The Looming Political Crisis in Israel

The instability of Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition has gone under-reported in the American press, but is likely to have a profound effect on American policy in the Middle East.

Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition of Likud, HaBayit haYehudi, Kulanu, Shas, and Yahadut haTorah suffered a serious blow last week: The abrupt resignation of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister, and the departure of Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party from the coalition. As a result, Netanyahu is left with the slimmest possible majority in the Knesset -- a single vote -- and hence with imminent early elections should any other party bolt.

That now appears set to happen.

Only a month ago or so, the political opinion polls in Israel were all predicting that Netanyahu’s Likud party was a slam-dunk to finish a possible early election much stronger than their current 30 seats out of the 120-member Knesset. Some predicted as many as 40 seats. However, looming in the background throughout this period have been two crises: One internally political, and the other a problem of external security with serious domestic implications.

The purely internal crisis has been generated by the recommendation of the Israeli national police anti-corruption unit that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of corruption and influence-peddling. One lengthy investigation looked at his acceptance of expensive gifts showered on him and his family by wealthy foreigners with business before the Knesset. Another examined his naked attempt, caught on tape, to buy favorable coverage in Yedioth Acharonoth, Israel’s largest Hebrew-language daily news outlet, at the expense of its arch-rival Yisrael Hayom by passing legislation restricting the latter’s circulation. A third investigation, involving a billion-dollar non-competitive contract issued to German firm ThyssenKrupp for Israeli submarines, is still ongoing.

In the wake of the police recommendation, which has not yet been acted on by the attorney general, there were widespread calls for Netanyahu to step down in the event of actual indictment. Among those calling for this was Israel’s current President Re’uven Rivlin, who -- although a member of Likud -- has never been a great fan of Netanyahu.

Largely based on those very rosy polls, Netanyahu had been leaning toward calling for new elections. Then, a sensational story surfaced in the very pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom newspaper alleging that Rivlin had been holding secret talks with senior members of Likud, at least one of whom was characterized as a “former minister,” to side-step Netanyahu as leader of the party. It alleged Rivlin wanted to appoint someone else to form the governing coalition and serve as prime minister. Although it has been customary practice in Israel throughout her modern history to appoint the head of the largest party able to form a coalition to the premiership, the president has the authority to designate any member of Knesset for this task.

When the story broke, Netanyahu abruptly quashed all talk of early elections, and went on an internal witch-hunt within his party looking for the culprit or culprits who were talking to Rivlin. Attention briefly focused on Gid’on Sa’ar, a former Likud member of Knesset who had served as interior minister and education minister in previous governments. He resigned over differences with Netanyahu in 2014. Sa’ar hotly denied any such conversations and demanded either proof or an apology, and the matter was quietly dropped.

In the meantime, the security crisis was getting worse over the summer months.

Hamas found a method, several months ago, of terrorizing Israelis and threatening to ruin Israel's agricultural sector by floating incendiary kites and balloons over the Gaza border to land and start fires all over the southern half of Israel. This was especially dangerous over the summer dry season in the country, when little rain falls. As a result, massive fires ravaged forests and crop-lands throughout the south, spurring loud protests and demands for the government to “do something.”

The primary response has been limited, targeted air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza. These did little or nothing to halt the onslaught of deadly kites and balloons.

Then came the most recent crisis: A clandestine intelligence-gathering mission of an elite Israel Defense Forces unit in Gaza was discovered by Hamas, resulting in a firefight that left the mission commander dead as well as several Hamas fighters. Hamas used this as a pretext to launch a massive missile barrage (over 500 missiles in a matter of a couple of days) that took Israel by surprise and partially overwhelmed the Iron Dome defense system. During the barrage, an anti-tank rocket was fired at a busload of Israeli soldiers near the border.

When the smoke cleared, the Hamas barrage had caused considerable property damage and left one Israeli killed and 85 wounded. There were intensified raids by the Israeli Air Force in response, taking out, among other things, the reputed Hamas intelligence headquarters and their television studios. But the maddened population of the southern half of the country, as well as their friends and relatives in the northern half, have been demanding more substantive action by the IDF.

Instead, Netanyahu accepted a negotiated ceasefire with Hamas brokered by Egypt. This, it seems, was the proximate cause of Liberman’s resignation.

On Liberman’s resignation, HaBayit haYehudi leader Naftali Bennett, currently education minister, demanded the defense ministry as the price for remaining in the coalition. When Netanyahu refused to appoint him, instead announcing that he will retain the defense ministry as well as the premiership, Bennett and his colleague Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced their intention to resign later this week.

In an eleventh hour surprise move, both rescinded their announcement and have agreed, at least for the time being, to remain in the coalition.

Finance Minster Moshe Kachlon has demanded new elections be held as soon as possible, but he has not yet taken the step of resigning and pulling Kulanu out of the coalition. However, Netanyahu failed to convince him to change his demand in a meeting on Sunday. The slim majority means that every member of the coalition must be present for every substantive vote in the Knesset. Otherwise the government could lose a key vote, which would bring down the coalition. There is no question that the coalition’s days are numbered.

The most recent polls have shown Likud sliding sharply by as many as six seats. New parties headed by former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and former Yisrael Beytenu member Orly Levi-Abekassis, HaBayit haYehudi, and Ya’ir Lapid’s Yesh Atid party all poll as gaining seats. The seats come at Likud’s expense -- but also at the expense of the center-left HaMachane haTziyoni party, which stands to lose as many as two-thirds of its 24 seats.

Will this spell the end of Netanyahu’s tenure and the ascendancy of a new, presumably more right-wing figure? The result will likely affect American policy in the Middle East, not least because of the degree to which Netanyahu has attached himself to President Trump.