How Bibi’s maximum pressure plot backfired

Efforts by Mr Netanyahu to delegitimise the new government before they are sworn in has one objective: to try to convince wavering members of the new coalition to recant before the confidence vote


There’s very little protocol or ceremony to the transition of power in Israel. Once a coalition has been formed, the incoming prime minister makes a speech in the Knesset, the confidence vote is held and then the new ministers, starting with the prime minister, make their way to the podium to make their pledge of allegiance to the state and its laws.

By the time that’s over, it’s usually late in the evening. The new cabinet holds a brief meeting in the Knesset and the prime minister is then whisked off to a secure room to read secret files, long into the night.

The next morning, the new ministers gather again at the president’s residence for a group photograph, then they each go their separate ways for brief handover ceremonies at their new offices. Usually, the outgoing minister will say a few words of welcome. If they’re on good terms, they will have found time for a quiet meeting in advance to catch up.

No-one knows yet if there will be a cordial handover on Monday morning, assuming the new Bennett-Lapid government wins the confidence vote on Sunday evening. After calling the new coalition “the greatest election fraud in Israel’s history”, it’s hard to see Mr Netanyahu then changing his tune by greeting his successor gracefully. Journalists who asked his office this week whether he’s planning to even be there when Mr Bennett comes in on Monday were told that no plans had been made.

If Mr Netanyahu continues to stick to his rather Trumpesque tone from this week, he may well imitate the former US president and leave before his successor arrives. If so, most Likud ministers will probably follow his lead and do the same.

It will also be interesting to watch the strictly Orthodox ministers. On Tuesday, the leaders of Shas and United Torah Judaism held a joint press conference in which they lambasted the incoming government and especially Mr Bennett. Shas leader Arye Deri said the new government would “uproot Judaism from the state”. His UTJ colleague, Moshe Gafni, twice used the Talmudic curse “may the name of the evil man rot,” when referring to Mr Bennett. Agudat Yisrael senior representative Yaakov Litzman said that he “should take his kippah off. He’s not religious, he’s Reform”.

Will Mr Litzman, currently housing minister, be there on Monday to shake hands with his replacement, Ze’ev Elkin, another kippah-wearing minister in the new government? Or will Mr Deri, the interior minister, turn up for the handover with Ayelet Shaked, Mr Bennett’s co-leader of Yamina?

The concerted effort by Mr Netanyahu and his ministers to delegitimise the new government even before they are sworn in has one objective: to try to convince wavering members of the new coalition, particularly the religious and right wing ones, to recant before the confidence vote.

But their maximum pressure campaign seems to have backfired.

No-one to someone

Nir Orbach, a Yamina MK who had been anonymous to most Israelis only a few days ago, seemed to be the weakest link in the new coalition. He’s a typical religious-Zionist macher, a man at home in the community establishment. The kind of guy who is trusted by rabbis and head teachers to sort out budgets and building permits. He’s also a friend of Naftali Bennett, who put him in a high spot on Yamina’s slate of candidates.

Last week, just before 11pm on Wednesday, after all the party leaders had already signed the coalition agreements, the official announcement and notification to President Reuven Rivlin was held up for nearly half an hour. The party leaders weren’t enough. It had to be clear that the new coalition had a majority of 61 — and one was threatening to abandon ship.

Nir Orbach had been on the phone with Rabbi Chaim Drukman, the oldest and most senior of the religious-Zionist rabbis who had promised Mr Netanyahu to try to get him the defector he needed. A sharp-eyed journalist spotted Mr Orbach walking in the Knesset corridor on the phone saying “yes, yes, Rabbi Drukman. It will be OK.”

Ayelet Shaked rushed to his Knesset office to stop him from doing something rash, like talking to the media or tweeting. He gave her the green light to tell Mr Bennett they could go ahead and notify the president. But he refused to say what he would do come the confidence vote.

For the next four-and-a-half days, his house was surrounded by hundreds of protestors. He refused to answer his phone, even when it was the prime minister on the line. On Tuesday morning he decided, and posted a 750-word essay on Facebook, filled with homilies from the Talmud and Midrash. He would stick with the new coalition.

In his Facebook post, he wrote also of the aspiration of the founders of Zionism to build “an exemplary society.” And he no longer found that society among Mr Netanyahu and his supporters.

“An exemplary society can contain right and left in one house,” he wrote. “An exemplary society should vomit out marginal forces.”

He later explained to friends that he had decided that he could not go back on Yamina’s promises before the election and vote for a government with left-wing parties and the Islamist Ra’am. But the protestors outside his house, with their curses and threats that could be heard clearly from within, had changed his mind.

They had convinced him that Israeli politics needed to make a clean break from the hatred that has characterised in the last years of the Netanyahu era.

Bolder than assumed?

Mr Orbach’s decision also emboldened Mr Bennett who, since Wednesday night, had sounded almost apologetic for having the temerity to form a government without Likud and the Charedi parties.

His office issued a response to their leaders’ accusations, using for the first time the cumbersome title of “prime minister-designate.”

He addressed the strictly Orthodox community directly: “The last year has shown that you are the ones paying, with your very lives for a political culture of neglect, cronyism and perpetuation of problems.”

He was referring to the thousands of elderly Charedim who had died during the Covid-19 pandemic as their rabbis kept the yeshivas and shuls open during the lockdowns, as well as the 45 men and boys who died 6 weeks ago in the Meron disaster.

He was saying what no previous prime minister has ever said to the community: that they were suffering for the sins of their leaders, who insisted on cutting them off from the rest of Israeli society.

The new coalition has among its plans the establishment of new state schools for Charedim, which will teach the national curriculum alongside religious studies.

It will also consider denying state funds from existing Charedi schools which refuse to teach general studies at a minimal level, and lower the age after which young Charedi men no longer have to remain in yeshiva if they don’t want to be drafted in to the army.

The meaning of these steps, if they are taken, will be to open up new opportunities for tens of thousands of young Charedi men and women for education and gainful employment. And it will weaken the hold the rabbis have over them.

Until now, few thought that the new government would get serious about these issues.

After all, many of its members still want to co-operate in the future with the Charedi parties.

But if their leaders are intent on branding them as heretics and calling for them to boycotted within the religious community, then what do they have to lose?

This government may end up achieving something more significant than just replacing Benjamin Netanyahu.

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