All opinion polls show that Likud voters, by very large margins, prefer to keep Netanyahu as leader and stay in opposition, rather than go back into government, but with someone else in the top position.
This catch 22 results in Netanyahu continuing to be both the factor that keeps the Bennett led coalition government united and the Likud in opposition.
Crunch time is fast approaching for the government as it needs to pass the budget shortly, or the country will head for elections once again.
There are many real and potential fault lines within the governing coalition, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that the budget will not pass.
Yes, it is about the politics, but having been three years without an updated budget, it is all very much about the policies as well.
Firstly, let’s put aside one central issue. For all of the predictions and warnings from various quarters, this government is seen to have got at the very least a passing grade, if not more, on dealings with the major powers to date.
This was reinforced by what appears to have been a very successful trip to Russia with reportedly warm meetings between Prime Minister Bennett and President Putin.
Helping that along the way was that Ze’ev Elkin – currently a minister in this government and who was previously a minister in Netanyahu’s government – as he had done previously with Netanyahu, accompanied Bennett to Russia.
Elkin, who was born in the Ukraine, is a Russian speaker, but perhaps more importantly, understands Putin’s meanings and nuances behind the spoken word.
The Palestinian issues in both Gaza and Judaea/Samaria/West Bank however, continue to challenge Israel daily.
As a demonstration of the complexity of the reality of life in Israel and its many shades – Gazans are lining up to cross the checkpoints and work in Israel – wanting jobs in the very cities and towns they were showering with thousands of rockets just 5 months ago.
And Israel is allowing them in in increasing numbers.
Some 7,000 permits to workers and traders have now been issued for the last month alone.
The most troubled member of the government appears to be Ayelet Shaked. Some in Likud believe she is ripe for re-joining their block.
Shaked is the Interior Minister and deputy leader of Yamina, Bennett’s own party.
Unlike Bennett, Shaked wears her ideology on her sleeve and is constantly pushing back against her own government’s policies – whether it be on Palestinian family reunification, or the recognition of certain previously unauthorised Bedouin towns in the south of Israel, or on other matters.
And in most of these areas, she has failed to impose her views inside the coalition and looks and sounds increasingly dissatisfied.
For example, the government approved, after an almost ten year freeze, 4,000 Palestinian reunification residency permits (largely in Judaea/Samaria/West Bank) despite Shaked’s vigorous efforts to stop this.
Bennett and Lapid also pushed through de facto recognition of many unauthorised Bedouin houses in Israel’s south, formally giving them approval to be connected to the electricity grid. This was after Shaked had tried to half the number of homes to be connected.
Ra’am you will recall, had three major demands for joining the government which were formally written into the coalition agreements: fighting organised Arab crime; improving the socio-economic position of Arab citizens; and the recognition of three Bedouin towns.
The budget’s passing is critical to properly implementing these aims and were deal breakers for Ra’am staying in government.
Shaked demonstrated just how uncomfortable she is all over the government, left and right, by publicly taking issue with fellow right winger and coalition partner, Justice Minister Gidon Sa’ar, when he released the draft of his proposed bill to prevent a prime minister under indictment from sitting in office.
This is of course, despite denials, directly aimed at preventing a Netanyahu return.
Shaked also spoke out publicly against two leaders of coalition parties – Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Horowitz (Meretz) after the annual Rabin assassination commemoration ceremony and speeches in the Knesset.
“Upon hearing the speeches yesterday, I just cringed,” Shaked said.
In private, Shaked is even more scathing of many in the government.
Defence Minister Gantz, in a different way, also continues to keep his name in the headlines and open potential coalition divisions – lately, with two specific moves.
Settlement building approvals fall under Gantz’s ministry. Numbers and actual dates of approvals seem to be fluid, but now for the first time during the Biden presidency, and after multiple delays, Israel has formally approved, or is in the process of approving, new housing over the Green Line. Some 3,000 Jewish homes in Area C of Judaea/Samaria/West Bank and 1,300 Palestinian homes also in Area C.
Different aspects of this move are an anathema to different parts of the coalition – for some it is the Jewish building and for others, the Palestinian.
Bennett stays largely silent because he is conflicted over the Palestinian approvals and does not want to further alienate the right wing.
When objections were raised in his party room, about the building of Jewish homes, Lapid chose to be flippant. He said: “Next time, I will be in the room during decisions on such matters”. Trying to have it both ways. Allowing the approvals, but distancing himself in a not very credible way, from the actual decision.
Last Friday Gantz signed another order declaring six NGOs terrorist organisations because of their relationship with the banned PFLP (Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine).
This too has opened some degree of division inside the coalition. Not about describing the PFLP itself as a terrorist organisation, but about declaring these six NGOs as such without, to date, publicly demonstrating their direct connection to the PFLP to the sufficient satisfaction of some of the coalition’s partners.
And by, yet again, having the small inner circle of government make and announce decisions that coalition partners – and even some party leaders – only first hear about in the press.
And still, somewhat amazingly, no-one seriously suggests that even these sort of coalition tensions, at this point, threaten the passing of the budget.
All partners in government preferring this situation to the alternative – the return of Netanyahu. He is the bogeyman that scares the various segments of the coalition out of protesting too much to actually endanger it.
On the other hand, in a situation where even one member of the coalition can bring the government down, just imagine the internal difficulties when the following occurs.
The Israeli press reported that Meretz MK Mossi Raz had earlier in the year co-authored a letter to large numbers of members of the European Parliament, calling for action against Israel.
Last week he apparently sent a follow-up e-mail urging these Europeans to sign on to that letter which demanded that: “Violations of international law (by Israel), like the ones we witnessed unfolding, must come with robust consequences, in Israel-Palestine, as elsewhere.”
Alleged violations by a government he is a member of.
Perhaps he forgot, when e-mailing the European Parliamentary members about criticising “The Bennett government”, that this is the government he chooses to be part of – and support!
What could Bennett do or say, even if he wanted to – the budget vote looms.
This budget is hugely ambitious and will rank amongst the most transformative in perhaps the past twenty years. And in numerous areas of Israeli life.
Will policy trump politics?
Almost counter-intuitively, at this point in time, despite all of the coalition potential ruptures – the smart money says yes.
It might be a wild ride, but we’ll know soon…………….