With the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Benjamin Netanyahu now holds the three most senior positions in Israel’s government: prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister.
The way Liberman has reportedly been describing Israel’s governance to his colleagues in the past 24 hours, however, Israel’s most crucial decisions have long routinely been Netanyahu’s and Netanyahu’s alone, with the prime minister guaranteed an automatic majority in what is supposed to be the country’s most senior decision-making body, the 12-member security cabinet.
“It’s all spin,” Liberman has reportedly been complaining to unnamed colleagues, according to Hadashot TV on Wednesday night. “We sit in the cabinet, or we hold security consultations, and decisions are made.” But there is no genuine debate, and no way that suggestions that differ from Netanyahu’s can get approved, he indicated.
At Tuesday’s 7-hour security cabinet meeting, Liberman reportedly elaborated, “a remarkable thing happened”: Naftali Bennett, who is now seeking to succeed Liberman as defense minister, “supported my proposal” — which was apparently that Israel not accept a ceasefire, but rather continue to target Gaza’s terror groups. “But we didn’t ask for a vote because there was no majority for us… The whole gang, [fellow ministers] Kahlon, Gallant, Erdan and Katz, all line up with Bibi.”
Hitting back, aides to Netanyahu were quoted in the same broadcast as asserting that the prime minister’s preference for halting the 48-hour escalation in fighting proved persuasive because he made “extremely concrete” arguments in support of “the imperative to calm things down at this stage.” While the “irresponsible” Liberman “acted like a politician” in quitting his super-sensitive post, the better to position himself ahead of forthcoming elections, Netanyahu and the cabinet majority, these unnamed aides said, “chose statesmanship.”
Whichever narrative you choose to believe, they both underline Netanyahu’s unchallenged position at Israel’s helm. And a snap poll by Hadashot TV, taken immediately after Liberman announced his resignation, indicated much the same.
Wednesday was one of Netanyahu’s darkest political days — the right-wing prime minister, abandoned by his more right-wing defense minister Liberman, challenged by his still more right-wing coalition partner Bennett, for not having pounded Hamas long or hard enough. Hamas gloating at its ostensible victory. And hundreds of Israelis in the south holding protests in the streets, with some calling “Bibi, go home” and declaring that they had irrevocably lost faith in him.
Yet the TV survey, for which no margin of error was initially made available, showed Netanyahu’s Likud, which holds 30 seats in the current Knesset, slipping by just one, to 29. That left it still 11 seats ahead of its closest rival, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid with 18 seats, and still best-placed to form the next coalition. Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu holds five seats at present, rose by just two to seven, at what should have been the outgoing defense minister’s finest hour. Bennett’s Jewish Home was up, but only from its current 8 to 11.
With Liberman gone, Netanyahu faces an acute dilemma: To capitulate to Bennett’s ultimatum and make him defense minister, or to call elections. He is far too skilled and experienced a politician to be complacent about even unreliable snap polling figures, or protests by hundreds of angry Israelis. The same survey found a striking 74% of Israelis unsatisfied (to 17% satisfied) with his handling of the latest Gaza crisis. But he will know that his position remains extremely strong, and that there are no current politicians who pose a credible threat to him.
He may be a little more worried by a second question asked by the pollsters, which was about how Israelis would vote if the former chief of staff Benny Gantz enters politics as the head of a new party, as he is widely expected to do. Gantz’s non-existent party would win 15 seats, the survey found, and would push the Likud down to 24 — a seriously worrying fall. But ex-chiefs of staff are routinely highly popular before they enter politics, and invariably far less so the moment they start giving political speeches.
What really matters for Israel and for Israelis, as two days of near-war gave way Wednesday to political resignations, demands and bickering, is whether Netanyahu does indeed have compelling and concrete reasons for having determined late on Tuesday afternoon that there was more to be lost than gained by continuing the conflict. In this context, it is worth noting that the security establishment has been widely reported as not having energetically pushed for a wider Gaza operation.
Daily reality has become increasingly difficult for southern Israel, with Hamas not just ready and able, but demonstrably willing, to launch massive rocket barrages and force vast numbers of Israelis into bomb shelters at moments of its choosing. And to punctuate those moments with smaller bouts of rocket fire, major border riots, and arson attacks on the towns, villages, and fields of the south.
If the prime minister, foreign minister, and defense minister does indeed see a route to changing that grim reality, he will have nothing to fear politically. They may not be too happy with Netanyahu right now, but it is still to him that Israelis look for a solution to Gaza. The nature of that solution, after yet another harrowing and inconclusive round of violence with the terrorists of Gaza, however, remains as hard to discern as ever.