It was over for Benjamin Netanyahu.
He’d agreed on an informal truce with Hamas after 500 rockets had been fired at Israel, and his defense minister, the volatile Avigdor Liberman, had resigned in a seething firestorm of anger and recrimination. Two of his more quiescent coalition partners, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Aryeh Deri’s Shas, had concluded that the coalition, now reduced to 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, could no longer function effectively and were calling for elections. And his most irritating rival, the Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, was threatening to pull his eight-member party out of the government unless he was appointed defense minister, making elections in the spring — six months or more ahead of schedule — unavoidable.
Many politicians might have caved to the seemingly inevitable. Netanyahu did not.
First, he moved to reframe the public debate.
Liberman was looking to resurrect his political fortunes by running in elections this spring as the one political leader with the guts to give up his prominent ministerial position for the cause of smashing Hamas, and to portray himself as the lawmaker who had put an end to Netanyahu’s ostensible hesitancy and abandonment of the rocket-battered residents of Israel’s South.
Bennett thought he was onto a win-win. Either he elevated himself to the front rank of politicians by finally compelling Netanyahu to give him the Defense Ministry post, or he ran against Netanyahu in the elections he’d be triggering as the true champion of the hardline right.
Netanyahu had other ideas. Dismissing Liberman as an irresponsible manipulator who had deserted the nation’s key security post, and Bennett as a self-interested lightweight blinded to Israel’s core interests by his personal ambition, the prime minister asserted that his coalition could survive the loss of Liberman and insisted it would not capitulate to the ultimatum of Bennett.
Israel’s national security was at stake, Netanyahu declared in a fierce nine-minute address to the nation on Sunday night, and he, for one, was not going to abandon the ship of state in the midst of what he called a complex, ongoing military operation against Israel’s enemies.
In contrast to his piffling ministerial detractors, he told Israelis, he was not engaged in “sloganeering.” He was working to ensure Israel’s long-term security. Just as he had risked his life in battle as an officer in Israel’s most elite special forces unit, just as he had faced down even the previous president of the United States in his fight against the “dreadful” Iran nuclear deal, so now he was focused solely on defeating Israel’s current enemies. However misguided last Tuesday’s decision to halt the fight against Hamas may have looked, he indicated, Israelis were not yet seeing the full picture. But they could rely on him and on the security establishment, indeed they should and must rely on him and on the security establishment, to see the job through to its completion.
At the end of his statement — during which he had initially seemed full of pent-up anger, but gradually regained his customary assurance — he waved away reporters’ shouted attempts to ask him questions, and declared, mid-walk, “I am going to work.” As in, I’ve got a job to do. Let me get on with it.
Faced with a prime minister who had proved disinclined to blink, and had credibly reached out to reassure an uncertain public, the hapless Bennett’s win-win now became a lose-lose. If he stayed on as mere education minister, he’d appear weak and out-maneuvered. And if he quit, he risked being blamed, even by his own supporters, as the egotist who brought down Israel’s most right-wing government before its time. But, oy, what to do? He’d grandiosely announced a press conference for 10:30 on Monday morning.
In the event, Bennett uncomfortably read out what had patently been written as his resignation speech, but with a hastily redrafted final section, in which he said the Jewish Home was now “withdrawing all of our political demands” and would stand with the prime minister. He acknowledged that he was likely to pay a political price for the volte face, but said he had concluded that it was correct to continue to stand with Netanyahu in the hope that the prime minister would henceforth move to defeat rather than accommodate Israel’s enemies.
And thus — at least as of this writing — Netanyahu has for the umpteenth time given his would-be successors a political leadership masterclass, and apparently given his fractious, depleted coalition a little more breathing space.
We were told by Kahlon on Saturday night that the heads of all of Israel’s security hierarchies — the IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet — were of one voice in counseling against the escalated war on Hamas that Liberman and Bennett were advocating
Some might wonder why he bothered. There is certainly an argument to be made that elections in spring might suit Netanyahu — if they would mean that he were re-elected before the attorney-general makes a decision on whether to press charges against him in the various corruption cases he’s facing. It would presumably be easier for the state’s legal hierarchy to announce to the public that it is going to prosecute a prime minister who is facing new elections than one who has just been voted back into office. But since Netanyahu seems determined to stay on and fight even if he is indicted, that may not be a central consideration.
Indeed, for all the narrow political machinations, the root of this drama is that Netanyahu and the security establishment do clearly see themselves at some part-way point in the complex battle against Hamas, and Hezbollah, and Iran — a strategic struggle which would not have been served by a major Gaza offensive last week.
We were told by Kahlon on Saturday night that the heads of all of Israel’s security hierarchies — the IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet — were of one voice in counseling against the escalated war on Hamas that Liberman and Bennett were advocating. We were warned by Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi — in his politically foolish but admirably candid Army Radio interview on Thursday — that confronting Hamas “in every hole” in Gaza at this stage would mean 500 Israeli soldiers coming back in coffins.
And we were told, by the prime minister and new defense minister on Monday night, that we were “seeing only part of a wide-ranging process” that he is “obligated to complete” in order to ensure Israel’s security.
“I won’t say tonight when we will act and where we will act, but I have a clear plan,” Netanyahu promised. “I know what to do and when to do it. And we will do it.”
Time will tell. None of Israel’s enemies are going anywhere; when Hamas, inevitably, tests Israel again, people will remember Netanyahu’s pledge to get the job done.
The voting public will be watching closely. And as Netanyahu knows particularly well after the events of the past week, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman, dwarfed and outflanked for now, will be poised to exploit any new perceived failure or weakness.