Israel Pulse

Netanyahu may be facing his last stand

Article Summary
The fate of the Israeli coalition depends to a large extent on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

This article is being written at a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is hanging by a thread, its ultimate fate unknown. The prime minister himself is the one trying to push for snap elections, while his coalition partners are digging in and trying to prevent him from doing so.

The ultra-Orthodox draft crisis over amending the army enlistment law, which lit the fire that is running wild now, was not born yesterday. It has accompanied Israel ever since the inception of the state, and it has reached even higher peaks than now. The feud is now being waged between the ultra-Orthodox factions, who want to perpetuate the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from being drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beitenu faction, who insist on enforcing the draft. This issue could be solved now the same way as was done in the past: by a temporary compromise, on the way to a temporary arrangement, until the Supreme Court steps in again to set limits and open the struggle anew.

To the surprise of many in the political system, this local and resolvable crisis turned into an existential event last week, courtesy of Netanyahu and Liberman. Simultaneously, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon announced March 6 that he would resign if the state budget for 2019 does not pass in the Knesset by the end of the current session. At the moment, it is still not clear how things will play out, but what is clear is the fact that the prime minister could have resolved the crisis relatively easily, had he wanted to. The thing is, Netanyahu did not want to, because what he really wants is snap elections in June. Elections in June would enable him to reach the phase of indictment by the attorney general — if it comes to that — as a prime minister who was just re-elected with an overwhelming support of the public. According to the polls, Netanyahu would be re-elected to the premiership with an even greater majority than he received in 2015.

In the background of all this is the struggle over Netanyahu’s throne. Among the contenders are Education Minister Naftali Bennett, his sworn rival Liberman and Kahlon, who is hovering in the background. All three are currently not in the Likud; two of them are past veteran Likud members (Kahlon and Liberman). All three realize that in order to reach the premier’s throne, they must be members of the ruling party, the Likud, and not members of their current respective platforms. Kahlon is waiting for the “Day After Netanyahu” in order to return to the Likud. Bennett is trying to consolidate a plan for taking control of the Likud from the outside. And Liberman realizes that his Yisrael Beitenu party is a dead horse and he must somehow make his way back to the Likud if he wants to get anywhere (despite the fact that most of the Likud’s senior members don’t want him there). Likud senior members Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan and Gideon Saar will do anything to keep those three from joining the party. The only one who could cause that to happen is Netanyahu.

It is an open secret to everyone in Israel’s political system that Netanyahu and Liberman are in cahoots regarding the current ultra-Orthodox draft crisis. Liberman created the crisis when he firmly announced March 5 that should the new draft bill, as formulated by the ultra-Orthodox ministers, pass in the Knesset, he would resign from his position and from the coalition. Liberman’s intransigence is allowing Netanyahu to threaten a snap election. An educated guess is that Liberman and Netanyahu agreed on a secret deal according to which Liberman would return to the role of defense minister after elections, even if his party doesn’t do well in the elections. Perhaps he would even be appointed stand-in prime minister, a position that has not existed in recent Netanyahu governments so as not to create a “successor” to the prime minister in his political lifetime.

Under these circumstances, Netanyahu will try to return Liberman to the Likud after elections and then — if and when the prime minister is forced to resign if an indictment is served — Liberman would have a clear advantage over all the other contenders for Netanyahu’s throne, outside and inside the Likud. Ariel Sharon was another person who carried out such a maneuver in his time: He ingratiated himself with Netanyahu during the prime minister’s first term of office and was then appointed foreign minister. Sharon coordinated positions with Netanyahu prior to the signing of the Wye River summit in 1998. When Netanyahu lost the 1999 elections, Sharon was there to pick up the pieces, and became prime minister himself two years later.

It is no wonder that Netanyahu’s current coalition partners are furious. Bennett exploded March 11 when he openly attacked Netanyahu and announced that he would run for the premiership himself, should the prime minister drag the country into early elections for personal reasons. Kahlon made similar statements, but behind closed doors. Both Bennett and Kahlon had displayed exceptional loyalty to Netanyahu after the police recommended that he be tried in court for bribery: Bennett and Kahlon did not demand that Netanyahu resign, but publicly supported him even though they were criticized for doing so. Now Netanyahu is “paying them back” by trying to dismantle the coalition a year and a half early.

Bennett is terrified that Netanyahu will again steal away his party's seats, the way Netanyahu did in 2015, and Kahlon is also in dire straits. They both know that the right wing will unite behind Netanyahu in light of the “investigations persecution” (the narrative advanced by Netanyahu, claiming that he is persecuted by the police), and that could destroy their respective political careers. Under these circumstances, the coalition partners are trying to figure out how to thwart Netanyahu and Liberman’s plans. In these efforts, ultra-Orthodox Shas Leader Aryeh Deri also shares a large role because the Shas party is dwindling. Among all the coalition parties, Shas is the one that may not return to the Knesset in the next elections in light of the deep crisis the party is undergoing in the polls, and also due to the high electoral threshold.

The fate of the current coalition will be decided in the next 24 hours. It is Netanyahu’s decision, and it may have been already decided together with Liberman. These two men began their political lives together after Netanyahu took control of the Likud in 1993. Since then, they have quarreled, parted ways and also reconciled many times. Now they are renewing their historic alliance. Circumstances have again caused them to be dependent on one another. Netanyahu, besieged by criminal investigations, is desperate for recourse. Liberman failed to generate a massive, growing political support base, so now he needs rebooting. Their plot will come at the expense of all the other senior members of the political system. The struggle between the hawks, which will develop in the upcoming election campaign (assuming that elections are imminent), will be one of the most interesting battles in the fascinating history of Israeli politics. And as far as Netanyahu is concerned, it may be his very last stand.

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit


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