The Police recommendations to indict the prime minister have ruled the headlines since Tuesday, driving speculations about the possibility that Netanyahu would dissolve his cabinet and go to new elections, or, alternatively, that one or all his coalition partners would walk, to disassociate themselves from the troubled leader.
In fact, on Tuesday night the focus on the coalition’s future was so intense, that when Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) was victorious in passing the 2019 budget in a preliminary plenum vote well ahead of the deadline, the pressed relegated this news to the end of the page and hyped instead Kahlon’s announcement that as long as Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit hasn’t decided to indict, Kulanu stays in government.
This was followed by Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett’s Wednesday morning’s announcement that he, too, was staying until Mandelblit decides whether or not to indict.
Both statements helped the Likud leadership to breathe easy again, because it is not expected that the AG would come to a decision any time soon – and many are talking about nine months to a year. That’s an eternity in coalition years.
The two Haredi coalition partners are not a threat to walk at this point in time, seeing as this is the best coalition government in their history – and they say so.
Of Netanyahu’s three other partners, the only real threat is posed by Bennett. Kahlon is constantly shown by the polls to be losing seats in the next elections, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) cannot rise above his faction’s current six seats if his life depended on it. The only coalition partner expected to win new seats in the next elections—anywhere from 3 to 5 and even more—is Habayit Hayehudi. Bennett has already declared that he sees himself as the next prime minister after Netanyahu’s departure. Currently, this statement may be 90% ambition and only 10% reality, but the combination of a good campaign, a catastrophic failure for Likud, and a voters’ radical shift rightward as the result of a major event could possibly boost Habayit Hayehudi to where the air is rarer.
Of course, to be available for such shifts, the biggest challenge Bennett is facing is coming from within his own faction, where his rightwing partner, Tekumah (Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich), are not entirely certain they want the partnership to continue unchanged. So much so, that while Bennett mixed his support for Netanyahu with some rebuke about the PM’s choices, Tekumah on the night police announced their recommendations, expressed their full confidence in Netanyahu and accused the police of treating him unevenly.
Generally speaking, Tekumah is not ecstatic about the chairman’s attempts to bring into the party’s voters circle more secular, center-right Israelis who identify with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked—a secular politician in a leadership role in a religious party. Ariel and Smotrich represent much of the “Hardalim” in the religious-Zionist camp (the word is a combination of Nationalists and Haredim, which, when sounded out, is reminiscent of the Hebrew word for mustard).
The Tekumah folks are arguing that it’s one thing to embrace non-religious Jews who are ideological fellow travelers on security issues (and opposed to the 2-state solution), and another thing altogether to dilute the Orthodox-halachic core of the party with unobservant members. Bennett et al are determined to take a bite out of the center-right core of the independent voters, because there’s no other way to reach the prime minister’s office.
An important thing to consider, as the AG is mulling his decision on the two recommendations to indict Netanyahu, which may be joined by several additional suggestions to prosecute, statements by the 180 or so witnesses who have already spoken to police investigators are certain to float—leaked or published officially—in the public arena, and there’s no telling what the ultimate effect of those testimonies may have on the coalition’s future.