Desperate Netanyahu Pulls out All the Stops

After Israel’s second parliamentary election in September, Israeli politics were no closer to yielding a clear governing coalition. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also head of the Likud Party, received a mandate to try to form a government from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who gave him 28 days to negotiate with other parties to try to secure a 61-seat majority government. When he was unable to do so and his time expired, Rivlin then entrusted the mandate to Netanyahu’s opponent and former IDF chief of staff, Benjamin Gantz, the head of the Blue and White slate, to attempt to form a new cabinet.

It was clear from the outset that should Gantz get this opportunity, his options would be extremely slim. They included securing defectors from the right-wing bloc and forming a broad coalition with the Palestinian Joint List and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, or assembling a minority government that would include Lieberman and have the backing of the Joint List from the outside. None seemed particularly plausible. The right-wing bloc was holding firm and Gantz was limited in what he could offer religious parties due to commitments his party had made to a more secular constituency. Indeed, Lieberman had built his career as a secular national Zionist who routinely attacked Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as the religious Zionist parties. He tolerated being in a coalition with the religious Zionist parties in the past, but working with the Joint List was obviously a bridge too far. This left Gantz with a final, extremely narrow path: to attempt to form a minority government with the backing of the Joint List from the outside. This way he would have the mandates necessary while also giving Lieberman the political cover he needed to join. As Gantz’s options narrowed to this last possible path to a coalition, so, too, did Netanyahu’s response.

Incitement against Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Attack on Gaza

Netanyahu has long weaponized anti-Palestinian racism and incitement for political gain in sensitive moments. Perhaps most infamous was his participation in rallies and events in 1995 ahead of the assassination of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose government was initially made possible with the support of Palestinian Members of the Knesset (MKs). Crowds riled up by speakers like Netanyahu routinely characterized Rabin as a traitor and as someone who forgot what it means to be a Jew. Some even portrayed him as a Nazi SS officer and as donning a “kufiyah”, the checkered Palestinian headdress.

Netanyahu has long weaponized anti-Palestinian racism and incitement for political gain in sensitive moments.

More recently there was Netanyahu’s infamous remark during the 2015 elections about Arabs “going to the polls in droves.” The message there was that their vote would dislodge the right wing from power. His voters responded at the time by making his Likud Party Knesset bloc the largest once again.

When Gantz appeared to be closing in on a minority government as his last path to coalition formation, Netanyahu began to elevate public incitement against the Arab parties to make such a deal more difficult for his rival—and also for Lieberman. He launched a campaign attacking the Palestinian MKs as traitors allied with terrorists seeking to bring down his government. On November 11, as time was ticking away toward Gantz’s deadline, Netanyahu tweeted an attack on the Arab MKs, specifically highlighting how they would react in the event that Israel became engaged in war with militants in Gaza. “A minority government that depends on the Arab parties is a danger to Israel’s security,” he wrote.

Hours later, the Israeli military conducted an extrajudicial assassination by airstrike on Gaza that targeted an Islamic Jihad militant, Bahaa Abu el-Atta. Extrajudicial assassinations as such have become more rare in recent years as Palestinian militant factions have insisted that they are included in cease-fire terms or else they would respond with projectile attacks on Israel. Therefore, the assassination of Abu el-Atta was certain to draw a response from Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and this was just after Netanyahu made his attack on the Palestinian MKs and as Gantz was reportedly working to secure a minority government with Joint List backing. While government sources denied there was any political connection to the timing of the assassination, it is hard to believe that Netanyahu, who had been aware that the operation was greenlighted 10 days earlier, did not at minimum instrumentalize this secret information for his benefit as he coordinated the attack campaign.

The most recent wave of Israeli attacks on Gaza killed dozens of Palestinians, including an entire family in Deir el-Balah whose members were wiped out in their sleep by an airstrike. It may never be known whether Netanyahu cynically sought out this bloodshed for the purpose of obstructing a deal between Gantz and the Joint List, but the timing is suspect and the crimes so grave that the question must continue to be asked.

Pompeo Settlement Announcement

As Gantz’s deadline for forming a government was approaching, an announcement from Washington once again appeared to offer a political lifeline for Benjamin Netanyahu. Seemingly out of nowhere, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the completion of a legal review that concluded that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements to be inconsistent with international law.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the completion of a legal review that concluded that the United States does not consider Israeli settlements to be inconsistent with international law.

As a practical policy, the proclamation would not mean much of a shift in US behavior toward Israel or its settlement policy. In reality, previous administrations had refused to frame the issue of settlements in the context of international law but rather viewed them as obstacles to peace. The reason is that Washington has long sought to remain in control of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute through its “peace process” and did not want to encourage multilateralism or the involvement of the international community or international organizations like the United Nations or the International Criminal Court. As long-time peace processors recently acknowledged, Washington has consistently failed to hold Israel accountable over settlements across time, without regard to which party was in power.

So what was the point of Pompeo making an announcement that would translate to little or no shift in actual US behavior? Like much of what the Trump Administration has done in its bilateral relationship with Israel, this announcement was but the most recent attempt at fulfilling the Greater Israel fantasies of religious nationalist Zionists and their American evangelical Christian bedfellows. The announcement, much like that on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, UNRWA and Palestinian refugees, prisoners, the closure of the PLO Office in Washington, and so on was an ideologically driven attempt to help erase the Palestinian narrative in its entirety.

While this might shed light on why the announcement was made, it does not explain its timing. It is hard to dismiss this timing as the coalition negotiations were taking place. Had Pompeo wished not even to appear to be influencing domestic Israeli politics, he could have made the announcement a week later instead of just two days before the deadline. But the fact that it was made just ahead of the deadline suggests that it may well have been connected and, like the Golan announcement, aimed at sending a lifeline to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has successfully made the argument to the Israeli public that he, more than any other figure in Israel, is uniquely capable of managing Israel’s single most important strategic asset: relations with the United States. The Trump Administration has been willing to assist by showering him with one unprecedented and favorable announcement after another. If any of the parties who care about expansionism in Netanyahu’s coalition were considering defecting at the last minute, Pompeo’s announcement may have acted as insurance, reminding them of Netanyahu’s unique value.

Netanyahu has successfully made the argument to the Israeli public that he, more than any other figure in Israel, is uniquely capable of managing Israel’s single most important strategic asset: relations with the United States.

Indictment Announced

Netanyahu’s incitement campaign and Pompeo’s lifeline might have worked to stave off a coalition agreement negotiated by Gantz that would have taken the prime minister down. But Netanyahu’s luck may have finally run out as well. The same week Gantz announced he was unable to form a coalition, the Israeli attorney general announced the indictment of Benjamin Netanyahu on various charges including fraud, bribery, and breach of trust.

The charges have loomed over Netanyahu’s political career for years now and the ongoing elections that have dragged on for an entire year have repeatedly delayed the announcement of the legal decision. Netanyahu’s hope was to form a government and pass a law guaranteeing immunity for him before charges were filed. That now no longer seems even remotely possible.

Will this break the stalemate in Israeli politics? It certainly might do so. In September, Gantz was waiting for Netanyahu to announce his failure in order to try and form a coalition himself. Netanyahu’s indictment could have helped Gantz attract defectors from the right-wing bloc, split the Likud party itself, or given party members an opening to mutiny. Now that this has happened, Netanyahu may no longer be able to keep his own party—let alone his broader bloc—together. Other party members will see an opportunity to finally dislodge the politician who has dominated the Likud Party for the better part of 25 years. Gantz’s most important political promise to his voters was not to sit in a coalition with a prime minister facing indictment; further, he has left the door open to partnering with a Likud party that drops Netanyahu entirely. This would be an ideologically comfortable alliance for Gantz, who has staked out positions vis-à-vis the Palestinians that are not very different from those held by Netanyahu’s Likud.

Nonetheless, it is still too early to say this is the end of Netanyahu. If anything, it is likely that the current scenario will drive him to deeper desperation. For him, this is not merely about staying in government but about staying out of prison. The longest serving prime minister in Israeli history is now the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted. He faces the prospect of ending a long career of dominating Israeli politics by peering out at the electorate from behind bars.

Netanyahu is currently sowing the seeds of an Israeli civil war; much like other regional leaders, he might be willing to see the country crumble before stepping down.

For these reasons, he will try everything he can before succumbing to this fate, including inciting further violence. He refuses to resign, despite calls to do so, or to abandon Likud’s leadership. He has already begun to call for investigations of the investigators themselves and to rally his base into believing the entire probe is a politically motivated attempt by the state to dethrone him. Indeed, Netanyahu is currently sowing the seeds of an Israeli civil war; much like other regional leaders, he might be willing to see the country crumble before stepping down. Like US President Donald Trump and others, he paints the entire challenge he is facing as an underhanded attempt to bring an end not just to his rule but to an ideological, irredentist project of making strides toward a Greater Israel.

Whatever the chances of forming a new Israeli government soon, the current stalemate paints a very divided Israeli body politic. While the so-called centrist Gantz fails to garner enough support to build a governing coalition, Netanyahu tries to make use of all the tools in a demagogue’s box to remain politically alive, or at least relevant. Short of a third parliamentary election that can decisively throw Israel’s government to one of the candidates, Israel, the Palestinians, and the region are likely to remain at the mercy of Netanyahu’s desperation and manipulation.

Yousef Munayyer is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yousef and read his previous publications click here