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Netanyahu fighting to maintain coalition government

  • Paula
For most of this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to get his coalition partners to agree to early elections. These would have helped him capitalise on his Likud party – and particularly his own – strong showing in the polls.
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 22, 2018

Early elections would have pre-empted the corruption indictments against him that are now expected in the first quarter of next year. If he is charged, there will inevitably be calls for him to step down. Indeed, a new four-year-mandate instead of the slightly less than-one year he currently holds would have served him well.

This week, however, Netanyahu was the one urging coalition partners not to jump ship. So what changed? In one word – Gaza. And, more specifically, Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel agree to a truce even after Hamas launched about 460 rockets and mortars at the Jewish state in less than 48 hours. This was the heaviest barrage since the two sides fought a war in 2014.

To his right-wing support base, the prime minister’s behaviour was indecisive and weak; many wanted him to return fire with fire.

His tough-guy image took a hammering and as a result, Likud has dipped in the polls. The best thing now, Netanyahu knows, is for time to pass so that his supporters can forget their frustration and disappointment.

Hence, ironically, it’s Netanyahu who now needs an election to take place as late as possible. It’s not by chance that he’s given himself the defence-minister portfolio, the first time ever in his long political career.

He must re-convince the Israeli public of his security credentials in coming months as the country heads towards elections.

Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman played to public anger by last week announcing his resignation in protest against Israel’s acceptance of the informal truce with Hamas. It’s the second time in less than five years that Lieberman has resigned over Israel’s action – or as he argues, inaction – in Gaza. The last time was on the eve of the previous Gaza war when, then as foreign minister, he complained that Israel’s reaction to rocket attacks from Gaza had been weak and insufficient.

But Lieberman was banking on other parties following suit. For a few days it looked like they would, and Netanyahu’s coalition government hung in the balance.

Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beytenu, has been flailing for some time, and while its popularity spiked in the immediate aftermath of his resignation, it’s likely to be short-lived.

Holding new elections as soon as possible would have been best for him, but other coalition partners are remaining on board. Naftali Bennett who heads the third largest coalition party, the Jewish Home party, initially issued Netanyahu with an ultimatum to make him defence minister or he’d follow in Lieberman’s footsteps.

Bennett has long criticised Netanyahu’s reluctance to respond more forcefully to Gaza rocket attacks, and supports ground incursions into the strip.

But Netanyahu’s answer was that he intended to keep the defence portfolio for himself. That is in addition to the foreign and health ministries he currently heads. “In the light of the critical challenges currently facing the State of Israel... We are in a particularly complex security situation. At times like these, you do not overthrow a government. It’s irresponsible,” said Netanyahu. Bennett eventually capitulated.

Explaining his about-face, Bennett argued that it was not a time for party politics, and in the interests of Israel’s security, he would stay in the coalition. However, opposition parliamentary members claim Bennett’s political aspirations were at play. Some even suggest a private deal was cut between the two leaders. It’s no secret Bennett has his eye on the premiership (as do so many other politicians).

Still, Bennett didn’t agree to stay in the coalition without a price. He’s likely to push for more right-wing legislation and action in coming weeks, especially as he feels the government has lost its right-wing character.

“The security situation today is not more dangerous than what it was a few months ago,” he said. However, he criticised the government for waiting too long to take legal action because it was afraid to be caught in legal entanglements.

He cited the ongoing evacuation of the illegal Arab outpost of Khan al-Ahmar, legislation to stop the generous salaries paid to terrorists by the Palestinian Authority, and the demolition of terrorists’ homes. In all three cases, Bennett is demanding action.

In a nutshell, Bennett feels the government is hesitant in its actions, and thus emboldens Hamas and Hezbollah. “What Netanyahu describes as ‘responsibility’ is often perceived by our enemies as hesitancy, and the line between the two is thin,” he said.

Certainly, now would not be the right time for the coalition to fall apart. Hamas is watching Jerusalem’s every move, and is celebrating Lieberman’s resignation as a success in potentially toppling Netanyahu’s fourth government.

Observers are concerned that self-satisfied Palestinian leaders could embark on further military provocation against Israel. What will happen in the future will in part be determined by Hamas’ behaviour. Will it abide with the ceasefire or continue with incendiary kites and rockets, forcing Israel – read Netanyahu – to respond?

The prime minister is trying to avoid this, not least because of the lives that will be lost, but also because, he argues, it’s unlikely that a long-term peace will follow. The Gaza front will haunt his political chances as the country gears up for another parliamentary election.

Elections are formally set for November 2019. They could conceivably take place any time between late February and early November. That’s a span of just nine months, but in Israeli politics, nine months can be a lifetime.

In the meantime, Netanyahu’s government will continue to cling to a one-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset (Parliament), and the prime minister will continue to face coalition crises – the last of which is certainly far from over.

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