Middle east

Defections From Netanyahu’s Likud Party Don’t Surprise His Former Media Adviser, Here’s Why

A notorious attitude towards colleagues coupled with their desire to receive promotions were some of the reasons that pushed several Likud members to leave the party, but it doesn’t mean Netanyahu’s ship is sinking, says an Israeli media expert. And the PM still has a chance of winning the race set for 23 March.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might look stable in the polls that project him to get 29 out of 120 seats in the upcoming parliamentary race but his ability to form a coalition has never been more fragile.

The reason is Gideon Saar’s newly formed party. Saar, a former Likud member and Netanyahu ally, decided to stake out on his own in December, announcing he would run against the PM in the country’s fourth elections in under two years, set for 23 March.

Reason for ‘Treason’?

Since its establishment, Saar’s New Hope has become a refuge for several Likud members, including those who were previously close to Netanyahu.

Aviv Bushinsky, a man who once served as his media adviser, attributes the defections to a number of factors.

“Many politicians want to be promoted; it is human nature but they feel stuck as long as Netanyahu is around. [For them his presence] is like a obstacle”, Bushinsky says.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks after he delivered a statement at the Knesset (Israel's parliament) in Jerusalem, December 22, 2020

Such was the case with Gideon Saar himself, who felt his career growth had been stunted and ministerial jobs had passed him by; and such was the case with Zeev Elkin, a former Minister of Water Resources, who until recently was a close Netanyahu ally and who defected to New Hope at the end of December, allegedly because he was dissatisfied with the position he was offered.

“Another reason for the recent wave of defections is the belief that a person, who is preoccupied with his legal problems, should focus on them, rather than running the state”, explains Bushinsky, referring to the graft probes into Netanyahu that include allegations of receiving illegal gifts from a rich donor and buying positive press coverage.

“But one of the main factors is Netanyahu’s notorious human relationships. He sees everything in black and white. It is either you are with him or against him. Plus, the prime minister has a very instrumental attitude to people. When he doesn’t need them, he leaves them or humiliates them, and some take it personally”, he adds.

One of those who took it close to heart was Avigdor Lieberman, another former Netanyahu ally, who was once a member of Likud and who split from it in the 1990s, following disagreements with Bibi. 

Another example of a relationship that ended in divorce was Netanyahu and the now-chief of the party Yamina, Naftali Bennett.

In the early 2000s, it was Bennett who ran Netanyahu’s primary campaigns and even after he formed his own party, he chose to remain in Bibi’s orbit, positioning himself as part of Israel’s conservative bloc.

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However, as his electoral power waned, Netanyahu’s interest in him diminished and last March, after a third round of elections was over, the prime minister refused to give Bennett a substantial ministerial position within the coalition he formed in May, something that pushed the chief of Yamina to join the opposition.

Now as another election looms large on the horizon, that bad blood between Netanyahu and his former allies might backfire. 

Several days ago, Bennett stated that he would no longer give his signature in favour of Netanyahu as the head of the government, even if he does end up winning the race in March.

Similar vows have also been voiced by Saar and Lieberman and that means that if polls are accurate and their total number of seats is 37, the chances of Netanyahu forming a government will grow rather slim.

Still Not a Sinking Ship

Yet, Bushinsky believes Netanyahu still has a chance to succeed. But in order to achieve success, the prime minister will need to adhere to several rules. 

“First, I would recommend that he not hold primaries”, says the media expert, answering a question on what piece of advice he would give Netanyahu if he was running his pre-election campaign these days. “Primaries might create a situation, where Likud members, who are currently positioned in high places, could be pushed to the sidelines and that could lead to dissatisfaction and eventual drop outs, something that Netanyahu would like to avoid at the moment”.

Another bit of advice is recruiting new and promising candidates to the spots left vacant by the defections to Saar.

Netanyahu has already expressed interest in recruiting Ron Dermer, Israel’s current ambassador to the US, and he is now considering the possibility of giving out a ministerial position to an Arab Israeli, all in a bid to retain more votes in the upcoming general election.

Apart from choosing the right people, Netanyahu will also need luck.

That luck might be brought about by the pace and efficiency of the mass vaccination project currently underway in Israel, where more than a million citizens have already been given the much-awaited jab.

Or it could be triggered by escalation of tensions or even a war during which Israelis tend to rally around the flag and choose Netanyahu, touted in Israel as Mr Security. 

“Israel is preparing itself for a potential retaliation to the killing of the [Iranian] nuclear scientist”, says Bushinsky, referring to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh late last year that Tehran blamed on Tel Aviv, which, in turn, hasn’t addressed the accusations so far.

“And if tensions flare up, the issue of security will determine [the race] because Netanyahu will have better chances to cope with these threats than Saar, for example, who doesn’t have a relevant background”.

Netanyahu is also perceived as someone capable of tackling international pressure and “it will be interesting to see how [US President-elect Joe] Biden will deal with Netanyahu”.

“If he tries to impose things on the prime minister vis-a-vis the status quo with the Palestinians, it might play into the hands of Bibi, who will present himself as the only leader that can fight back that pressure”, Bushinsky says.

And given that Biden is not planning to be as supportive of Netanyahu as was his predecessor Donald Trump, the chances of the PM using that gimmick in the upcoming elections are high too.

Will that bring him the victory he is hoping for? It’s still up in the air, but one thing is certain, it is too early to bury Netanyahu politically.

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