Netanyahu’s Plan to Regain Power in Israel: Vote Against His Views

JERUSALEM — Almost a year after losing power, Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finessed a strategy to regain it: voting against his beliefs and those of his strongest supporters.

In one of the strangest episodes in Israeli political history, Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing opposition alliance voted on Monday against extending the law that applies Israeli civilian statutes to Israelis in the occupied West Bank.

Thanks to Mr. Netanyahu’s intervention, the legislation failed to pass, potentially hindering a key part of his electoral base, the West Bank settlers. If the law is not extended by the end of June, when the current one elapses, the settlers will likely be subject to military instead of civil statutes, placing them on a similar legal footing as their Palestinian neighbors.

“An upside-down world,” Sima Kadmon, a columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, a centrist broadsheet, wrote in a column on Tuesday. Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc “voted against a bill that serves their own electorate’s interests.”

The law is the basis of the two-tiered legal system in the occupied West Bank that distinguishes between Israeli settlers and Palestinians, and which is described by critics as a form of apartheid.

Mr. Netanyahu hasn’t suddenly changed his political stripes, however; he still supports the law and the settler movement.

But for the moment, he cares more about bringing down the current government and making himself prime minister again. To do that, his party, Likud, is refusing to vote for any of the government’s proposed legislation, even if it agrees with it.

Mr. Netanyahu’s aim is to widen the divisions within the government, a fragile and diverse alliance of parties across Israel’s political spectrum. Some leftist members of the governing coalition also voted against extending the law or abstained because they opposed it.

Without them and Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters, the government is struggling to muster the parliamentary majorities needed to enact legislation that furthers a right-wing program.

By withholding support for those measures, Mr. Netanyahu hopes to persuade right-wing lawmakers to defect from the coalition and join his camp. He argues that only a purely right-wing government, led by Mr. Netanyahu himself and unfettered by left-wing parties, can fulfill a truly rightist agenda.

“We want the right wing, under Netanyahu, to lead,” Miki Zohar, a senior Likud lawmaker, said in a radio interview on Tuesday, adding: “To give this coalition breathing room, that’s not something that we want to do. We want to topple this coalition and the sooner the better.”

Mr. Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and his opponents say another term in office would allow him to take measures undermining the judiciary and even the prosecutors in his court case. Mr. Netanyahu has denied the claim.

Withholding support for right-wing ideas is not a new approach. Mr. Netanyahu has tried it ever since losing office — most memorably in withdrawing Likud’s backing for legislation that restricts the ability of Palestinians to join spouses in Israel, and initially refusing to back scholarships for Israeli Army veterans.

In those cases, the coalition survived — but this time, the plan might work. Gideon Saar, the pro-settler justice minister, has hinted that his party may quit the government if the law fails to pass by the end of the month, depriving the alliance of a majority.

Once an ally of Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Saar joined the governing coalition last year to force his former colleague from power. Twelve months later, however, Mr. Saar has hinted that the government isn’t worth fighting for if that fight undermines the settlement enterprise.

“Survival is not a value in and of itself,” he said last week.

The legislation might still pass. Mr. Saar has called a second vote for Sunday, and if that fails, he still has time to hold a third round of voting before the end of the month. In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu and his allies are facing considerable pressure from settlers to put their beliefs above their political ambitions, and they might end up supporting or abstaining from the vote after all.

“The opposition harms the residents of Judea and Samaria” — an Israeli term for the West Bank — “to sanctify Netanyahu’s leadership,” David Elhayani, a settler leader, complained on Monday. “Moral despicableness for the Likud,” he added.

Facing similar pressure, Likud ultimately backed the laws on veteran education and Palestinian family reunification, after initially blocking them.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other leaders of the governing coalition are exerting huge pressure on wavering leftist and Arab lawmakers within their alliance, several of whom abstained or voted against the law. The leaders argue that opponents of the settlement law should see it as a lesser evil compared to the collapse of the government, which would give Mr. Netanyahu a shot at returning to power.

A similar rebellion was quelled last month when a Palestinian Israeli lawmaker, Ghada Rinawie Zoabi, revoked her resignation from the coalition after she was promised extra government support for Arabs in Israel.

Nevertheless, most analysts believe that the government’s disintegration is simply a matter of time. The coalition has been without a parliamentary majority since April, when a right-wing lawmaker, Idit Silman, quit the alliance, saying that it was undermining Israel’s Jewish character.

Just one more resignation could allow the opposition to call for new elections. The defection of a whole party, like Mr. Saar’s, could allow Mr. Netanyahu to form a new parliamentary majority without going to new elections.

Without a majority, the government “cannot function and it must die,” Nadav Eyal, another Israeli columnist, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday. “That can take days, weeks or months, but without a miracle, its fate is to disintegrate.”

To many Palestinians, however, the focus on how the settlement law could affect internal Israeli politics is a distraction from a more meaningful conversation about the morality of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Those who warn that the government will fall if the law fails to pass “are trying to escape the law’s true meaning,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman, a Palestinian Israeli opposition lawmaker, who voted against the measure on Monday.

“This law is the operating system of the illegal occupation, of apartheid in the occupied Palestinian territories,” she added, in a speech to Parliament shortly before the vote.

Reporting was contributed by Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel, and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.

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