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political prospects

Pressure on Netanyahu to quit, but few paths to his ouster

The Knesset is back to its usual antics, with murmurs about Netanyahu’s future, but pushing him out would likely prove difficult

ABIR SULTAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2023.

As these words were being written on Tuesday afternoon, three Knesset committees – Finance, Economics, and Foreign Affairs and Defense – had meetings in progress, all of which were about war-related matters. While there is debate, the vast majority of the Knesset is trying to show a united front against Hamas and find areas of consensus to help Israeli evacuees from the country’s north and south, among other items on the agenda.

The political murmuring that surfaced in the days after the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks has gotten louder in the past week. With Opposition Leader Yair Lapid’s call for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign immediately and an ugly showdown in the Knesset on Monday between Otzma Yehudit MKs and families of hostages held by Hamas and other Palestinian groups in Gaza, it almost feels like business as usual. 

Most of the political rustlings, whether out in the open in interviews or behind closed doors, are about what Israeli politics will look like after the war. 

There’s Lapid, who says that Netanyahu should step down immediately, even as the war is ongoing, and is offering to bring his party into a coalition led by a different Likud member, reportedly floating Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman and a former refusenik, as possibilities. Both men have spoken out against Netanyahu in recent years.

Galit Distal-Atbaryan, a Netanyahu loyalist and cabinet minister until recently, said: “This government’s days are numbered, that is totally clear,” in text messages screenshotted and shared on Facebook by an activist. 

Likud insiders have been whispering for weeks about Modi’in Mayor Haim Bibas bringing together a coalition of moderates in the party to push Netanyahu out. Bibas comes from a renowned Likud family and is the chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities, the powerful umbrella organization for mayors across Israel.

Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar noted the public’s anger and called for a broad unity government after the war, but stopped short of naming Netanyahu in that context or saying there should be an election.

“Netanyahu will have to call an early election after the war; we cannot go on like this anymore,” Labor Minister Yoav Ben-Tzur of Shas said earlier this month, before walking back the comments and saying they were “taken out of context.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has avoided directly taking responsibility for the failures leading up to the Oct. 7 massacre and the war in Gaza.

“The whole question will be addressed after the war,” he told CNN in remarks similar to what he has said repeatedly in English and Hebrew in recent weeks. “It’s a question that needs to be asked…We’re going to answer all these questions – including me. Right now we need to unite the country for one purpose: to achieve victory.”

Professor Amichai Cohen of the Israel Democracy Institute and Ono Academic College explained that, legally, “it’s not entirely clear what responsibility means.”

Cohen pointed out that Netanyahu ally and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana once said of the Meron disaster in which dozens of people were killed in a stampede — that took place while he was public security minister — that he is responsible, but not culpable.

“In Israel, there is no rule of resigning immediately when you take responsibility,” Cohen said.

A national commission of inquiry, of the kind set up after the Yom Kippur War, could make it easier for politicians to avoid responsibility, Cohen argued.

Commissions of inquiry are meant to investigate systemic problems, not assign personal responsibility. They also take a long time, allowing those who testify to come up with different narratives for the events, he explained.

“After the Yom Kippur War…the politicians stayed and the responsibility was put on the army. A very strong civil movement was needed for the prime minister and defense minister to resign, and it took years to change the ruling party,” he recounted.

For those who seek Netanyahu’s removal, the question remains how that would happen.

Israel has “constructive no-confidence motions,” by which a majority of the Knesset would have to agree not only to end the current government, but on who would be the new prime minister. Despite Lapid and Bibas’ efforts to enlist Likudniks, this would likely prove difficult.

Another way to bring a government down is for it not to pass a budget, but this coalition passed one that will last until 2025.

The usual path to a new election is a bill to disperse the Knesset and call an election, which would also require a majority of the legislature.

The current government is polling at 19%, which Cohen said is lower than any in Israel’s history. Most respondents (58%) to that Channel 12 poll said there should be an election after the war, and 13% called for a new government led by Likud without an election.

“Politicians need the public’s trust, and if the public doesn’t trust them, then they need to resign or have an election. They can’t continue like this,” Cohen argued.

At the same time, if 61 out of the coalition’s 64 members want to stay together, then there is nothing that can legally be done to make them go, no matter how bad the polls or how big the protests get. And coalition MKs may be more motivated to sit tight if they think they’re likely to lose an election. 

Netanyahu has proven highly resistant over the years to calls for him to quit, something he did not do when he was indicted on corruption charges, nor when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets over judicial reform earlier this year, nor when Israel went to five consecutive elections in the space of a few years. 

But he retained the support of his party – one of the few in Israel that chooses its leader through a primary – and won multiple elections in that time.

Whether most Likud MKs and ministers have not spoken out because they still support Netanyahu or because they view it as inappropriate during wartime remains to be seen. 

Distal-Atbaryan, for her part, wrote in the leaked text messages that she is waiting for the war to end before “opening everything.”

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