Another fragile truce between Israel and Hamas is threatening to take down the long-standing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a political perfect storm threatens to swamp his once-secure Cabinet.
On Nov. 14, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned, saying "Tuesday’s cease-fire cannot be interpreted in any way other than a capitulation to terror." Lieberman took the five Knesset seats of his Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party with him, bringing Netanyahu's coalition to the brink of collapse. The ruling coalition now controls just 61 of 120 seats, but Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party is threatening to bolt too if he's not given the vaunted defense portfolio.
Both Lieberman and Bennett are taking advantage of the political winds blowing against Netanyahu to prepare for a broader electoral challenge against the prime minister. The Gaza cease-fire struck on Nov. 13 (the latest in a series stemming from March 2018) has been roundly condemned as insufficient. Moreover, this criticism has come not only from right-wing figures such as Lieberman and Bennett, but also from Yesh Atid, the center-left anti-corruption party poised to become a dominant force on Israel's left-leaning political stage in any upcoming election.
Many Israelis were angered because previous cease-fires have brought only temporary peace, followed by more rockets and threats of war. Southern Israelis who've lived through sporadic rocket attacks were angered by the cease-fire, which followed the largest barrage of rockets from Hamas into Israel since the group's 2006 takeover of the Gaza Strip. This anger extends across the political spectrum, creating an opportunity for Netanyahu's would-be successors to accelerate their plans to dethrone him.
Israel is a major U.S. ally that Washington relies on to carry out and support U.S. policy in the Middle East. However, increasing turmoil spurred in part by continued sparring between Israel and militant forces in the Gaza Strip could shake up the composition of Israel's government.
Netanyahu was already in major political trouble thanks to multiple corruption cases, which have undermined his popularity. Worse, there remains a Dec. 2 deadline for him to produce a compromise bill that would satisfy both the ultra-Orthodox parties that want exemptions from the draft and right-wing nationalists who demand that the ultra-Orthodox take part in it. Should he fail to create a compromise and all ultra-Orthodox men become subject to the draft, it will cause widespread unrest within some religious communities, and yet another faction within Netanyahu's government could split from the coalition.
Why It Matters for Israel's Government
Israel's major right-wing politicians are gambling that they can force early elections and either take the position of prime minister for themselves — or advance their position and agenda within the new Israeli government. In taking this risk, they are also betting that Israel will not slip toward its first center-left government in decades.
Israel's electoral map favors another center-right government in fresh elections. However, the controversy over ultra-Orthodox participation could hamstring the center-right's efforts to cobble together a coalition. Alternatively, Netanyahu's corruption scandals and public outrage over the cease-fire could give power to the Yesh Atid party and tip the scales toward the center-left. A Lieberman defection to the center-left also remains possible should Yesh Atid give him the support he wants for an operation in Gaza, particularly considering that the party has stridently condemned the cease-fire.
Israel's center-right government is currently in flux. Bennett and Lieberman have the potential to control how long the current government survives, but disagreements over the draft could have a similar impact. The potential changes could substantially alter what the center-right is capable of in Israel and who the next prime minister will be, as well as change the country's policy on Gaza and relations with countries everywhere from the United States to Qatar.
What About Gaza?
Hamas has trumpeted the latest cease-fire as a major victory, but the reality is that domestic forces in Israel are forcing the government toward another major confrontation with militants in the Gaza Strip. Hamas' strategy of escalation followed by a careful, negotiated drawdown and small spigots of aid was always fraught with risk and the potential for miscalculation. But with Israel's right and center-left slamming cease-fires, Hamas may soon find itself without a willing negotiating partner should it gamble on rockets-for-aid again.
Further attacks from such rogue factions are likely to force an escalation beyond the exchange of rocks and aid, which became a pattern in 2018.
Even if Hamas recognizes that its strategy will no longer work, it has been unable to control the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other Islamist militants (who take a hard line on Israel and do not abide Hamas' leadership) or the individual activists who are angered by Gaza's dire humanitarian situation and collapsed economy. Further attacks from such rogue factions are likely to force an escalation beyond the exchange of rocks and aid, which became a pattern in 2018. Netanyahu pushed against the political grain by indulging the pattern, and his political capital has since shrunk.
Israel's security depends on working relationships with the major powers that are militarily active in its sphere, including Egypt, Russia, Turkey and the United States. Lieberman's personal contacts with Russia will be missed, but Netanyahu has built up a working relationship with President Vladimir Putin that keeps the lines of communication open — a key aspect of foreign policy, particularly after Israel was blamed in the downing of a Russian aircraft in September. Yet a post-Netanyahu government of any political leaning will force someone else in the Knesset to deftly navigate the narrow space between Russian and Israeli interests in Syria.
Meanwhile, the prospect of early elections will introduce new uncertainties into Israel’s relationship with the United States. These uncertainties will arise not only because Netanyahu is particularly close to U.S. President Donald Trump, but also because the Israeli prime minister is an increasingly partisan figure in North America. And with anti-war factions flexing their muscles in the Democratic caucus that will soon control the U.S. House of Representatives, another operation in Gaza is unlikely to be well-received in Washington.
Meanwhile, Qatar's usefulness to both Israel and the United States will take a hit. Deliveries of Qatari-bought gas were meant to bring peace, as well as convince Trump and Netanyahu of Doha's value as an ally. However, Lieberman openly slammed the arrangement in his resignation, and Qatar's failure to buy peace has diminished its utility in Israel's eyes. It remains to be seen whether Qatari foes such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates will step in, but Qatar and Egypt have so far been unsuccessful in pacifying Gaza. As long as the issue remains a problem for Israeli citizens, Netanyahu's position as prime minister is under scrutiny.