Analysis: How Gaza rocked the government and its defense minister

What is in store from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and when might he call elections?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) at the scene of a truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem, January 8, 2017 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) at the scene of a truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem, January 8, 2017
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
The worst blow that Israel suffered in the latest escalation with the Hamas was a political one. We could mock Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s resignation, and say it was an obvious political trick. We’d be right: after all, Liberman had done the same trick so many times in the past. You can never tell why he chooses to join the government or why he resigns. Liberman is always talking about principles, but history proves that his principles are flexible when needed. That’s something Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu all learned, each in his own turn.
This time, Liberman created two difficult problems – one is political, the other national with a political price. Let’s start with the second one: the defense minister lifted Israel’s car hood and exposed the interior for all to see. That interior reveals how shameful the prime minister’s decision making process can be. Liberman actually admitted that it was all a lie. He had tried to prevent all of Israel’s recent moves and Netanyahu went right over his head: with the money, with the ceasefire, with political measures... He went so far over his head that Liberman’s neck broke.
Liberman had exposed the culture of lies which Netanyahu’s administration had developed over the last few years. The briefings and the attempt to present a united cabinet regarding the ceasefire were all bells and whistles. If Liberman was in favor of the ceasefire, why did he quit? If Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked were in favor of the ceasefire, why do they claim otherwise? And whose word are we supposed to believe?
BUT THE REAL national damage is the fact that the citizens of Israel now have more reason to trust Nasrallah and Hamas than the Prime Minister’s Office and the IDF spokesman. The truth is that one can make tough calls going against public opinion – as the prime minister had said over the grave of Ben-Gurion. The question is how. The question is also this: who do you choose to cheat and deceive: Hamas or the people of Sderot? That is a breach of trust that’s hard to mend.
Take for instance IDF spokesman Ronen Manelis. An honest and modest officer who was placed in his role by the Chief of General Staff, with no previous media experience. During this week’s 48 hours of rocket fire and explosions, he posted on Twitter a series of arrogant messages. “Hamas is leading the Gaza Strip on a path to destruction. In the next few hours, it will feel the full force of the IDF response,” he wrote Monday evening, after hundreds of rockets were launched from Gaza. Destruction – really? Full force? Hamas saw it as weakness, as a hole in the government’s credibility.
Furthermore, the young Israelis who live near the Gaza Strip and suffer those rockets are now asking themselves whether next year, when their time to join the IDF comes, this will be the guideline: a culture of arrogance and empty words. Little did Manelis know that at the same hour, his chief of staff was recommending that the prime minister contain the event and strive for a ceasefire.
Manelis went on: “I hear tweeting from the bunkers in Gaza. They should think about the tweet that will explain their disaster to the people of Gaza.” A few hours, later the IDF stopped shooting. Hamas put down their weapons and so did Israel – and so should have Manelis. A public that can’t trust its army will have a hard time supporting a confrontation or a solution to one.
In his political wake, Liberman left behind proof of the cabinet’s lie. That problem has a heavy political price. The series of civilian protests in the South were a spontaneous expression of disappointment and pain. We haven’t seen people yelling “Bibi go home” in many, many years. That’s no joke. It’s a blow to Netanyahu’s greatest asset: his experience and his image as the responsible leader. Add to that the “Submarine Affair,” the indictments and all the dirt, and you’ve got a personal political problem, too.
THE SECOND problem is political survival – and the elections. The attempts at blackmail had already begun, and we’re just getting started. Education Minister Naftali Bennett did not hesitate to immediately demand Liberman’s role. And he had full support from his party. Bayit Yehudi knew what it was doing: if Netanyahu is willing to pass 15 million dollars in cash, he’s open to extortion.
Politically, it makes perfect sense. Give Bennett the Defense Ministry or get ready for elections; Netanyahu is vulnerable, with a small coalition of only 61 members. But in its essence it makes no sense at all. Why would you replace one defense minister – who claimed he wanted to be more forceful, but was stopped by the Prime Minister – with another one who wants to go even farther? And all of that shortly before an election?
Netanyahu knows exactly how that scenario would play out. Any action he would choose not to approve will instantly be leaked to the press; any forceful move he holds back will be used by Bennett to present him as left-wing. There doesn’t necessarily need to be complete trust between a prime minister and a defense minister, but a certain amount of credibility is needed. And it was lost during this last round with Gaza.
It’s an appointment that would defy all political logic. Bennett – whose creative ideas on how to handle Gaza the prime minister didn’t even want to discuss – as defense minister? As the one making decisions in the months leading up to elections? These are decision about closures, curfews, evacuating Khan al-Ahmar and the northern frontier. Netanyahu looks at Bennett and becomes dizzy. He would prefer to keep the defense chair for himself.
Except that’s a problematic option, too. For one thing, it is a complete distortion of representational democracy for one man to be prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister. It would earn him the title he’s been hearing lately, ‘the Caesar from Caesarea.’
SHOULD NETANYAHU give up his role as foreign minister for defense, it would mean giving up his political bulletproof vest. That was previous defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s function until Liberman came along: Ya’alon would talk about coming to a decision in the submarine affair; Netanyahu would deny.
There are also a few Likud ministers who would not like it one bit to see Bennett rushed to the job, like ministers Israel Katz, or Gilad Erdan – or Yuval Steinitz, who’s already used to Netanyahu’s style.
Then there’s the option of Yoav Galant. He seems to fit the description the most. He has rich, military experience and he will do anything Netanyahu asks of him. The problem is Moshe Kahlon: if he perceives it as a personal move against him, he will do anything he can to stop it.
But the point is that the whole thing is just a symptom to a bigger problem. In a 61-member coalition, every knesset member is the deciding vote. Everyone and anyone can demand and extort, from Oren Hazan to Bezalel Smotrich. Netanyahu’s weakened leadership could be dragged around like a mop. That is not a good position to be in to prepare for possible indictments.
It also goes hand in hand with things said by a senior minister recently, before Liberman quit: that party leaders don’t even take Netanyahu into account anymore. He failed to bring them together in a meeting for weeks. Yaakov Litzman is disgruntled, Aryeh Deri is angry, Kahlon isn’t giving him the time of day and Bennett is already plotting the next move that could stop Netanyahu from stealing his votes.
Any time wasted in deciding to move the elections ahead would carry a heavy political price for Netanyahu. He prefers to drag it around so he doesn’t come too close to losing to Hamas, as the right-wing sees it – but it could also mean dragging himself through a humiliating and agonizing political path.
The cold analysis says that Netanyahu has to go for early elections. But a senior political figure recently noted that the prime minister’s problem is that even when he chooses the cold analysis, he tends to take the long, hard, harmful path – before making the sharp, short decision.
The author is an anchor and Chief Political Analyst for Reshet 13.