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Gaza in the centre of Netanyahu’s coalition woes

Nov 20,2018 - Last updated at Nov 20,2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to save his right-wing ruling coalition by the skin of his teeth following a tumultuous week that saw a breakout of violence in Gaza, a tense truce resulting in the resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in protest. The departure of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party left Netanyahu with a one-seat majority in the 120 seat Knesset.

The ensuing crisis prompted Netanyahu’s far-right partner and potential rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is the leader of Habayit Hayehudi Party, to issue an ultimatum: Either claim the coveted defence portfolio or withdraw from the government, thus forcing a snap general election. Over the weekend it appeared that Israel was indeed heading towards an early election. But a seasoned Netanyahu rejected Bennett’s demand and took over the defence ministry himself. Furthermore, he appealed to the Israeli public saying that early elections would be “a historic mistake”, that it would repeat the disaster of Oslo and the disaster of the [second] Intifada.

By Monday it seemed that Netanyahu’s gambit had worked. In a joint press conference, Bennett and party member Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced that they will remain in the government but not before slamming the prime minister’s security policy, most notably over Gaza.

A week is a long time in Israeli politics and Netanyahu, who is leading his fourth coalition government, knows how to manoeuvre out of trouble. His partners are also his main political opponents since Israeli voters began veering to the right, thus denying centre and leftist parties a chance to challenge the Likud leader. Polls have been consistent in showing that if elections are held Netanyahu is most likely to emerge as winner. But elections, early or otherwise, would bring new players to the political scene; small far right and religious parties that he needs to form a governing coalition.

It is the post-elections period; one of blackmail and arm wrestling, that would prove hectic for Netanyahu. He, therefore, would prefer to wait until next November, but he also knows that maintaining a one-seat majority will prove difficult. At best, he would like to keep his governing coalition in power for few more weeks; preferably until the end of the year. Why? The Gaza debacle has eroded his popularity and that of his partners. 

While Netanyahu was in Paris attending the Armistice celebrations, Lieberman authorised a commando operation into Gaza apparently to kidnap a leading Hamas military commander. The operation took place a day after Hamas and Israel began implementing a short-term truce deal that allowed Qatari funds and oil to enter the beleaguered Gaza Strip. Egypt had been mediating between the two sides for months and by November 11 it appeared that a deal was reached. So it was strange that Israel would carry out a commando stint, which went all wrong, in the wake of the truce. As a result a senior Israeli officer was killed as well as a number of Hamas fighters.

The reaction was extreme from both sides. Israeli jets bombed Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets and in an unusual response the military wings of both rained hundreds of rockets on neighbouring Israeli towns and settlements. At one point Hamas launched a guided missile that destroyed an Israeli bus close to the borders. Moreover, a missile was fired at the strategic port city of Ashkelon, killing one civilian but resulting in sizeable destruction. Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar warned Israel not to test the resistance group again, adding that Tel Aviv would be the next target. It was the most serious confrontation since Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014.

Last minute interventions by Egypt and Qatar and Netanyahu’s decision not to let the crisis escalate succeeded in restoring quiet. But the crisis claimed its first political victim; Lieberman, whose ambition to replace Netanyahu has all but collapsed. Thousands of Israelis from areas near Gaza demonstrated against the government for failing to contain Hamas and Netanyahu understood the danger of linking early elections to waging war on the strip.

The possibility of snap elections, which could take place in March or April next year, may claim another casualty: President Donald Trump’s regional peace plan. According to various reports, the US president will be briefed on the details of the plan within days by his son-in-law Jared Kushner in preparation for a possible unveiling before the end of the year. In reality, Netanyahu and his far-right partners are not in a hurry to deal with the controversial plan. But while the Israeli government is safe, for now, Netanyahu may still choose to call for snap elections once he decides that the time is ripe. By doing so he may be trying to avoid possible indictment over corruption charges, extend his political chances while forcing Trump to put his plan on hold.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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