Some 48 hours after it ran, the introductory paragraph of my Nov. 14 article on Al-Monitor requires revision. That same alert, anonymous Hamas fighter who had his suspicions aroused by the Israeli Defense Forces team operating deep within Gaza on Nov. 11 resulting in a deadly firefight set off a chain of regional reactions. For now, the results are not only the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, but probably also the downfall of Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government and early elections.
The prime minister has hit a dead end. This was not supposed to happen. Against his will, Netanyahu will probably have to schedule elections for some time between March and May 2019. Unlike the luxury he enjoyed in recent years of calling the shots in right-wing politics, he has no control over this ongoing event. It caught him unprepared, even as he concluded that there was no reason to move up the elections scheduled for November 2019 and he would do better to stick with his current government. However, Liberman’s departure set off a minefield. Liberman appears to have coordinated his move with two of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners: Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, founder of the center-right Kulanu Party, and his old friend Aryeh Deri, minister of the interior and head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. The fact that both of them immediately called for elections to be held as soon as possible indicated as much. Kahlon even vetoed a proposal to appoint Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the rightist HaBayit HaYehudi, as Liberman’s successor. Netanyahu realized he had been ambushed. If he is unable to appoint Bennett, HaBayit HaYehudi will join his other coalition partners in demanding elections. Even now, Liberman’s departure along with his party’s lawmakers leaves Netanyahu with 61 Knesset seats, a one-seat, fragile majority at the mercy of any single disaffected legislator, such as Likud’s Oren Hazan. This could spell the end of a term or of an era. We will know for sure within a few months.
Most of Netanyahu’s partners are now pushing for the earliest possible elections. Two dates being mentioned are March 12 or 26 (elections in Israel are held on Tuesdays, by law), four months from now. Although the date is drawing near, as of now Israelis do not know just who the candidates will be. The political arena is still in the early stages of preparation.
Netanyahu, who will run as the head of Likud, is the only certainty. Will the opposition center-left Zionist Camp remain intact with Labor head Avi Gabbay as its leader? Will the parties of the center and left unite? Will former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz form an independent party? With which party will former Defense Minister and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon align himself? Will another former army chief, Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi run on one of the platforms? Will Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis, who quit Liberman’s party, run as the head of a small independent party or hook up with a larger one? Will Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid eventually sign up a significant defense figure for his centrist party? Will the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah party split into two rival camps? Will the Arab Joint List, comprised of three Arab-Israeli factions, stay together?
Clearly, if the center and left-wing parties join forces, a parallel union will be formed on the right. About two weeks ago, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said as much at a private event in Washington. The comrades will have to hold their noses and line up in twos and threes behind Netanyahu. This could mean a joint Likud-HaBayit HaYehudi ticket for election purposes only — a type of joint list comprising candidates of both parties. Despite it all, Liberman could also conceivably join such an alliance. Even Kahlon is an option. The potential partners will obviously be motivated by only one consideration: If they don’t sign up, they could face political demise. Such a scenario would have Netanyahu pulling out all the stops as he did in the previous elections to mobilize support at the ballot boxes. He will make an almighty fuss, rant against the left for joining forces to unseat him, and warn that a vote for one of the smaller right-wing parties rather than Likud would sink the right wing. Such a campaign could result in total annihilation for the Likud’s satellite parties, such as HaBayit HaYehudi, for the sake of saving the right — and Netanyahu — and keeping them in power.
Early elections would also place Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in a bind. Shaked, at that same Washington event, predicted that Mandelblit would make his decision on whether to indict Netanyahu in one or more of three cases of suspected bribery by March — in other words, right before the elections. A scenario in which the attorney general announces a decision to indict the prime minister of Israel on charges of bribery a week before general elections is a Hollywood script that even "House of Cards" writers would not dare consider.
Mandelblit, who has already said on several occasions that the election date would not influence the timing of his decision, could decide to move up his decision or drag his feet and postpone it. In case of a delay, he would find himself in an even more sensitive situation: He would have to announce the indictment of a prime minister who had just won elections (assuming he would) and formed a government coalition. Either way, this is a potential nightmare that could send Israel into dangerous political chaos.
Benjamin Netanyahu is still the most obvious and likely winner of the elections. Nonetheless, he is now more vulnerable than he was a few weeks or months ago. His ratings have declined due to the cease-fire he engineered with Hamas on Nov. 13 after the latest barrage of rockets it fired into Israel. The criticism directed at him from the right is particularly damaging, including violent demonstrations by enraged residents of the Gaza-border town of Sderot and fury on social networks. Netanyahu fears a strategic alliance against him that would mobilize “traitors” from within, such as former minister Gideon Saar and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, both with a strong following within Likud as well as Kahlon. Netanyahu is perennially suspicious of everyone generally for no reason. But this time he has outdone himself in paranoid delusions.
To survive as prime minister, even for a short time, he will now need a disciplined party, more obedient coalition partners than ever before and impressive public support. If he is to hold it all together, Netanyahu will require the skills of a political acrobat, an electoral magician and a legal wizard. He is determined to succeed.