January 21, 2021

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Israeli politics, not precisely as usual


This week:

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman quits his job and takes his party out of the coalition in anger over Netanyahu’s perceived weakness toward Hamas in Gaza, leaving the coalition with a 1-seat margin in the Knesset.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party indicate that they may do the same unless Bibi makes Bennett the new Defense Minister. If they quit, it would ensure that new elections would be called, probably in February or March. They schedule a news conference for the next morning. The TV news people lick their chops.

Bibi gives a speech that evening in which he asks Israelis to trust him, says he knows things we don’t know, the security situation is very complex, and now is not the time to have new elections. The fate of the country is more important than politics, he says. He makes himself Defense Minister (he is already Foreign Minister, Communications Minister, and Regional Cooperation Minister).

Bennett and Shaked hold their news conference the next morning. Bennett starts out saying that they are very disappointed with our mild reaction to the heaviest rocket barrage in Israel’s history, and that our deterrence has been compromised. But instead of the expected resignation, he says that they agree that politics must take a back seat to security and they will stay in. The TV news people are excited. I decide that it is easier just to listen to what the politicians say than to the TV news people trying to explain it.

Moshe Kahlon, the leader of another small party and the Finance Minister, decides to stick with Bibi. For now, the coalition remains in power, although precariously.

The opposition parties plan to introduce motions to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections. Each bill must receive a preliminary reading, followed by three others. In order to pass, a motion has to get a simple majority of those present in the Knesset for the first three readings, and a majority of all the members (61) in the last one. But if it doesn’t get a simple majority in the preliminary reading, they can’t reintroduce it for six months. When they count votes, they realize that they don’t have enough, so they pull the bills.

Both the coalition and the opposition call for all their members who are out of the country to return home to participate in voting. Likud MK Sharren Haskel comes to the Knesset from the hospital with an IV attached to her arm.

For comic relief, the police recommend that the Interior Minister, Arye Deri, be indicted for corruption. It will probably take months before there is an indictment, so this is unlikely to have any immediate effect. This would be the second time for Deri, who was also Interior Minister back in 1993, when he was forced to resign on similar charges (he later went to prison for three years).

All this was great drama, but not much has changed. Elections are now less likely in February or March; they may still happen in April or May, or the Knesset may serve out its full term until November 2019.  Today the electorate is angry at Netanyahu, with 74% believing that he should have taken a much tougher line with Hamas. But if, as he suggests, future events will show that his policy of restraint at this point was the right one, then he’ll be forgiven.

The army – at least, the present army leadership – is solidly behind him. But it seems to me, and to a lot of people, that our primary enemy, Iran, is pulling the strings both of Hamas in the South and Hezbollah and Syria in the North. Russia’s position is ambiguous, as always, but the recent supply of S-300 antiaircraft systems to Syria, and the blaming of Israel for the downing of a Russian plane by Syrians operating an older Russian antiaircraft system, seems to indicate that Russia may be limiting Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.

This is problematic because Iran is trying to introduce technology to increase the accuracy of Hezbollah’s missiles into Lebanon via Syria. One gets the feeling that our enemies, under Iran’s direction, are putting the pieces together for a difficult multi-front war, in which Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, and perhaps Palestinians from Judea and Samaria will all take part.

On the one hand, some think that it would be better to defang Hamas now, before such a major confrontation, and they see the recent incident as a missed opportunity. On the other, it seems as though Hamas was trying hard to provoke an escalation, possibly to that multi-front war. Netanyahu and the IDF would like to finish defensive fortifications on both the Gazan and Lebanese borders first.

The arguments go on and on. Has our restraint eroded our deterrence? Has our humiliation – because that is how it appears in the region – encouraged our enemies? Who will rule Gaza if we destroy Hamas? What will the Russians do if we go all-out against rocket launchers in Lebanon and Syria? Should we take the fight to the Iranian homeland itself? Does Bibi really have a plan or doesn’t he?

These issues don’t lend themselves to use by the opposition. Sitting to the left of the coalition, they have a hard time criticizing it for not being tough enough. Bibi is Mr. Security, and everyone knows it. The opposition has some former Chiefs of Staff on their side, but they are not convincing. Bibi’s strongest criticism comes from the Right, from the likes of Bennett, but it’s hard to imagine Bennett’s party, a combination of religious and nationalistic factions, having wide enough appeal to be elected to lead a government. And the parties further to the right have difficulty even making it into the Knesset.

So I don’t envision any big changes. We’ll have our elections, probably in May or November. The Likud will probably form the next coalition, which will look a lot like the present one. If the big regional war is inevitable, it will happen before the next US election. We can’t predict the outcome of that election – or take the risk of fighting a major war while there is a hostile administration in Washington.

There are wild cards. There are the police investigations into Netanyahu, which could result in an indictment and pressure to resign or at least not stand in the next election. The Left has been pushing this, but does the State Prosecutor and the legal establishment want to introduce chaos into our system now? There can always be an incident that thrusts us into the middle of an unplanned conflict. If Hamas’ antitank missile that struck an empty military bus last week had been fired a few moments earlier when it was full of soldiers, there would have been little chance but to strike back at Hamas, very hard.

When Israelis are under pressure they tend to come together. Bibi is right that the security situation is extremely complex, as dangerous as it has ever been in the short history of our country. People understand this, even if they are opposition politicians (like Bennett!), even if they see an opportunity to score points. We really don’t have any option other than to trust our leaders, the ones we’ve elected to make decisions in situations like this, and the IDF, whose job it is to carry out their orders. And I think that after the dust settles, that’s what we’re going to do.

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