As I write this column – on November 16 – Israel’s coalition government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, appears to be on the verge of collapse.
The latest crisis for the coalition began on November 14 when defence minister Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, resigned his post in protest over the cabinet’s decision to accept a ceasefire with the terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip after a round of fighting that saw close to 500 rockets fired at southern Israel in a 25-hour period.
The fighting saw one Israeli military officer – identified only as Lt.-Col. M. – killed during an Israel Defense Forces raid into Gaza. Ironically, the only civilian killed in Israel was Mahmoud Abu Asbah, a Palestinian from the West Bank who was in Ashkelon with a permit to work in Israel. However, there was significant damage and numerous injuries – some of them serious – to Israelis from the rockets.
Many residents in Israel’s south objected to the ceasefire, but Netanyahu defended it.
“At these moments, leadership is not to do the easy thing; leadership is to do the right thing, even if it is difficult. Leadership is sometimes facing criticism when you know confidential and sensitive information that you cannot share with the citizens of Israel, and in this case with the residents of the south, whom I love and appreciate greatly,” said the prime minister, who assumed the role of defence minister himself.
Netanyahu also serves as Israel’s foreign minister – so one person now holds a monopoly on three of the most important and demanding positions in Israel’s government.
Liberman was one of four cabinet ministers who opposed the ceasefire. The others were Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of Jewish Home, and Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin of Likud.
As he resigned from cabinet, Liberman pulled Yisrael Beiteinu’s five Knesset members from the coalition leaving Netanyahu with a slim 61-seat majority.
After the resignation, Bennett demanded he be appointed defence minister and reportedly threatened to pull Jewish Home’s eight Knesset seats from the coalition if the demand was not met. That would leave the coalition in minority status with just 53 seats.
As I write, I’ve just seen reports that Netanyahu concluded a meeting with Bennett and rejected his demand for the defence ministry.
While that would seem to set the stage for a collapse of the coalition, Netanyahu’s office released a statement saying he “has confidence in the sense of responsibility of cabinet ministers not to make the historic error of toppling a right-wing government.”
But that remains to be seen. Israeli coalitions are usually fractious and often fall before the end of a four-year mandate. Even before the Netanyahu-Bennett meeting, Justice Minister Shaked, also of Jewish Home, said, “This week will decide whether we’re headed to elections or whether the cabinet will continue until November 2019,” presumably in reference to Bennett’s demand for the defence portfolio.
There are also reports that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party which holds 10 seats, and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas party which holds seven seats, are calling for new elections – although neither, at least so far, has threatened to quit the coalition.
So, as I mentioned in my opening paragraph, Netanyahu’s coalition appears to be on the verge of collapse. By the time you read this column, we might well know whether early elections will be called in Israel. If not by then, then probably soon after.
And complicating the scenario are three corruption investigations into Netanyahu recently completed by Israeli police. We do know that police have recommended that he be indicted in at least two of the cases. News reports last month suggested Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was likely to decide on whether to proceed with indictments in the first four months of 2019.
The Israeli public opinion polls I saw about a month ago indicated Likud was on track to win the most Knesset seats in the next election. But that was before the latest Gaza skirmishes and the ceasefire that seems to be leading toward the coalition’s collapse – and before Netanyahu’s possible indictment on corruption charges.
Will the coming months bring a sea change to Israeli politics and government? Stay tuned!
Update: On November 19, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party agreed to remain in their positions thus preserving the coalition’s slim majority – now at 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats – for the time being.