Prime Minister Netanyahu’s popularity slipping but Israelis see no alternative
Growing tensions within Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition have all but paralyzed the legislative process, with the major point of contention being a law that would grant a sitting prime minister immunity from prosecution.
It comes as Netanyahu is facing a series of corruption investigations which has led him to being questioned under caution several times. Speaking in Jerusalem, the premier insisted he does not support what has been dubbed the “French law”—as it resembles a law in France—which would shield a sitting prime minister from police probes relating to petty crimes.
“Regarding the French Law, I am stating here clearly: I am not interested in any law relating to ongoing investigations involving me or ones that don’t relate to me,” the prime minister said at a meeting of Likud ministers.
The statement came after a reported bitter exchange between Israeli coalition chairman and Likud parliamentarian David Bitan, a close Netanyahu confidante, and two other ministers from the premier’s party—Ze’ev Elkin and Yuval Steinitz—who urged Bitan to tone down his rhetoric.
Bitan has sharply criticized the Jewish Home party, which is part of the governing coalition and headed by Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Naftali Bennett, for refusing to support the French law after allegedly promising to do so. Bitan said that the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which must approve bills before they move to parliament, would not consider any new legislation until the issue is resolved.
One of the bills put on hold is the “Greater Jerusalem” law, which seeks to incorporate nineteen West Bank Jewish communities into the Jerusalem municipality without formally annexing them. Palestinian officials have sharply opposed the proposal, considering it a first step towards annexing territory they say must be part of a future Palestinian state.
Israeli media reported that the US likewise objected to the bill and recommended that Israel hold off on moving ahead with it.
Most Israeli analysts do not believe that the sniping among Netanyahu’s coalition partners endangers the government.
“It’s a lot of noise but I don’t think it’s such a huge issue that it can’t be solved,” Gideon Rahat, a Professor of Political Science at Hebrew University, told The Media Line. “However, if Netanyahu wants to go to early elections, it could be the beginning of such a dynamic.”
There has been a lot of speculation that the premier is considering an early vote—currently scheduled for no later than November 2019—as such a move could shore up his standing ahead of any potential criminal indictment.
This comes as Netanyahu’s popularity appears to be dwindling, even as Israelis continue to view him as their most viable leader.
“Several polls have showed support for him slipping, but it does not appear to be catastrophic,” Yehuda Ben Meir, an analyst at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, contended to The Media Line. “But there is a feeling that he is losing his cool and his speeches are becoming shriller. He is also showing tiredness and disappointment.”
A recent poll by Walla News found that only one-third of Israelis believe that Netanyahu is best-suited to be prime minister, down from over fifty percent last year. The candidates most likely to succeed the premier, centrist Yesh Atid party head Yair Lapid and Opposition Leader Avi Gabbay, scored even lower with just 11 percent each.
More than a quarter of respondents said that nobody had the right qualities for the job.
For now, Netanyahu’s job thus appears safe. In power since 2009 (in addition to a stint as premier from 1996-1999), he is closing in on David Ben Gurion’s record for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. And Netanyahu’s supporters say he will stay in office as long as he can.