Forget Hamas. The Israeli prime minister is now facing a war within his own government.
- By Gregg Carlstrom<p> Gregg Carlstrom is a journalist based in Cairo. </p>
TEL AVIV, Israel — Children across Israel went back to school on Monday, after a summer of war and unrest, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped by several classrooms for the obligatory photo ops.
At a school in the southern town of Mabu’im, he asked a student to name his favorite animal. "Snakes," the boy replied.
A grinning Netanyahu couldn’t resist: "Snakes? Come on, I’ll give you a few," he quipped.
It’s a testament to Israel’s bitter domestic politics that Netanyahu’s remark was widely interpreted as a dig at his unruly cabinet members, rather than at Hamas or other foreign enemies. With the fighting in Gaza seemingly concluded after Netanyahu and Hamas accepted a cease-fire on Aug. 26, the prime minister is now digging in for a long political war.
The truce satisfied almost nobody in his government, particularly its restive right wing, which wanted to see Hamas completely crushed. Polls show that the prime minister’s approval rating has plunged as low as 32 percent, after hitting the mid-80s in July. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called it a deal with "contemptible murderers," creating the odd spectacle of the top Israeli diplomat rejecting a major Israeli foreign-policy decision. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett warned that the cease-fire would prevent Israel from bombing a hypothetical Hamas "rocket factory" in Gaza; he has been such an acerbic critic that Netanyahu at one point asked him to shut up.
Both Liberman and Bennett have their eyes on Netanyahu’s job, and have spent this summer trying to position themselves as the true candidates of the Israeli right. Each has deep ties to Netanyahu: Liberman helped him take control of Likud in the 1990s, and ran on a joint ticket with Bibi last year; Bennett was once the prime minister’s campaign manager. But now, they’re his most dangerous rivals.
In an apparent effort to cover Netanyahu’s right flank, the government claimed nearly 1,000 acres of the occupied West Bank as "state land" this week — Israel’s largest single land grab in the West Bank in decades. The move, which is a likely first step toward major settlement construction, drew fierce international condemnation. However, it also won Netanyahu domestic praise from the right, including from Bennett himself.
Nonetheless, Bibi increasingly seems like a centrist in Israel’s ever more conservative politics. A new poll found that 39 percent of Israelis think Bennett "best represents the views of the right," compared to 28 percent for Netanyahu.
Coming in third in that survey was Liberman, whose political star may be fading. He suffers from a growing reputation as a political opportunist, after opportunistically breaking his party’s unity pact with Likud in July, but declining to leave the government. The foreign minister described himself last month as a leader of the "pragmatic right," contrasting himself with Bennett and the "dogmatic right." But while he routinely issues inflammatory statements — in recent months, he urged supporters to boycott Palestinian-owned businesses in Israel, and threatened to ban Al Jazeera from the country — he can point to few practical accomplishments. Asked on Channel 1 this week to outline his diplomatic successes during the Gaza war, all he could muster was that "200 Hollywood stars" came out in support of Israel.
His Yisrael Beytenu party, meanwhile, has struggled to make inroads outside of its traditional base — immigrants from the former Soviet Union. According to the polls, if elections were held today, the party would be reduced to perhaps the fourth- or fifth-largest bloc.
Even Lieberman has acknowledged that early elections are not in his best interests, and that his political position does not allow him to leave the government at this time.
"We have a cabinet, and I’m sorry to recognize that I was a minority in our cabinet," he told CNN. "But we won a very important part of this coalition, and we will support our government, because the alternative, new elections, early elections, I think it’s a really bad choice for the state of Israel."
It may be Bennett who poses a greater long-term threat to Netanyahu’s position. He is a charismatic newcomer to the Knesset, a former officer in an elite army unit and an entrepreneur who made millions in the software industry. His Jewish Home party won 12 seats in last year’s election, the fourth-largest bloc. The party caters to religious Zionists, and promotes an aggressive nationalism, but it won broader support by adding a focus on social and economic issues, like ending army draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
"Liberman and Bennett behaved the same … but with Liberman it’s seen as political maneuvering," said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political analyst. "Bennett, maybe you don’t like what he says, but you can’t argue that he’s inconsistent."
There are some wild cards who could upset this three-way political contest. Netanyahu could face a challenge from within Likud: Primary elections in 2012 pushed the party far to the right, and Danny Danon, the chairman of the party’s central committee, is a vocal critic of the prime minister. Netanyahu fired Danon from his job as deputy defense minister in July because of his public attacks.
Another possible challenge comes from Yuval Diskin, a former Shin Bet chief now widely seen as preparing to enter politics. He seems prepared to challenge Netanyahu on security issues, long seen as the prime minister’s home turf. "Israel today is led by a flaccid leadership," he wrote in an op-ed for Yedioth Aharonot this weekend, warning that diplomatic paralysis is weakening the country.
But for all the incipient threats and this summer’s political drama, Netanyahu’s unwieldy coalition for now appears oddly stable. The postwar polls show a major drop in the prime minister’s popularity, but they are basically a return to prewar averages. Netanyahu has not collapsed like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose approval rating eventually hit 2 percent after the 2006 war in Lebanon.
Crucially, the public does not see an alternative to Netanyahu. A Haaretz-Dialog poll released last week found that 42 percent of respondents still believe he’s the best choice for prime minister. The second-most popular candidate, with 20 percent of the vote, was "I don’t know."
"He has lots of political problems, but when you ask the general public, they’re sort of satisfied," said Schneider.
A Knesset Channel poll released on Sept. 1 gave Netanyahu 26 seats in the next election, compared to 19 for Bennett and 18 for the Labor Party. Combined with Liberman and Bennett, the center-right bloc would hold 53 mandates by itself, eight shy of a majority.
It’s ironic, then, that the main short-term threat to the coalition could come from the center-left. These figures are not particularly influential: Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni were co-opted into the coalition, while nobody has heard from Labor in months. (A post circulating on Facebook recently compared party leader Isaac Herzog to the golem, a silent creature from Jewish mythology.)
But Lapid might be the one to bring down the government, in order to shore up his ever-weaker position. The TV personality turned centrist politician capitalized on widespread socioeconomic grievances in the previous election, running on a platform of strengthening the middle class that garnered his Yesh Atid party 19 seats in the Knesset, the second-largest bloc.
Netanyahu rewarded Lapid with the post of finance minister — which, as intended, proved to be a poisoned chalice. To avoid raising taxes after the war, Lapid imposed spending cuts and enlarged the budget deficit to more than 3 percent of Israel’s GDP. Next year’s budget will likely require further cuts to social services.
Meanwhile, Lapid’s flagship initiative, a plan to exempt first-time home buyers from taxes, has been tabled. If elections were held today, polls suggest that Yesh Atid would be cut in half, from 19 seats to nine or ten.
Lapid said last week that he does not plan to pull Yesh Atid from the coalition. But analysts say he might try to fail at his central job: passing a budget. If the Knesset does not approve a spending plan by March 31, the country will automatically head for early elections.
"[He’s] not really thinking about what has to be done about Israel’s economic problems," said Avi Temkin, a columnist for the Israeli financial daily Globes. "He’s thinking about what he has to do in order to get to the next elections in a better situation."
But even if the left forces early elections, Netanyahu’s fight will be on the right. For the moment, he seems to have the upper hand: Bennett and Liberman have toned down their rhetoric over the past few days, and the Knesset is in recess until next month. Still, with talks over the Gaza blockade due to resume in Cairo later this month and the international community pushing for renewed negotiations with the Palestinians, the attacks from the right are bound to resurface.
It seems clear that Netanyahu’s right-wing antagonists will have ample fodder with which to attack him. After Israel’s recent land annexation in the West Bank, Netanyahu reportedly shelved plans for another 2,500 homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The move prompted a prominent settler leader to accuse him of imposing a "covert freeze."
Netanyahu was worried about the international backlash; Bennett, though, has no such constraints. He toured the settlement site on Monday and effusively praised the planned construction. "We are building, and the world never liked our building," he said. "We’re still building."