Government in chaos as campaigning begins

Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett. Photo: EPA/Abir Sultan

BENJAMIN Netanyahu has kicked off his second election campaign of 2019 by firing two former allies and throwing the government into chaos. 

He sacked Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked this week, in what was widely seem as a move to prevent them from taking votes he wants to win in the September election. 

Bennett and Shaked failed to get their New Right party past the threshold to win Knesset seats in the April election, but were expected to fare better this time around. After being fired from the cabinet they will be less credible candidates. 

“I was Minister of Education this morning, this evening I am Naftali,” said Bennett after hearing of his dismissal, adding that he will continue his “life mission” which “has been for the people of Israel and the Land of Israel”. Shaked predicted she will be back in the Justice Ministry, saying: “I definitely intend to return.” 

As of press time the justice and education ministries were leaderless, with no new ministers appointed, and controversy raging over a frontrunner for the justice portfolio, Bezalel Smotrich of the United Right, who sparked widespread outrage after claiming this week, “My long-term desire is that the State of Israel is governed by the Torah.” He said he wants to see the state operate in the manner seen “in the days of King David and King Solomon”, namely “according to the law of the Torah”.

Smotrich, whose party controversially includes followers of the late Meir Kahane, a racist rabbi, said that the application of Torah law is not “scary”, and suggested that a halachic state “wouldn’t be quick to stone people who violate Shabbat”. 

Meanwhile, there are no clear indications of how the next vote will go. “The next election is wide open, anything can happen,” veteran Hebrew University political scientist Abraham Diskin told The AJN

Diskin predicted another campaign heavily focused on Netanyahu, and with very limited emphasis on the traditional ideological issues of Israeli politics, like the peace process with the Palestinians. 

Netanyahu is fighting for his political life – and possibly his freedom too – ahead of the next election, which will take place September 17. If he loses, it will bring his political career to an abrupt end. If he wins, he will be crowned the king of Israeli politics who always bounces back. He would also stand a high chance of passing legislation that could give him immunity from prosecution for corruption as long as he stays in Knesset.

This time around, his political foes have a new accusation against him – that he’s subjecting everyone to unnecessary elections. “One man’s incompetence and weakness has brought new, unnecessary and costly elections,” complained Blue and White’s leader Benny Gantz after elections were called. 

Gantz said that the Netanyahu’s failure to build a government means “everyone can see, as clear as day, that those running their country do not have their best interests at heart”. Gantz supporters echoed this claim upon hearing that Netanyahu’s Likud has already insisted that it won’t consider a unity government with Blue and White after the next election. 

With Netanyahu facing so much anger, and the stakes so high, his strategy seems to be a mixture of angry arguments and amicable alliances.

Netanyahu’s decision to drive a wedge between himself and Bennett and Shaked comes as he is working hard to discredit another former ally, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of Israel Beytenu. 

The new election was called after Lieberman refused to join the government that was being built. Netanyahu’s associate Miki Zohar blamed Lieberman for “one of the biggest farces in politics” and said that he will pay a price. Netanyahu responded with his ultimate insult, claiming, “Avigdor Lieberman is now part of the left.”

In contrast to the feuding with Israel Beytenu and New Right, when it comes to the Kulanu party, Netanyahu has been busy building bridges. They have agreed to run on a joint ticket, in a deal that will prevent Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon emerging as any type of threat.

This alliance means that, in the latest polling, Likud stands to beat Blue and White by about four seats, and take around 39 Knesset seats. But even if Netanyahu gets a few seats more than Blue and White, and even if right-wing parties outperform those on the left, Israel Beytenu could refuse again to compromise on terms for a coalition deal and he could find himself again unable to build a government.

NATHAN JEFFAY