Political pundits were already choosing possible dates in the spring for new elections after Avigdor Liberman’s dramatic decision on November 14 to resign as defense minister and pull his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition left Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a wafer-thin majority of only 61 out of 120 Knesset members.
It was expected that Naftali Bennett, head of Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), would follow suit, forcing early elections, after Netanyahu refused the party’s ultimatum to appoint Bennett as Liberman’s successor
. However, in a press conference on November19, Bennett, together with Bayit Yehudi’s No. 2, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, made an embarrassing climb down, announcing they would remain in the Netanyahu government.
“I don’t know how long this government can last with only 61 Knesset members – this will be an uphill battle. But we’re willing to give it a try,” Bennett said. “If the government chooses the right path, and acts like a true right-wing government, then it’s worth a try. The ball is in the prime minister’s court.”
Netanyahu had himself pushed for early elections on two separate occasions during the term of the current government, only to be thwarted by his coalition partners. But this time, citing grave security concerns, he said that the coalition must remain in power and complete its term until November 2019.
“In such a period you don’t topple a government, in such a period you don’t go to elections,” he said in an address broadcast live on Israel’s main news channels, without specifying what security threats he was referring to.
The government crisis was prompted by the most serious escalation in the south since the 2014 Gaza war left Israel and Hamas on the brink of another major conflagration.
On November 11, an Israeli officer was killed along with seven Palestinian fighters, including a Hamas regional commander, in an exchange of fire after an Israeli reconnaissance unit was discovered making its way back to the border following a covert operation close to the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis.
Following the clash, Hamas and the other Gaza militias fired some 460 projectiles into southern Israel in a 25-hour period, while Israel targeted some 160 sites across the Gaza Strip.
A Palestinian laborer working in Israel was killed when a rocket slammed into an Ashkelon apartment building. Some 30 Israelis were wounded in the cross-border fire. Six Palestinians were killed – four of them gunmen.
Netanyahu’s decision to accept the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire to end the fighting led to Liberman’s resignation and the withdrawal of his five-member Yisrael Beytenu faction from the coalition.
“As far as I’m concerned, what happened – the truce combined with the efforts to reach a long-term arrangement with Hamas – is capitulating to terror. It has no other meaning,” Liberman said in an extraordinary news conference.
He claimed that in negotiating with Hamas, Israel was “buying short-term quiet, with the price being severe long-term damage to national security.” Liberman also criticized the military’s response to the rocket barrage into southern Israel.
“To put it mildly, our response was drastically lacking after 500 rockets were fired at us,” he said.
The outgoing defense minister also said he fundamentally disagreed with the prime minister on a number of key issues, including the government’s approval for 15 million dollars to be transferred in cash from the Qatari government to Hamas.
“I opposed it. The prime minister needed to write an executive order for it to go above my head,” Liberman claimed, saying that the money went to the families of Hamas activists killed in border clashes with Israeli troops and for Hamas to produce rockets.
He said he had decided to quit because “I could not remain in office and still be able to look residents of the south in the eyes.”
The leaders of two coalition parties, Moshe Kahlon from Kulanu and Shas’s Aryeh Deri, called for early elections following Liberman’s resignation but the prime minister – who took the defense portfolio for himself – made clear that his priority was to stabilize the government.
Responding to the Bayit Yehudi ultimatum to appoint Bennett defense minister, Netanyahu called on his coalition partners not to force early elections, invoking a “complex” security situation as well as past incidents in which right-wing governments were replaced by left-wing governments.
Netanyahu appealed to the citizens of Israel and warned them against believing that his policies toward Hamas were weak, as claimed by some members of the coalition as well as the opposition.
“I know that there is criticism of the state’s security policy,” he said. “I understand how you feel. Some of the criticism stems from the fact that not everything that senior security establishment officials see can be revealed. You see a partial picture of a broad campaign. I am committed to complete it so as to deliver security to the residents of the south. We will overcome our enemies. And I tell you in advance, it will require sacrifice.”
His appeal seemed to do the trick although some accused him of manufacturing an imaginary security crisis to justify clinging on to power.
The following morning, Bennett declared that Bayit Yehudi would remain in the coalition, at least for now, even though he launched a scathing attack on the prime minister’s security policy.
Bennett claimed that Israel, under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, had lost its power of deterrence.
“Hamas and Hezbollah grow more emboldened by the day because they believe we’re afraid to confront them,” he said. “What the prime minister calls ‘prudence’ is perceived by our enemies as hesitation and weakness – that’s a very fine line.”
The Likud and the right-wing bloc as a whole remain buoyant in the polls and the left/center bloc still lacks a politician to mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu. It therefore remains somewhat of a mystery why the prime minister was so reluctant to call an early election, preferring to soldier on with such a slim Knesset majority.
Netanyahu may believe that his reputation as Mr. Security was badly tarnished by November’s Gaza violence. Angry residents of Sderot, representing the typical Likud base, took to the streets, burned tires and denounced the ceasefire with Hamas. Residents of the south protested at major intersections and in Tel Aviv demanding an end to the periodic rocket fire.
Another factor in the decision-making process is the corruption cases hanging over Netanyahu’s head.
It appears that Netanyahu would like to be the prime minister when the attorney general decides, probably early next year, whether to indict him on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. If he is indicted, it is expected that some coalition partners will urge him to step down.
Conventional wisdom holds that Netanyahu would prefer to face this challenge as a sitting prime minister and a relatively popular leader, rather than a politician in the midst of an election campaign.
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