The Likud faction convened on Sunday at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Maccabiah Hotel, without its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was still on holiday with his family on the opulent Hawaiian island of Lanai.
The conference, convened by MK Yoav Kisch, was designed to deliberate ways for destabilising Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government, beginning with the state budget, which must be passed into law by November 14 or an election will be called.
Only 11 of the 30 Likud MKs attended the meeting, but participants felt the low turnout made it more effective. Following the meeting, the budget was divided up and assigned, and all the MKs in the faction received their tasks in stopping the budget and toppling the government.
Older MKs taught younger legislators who have never worked on a state budget. The MKs who attended left feeling that they had plans that could succeed in returning the Likud to power.
“You can call it a secret plan,” one participant said. “I call it work, the work of the opposition.”
Now Netanyahu has returned from Hawaii well-rested and even more determined to come back to the premiership. His associates said his time on the island did not persuade Netanyahu, who will turn 72 next month, to retire from politics.
“Don’t be surprised if Netanyahu returns to be prime minister in the current Knesset,” the participant in the meeting said. “When Kadima took power, no one thought we could bring them down, but we succeeded, thanks in part to a mega-event called the Second Lebanon War. Now there is a mega-event called the coronavirus, and there is a coalition that is much more diverse. We will break them. It is only a matter of time.”
The budget and its accompanying economic arrangements bill were expected to narrowly pass their first reading late Thursday. But weeks of fighting over every clause in the Knesset Finance Committee lie ahead.
One factor that will help the coalition avoid rebellions is that more than 20 of its MKs entered the Knesset via the Norwegian Law. Ministers quit the parliament and allowed the new MKs to enter, making them completely beholden to their party leaders and unable to flex their political muscles.
“We can’t build on the budget because they bought 20 Norwegians,” the participant in the meeting admitted.
But the Likud MKs said not every MK is Norwegian, and the narrow majority the diverse coalition has makes it very fragile and easily combustible.
The fight this week between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the rest of the party leaders in his coalition over his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is the perfect example of how the government could come apart. Gantz tried three times before to persuade Bennett to enable him to meet with Abbas, before catching him at a particularly sensitive time just after his meeting with US President Joe Biden.
Gantz painted the two-and-a-half-hour meeting as necessary to deal with arrangements for delivering funding to Palestinians in Gaza while bypassing Hamas. But Bennett’s associates saw it as an attempt to anger both the Right and the Left inside the government and bring himself to power.
The meeting forced Bennett’s spokesman to say repeatedly that there will be no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, which lost Bennett whatever assets he had gained in the international community in his meeting with Biden. Politicians on the Right had a harder time than ever explaining why they are sitting in a government that speaks to Abbas, while those on the Left had to tell their constituents why they themselves were not meeting with the Palestinian leader.
Bennett and Gantz held a particularly intense meeting after the incident in which each accused the other of character assassination.
A cartoon in the Maariv newspaper illustrated it best. In the cartoon, Gantz was the student and Bennett the teacher, who drew on the board a “lesson about Abbas” with two pictures. The picture of the Palestinian leader had on it the word “evil” and a picture of Ra’am (United Arab List) head Mansour Abbas was labeled “good.”
FINANCE MINISTER Avigdor Liberman ironically defended meeting with both Abbases, at a press conference at his Jerusalem office on Monday. He said economic stability in the PA is an Israeli interest.
The Jerusalem Post asked Liberman at the press conference whether the unprecedented allocations to the Arab sector in the state budget are just a payment to the Ra’am leader, or whether they indicated that the press and the public had gotten something wrong about his (Liberman’s) sentiment toward Arabs all along.
Liberman responded by passionately defending the need for increased funding for Israeli-Arabs. He spoke about the recent spate of intra-Arab violence and murders.
“What’s happening in the Arab sector is absolutely crazy,” he said. “Clearly, it cannot be allowed to continue. Young people who have no jobs resort to crime. That is why we need to invest in education, economic development and security in that sector.”
Liberman said the highlight of the current Knesset was watching Mansour Abbas tell Netanyahu that he invited him four times to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour and Smolenskin streets and told him that whatever Bennett would offer him, he would give him more.
“Bibi needs to stop babbling,” Liberman said. “Netanyahu can take out a patent on what he now calls ‘the Abbas tax” that he says we are paying.”
If Liberman was stressed about passing the budget, he didn’t show it. Amid threats from the agricultural lobby that influences three coalition parties, he said the MKs would have reached an agreement long ago, were it not for the outside pressure.
But Liberman acknowledged that due to the many different views inside the government, the coalition would always be walking on eggshells.
Once the budget passes, other challenges will take its place, threatening the government’s future. Knowing that the Likud is on the sidelines making plans to return remains what keeps the coalition committed to doing everything possible to keep going.