Political Upheaval in Israel
By Sarah Ann Haves
After months of secret negotiations with interlocutors in the Arab world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees a possible comprehensive regional peace deal on the horizon. In order to begin public negotiations to secure such a deal, Netanyahu has realized that his razor thin coalition majority of 61 MK’s out of 120 Knesset members is a liability for him.
Since the formation of his new government a year ago, Netanyahu has been trying to widen his governing coalition with no success… until now. He has held onto several key ministry portfolios, hoping to offer these posts to prospective members of the Israeli Opposition who want to become part of his government. The Foreign Affairs, Communications, Regional Cooperation, and Economy and Industry portfolios are still under his leadership.
Reportedly, Netanyahu met with Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog over the past several months, expecting it might lead to a national unity government. The two men met privately on several occasions, sharing their common vision to secure a peace deal with Arab states in the region, including a working agreement on a revision of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. It appears that members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, as well as members of Herzog’s Zionist Union Party did not want Herzog to join the government and fought it aggressively.
While there was much in-fighting within both political parties, Herzog’s insistence on multiple portfolios (perhaps as many as 18) could not be met by Netanyahu without causing instability in his current narrow coalition. However, the media seemed to signal that a deal with Herzog was imminent.
Yisrael Beytenu leader, Avigdor Liberman, who had been denying he had any interest in joining Netanyahu’s government over the past year, suddenly had a change of heart when he thought Herzog was about to sign on the dotted line. Some Likud members convinced Liberman that he would be a better partner in the current coalition, and he began sending Netanyahu signals of his interest. Soon, Liberman was holding a press conference, demanding a face-to-face meeting with Netanyahu, to secure a deal.
|[Yalon] chose not
to leave the
While this was going on, Netanyahu was having private and public disagreements with his popular and highly capable Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. Suddenly, the appearance of Liberman at the coalition negotiating table, demanding the Defense Ministry portfolio, humiliated Yaalon. Netanyahu offered Yaalon the Foreign Ministry portfolio, but he resigned instead. He chose not to leave the government quietly. Yaalon spoke negatively about Netanyahu in his resignation speech, questioning the Prime Minister’s character and confessing he had lost faith in Bibi.
Yaalon’s departure caused a rift in Likud, and accusations throughout Israel, that the addition of Yisrael Beytenu members into the coalition would create the strongest right-wing nationalistic government in the history of the state.
Furthermore, Liberman’s lack of military experience has caused anxiety among some Israelis who put national security above all other concerns. They are used to decorated army generals securing that post. For many Israelis, Yaalon was a man of integrity and courage who they could trust to keep their families safe. To his credit, Yaalon was said to have crushed the “knife Intifada,” which has decreased in strength over the past two months. Though incidents are still occurring, they are nothing compared to the heightened period of terror attacks between October 2015 and March 2016.
The reason for a political shuffle at this point in time is that Netanyahu sees an opportunity for a comprehensive Arab peace deal and feels he cannot accomplish that goal with a narrow coalition. Furthermore, on a domestic level, with such a limited number of MK’s in his government, he cannot guarantee the passage of the Israeli two-year budget. (In Israeli politics if the budget doesn’t pass, the government falls).
Some critics say that Netanyahu has been more concerned with expanding his government than focused on who will sit in which office once the shuffling is complete.
Meanwhile, for those who have accused Liberman of lacking defense experience, the counter argument has been that Liberman attended countless security briefings as a member of previous governments. A fresh new perspective from someone outside the traditional defense establishment is being welcomed by some Israelis, but not by most, especially those who rely heavily on experienced generals in the IDF.
Liberman had a bone to pick with Netanyahu and Yaalon over the 2014 Gaza War. He insisted, at the time, that the government wipe out Hamas. Netanyahu, heeding the advice of Yaalon and his Chief of Staff Benny Gantz decided to end that war, instead, and enter into a truce with Hamas. This caused contention between Liberman and Netanyahu, and until now, Liberman was willing to sit in the Opposition.
With Liberman at the helm of the Defense Ministry in the near future, Hamas will be put on notice. Any violation of the current truce will be met with harsh Israeli military power. Cross-border tunnels into Israeli territory will be treated as a “0” tolerance policy. Hamas missile launchings into border communities could ignite war quickly under Liberman’s command, and may result in a long battle, as well as in the potential demise of Hamas.
At this point in time, it appears that Netanyahu will continue to keep the Foreign Affairs portfolio for himself. He has made it clear that he will not give up trying to form a national unity government. It is possible that he will be able to convince Herzog and his few supporters left in the Zionist Union, to jump ship and join the Netanyahu coalition. Several members of the Zionist Union have already criticized Herzog, and want to unseat him as party chairman, because of his perceived weakness in compromising his party’s values to strengthen Netanyahu’s government. These “rebels” are calling for Herzog’s resignation and want early party elections to challenge his leadership.
For the most part, Herzog has limited his criticism of Netanyahu. Several analysts think he is still vying for a position in the government, especially with the prospect on the horizon of an historic peace agreement with Arab states.
As Liberman’s party signs the final deal for the coalition to expand, what follows may be a season of concentration on diplomatic and domestic issues, not military ones. This should give Liberman time to study security assessments from IDF generals, including Yaalon who has said he would be willing to brief Liberman if he requests his assistance.
In the meantime, the expanded right-wing coalition should have fewer problems passing some controversial bills into law at the Knesset related to reinforcing the Jewishness of the state. Other bills will look to crack down on terrorists by instituting the death penalty. The Ministry of Justice might try to strengthen Israel’s military rule of law over the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), with the support of government ministers who aim to keep as much of the land as possible under Israeli control.
are brewing the perfect
storm of discontent.
What is currently brewing in Israeli Opposition circles and among left-wing supporters is the perfect storm of discontent. Their voices will get louder and their protests will expand as they look for every opportunity possible to bring down the Netanyahu government.
Distancing himself from them, Netanyahu will press on towards a regional peace deal, counting on the 66 MK’s in his expanded coalition to support his diplomatic efforts. Furthermore, with a ray of hope that someday his vision for a national unity government will come to pass, Netanyahu is expected to surpass former Prime Minister Ben Gurion as the longest ruling Prime Minister in the history of the Jewish State.
“Later on, Jabez called on the God of Israel, asking him, ‘…whether you would bless me again and again, enlarge my territory, keep your power with me, keep me from evil, and keep me from harm!’ And God granted what he had requested.” 1 Chronicles 4:10 (ISV)
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Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues in Israel and the nations.