outset of this round of violence the Foreign Minister has been playing politics. First, he decided to divorce his party from the partnership with Likud, and then he began his journey rightward. He "lashes out and insinuates to the Israeli public in less than delicate terms that the prime minister is a coward", as Mazal Mualem put it. Apparently, Lieberman believes that there's a niche for him to the right of Likud. If Netanyahu is now the man of the center – the cautious, measured, Prime Minister – maybe a party like Lieberman's can steal some of his voters that would like to have a Danon-like leader at the helm.

Netanyahu fired Danon because he can and hasn't yet fired Lieberman because he can't. There's a difference between Danon, the infantile populist, and Lieberman, the shrewd and experienced politician. Danon is a nuisance; Lieberman is a threat. Danon can be sacked; Liberman is needed, not for his contribution to Israel's foreign affairs, but rather because he has a disciplined party behind him that makes him an essential coalition partner.

Netanyahu, wrote Yossi Verter today, is the "tragic hero" of the Gaza operation. This might be an overstatement – if one searches for tragedy and heroes at this time there are plenty to choose from. But his point is valid, and is similar to the point I made yesterday: Overall, Netanyahu is likely to gain support in the general public as the person best suited to lead Israel. But he is also likely to lose support from right-wing voters, as he has exposed himself to criticism from more hawkish and more bombastic politicians within Likud and in other parties. The "public" is going to improve its attitude towards the PM, but isn't going to vote for him. Likud voters, on the other hand, are essential for him to be able to govern.

So where does this all lead us? The easy answer is that we do not yet know and much depends on the outcome of the operation. Clearly, though, an uneasy alliance of coalition partners is becoming even more uneasy. And a lone man at the helm is even lonelier. And a bubbling ruling party is even bubblier. But the politics will be determined by the polls: if enough parties to Netanyahu's right will see a benefit in having an election, they'll find a way to make it happen. And when they do, the battle within Likud can be very interesting. It is worth remembering amid all the political hoopla, that the Likud Party has a tradition of supporting its leaders – it has only had four leaders since the establishment of Israel (Begin, Shamir, Sharon, Netanyahu). But it is also worth remembering that leaders rarely depart wilfully from their positions. They have to be dethroned by others, usually from within their own ranks.

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