Election fever raged briefly in Israel as a result of the resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman earlier this month, taking his party with him and leaving the current coalition with just a razor slim majority of 61 seats in a 120 seat parliament.
The trigger for Lieberman’s resignation threw into stark light, the dilemma that faces Israel in regards to Hamas and Gaza.
After nearly 500 rockets in 48 hours were launched against Israel’s civilian population, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has a consistent record of using military force only after other methods have failed, agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas.
What may appear as counter intuitive is in fact Netanyahu’s longstanding modus operandi, despite constantly being misread by his critics. The Prime Minister’s actions are far more cautious than those who rely solely on his rhetoric, expect.
As per usual Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett (head of the Jewish Home party), tried to outflank Netanyahu on the right. Both claiming that the ceasefire was a mistake and that there was no alternative to strong military action.
They were backed up by protesting residents from the south and an understandable dissatisfaction by the people living under the rocket fire itself. As undesirable as the consequences of military action would be, no-one really believes Hamas will keep the ceasefire and whilst military action will not permanently resolve the issue, it will probably buy some few years of better living conditions for the people living in the southern parts of Israel.
Netanyahu’s decision to agree to the ceasefire it should be noted, was strongly backed up by the military themselves.
It is hard to see how future such rocket fire will result in the same Israeli restraint.
Whilst Lieberman decided to leave the coalition, Bennett tried another tactic. He demanded the now vacated defence portfolio as the price of staying in the coalition, or he threatened, he would bring the government down.
The Prime Minister, who only days before was being questioned on his supposed weakness and when all pundits predicted early Israeli elections (which are not due until November 2019), came out strongly.
He faced down Bennett, denied him the defence ministry, keeping it for himself and dared him to bring the government down.
This leaves Israel in an unprecedented situation by the way, where the Prime Minister is also the Foreign Minister, the Defence Minister and the Health Minister.
Bennett capitulated in an abrupt about face and was content with Netanyahu merely saying he could be a suitable candidate for the position, without appointing him to it.
“During our conversation on Friday, I made it clear to the Prime Minister that I was not, in any way, shape or form, giving him an ultimatum, and accepted with appreciation his statement that he saw me as a worthy candidate for the Defence Minister position.”
However Bennett did claim that he had won something from Netanyahu saying:
“In his speech, (Netanyahu) promised the Israeli public to change paths, to lead to a dramatic change in security, to change his direction from the past ten years towards strength.”
It should be noted that this was indeed an odd statement in many ways. Bennett was not criticising Netanyahu just for the recent ceasefire, but for ten years of what Bennett called out as ongoing weakness by Netanyahu.
Which also begged the question of why Bennett had stood by for the last five years since he became the party leader and part of such a government whose actions – or lack of action – he so derided.
Bennett finished his speech by giving his qualified support and left the door open to leaving the coalition in future when he said:
“If the Prime Minister is serious about his intentions, and I want to believe his words last night, I hereby notify the prime minister—we are removing all of our political demands at this time and stand with you, ready to offer assistance.”
Ultimately the answer to why Bennett threatens but cannot deliver on his desired path is one simple fact.
And also explains why the other major coalition partner Kulanu, led by Moshe Kahlon, is still considering its options.
Everyone accepts that barring some legal event, it does not matter when the elections take place, the winner will be Netanyahu – again. The only question is who will become his junior coalition partners.
As long as the people still trust ‘Mr Security’, he will lead the next government just as he does this one.
The Israeli political system is quite unique in that it is a blend of a few different democratic models around the world. But one of the strangest quirks is the power it gives to the President of Israel. In this case, Ruby Rivlin, from the very same Likud party as the Prime Minister, but one of Netanyahu’s most earnest opponents.
As no party achieves a majority of 61 seats in its own right, it is up to the President to choose the leader of the party he feels has the best chance of forming a coalition.
For example, in 2009, then President Shimon Peres, invited Netanyahu as head of the Likud, to form a government even though the Tzipi Livni led Kadima party had achieved 1 more seat than Netanyahu.
Rumours abound that President Rivlin is considering a unique move. That after Netanyahu would potentially lead the Likud to victory, he – Rivlin – would invite someone else such as Gidon Sa’ar from the Likud, to form a government, bypassing Netanyahu.
Whether this has a remote chance of happening or not, Netanyahu is trying to push legislation through the Knesset before any election, which would force the President to invite only the leader of a party to form a government.
In any case we will see elections in Israel probably somewhere between March and November 2019.
A factor in when Netanyahu calls an election, if the timing is in his own hands, is President Trump and his ‘peace deal of the century’.
And the parallel is also true, the timing of the election may effect Trump’s ability to pursue ‘the deal’.
President Trump has repeatedly said that in the next stage he will be calling on Israel to make concessions, having given Israel the embassy move et al.
These concession may turn out to be something Netanyahu and Israel can easily live with, or they may be much more significant.
The Palestinian tactic of walking away before anything has been presented may either be very smart, forcing Trump into greater concessions to bring them back to the table, or a complete disaster for the Palestinians.
The Trump peace plan was relying on the backing of Saudi Arabia leading a Sunni Arab push to put pressure on the Palestinians. However, due to the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi the Saudis have suffered reputational damage and are currently in a much less comfortable position to put pressure on anyone.
This too can affect the timing of the plan’s release.
If the peace plan does call for extensive and painful concessions and is presented before or during an election campaign, it is likely to hurt Netanyahu.
So President Trump will have to consider the timing of the plan being made public and how that may or may not effect Netanyahu’s re-election chances. And whether or not that is indeed a consideration for him at all.
At the end of the day, only Netanyahu has the standing to bring Israel along to any plan that requires Israeli concessions of any magnitude – so that will be in Trump’s mind as well
Ironically, it has always been the so called ‘right wing’ in Israel that has delivered the greatest concessions – al la Begin, Sharon and Netanyahu himself.
There’s a lot on Netanyahu’s shoulders and he is being pulled in multiple directions. The electorate’s belief in his ability to better handle these issues than anyone else is why he is so far above any of his potential rivals in the polls.
And why an election seems unlikely to change very much at this point in time.
Dr. Ron Weiser AM is an Hon Life Member of the Zionist Federation of Australia Executive, and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.