World News

If Gaza Brings Down Netanyahu’s Government, Can He Rise Again?

Posted November 16, 2018 12:09 p.m. EST

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has survived corruption investigations and bribery charges without much damage to his standing. But his government teetered on the edge of collapse Friday as Netanyahu’s coalition partners pressed for new elections over his handling of Gaza.

The call for new elections intensified after Netanyahu rebuffed on Friday a request by the super-hawkish leader of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, for the defense minister’s post, which opened this week with the resignation of the hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman. Bennett’s party had threatened to leave if he was not given the post.

Netanyahu has been working feverishly to shore up his governing coalition in the days since Lieberman quit his post over the government’s acceptance of what he viewed as a humiliating cease-fire to end a fierce bout of fighting in Gaza. Lieberman pulled his party out of the government, leaving Netanyahu’s coalition with a precarious parliamentary majority of one.

Netanyahu is also having to grapple with public fury. Protesters from Sderot, a southern stronghold of his conservative Likud party, and other border communities plagued by rocket fire from Gaza, have been burning tires and blocking main roads, seething over a truce they said resolved nothing and left them as vulnerable as before.

Netanyahu was still holding out Friday, trying to persuade his remaining coalition partners not to repeat what he called “the historic mistake of ’92,” when a right-wing party toppled a right-wing government and brought the left back to power. But with such a slim majority, most of his partners seemed ready to call it quits, and discussions for an election date were expected to start Sunday.

While he may be forced to schedule new elections, possibly as early as late February or March, Netanyahu is considered a strong favorite to win a fifth term. Gaza will be the main issue and, despite the current uproar, he is likely to fare well against any other candidate in that debate.

“He always does well with security,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based political consultant and pollster. “He’s only ever run on the security ticket.”

None of Netanyahu’s current contenders, from the political right, left or center, are considered anywhere near as experienced in national security. “He’s got no competition,” Barak said. “He’s running against himself.”

Still, Lieberman’s reproachful resignation and popular anger over the handling of the latest Gaza crisis have been damaging, at least in the short term, to Netanyahu’s image as Israel’s security czar. The government agreed to the cease-fire in order to avoid a wider conflagration after Gaza militant groups fired 460 rockets into southern Israel and Israel responded with airstrikes against 160 targets.

“It’s too early to eulogize him,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, an expert in national security and public opinion at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “But the Teflon is wearing off, and his aura of invincibility has taken a knock.”

Yoaz Hendel, the chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning research group, and a former spokesman for Netanyahu, said that when it came to Gaza, Netanyahu’s “credit is running low.”

But when it comes to the question of who might replace him, he said, “You get to the Israeli psychological complex: On the one hand there is disappointment with Netanyahu; on the other, there seems to be nobody to replace him, at least for the right.”

The Israeli opposition was “irrelevant in this context,” he said. If a centrist or leftist leader had allowed $15 million into Gaza in suitcases to fund Hamas salaries, as Netanyahu did last week as part of a broader international effort to ease hardship in Gaza and maintain calm, the whole country would have been in an uproar.

In the absence of an actual indictment, Netanyahu’s legal woes have proved no impediment with his loyal base so far. Many Israelis see three main options for dealing with Gaza: A long-term truce with Hamas amid a major international effort to rehabilitate the territory; another all-out war to subdue Hamas and crush its military capabilities once and for all; or dealing Hamas a heavy military blow that would go some way to achieving the second option and perhaps lead to more fruitful talks for reaching the first.

But after five sharp spasms of cross-border fighting and fragile cease-fires in as many months, critics say Netanyahu has decided not to decide. He tried to justify the latest cease-fire by hinting at broader considerations that he cannot elaborate on, for security reasons. Days earlier he had said he was doing everything possible to prevent what he called an “unnecessary war.”

Given the Israelis’ low tolerance for military funerals, Netanyahu has positioned himself as the responsible adult. And with his personal handling of relations with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his close alignment with President Donald Trump, he has established himself in Israelis’ eyes as a world player with international clout.

“People see him as a statesman, even if they are sick of him,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a left-leaning political consultant in Tel Aviv. “He has a stature in the country that nobody else seems to have.”

For now, Netanyahu is playing for time. He is trying to stall elections for as long as possible to quiet memories of the recent Gaza flare-up, which was set off by a botched Israeli covert operation.

He invited top military officials to join his meeting with local council heads from the Gaza periphery and pledged additional financial support for those communities in an effort at damage control.

Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Netanyahu was unlikely to initiate any major moves regarding Gaza before elections, and the next steps would largely be up to Hamas.

“If Gaza is quiet, they could come to an arrangement,” he said. “There’s also the possibility of a war, but again, it depends what Hamas does.”

Since Netanyahu has already paid the political price for the latest cease-fire, Rahat said, he might as well continue with containment. Coming across as a moderate could actually gain him a few votes.

Ultimately, Rahat said, “Israel is a democracy, and one day Netanyahu is likely to fall.”

It is far from clear, however, when that day will come.