Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the members of the media in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)
The resignation of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister and the departure of his party from the coalition have led to a chain of reactions and speculations around the question of whether the most right-wing - religious government Israel has had to date is about to break up despite the fact that it formally still has the support of 61 out of the 120 Knesset members, and whether early elections will be held sooner rather than later.
A majority in the Knesset seems to favor early elections by the end of March.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose approach to early elections has been volatile in the last half year, seems to be in favor of late May if early elections prove to be unavoidable. Netanyahu’s reasons for this preference appear to be that the security situation in the South is still unstable, that the expected decision of the attorney general regarding his indictment on various charges is as yet unclear (apparently Netanyahu believes that there is a chance that Avichai Mandelblit will decide against an indictment), his desire to complete the appointments of the new IDF chief of staff and police chief before the elections, and because it is assumed that he would like the elections to take place after Israel’s 71st Independence Day celebrations, and the Eurovision spectacle, both of which will serve his personal aggrandizement.
At the same time, messages have been sent out by Netanyahu in the direction of Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon to the effect that “one must avoid breaking up a right-wing government,” and this because Kachlon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett (who would like to inherit the defense portfolio if the government continues to serve) argue that a narrow government is not really an option because there are at least five coalition MKs who cannot be relied on to vote with the coalition on critical issues.
Time and again this government has been referred to by its supporters as “the best possible government,” which leads to the question: “best” under what criteria? Best for the largest number of Israel’s citizens or inhabitants? Best in terms of resolving the country’s basic, overall problems? Best in terms of moving toward a resolution of Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors – not least of all with the Palestinians? Best for preserving Israel’s democratic foundations and pluralistic nature? Best for uniting the various population groups in Israel and closing social and economic gaps among them? Best for those who believe that Israel should strive to annex Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip? Best for those who wish Israel to be Jewish in the Orthodox religious sense, rather than as the nation-state of all the Jews, irrespective of their religious practice or absence thereof? Best in terms of destroying Israel’s old liberal, predominantly Ashkenazi elite groups? Best in terms of ensuring generous funding for specific population groups – i.e. haredim, settlers in Judea and Samaria, bodies engaged in religionization? Best in order to perpetuate Netanyahu’s rule?
It is not difficult to guess what Netanyahu is referring to when he says that one must avoid breaking up a right-wing government, but is the current political crisis really about the preservation of the right-wing-religious coalition? The immediate background is the support given by the cabinet to Netanyahu’s decision to reach a ceasefire agreement with the Hamas in Gaza rather than to pursue a decisive military operation against it – a decision which Netanyahu reached on the basis of the IDF’s position and certain international circumstances that he apparently explained to the Cabinet members, but of which the public has only heard rumors (something to do with Putin’s policy in Lebanon).
The cabinet did not vote on the issue, but it has been reported that Liberman, Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and Minister of the Environment and Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin, openly opposed Netanyahu’s decision, because they consider a ceasefire to be giving in to Hamas terrorism.
Formally, Liberman decided to resign on grounds that Netanyahu didn’t pay heed to his opinions as defense minister. There is no doubt that his position was frustrating, and the ongoing acrimonious exchange of accusations with Bennett as to who is to blame for Israel’s indecisive and relatively ineffective activities in Gaza wasn’t gaining him any points. But the real reason seems to be that his holding the position of defense minister of wasn’t having a positive effect on support for his party, Yisrael Beitenu, and he felt that remaining in the government under the current circumstances wasn’t serving him electorally.
Liberman’s dilemma was symptomatic of the dilemmas faced time and again by the other coalition members, only the others decided not to leave the coalition when their wishes were not fulfilled. Thus United Torah Judaism (or at least part of it) has not left the coalition as a result of deliberate foot-dragging in passing the Enlistment Law (i.e. the law that will enable haredi youths not to enlist, without their yeshivot suffering financially, and themselves facing punishment). It will be interesting to see now how the Bayit Yehudi will react if Netanyahu does not grant Bennett the defense ministry as a toy until the elections actually take place.
Most of the commentators agree that Netanyahu will prefer to hold the ministry (and thus serve as prime minister, foreign affairs minister, health minister and defense minister simultaneously) rather than give in to Bennett, so at the moment it looks like a reckless game of “chicken,” but who knows.
How sad it is that creating coalition crises on sectorial, personal and political grounds has turned into a regular ritual in our right-wing-religious government. The novelty in Liberman’s case is that he did not threaten but simply left – though perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised, given the fact that he has resigned several government and ministerial posts before, each time after serving for less than two years.
But where is Netanyahu at fault? He is at fault because since the establishment of the current government he has been inclined to give in to the whims of his coalition partners, for the sake of “industrial quiet,” even over issues that he disagrees with them on. Thus, he gave in to the haredim over the issue of Reform and Conservative prayers at the Western Wall, and over surrogacy for gay men, and to anti-democratic legislation initiatives by members of his own party, and by the Bayit Yehudi, that in the past he rejected because he understood that they would harm Israel’s status in the world, and relations with the Diaspora.
One of the few issues on which Netanyahu demanded full acquiescence by his coalition partners to his own initiatives is the media – an issue he is interested in for personal rather than ideological reasons.
The current case of the agreement with the Hamas is another rare case of Netanyahu putting his foot down and demanding approval for his decision. The irony of this whole episode is that many right-wingers – including Liberman and Bennett – criticize Netanyahu’s decision as being “left-wing” and defeatist.
Netanyahu might really believe that it is important to avoid breaking up a right-wing government – any right-wing government. I would say that at this stage it is vital that this particular right-wing-religious government be brought down, not least of all because of its malfunctioning.
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