Bringing coalition back from the dead, PM puts rivals in political purgatory

Four observations on the hairpin twists and turns of Israel’s dramatic realpolitik developments, and their potential consequences

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a faction meeting on November 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a faction meeting on November 19, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Elections are not upon us, not yet at least.

Naftali Bennett’s dramatic Monday morning announcement that he would renege on his ultimatum to force a new national poll if not made defense minister prevented the immediate breakup of the government. The shaky coalition remains on life support — for at least a few more days, and possibly much longer.

But the Israeli political drama of the past week has provided a series of hairpin twists and turns that have left many struggling to keep up with the almost hourly developments.

A week that started with Israel and Gaza headed to war seemed to end with Israel headed for new elections, after Avigdor Liberman’s announcement of his resignation as defense minister on Wednesday. The political drama continued with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Sunday rejection of Bennett’s demand for the portfolio and Monday’s move by the Jewish Home leader to back down and allow the coalition to stay afloat.

The crisis and skulduggery has managed to turn the country’s political scene once again on its head and set the stage for further intrigue, with Netanyahu’s political wizardry again leaving partners, underlings, and enemies jockeying for position.

Pulling Netanyahu out of the hat

Netanyahu’s impressive political survival skills have earned him the nickname “the magician,” and on Sunday, he attempted to once again conjure up the impossible, to save his spiraling coalition. This time, however, the mystery surprise he pulled out of the rabbit’s hat was none other than himself.

Rejecting Bennett’s demand and the claims of the Jewish Home chair and others that new elections are a necessity, Netanyahu said it would be wrong and “irresponsible” to bring down the government and force new elections during “one of our most difficult security periods.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Defense Minister in Tel Aviv, on November 18, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Instead, “in the midst of a military campaign,” the public needs the experience and determination that only he could bring, Netanyahu said, naming himself as defense minister and touting his military service and years of making military decisions as a public servant.

There was no last minute deal with another party, and no unexpected endorsement from, or shock dismissal of, a rival — all examples of Netanyahu’s past political wizardry.

Sunday’s trick was more visceral: telling the public that there were significant threats facing the country, some of which cannot be revealed, and asserting that at such a time it would be wrong to risk trusting newcomers who claim to know what they are doing. The only person who can lead, he claimed, was the experienced and irreplaceable Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Monday, it became clear that the magic had worked, at least on Bennett. Announcing that he would back Netanyahu as defense minister in a nervous speech that came across as a pale imitation of the address the night before, the Jewish Home chair said that he “wanted to believe in the prime minister.” He would therefore “stand by his side,” in his shadow, not try to undermine him as his equal or superior.

Back-and-forth Bennett

Since taking control of the Jewish Home party in 2013, Bennett has always pitched himself as the right-wing force keeping a flaky Netanyahu from drifting leftward. “We need a strong Jewish Home to keep the government on the right path,” he argued during both the 2013 and 2015 election campaigns, in which he said the prime minister should continue in the role.

His ultimatum last week appeared to be a bold statement that without more influence and clout, he simply could no longer continue to lend his support to a premier who had, of late, betrayed the right with a slew of decisions that had weakened Israel’s security. “It’s either the Defense Ministry or we are out. This is our ultimatum to stay in the government,” party officials said.

But after two days of belligerent statements promising to “make Israel win again,” Bennett appeared to step back somewhat from his unequivocal demand, denying on Friday that he had said there was an ultimatum, as opposed to his party, and saying that there was no point in such threats, as the government was going to fall anyway.

Since then he has continued to go back and forth between combative and conciliatory, aggressive and appeasing. Minutes before Netanyahu’s Sunday speech, the party announced Monday’s press conference, with sources saying that a resignation was likely. By the next morning, his speech, clearly intended to have been a resignation, but with the final paragraphs changed at the last minute, confirmed a change of heart.

Jewish Home party officials have been trying to present the decision to stay in the government as one that took more bravery and courage than leaving would have done. Bennett’s shaky indecisiveness displayed in the run-up to the announcement, however, may have been what allowed Netanyahu to call his bluff, and come out victorious.

Kahlon going it alone?

When Bennett first started to dither over his not-so-ultimate ultimatum, he said there was no need for him to pressure Netanyahu since, as both he and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon had realized, a weakened coalition was untenable in any case. While the Jewish Home leader has clearly changed his mind, the Kulanu chief on Monday remained skeptical.

Speaking to his party faction in a closed-door meeting, Kahlon said he does not believe the coalition will remain intact for much longer, and predicted that a new national poll would be held within four months, regardless of Bennett’s folding. “It’s hard to believe the business will hold. Prepare for elections in March,” he said.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during a conference in Jerusalem on May 7, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Saturday, Kahlon charged that governing effectively would be “impossible” with just 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the number the coalition holds without Liberman, as the coalition will be too unstable. But he declined to topple the government by himself, siding with Bennett and saying the two would vote together to dissolve the Knesset.

Now on his own, it remains to be seen whether the finance minister, who will be loath to having his economic agenda held hostage by individual coalition members, will do what his Jewish Home colleague feared to, and pit himself directly against Netanyahu.

Asked on Sunday whether he felt pressured to back down for fear of being labeled a traitor by Likud, Kahlon suggested he was up to the task and would do only what he felt best for Kulanu. “Spin doesn’t work on me; they need to stop with the threats, I’m not working for the Likud; I left the Likud and founded my own party. I’m their partner now.”

Liberman ahead of the game

While Kahlon weighs the coalition’s needs against those of his own party, the man who sparked the crisis, Avigdor Liberman, is free to focus solely on preparing his Yisrael Beytenu for elections, whenever they may be. And, again ahead of the game, he is wasting no time in doing so.

Leaving the Defense Ministry when his resignation took effect at 10 a.m on Sunday, Liberman went directly to the Tur Sinai event hall in Jerusalem to  redesignate Yisrael Beytenu’s municipal election office as its Knesset election headquarters and launch the election campaign. “The party is preparing to increase its power in elections for the Knesset,” it said in a statement, catching rivals off-guard as they fretted over the fraying coalition.

Avigdor Liberman (2nd-R) attends an event on November 11, 2018, announcing the kickoff his Yisrael Beytenu’s campaign for Knesset elections. (Courtesy)

That same assertiveness gave Liberman the edge over Bennett when he resigned last week with a barrage of criticism against the ceasefire deal with Hamas, which both had said they opposed. Had Bennett possessed the same political instinct, he might have first called for the then-defense minister to be fired over the restrained response to Gaza rocket fire, boxing him into corner and shaping the narrative himself, rather than being forced to respond to it.

Liberman has a tall task ahead of him, with recent polls having predicted Yisrael Beytenu struggling to even clear the electoral threshold to get any Knesset seats.

But leaving the government when he did, the now-former defense minister lays a good claim to Israel’s right-of Netanyahu camp and hopes to galvanize support via public anger at ongoing Gaza unrest.

If elections come soon, he may succeed. If, however, the government does hang on for another whole year until a mandated November 2019 poll, his bold act of rebellion may be forgotten, as he withers and waits in opposition, and Netanyahu continues to celebrate more victories.

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