Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Government may well be entering its final phase. How long his Government will linger is not clear, but recent events have suggested that some of his coalition members have ambitions which significantly exceed any opportunities available to them within the current government arrangement.
Matters came to a head last week when Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned after the Cabinet voted to accept Netanyahu’s recommendation to cease the incipient fighting against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. By pulling his Yisrael Beitaynu (Israel Home) party out of the coalition, Lieberman left Bibi with a governing margin of one seat in the Israeli Knesset. When the head of the Bayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party, Naftali Bennett, then demanded that his party—meaning himself—be given the Defense Ministry, it seemed as if a vote of no-confidence in Netanyahu was imminent. Bibi continued to pull some strings, however, and the Government lived on—at least for the moment.
The timing of elections in parliamentary systems is never convenient. While all parliamentary democracies require that parliaments be dissolved, and elections be held at prescribed intervals, new Knesset elections in Israel only are required to be held in November 2019. The Prime Minister usually prefers to “call” elections when it is optimally convenient for his desired re-election. Under the pressure of a weakened Government, Bibi is struggling to hold on to this coalition for as long as he is able. While he would like to suggest that going to elections between March and May is not optimal, he may soon have no choice. Similarly, the argument that elections at this moment are not advisable for security reasons appears to reflect a political judgment rather than a national security one.
There are, however, two foreign policy variables which are hovering over Netanyahu as he contemplates the timing of an election. The first is the timing of the long-awaited Trump peace plan which has been looming on the horizon for more than a year. It is likely that Netanyahu’s decision to stop the fighting in Gaza was motivated at least in part to demonstrate that his Government would be positioned to entertain or even encourage President Trump’s initiative. Regardless of what the Israelis think about any Trump proposal, Netanyahu clearly wants to be seen in the best light—not in the middle of a Gaza conflict—when the proposal is floated by Washington. (In terms of Israel’s security considerations, there is a far more serious military threat developing in the North than any rockets flying out of Gaza.)
There is also a new geo-political development emerging from Saudi Arabia which has gained greater credibility since the Jamal Khashoggi murder. As President Trump has persisted in whitewashing the involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman in the plot, the Saudis have appeared to be trading this card from Washington and their mutual antipathy for Iran, into an offer to move constructively on the peace process. The Saudis have indicated their interest in facilitating Palestinian movement toward the peace initiative which may be emerging now from Washington.
For Netanyahu, this may well appear to be a double win, except for the fact that unlike the President, Bibi ought to know better than to be seduced by another Arab leader who could turn on Israel in a blink of an eye. Israel and the Saudis do share a genuine concern about the threat posed by Iran, but for different reasons. Trusting a Saudi commitment to the peace process may well have a lifetime only for as long as MBS considers there to be an Iranian challenge to the Kingdom.
All elections pose genuine probabilities of losing, but coalition politics present an even bigger likelihood. At the moment, Netanyahu faces no genuine threats from the left or even the center-left. The next Israeli Government—whenever the next elections will be held—is likely to produce another right-wing Government. Bibi’s worries are that it might well not find him as the Prime Minister.