Analysis: Netanyahu pulls teetering coalition back from the brink – but for how long?

Thirty years ago this month, Yitzhak Shamir eked out a narrow win in Israel’s general election.

That election marked the last occasion when an Israeli government has managed to serve out its full term. Coalition crises and prime ministers “cutting and running” in a bid to capitalise on political opportunities to win early re-election have shortened the life of all subsequent administrations.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government looks increasingly likely to follow that trend. Although elections are not scheduled until next November, few expect the current coalition to soldier on until then.

With polls in his favour, and expectation that he may attempt to stave off indictment in a series of corruption cases which are expected to come to a head in the early months of next year, it has been expected for several months that the prime minister might seek to engineer a crisis in order to bring down his coalition and force an early election.

But Netanyahu now faces a crisis – and the prospect of early elections – at a time not of his choosing.

The drama which has brought his government to the edge of the precipice began to unfold last week in the wake of the ceasefire which brought to a close 48 hours of conflict between Israel and Hamas which threatened to spiral out of control into a full-blown war.

Barely had the ink on the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire dried than Avigdor Liberman, the defence minister and leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, quit the cabinet and pulled his party from the ruling coalition. Liberman’s decision left the government perched precariously atop a one-seat majority in the Knesset.

Liberman’s parting shot was a savage critique of Netanyahu’s government delivered from the right. The former defence minister accused the prime minister of “surrender to terrorism” in agreeing a ceasefire with Hamas. He charged that in negotiating with Hamas, Israel was merely “buying short-term quiet at the cost of serious damage to national security in the long term”.

The government was further shaken when education minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the hard right Jewish Home party, demanded the defence portfolio as his price for remaining in the government. Netanyahu’s decision not to pay this ransom, but instead to add the defence portfolio to his ever-expanding list of duties – he also serves as foreign and health ministers – immediately sparked election fever.

Two of Netanyahu’s coalition partner’s – Moshe Kahlon of the centrist Kulanu party and Aryeh Deri, head of the religious Shas party – both joined the opposition in calling for early elections.

Over the weekend, however, Netayahu appears to have stabilised – albeit possibly temporarily – the political situation. As he has done so often in the past, the prime minister skilfully played the security card, daring Bennett to topple the government. “We are in them midst of a military campaign, and you don’t abandon during a campaign, you don’t play politics,” he said. “The security of the state is above all else,” Netanyahu declared, attacking those toying with “personal considerations”.

The gambit appears to have worked – for now. On Monday, Bennett dropped his ultimatum and, while sharply attacking the fact that “Israel has stopped winning”, pledged not to bring down the government and instead to “stand by the prime minister’s side”.

Once again, argued David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, Netanyahu has “given his would-be successors a political leadership masterclass, and apparently given his fractious, depleted coalition a little more breathing space”.

In reality, all of the ruling coalition’s principal figures have been playing politics over the past week. Bennett and Liberman are acutely aware that Netanyahu’s last victory at the polls in 2015 came not because of a shift to the right – Labor posted its best performance since 1999 and, overall, parties of the left gained ground – but because the prime minister successfully “cannibalised” the other parties in his religious-nationalist bloc. His Likud party’s gain of 12 seats almost exactly matched the drop of 11 seats Jewish Home and Yisrael Beitenu suffered.

Liberman’s party has been polling badly for months, bumping along at a level which is dangerously close to the threshold which would exclude it from the Knesset. As one commentator suggested, his resignation was thus intended to allow him to position himself as “the true defender of right-wing values, willing to sacrifice his senior ministerial portfolio for a principled stance in defence of the beleaguered residents of southern Israel”. Liberman’s suggestion that his resignation could lead his party to surge from its current five Knesset seats to 20 indicated the political calculations underpinning his decision.

Certainly, Liberman’s record as defence minister – he has failed to push through his signature policy of making it easier to pass death sentences on convicted terrorists and failed to secure a tougher stance towards Hamas – gives him little red meat to throw to his right-wing base.

Indeed, Liberman’s reaction to Bennett’s about-turn – “now everyone understands why we have lost our deterrence” – underlines the fierce battle between the two major parties to Netanyahu’s right as they jostle for position ahead of next year’s elections.

Polls conducted since the ceasefire indicate that, while 70 percent of voters disapprove of Netanyahu’s handling of last week’s crisis, his party has sustained only minor damage and a small drop in its projected number of Knesset seats. Moreover, Liberman’s decision to resign – while endorsed by nearly 60 percent of voters – has seen Yisrael Beytenu only making small gains. Overall, the polls show the current right-religious coalition inching further ahead of the centre-left/Arab opposition parties.

Netanyahu may dislike the notion of being outflanked on the right on security, but he will also gamble that, while voters may not much like the outcome of last week’s fighting – 50 percent believe Hamas emerged victorious as against less than one in five who think Israel did – the public does not much relish the prospects of another bloody war in Gaza.

The prime minister also knows his history. He will remember that, within six months of the inconclusive 2014 Gaza war, he comfortably secured re-election. He is also aware that two of his recent predecessors – Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – lost power after the outbreak of violent conflicts.

Despite his manoeuvring this weekend, Netanyahu almost certainly wants to hold early elections,calculating that it will be much more difficult for attorney general Avichai Mandelblit to back the police’srecommendation that he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust if he has recently secured another electoral mandate.

There is, however, one major wildcard which has yet to be played. For months, there have been rumours that former IDF chief of Staff Benny Gantz is planning to enter politics, either forming his own party or joining the centre-left Zionist Union. Polls indicate that such a move would scramble the political landscape: dealing the main opposition party a severe blow in the former scenario or strengthening it hugely in the latter case.