Israeli Government on the Rocks, as Mr. Netanyahu is Challenged on the Right

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


The Israeli government has recently come under pressure for its handling of the COVID-19 epidemic, as it faces a second wave of infections leading to mandatory restrictions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been singled out for criticism, with many observers concluding that the long-time Likud leader may have become distracted with his own personal legal troubles. An already difficult power-sharing arrangement with the Blue and White party has become almost untenable as the latter’s allies in the Knesset voted with the opposition to outlaw gay conversion therapy. The move has enraged ultra-Orthodox supporters and parties, which have vowed to punish Mr. Netanyahu should he fail to thwart the legislations before it becomes law.

According to a recent Haaretz News report, Israel, much like the rest of the world, is struggling to contain a second wave of the Corona virus. Government officials are scrambling to come up with solutions that don’t risk economic recovery while preserving human lives: “Israel and the West Bank are dealing with a renewed outbreak of the coronavirus, leading to proposals and measures intended to curb its spread and mitigate the economic ramifications of the crisis by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities….Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein appointed the director of Ichilov Hospital, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, to the position of coronavirus czar early Thursday morning…. The Knesset passed Wednesday night a law granting the cabinet the authority to declare a state of emergency amid the coronavirus crisis and impose restrictions to stem the renewed outbreak of the pandemic.”

However, the performance of the government and, in particular, Mr. Netanyahu, has come under severe criticism from various observers, including Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz, who accused the prime minister of leading a government that “simply does not function. Nothing about it is working. Nothing…. It is time to recognize what should have been clear months ago when the indictment against Netanyahu was submitted to court – a person who is on trial facing severe criminal charges cannot continue running this country. It just doesn’t work…. Israel needs leadership with a singular focus, one that is clear, articulate and understands the gravity of this situation. When we look back at history, great moments were made by great leaders who recognized and understood where they were. They knew to put their country first, not themselves.”

Others have gone so far as to express a general sense of malaise as the government struggles with the impact of the virus and a number of political and economic issues that are not receiving proper attention. For example, in an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, Nadav Eyal notes that Israeli voters are stuck in an unenviable situation: “There is no confidence among those on the left and those on the right. Nor can confidence be found among the ultra-Orthodox public or the Arab sector. Small business owners as well as industrialists share the same lack of trust in the government. Perhaps only the families of some ministers could honestly report they have any faith in the people in charge…. Our politicians have us in a bind. On the one hand, we have a government incapable of making decisions or setting policy and on the other hand, we cannot afford yet another election cycle, especially not when we’re in the midst of a crisis…. Our politicians would be wise to remember [that] the current failures, in an oversized government they said would be needed to fight the coronavirus, will have consequences.”

Writing for Globes, Tal Schneider and Amiram Barkat write that Mr. Netanyahu has tried responding to the criticism by appointing a new COVID-19 czar to oversee the government’s efforts and by promising additional economic stimulus and handouts for families, which “will receive up to NIS 3,000 and every individual over 18 will receive a NIS 750 handout, in order to stimulate the economy. Netanyahu said, ‘We need to get the economy moving and so we are giving out this money. People are sitting at home and not spending, and we want to encourage consumption. If people spend then businesses will employ people. This money will encourage consumption and encourage employment. It will move the wheels of the economy; that’s how economics works.’”

But the government’s measures may be a case of too little too late, as even erstwhile government supporters, such as Arutz Sheva’s David Rubin, are beginning to openly criticize Mr. Netanyahu and even hint that it may be time for him to exit the stage: “At a time of national crisis, political considerations should be placed to the side. As has been the case in the past, Netanyahu seems obsessed with not letting his political opponents get credit for any major operation, be it Bennett on his right or Gantz on his left…. Netanyahu should show true leadership and national unity by adopting the key elements of this plan and then putting either Bennett, in the opposition, and/or Gantz, in the coalition, in charge of implementing it, but let’s put someone in charge and get moving. A true leader is not afraid of delegating responsibility.”

Much of the anger on the right has resulted from Mr. Netanyahu’s inability to stop the consideration of a bill which would outlaw gay conversion therapy. As Moran Azulay points out in a Yedioth Ahronoth op-ed, the prime minister has had to reassure “furious ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition [who have] vowed to punish Likud MKs for failing to scupper the legislation and Blue & White for supporting it, and have threatened to take retaliatory action. The threat – which includes a Shas pledge to abstain indefinitely from all Knesset votes – comes as the coalition faces the challenge of approving the annual state budget, something the government might not be able to do in its current formulation. Political pundits say that disagreements over how the budget legislation will be presented – either only covering the months left until the end of the year or planning for a year and one quarter, as Gantz demands – will determine the fate of Israel’s political landscape.”

The Likud leader also received criticism last week from Israel Hayom’s Mati Tuchfeld, who suggested that, given the state of government infighting, the likelihood of another election has become a real possibility: “The unity government has long since lost its public appeal, but now it is also losing its grip on relevant politics. With government infighting breaking records on a daily basis, and with a state budget nowhere in sight, the question of whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will trigger another general election has again been presented, but still has no definite answer. One thing is clear: the prime minister has done nothing over the past few weeks in order to maintain the coalition. Instead, Likud and Blue and White have developed a culture of ‘penalizing’ each other by supporting or opposing various legislative proposals presented by the respective coalition partners, and Blue and White has also supported several bills presented by the opposition, leading to one thing – chaos in government.”

Some have speculated that much of the dysfunction within the Israeli government may be directly related to Mr. Netanyahu’s lame-duck status and his growing personal legal troubles. A recent Haaretz editorial goes so far as to call for declaring the prime minister “incapacitated” right away: “Ever since the criminal investigations against him began, and even more so since the attorney general decided to indict him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held the state hostage in his efforts to escape justice. The Jerusalem District Court decided this week that the evidentiary stage of his trial will start in January. It also decided that the case will be heard three days a week. Netanyahu was the first to conclude that demands for him to declare himself incapacitated as prime minister were only a matter of time, since the trial schedule can’t be reconciled with running the country, especially at a time of crisis. So, being a leader devoid of any sense of responsibility or of red lines, he did the only thing he excels at – starting preparations to drag Israel into yet another election.”

The Jerusalem Post’s Isi Leibler seems to agree, albeit for perhaps different reasons, while lamenting Mr. Netanyahu’s declining standing within his party and in Israeli society more broadly, leading Leibler to conclude that perhaps a new government should be sworn in: “The public is confused and has lost confidence, and even members of Netanyahu’s own party are rebelling against him…. it is sad for me to admit that, despite his outstanding achievements, domestically and internationally, today he is not leading the country effectively. And this is prior to the grueling court cases he is about to face. Unless he can turn the tide rapidly and discipline his partners and achieve a genuine governing arrangement with his coalition, the majority of whom are currently engaging in petty power politics instead of urgently acting to confront the coronavirus, there is no moral justification for this government retaining office.”

Meanwhile, according to a Yedioth Ahronoth news report, in an effort to avoid another round of elections amid a pandemic, the Israeli president has called on Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz to work together, while “blast[ing] the coalition government for postulating having another election in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. The president’s remarks came less than a day after Likud officials said the coalition partnership with Blue & White could not continue after Benny Gantz’s party voted in favor of outlawing gay conversion in the Knesset plenum, enraging Haredi parties in the government…. He called the possibility of another election as ‘terrible’ and harshly criticized the conduct of the coalition partners. ‘The State of Israel is not a rag doll for you to drag around behind you, while you are constantly fighting,’ he said. ‘Our citizens, all of us, need you focused and working to resolve the unprecedented crisis which Israel – and all of humanity – have found themselves in.’”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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