Israel and Gaza: From the Brink of War to the Brink of Elections

When a right-wing Israeli governing coalition was formed under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership after elections in 2013, its slim majority produced a fractious coalition prone to disagreement among its members. To be sure, Israelis would be voting again in 2015 to produce another unstable coalition cabinet, led by Netanyahu, whose longevity was always in doubt. Now, well into its fourth year of a four-year term, the coalition faces a significant challenge which for the first time may lead to its downfall and trigger early elections.

The 2015 Coalition

There was a time in Israeli politics when Avigdor Lieberman, the Moldovan-born politician who resides in an Israeli settlement, was considered a far-right candidate whose ascent to the national political scene was unthinkable because of his routine use of anti-Arab racism. Over time, however, Lieberman no longer represented the fringe. Simultaneously, and as the entire Israeli body politic continued to shift rightward and Israeli settlers continued to play an outsized and growing role in Israeli politics, a new party, called the Jewish Home, grew under the leadership of religious-nationalist Naftali Bennett. While Lieberman was always present, he vacillated between an alliance with Netanyahu’s Likud Party and running on his own. But in the 2015 elections he was able to only garner a handful of Knesset seats, down from a high of 15 in 2009. Bennet, on the other hand, brought two parties together to form the Jewish Home party and won 12 seats in 2013 and 8 in 2015.

Both Lieberman and Bennett were part of Netanyahu’s coalition in 2015, but the prime minister always thought carefully about what role to give each of them. He also allied himself with the two parties of the ultra-Orthodox constituency as well as a new party that spun off his Likud called Kulanu, led by Moshe Kahlon. The latter demanded the Finance Ministry and had run on a platform of economic reform. Kahlon appealed to a broad cross-section of Israelis by having an economic focus but had come from the right which allowed him to siphon votes away from the Yesh Atid party, which had performed well in 2013 with 19 seats but dropped to 11 in 2015, while remaining ideologically flexible enough to fit into a right-wing coalition. Kahlon was a kingmaker, but for Netanyahu his demands were manageable and not threatening.

Netanyahu always knew how to handle Lieberman and Bennett in his government but has been most worried about the latter because of his political skills and ability to bridge the religious and nationalist constituencies.  

The real challenge was with what to do with Lieberman and Bennett. Lieberman had already been on the national scene for nearly 15 years and had served in several positions including as foreign minister. Bennett, on the other hand, was a newer face but had quickly risen in prominence. He displayed some political skill by proving he could bridge a divide between religious and secular nationalists. He speaks English fluently, and while not as polished as Netanyahu he is still seen as an effective communicator with the West. Like Netanyahu, Bennett was a soldier in the Sayeret Matkal, a high-level military unit considered prestigious among Israelis. Giving Lieberman the Defense Ministry would round out his resume but giving it to Bennett would boost a challenger Netanyahu likely took more seriously. Lieberman, an Israeli settler who had spoken of the need to transfer Arabs and said that disloyal Arabs should be beheaded, finally took charge of the Israeli Defense Ministry while Bennett, who boasted about killing lots of Arabs to excuse extrajudicial killing, was put in charge of teaching the youth as minister of education.

Gaza Shakes Israeli Government

The Likud Party, led by Netanyahu, was able to form a governing coalition in 2015 supported by 67 members of the 120-seat Knesset. The 2015 election, as well as those in 2013 and 2009, came not long after major wars on the Gaza Strip when Israelis living in that area demanded that their leaders address the threat of projectiles from Gaza which indeed played a role in each outcome. This time around, events in Gaza could very well determine the fate of the Israeli government.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to be dire and has only worsened over the years of Netanyahu’s rule. A tight economic siege, multiple wars and a lack of power and fuel have almost ground life there to a complete halt. The strip is entirely dependent on outside help just for sustenance. Last spring, Palestinians in Gaza began sustained demonstrations at the fence encaging the strip, which made it clear to the Israelis that ignoring the humanitarian situation there would spill over into Israel itself. A consistent opponent of easing that situation has been Defense Minister Lieberman, a condition that ultimately set the stage for his resignation and departure from the coalition.

Lieberman preferred to resign and weaken Netanyahu’s governing coalition rather than accept a ceasefire with Gaza and ease the humanitarian situation there.  

Moreover, in mid-November, $15 million, the first tranche of a Qatari grant of $90 million, started to make its way into Gaza with the Israeli government’s approval. The images of suitcases of millions of US dollars making their way to civil servants in Gaza who have long been awaiting salaries were an opportunity to attack the government from the right. But Netanyahu defended the decision to approve the transfer.

Almost immediately afterwards, Palestinian security forces discovered an undercover Israeli unit inside Gaza. An ensuing firefight left 7 Palestinians, including a Hamas commander and an Israeli officer, dead. Israeli air strikes helped the unit escape into Israel but the ceasefire violation sparked an escalation of Palestinian projectile fire and further Israeli airstrikes. The Israeli government claimed that more than 400 projectiles were fired into Israel but only 100 were intercepted, marking the largest single-day projectile count ever.

The Israeli military was handed another embarrassment as militants from Gaza destroyed with an anti-tank missile a bus that had just unloaded dozens of Israeli soldiers. At first, the Israeli government, which censors military news, claimed that the bus had been full of civilians, but a video aired by al-Aqsa TV, the Gaza-based Hamas network, clearly showed that it had been part of a military convoy and that the militants actually delayed launching their missile until the soldiers disembarked. To Israel, the message from the militants was clear; that they could have destroyed the bus and killed the soldiers but had elected not to do that. The implication was that next time might be different. The idea that the lives of dozens of Israeli soldiers were at the mercy of Palestinian militants in Gaza, even for a split second, is something few Israelis could stand. Still, however, launching a large-scale military operation against Gaza was not guaranteed to succeed in achieving its objectives and was likely to come at a significant international cost since Israel was the first to violate the ceasefire agreement when it sent its undercover team.

Launching a large-scale military operation against Gaza was not guaranteed to succeed in achieving its objectives and was likely to come at a significant international cost since Israel was the first to violate the ceasefire agreement.

Israel’s security cabinet, a subset of the full cabinet, met for nearly 7 hours and ultimately decided against expanding the operation. This was unacceptable to Lieberman, who would announce his resignation and withdrawal from the coalition as a result. Taking his party’s 6 seats in the Knesset with him, the move left the government with a one-seat majority (61 out of 120 members). This narrowest of majorities means that any one coalition member could bring down the government and, subsequently, that elections will likely be coming soon to avert the attendant instability.

What to Expect from New Elections

If Netanyahu’s current government manages to stick together with this slimmest of majorities, which is unlikely, regular elections would be held in November 2019. This seems to be Netanyahu’s preference. But this institutional instability makes early elections likely and prompts everyone to be in election mode. Governance thus will be negatively affected. At any rate, and while it isn’t clear when the new elections would be held, it is hard to imagine them coming earlier than February 2019 or later than the following June. Once the decision is made to dissolve the parliament, an election date has to be set for no more than five months later.

There is little reason to expect anything other than another right-wing Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. His Likud is currently the party with the largest constituency and it continues to perform best at the polls. The opposition parties have failed to garner enough votes to try to form a coalition or even block coalition formation by Netanyahu. Should elections take place in the near term, the government that would most likely be formed will be very similar to the current Israeli government. However, there are a few scenarios that could alter this projection.

First, while Netanyahu Likud’s Party garners only 25% of the popular vote in elections and most Israelis say they don’t want him as premier, he clearly has no replacement. He has dominated Israeli politics for so long that he has remained at the forefront as an older generation of leaders has faded away and a younger generation of challengers has been sidelined by his time in the spotlight. Should something happen to Netanyahu––for example, should he face an indictment in one of the many corruption investigations into his conduct and step down––then many things could change. That would effectively end an era in Israeli politics. But he has survived this threat thus far. Furthermore, it isn’t clear that an indictment would come at this point given how long investigators have had to look into his past and the fact that it could have huge political ramifications if it were to come ahead of elections.

It isn’t clear that an indictment of Netanyahu would come at this point given how long investigators have had to look into his past and the fact that it could have huge political ramifications if it were to come ahead of elections.

Second, new party leaders could change the way votes are distributed. The Labor Party today is headed by Avi Gabbay, who took over from Issac Herzog. Gabbay became the first mizrachi (from eastern, non-European countries) to lead the party since the Moroccan-born Amir Peretz narrowly defeated Shimon Peres for the role in 2005. This, along with his ties to Kahlon’s party and briefly to Netanyahu’s government, could allow Labor a path to picking up some voters who have not regularly voted for an Ashkenazi-dominated (from western, European countries) party long considered dovish.

Third, entirely new parties could form in an effort to challenge Netanyahu. Moshe Yaalon––the former defense minister who resigned from Netanyahu’s cabinet during a row over the handling of the case of an Israeli soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian in cold blood––is rumored to be forming a party. So too is Benjamin Gantz, former chief of staff of the Israeli military. It is possible that some of these well-known figures in Israeli society could have an impact should they enter the fray.

Ultimately, however, all of these new players would be chasing voters in an electorate moving to the right. None are trying to dethrone Netanyahu by running on an opposing platform but rather programs that offer slightly different variations of the right-wing positions. Some voters may be taken by this but most who have voted for right-wing parties will likely opt for the original brand––Likud––and not those trying to imitate it.

The chances of a non-right-wing government are extremely slim. Indeed, another Netanyahu-led government, made up of mostly right-wing parties with possibly a newcomer here or there is the most likely scenario. What is also likely is that the prospect of an Israeli early election means that the United States has yet another reason to delay revealing the Trump Administration’s so-called “deal of the century.” Few will be disappointed by this. The Palestinians expect nothing good from Trump’s deal; the Americans know their plan is not going to be well received; and the Israelis, while likely to be happy with the content of the plan, are arguably not inclined to engage with it. The Israelis would much rather move forward steadily to entrench the status quo and another election will most likely produce a government that will do just that.