Netanyahu wins Israel’s political battle but peace with region still elusive

With Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party out of government, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition commands a razor-thin majority.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during the dedication of Czech House in Jerusalem, November 27. (AFP)
Political survivor. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during the dedication of Czech House in Jerusalem, November 27. (AFP)

LONDON - November was a tumultuous month in Israeli politics. The largest escalation in violence between Israel and Hamas in years dashed hopes for a long-term ceasefire that had been in the making since summer.

After two days of intense fighting, including more than 100 Israeli air strikes and hundreds of rockets fired into Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian factions announced that they accepted a return to the ceasefire that had started to be implemented before November 11. Israel subsequently stopped its air campaign.

This violent episode had a large effect on Israeli politics. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing member of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, resigned from his position, saying the ceasefire was a way of “surrendering to terror.”

The spectre of early elections was raised when members of Netanyahu’s coalition called for snap polls. Education Minister Naftali Bennett made a bid to take over the defence portfolio but was rebuffed by Netanyahu, who took over the position himself.

Behind the scenes and publicly, the prime minister carried out a campaign to avert the fall of his coalition. Speaking on television, Netanyahu said he told the coalition not to bring down this government “at this security-sensitive time.”

He hinted at future military action, saying: “I will not say this evening when we will act and how. I have a clear plan. I know what to do and when to do it and we will do it.”

Netanyahu began a “scare campaign on the right,” said Neri Zilber, an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

As a result, Bennett did not, as many expected, resign and withdraw his party from the coalition. He voiced criticism but said his party was withdrawing its political demands and would stand with the prime minister.

With Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party out of government, Netanyahu’s ruling coalition commands a razor-thin majority of 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. Israel is scheduled to go to the polls next November but many observers see early elections as likely.

“It’s very clear, Netanyahu is the big winner,” said Zilber, adding that the prime minister fended off the challenge from the right and re-established his power position.

By delaying snap elections, Zilber said, Netanyahu regained control over when elections would be called and what issues would dominate the campaign. He did not want the ceasefire with Hamas, which earned him criticism from different quarters, to be the defining issue.

Zilber said Bennett was the “clear loser.” Having issued an ultimatum on which he backtracked, Bennett “is not a real challenger either nationally or on the right wing to Netanyahu,” Zilber said.

When it comes to Lieberman, much will depend on how effectively he can campaign for the next election. During his tenure as defence minister, Lieberman’s popularity took a hit, Zilber said, due to the gap between his rhetoric before entering office and the actual defence policy the government was implementing. “Now he is trying to re-establish his public persona as a hardliner,” Zilber said.

Lieberman has heavily criticised the government’s security policy since leaving office, arguing that Hamas was stronger than it was before the war between Israel and Hamas in 2014. “We’re buying short-term quiet with money and harming our long-term security,” he said at a conference.

The internal power struggle comes at a time when Israel is forging ties with the Arab world and Muslim-majority countries in Africa. Netanyahu made a surprise trip to Oman in October, followed by ministerial visits to other Gulf Arab states.

After a visit by Chadian President Idriss Deby to Jerusalem, Israel is to formally re-establish diplomatic ties with N’Djamena, which were severed in 1972. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials quoted by Israel’s Channel 10 said Deby presented a “very extensive” list of demands, including weapons sales, for ties to be re-established. Deby said the diplomatic opening “is not something that can make the Palestinian issue disappear.”

There has been speculation about the release date of a peace plan by the Trump administration. The issue became front and centre again as the possibility of early elections in Israel was raised.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said the plan was completed. Regarding its release date, he said, “they speak with us about the beginning of ‘19.” Danon added that presenting a peace plan during an election would be “horrendous.” US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said the plan would be shared “at the appropriate time.”

“Netanyahu seems keen to postpone the publication of the US peace plan so that it does not become central in Israeli elections,” said Ofer Zalzberg, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine.

Zalzberg said the diplomatic push abroad is connected to perceptions of the need for peace. “The high-profile visits of Netanyahu and Israeli ministers to Gulf states have strengthened among Israelis the sense that Israeli-Arab normalisation does not depend on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.

However, Zilber warned that Israel will “hit a ceiling in terms of the progress [it] can make diplomatically with the so-called pragmatic Arab states absent of any real progress on the peace process.”

“The big thing is when Netanyahu chooses to go to early elections,” Zilber concluded.