Is Israeli politics on the move?

Is Israeli politics on the move?

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

There is a sense of growing turmoil in Israeli politics that makes one wonder whether all is well in the seemingly ever-resilient office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

There were coalition stirrings and then some rejections. There was a major Cabinet resignation. And then there were rumblings from a former prime minister as well as from the just-resigned minister that they were considering challenging the ostensibly invulnerable Bibi Netanyahu. In addition, there is a perception that the right wing of the Israeli electorate may not really be as strong politically as is generally believed. 

As the Israeli Knesset prepared for its post-Pesach session, there were strong indications that Netanyahu was on the verge of creating a national unity government by bringing into the coalition the left-of-center Zionist Union Party. After extensive negotiations and political jockeying, Isaac Herzog rejected the prime minister’s offer, and Bibi turned instead to his Right to broaden his coalition. In appealing to Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party, Netanyahu also lost his defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, who had developed a growing disaffection with Netanyahu’s hard-line positions (despite the fact that Ya’alon’s politics originally were certainly right-wing). As a result, the somewhat enlarged Netanyahu government now had a clearly more right-wing patina. 

Netanyahu’s growing hard-right image has not been lost on political observers nor on a growing number of political forces in the country. Ya’alon himself — who at the moment does not even have a political party base — has already announced that he will challenge Netanyahu when the next elections are held. He is especially angry at how the prime minister has treated the IDF. Ya’alon has made it clear that he finds the appointment of Lieberman to lead the Defense Ministry a dangerous and disrespectful choice to head an institution with which he has had exceedingly limited experience or rapport. Second, like the prime minister’s actions of late, Lieberman has espoused positions that suggest an ideological dominance to his strategic vision for Israel’s defense and not one based on the general consensus of his military brass. 

Ya’alon’s criticism of Netanyahu was joined by former Prime Minister and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak in an address he gave on June 16 at the Herzliya Conference. Barak, who is also the most highly decorated soldier in Israel’s history and a former chief of the General Staff, made it clear that he believes that the Netanyahu government’s direction is exceedingly irresponsible and dangerous for Israel. Barak went so far as to indicate — and to reiterate subsequently — that Netanyahu needs to be replaced as prime minister. While he suggested he was not interested in the position, he felt the need to galvanize the Israeli public to seek a change of direction and leadership. 

In essence there are two major reasons these voices may well resonate within the Israeli body politic at this time. First, many observers have suggested that Netanyahu has carried his animus toward President Obama and the Democratic Party much too far. Banking on a better relationship with Washington after Jan. 20, 2017, is a dangerous game to play. While Netanyahu has indicated his dissatisfaction with the current compromise on the table for the projected critical 10-year military aid agreement — the Memorandum of Understanding — it would appear that the prime minister is assuming that the Congress or the next U.S. president will be more generous to Israel than the reported $3.7 billion annual aid package presented. It would seem that once again, Netanyahu’s approach is about winning and not recognizing the fact that he could give Obama a win, while believing that should circumstances change during the next decade, Israel has sufficient credibility that it could appeal for additional American largess if the situation presents itself.

The other Israeli domestic input is a report released over the past few weeks by a collection of former retired Israeli military officers and an American think tank. The study, “A Security System for the Two-State Solution,” produced by Commanders for Israel’s Security and the Center for a New American Security, suggested, among other things, why now is very much a time from a security perspective to move ahead actively to engage with the Palestinians on finding a viable two-state solution. 

This study, which even Barak referred to, suggests that the obstinacy of the Israeli government is clearly a political maneuver by a government that lacks a willingness to proceed with an active peace process, despite the fact that it currently is operating in the strategic and tactical driver’s seat. While the politics in the region are wildly unpredictable and chaotic, ironically, Israel has been able to be merely an observer to the horror show, despite its need to maintain continued vigilance against terror incidents. 

All of this movement suggests that Israeli politics may well be in a much more dynamic situation than many would presume to exist at the moment.

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