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What's next for Israel: early elections or war in Gaza?

With early elections expected and rumblings on Israel's border with Gaza, the opposition appears unable to come together to present a credible alternative to the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the start of the Knesset’s winter session, which began Oct. 15, Zionist Camp Chair Avi Gabbay had two targets: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid. The former is his natural rival as head of the right-wing bloc and the leader of the government Gabbay hopes to replace. The latter is his colleague in the center-left bloc who believes that he is the person most capable of unseating the current prime minister. Of Gabbay's attacks on this two targets, those against Lapid are the more interesting and the more important.

Gabbay used his speech at an Oct. 15 meeting of the Zionist Camp faction to target Lapid for preventing the faction from toppling Netanyahu's government by supporting the proposed conscription law. He accused Lapid of “selling the equal sharing of the burden [of compulsory military service] for a seat in the next government and acting like a bullet-proof vest for Netanyahu’s government.” If Netanyahu were unable to prevent the conscription of ultra-Orthodox youths, the ultra-Orthodox parties in his ruling coalition would desert him, thus triggering new elections that Netanyahu's Likud appears poised to win.

Gabbay’s attacks on Lapid were unjustly buried by the intense atmosphere surrounding the start of the Knesset’s winter session. There were endless interviews and all sorts of populist declarations, as one might expect on the eve of a new election cycle. A situation in which the Zionist Camp chair attacks the head of a “sister party” only serves Netanyahu by making it impossible for the center-left to craft a solid alternative to his right-wing government. That said, Gabbay was forced to do so for the sake of his own political survival.

Gabbay's party is performing terribly in the polls, and people are plotting behind his back to replace him. By attacking Lapid, Gabbay hopes to win back seats that had turned to other parties. As far as he is concerned, going on the attack is the easy way to expand his voter base.

The troubled state of the “alternative” to a Netanyahu government seemed even more disconcerting in light of a speech delivered by opposition chair Tzipi Livni. It was certainly an excellent speech. Livni remained focused as she offered a political and ideological alternative to Netanyahu’s right-wing government. She spoke about the urgent need to get the peace process moving again and the lack of any real plan to resolve the problem of Gaza. The issue with Livni, however, is that she may be the leader of the opposition in the Knesset, but she is not the leader of the Zionist Camp, so she is not Netanyahu’s true rival.

While Livni's position is an anomaly, it is a legal necessity. Gabbay cannot serve as leader of the opposition, because he is not a member of the Knesset. Under these circumstances, it is difficult for the leading opposition party to generate public awareness of a real rival to Netanyahu. This is why any real substance was found lacking in Livni’s call at the end of her speech to all parties “who share the same path.” “We are obliged to stand together as a bloc and rewrite our path,” she said. “We will come together as one big bloc, and we will give people hope. Many good people will join us, and then we will win.’’

While Livni didn’t mention any names, she was obviously referring to Lapid and perhaps to Benny Gantz, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who is reportedly planning to run as part of a new center-left party. Gantz, without taking any official steps or uttering a word, is already projected as winning as many as 13 seats. While he draws much of his support from other center-left parties, some also comes from the Likud.

Livni’s call for unity has no actual operative substance. It simply isn’t feasible. The last thing that Lapid will do is join forces with the Zionist Camp. He has done everything he can to distance himself from the “left.” With no consolidation of forces, and with a center-left bloc plagued by internecine fighting, it is impossible to present a real alternative to the Netanyahu government, which revolves around a single leader who heads a large and powerful party.

Given the circumstances at the opening of the Knesset, the center-left camp in its current constellation appears to be nowhere close to consolidating its forces. The Zionist Camp and Yesh Atid are targeting the same electorate, and it looks like Gantz will soon join them in a frenzied race for the same voters.

There is also no shortage of absurd situations in the coalition. While most coalition party leaders would like to postpone elections for as long as possible, the prime minister himself wants to bring down the government. According to all recent polls, Netanyahu's party would win by a significant margin if elections were held today. Netanyahu, however, has his own personal concerns about survival, revolving around the legal timetable pertaining to criminal investigations into his activities. He apparently wants to launch his campaign before the Attorney General’s Office decides whether to indict him.

Given news from the ultra-Orthodox parties on Oct. 14 that a compromise seemed likely on the conscription legislation, the leaders of the coalition parties rushed to announce that there was now no reason to call early elections. The proposed law, whose passage Netanyahu thought would be his excuse for early elections, took a sharp turn once the ultra-Orthodox expressed their willingness to compromise. “Anyone looking for excuse to call elections should keep looking,” said Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in a barb directed at the prime minister.

Meanwhile, the chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, told a meeting of his faction that elections should be held as scheduled, in November 2019, and that the issue of the conscription law could be resolved. Bennett, Liberman, the ultra-Orthodox and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose parties constitute the coalition, are all in the same boat: They all want more time before the next election, albeit for different reasons. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that they will be able to force that on Netanyahu. They also believe that Netanyahu will form the next government, and they all hope to be a part of it.

Netanyahu has essentially already launched his campaign, during his speech at the opening session. His remarks included a paean to his achievements in economics, security and foreign policy during his last decade in power. He noted his excellent relationship with US President Donald Trump and kept to form by ridiculing the “bitter” left and blaming Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the absence of a peace process.

He did not, however, say a single word about Gaza, even though Israel's southern front seems headed for war. In fact, there was another incident along the border just that morning. This conspicuous omission was not by chance. Netanyahu prefers to paint a picture of a pastoral existence, or as he put it, “This was a wonderful decade, and not just economically either.”

The question now is what happens first: new elections or a war in Gaza? Netanyahu has already proved that he has no interest in fighting, certainly not during an election campaign. Two days after the opening of the winter session, Hamas showed that it is not concerned about Netanyahu’s political calculations. A rocket fired from Gaza that hit a home in Beersheba on Oct. 17 reinforced that the prime minister cannot control every factor. This means that Gaza could be added to the mix as Netanyahu calculates what it takes to survive and whether to dismantle the government.

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