By Lauren Mellinger
21 December 2018
This past tumultuous month in Israeli politics challenged two key assumptions about Israel’s long-serving prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. First, despite speculation in recent months that the Netanyahu-era is drawing to a close, it is certainly not over yet. Perhaps of greater significance is the second element to emerge from last month’s political crisis: Israel’s ‘Mr. Security’ — who recently said that ‘[t]here is no diplomatic solution to Gaza’ and compared Hamas to ISIS — is not going to topple Hamas in Gaza.
How Gaza precipitated Israel’s latest domestic political crisis
In November Israel and Hamas reached a ceasefire. Pursuant to the terms of the agreement, Qatar agreed to provide $90 million in cash to Gaza over the next six months, along with an immediate infusion of fuel into the Strip. The initial $15 million instalment was paid out to Palestinian civil servants in the Gaza Strip on November 11 and served to further bolster Hamas amongst its Gaza-based supporters. The deal was controversial for several reasons: first, whereas Israel has periodically allowed Gulf States to transfer materials for civilian projects and fuel to Gaza, it typically rejects cash donations due to concerns that it would reach Hamas militants. Hamas’s Gaza-based leader Yahya Sinwar responded to the first cash delivery by publicly allying himself with Hamas’s military wing. It is also noteworthy that Israel approved the terms despite having long regarded Qatar as a ‘terror-supporting state.’ Lastly, the move was heavily debated within the security cabinet, but was not coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, suggesting that the Netanyahu government was seeking some form of long-term compromise with Hamas in Gaza, despite a long history of stating the opposite.
Then the political crisis began. Shortly after images of the first suitcases of Qatari cash entering Gaza went public, news broke of a botched IDF raid near Khan Younis, followed by a 48-hour barrage of rockets from Gaza — for which Hamas claimed responsibility. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned, and withdrew his party from the coalition — arguing that the ceasefire, together with the Qatar arrangement, was ‘capitulating to terror.’ Then, Education Minister and Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett threatened to quit the coalition unless he were assigned the defence portfolio. Given the likelihood that Netanyahu would reject Bennett’s ultimatum, both right and left-wing parties began to call for new elections.
As Israel’s government teetered on the brink of collapse, Netanyahu once again shrewdly outmanoeuvred his political rivals. Speaking from the Defence Ministry — a portfolio which Netanyahu currently holds, as well as that of prime minister and foreign minister — he rejected calls for new elections stating, ‘We are in the middle of a military campaign, and you don’t abandon a campaign to play politics.’ In an embarrassing about-face the following morning Bennett announced he would remain in the coalition — reneging on his prior ultimatum.
Though Kulanu leader and current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon signalled to his faction that they should prepare for early elections, he too has not yet resigned from the government. For now, Netanyahu’s coalition stands with a fragile 61-seat majority.
Why delay early elections?
Early elections are routine in Israel’s domestic politics. In the 70 years since the country’s founding not one government has completed a full term. The current prime minister himself has engineered conditions for snap elections on more than one occasion. While it appeared that early elections seemed inevitable following Lieberman’s resignation, Netanyahu acted swiftly, doing everything possible to delay them.
Growing dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s Gaza policies left him open to a challenge by both the right-wing parties within his coalition, and the public. This latest political crisis had Netanyahu challenged by junior coalition partners from his right, and specifically on matters of national security. Netanyahu has long proclaimed himself to be the best protector of Israel’s security. Indeed his campaign slogan in the 2015 elections translates to ‘Only the Likud — Only Netanyahu.’ New elections under such circumstances would have forced Netanyahu to face his ‘worst-case election scenario.’
Public opinion was also a critical factor in Netanyahu’s efforts to avoid early elections. Following the events last month, polls showed that 74 percent of Israelis were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s performance in the Gaza crisis. Likud remained in the lead in most polls, albeit with a record-low 29 seats — a significant drop from August 2018, when Netanyahu told a Likud faction that he anticipated winning between 35 and 40 seats in the next elections. Furthermore, by holding onto the defence portfolio, at least for now, Netanyahu made himself vulnerable to criticism by becoming the main target for the public’s outrage. This was evident from demonstrations in southern towns bordering Gaza, as well as outside of the defence ministry in Tel Aviv following Lieberman’s resignation, where protestors shouted ‘Bibi go home!’ among other slogans expressing disapproval with the prime minister’s Gaza policies.
Can Israel’s ‘Mr. Security’ win another term?
With Israel heading into a definite election year, all politicians are officially in campaign mode. It is highly unlikely that this government will continue until November 2019, when elections are scheduled to be held. For the moment, if everything is held constant, the Likud remains in the lead to net the most seats in the next election. As political consultant Mitchell Barak remarked, ‘[Netanyahu’s] got no competition. . . He’s running against himself.’ Yet, the polls referenced above did not take into account the prospect of a viable centre or centre-left bloc forming ahead of the elections. Nor did they account for the likelihood that former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz will announce a new party. Though Gantz’s party may not be able to surpass Likud in the next elections, it is expected to chip away at Likud’s lead.
Furthermore, it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s efforts to outmanoeuvre his rivals did more to damage them electorally, than him. Shortly after the crisis was resolved, a poll found that 58 percent of Israelis did not believe Netanyahu’s claims that the government should not be brought down at present due to a ‘sensitive security situation’ for which he provided no further explanation. This is compared with only 31 percent who felt his concerns for Israel’s national security were genuine.
In a region with countless hostile adversaries popping up like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, Netanyahu’s reputation as ‘Mr. Security’ is a high bar to uphold. The public’s disapproval of his latest Gaza policies however, should be understood in the broader context. Despite a history of brash public statements calling for a tough response to Hamas, and terrorism in general, and having criticised his predecessors in office on numerous occasions for their handling of Hamas and Gaza, his actions in office indicate that he is risk-averse — in particular when it comes to employing military force, and is reluctant to commit to putting boots on the ground in Gaza. His past public statements stand in marked contrast to his actions in recent weeks, including working towards a ceasefire and allowing an influx of Qatari cash. Thus it is hardly surprising that residents of Gaza-border communities — a core base of Likud voters — and several of his coalition partners spent much of the past few weeks accusing him of being ‘weak’ on Gaza.
Moreover, in recent weeks Netanyahu has struggled to restore the public’s faith in his reputation as ‘Mr. Security.’ A Tel Aviv University poll earlier this month found 76 percent of Jewish Israelis thought that Netanyahu failed when dealing with Hamas. The increase in terror attacks in the West Bank in recent weeks has renewed protests against Netanyahu — once again, from members of his base, challenging his recent decisions regarding Gaza. Despite the recently launched Operation Northern Shield’s initial successes in uncovering Hizballah-built tunnels under the Israel-Lebanon border, many have raised questions as to whether the timing of the operation was politically motivated, in light of the hit to his reputation Netanyahu has experienced in recent weeks, and with the prospect of indictments hanging over his head.
Though polls indicate that Netanyahu averted the prospect of early elections for now and has, for the moment, avoided a referendum on his handling of Gaza, the situation with Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank has yet to be stabilised. Furthermore, it is unclear to what extent Netanyahu can proceed with the arrangements with Qatar, absent broader public support. It remains to be seen whether Israel’s ‘Mr. Security’ can prevail in the next elections, or whether Netanyahu has run out of political life lines.
Lauren Mellinger is a doctoral candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and a 2018-19 Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow. She is also a former senior editor of Strife’s blog and journal. Her research specializes in Israeli counterterrorism, foreign policy, and national security decision-making, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You can follow her on Twitter @Lauren_M04.
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Netanyahu_campaign_posters_in_Jerusalem.jpg