Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Bibi in a Corner

Benjamin Netanyahu's once-formidable coalition is crumbling. Here's how his political opponents can win back power.

By , a former Israeli politician who served as Israel’s justice minister from 1999 to 2001.
Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images
Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images
Baz Ratner-Pool/Getty Images

The short marriage between Israel's ruling Likud Party and Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset, is ending as these lines are written. The official reason for the coalition's collapse -- a disagreement over a bill that would ensure the conscription of ultra-Orthodox youth -- is not the main reason it has come apart. The Likud-Kadima split was primarily the result of fear: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fear of losing his original coalition partners, and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz's fear of a looming political disaster.

Although Kadima has rejoined the opposition, there is no guarantee that it has averted a wipeout at the ballot box. The polls show that a clear majority of Israelis support Netanyahu retaining his position after the next election, while Kadima's departure from the government has analysts chattering that it could be heading for political oblivion.

Netanyahu may dominate Israel's political sphere today, but don't be so quick to assume he's unbeatable. Israeli elections are between parties and not between people, so there is not a great deal of significance to polls showing Netanyahu as the preferred candidate for the premiership. Events in Israel or around the world could also intercede, throwing the prime minister off balance. Furthermore, a smart campaign by his political opponents highlighting the security risks of a strike on Iran just might be enough to bring Bibi down.

The short marriage between Israel’s ruling Likud Party and Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset, is ending as these lines are written. The official reason for the coalition’s collapse — a disagreement over a bill that would ensure the conscription of ultra-Orthodox youth — is not the main reason it has come apart. The Likud-Kadima split was primarily the result of fear: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fear of losing his original coalition partners, and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz’s fear of a looming political disaster.

Although Kadima has rejoined the opposition, there is no guarantee that it has averted a wipeout at the ballot box. The polls show that a clear majority of Israelis support Netanyahu retaining his position after the next election, while Kadima’s departure from the government has analysts chattering that it could be heading for political oblivion.

Netanyahu may dominate Israel’s political sphere today, but don’t be so quick to assume he’s unbeatable. Israeli elections are between parties and not between people, so there is not a great deal of significance to polls showing Netanyahu as the preferred candidate for the premiership. Events in Israel or around the world could also intercede, throwing the prime minister off balance. Furthermore, a smart campaign by his political opponents highlighting the security risks of a strike on Iran just might be enough to bring Bibi down.

Netanyahu will present himself as "Mr. Security" — the man who succeeded in ensuring peace and quiet, who did not make any concessions to his neighbors, and who kept Israel growing while the world economy faltered. Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich and Mofaz will compete amongst themselves over who has a better social agenda — they will assail Netanyahu’s government for the ever-growing wealth disparities, the ever-richer tycoons, and the ever-rising cost of living. Yair Lapid, a TV personality-turned-politician who has become the star of the moment, will emphasize the need for Israelis to bear the burdens of citizenship equally — particularly when it comes to military service.

Not a single Israeli leader will make the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians his or her flagship policy. Each believes that a majority of the public supports an agreement along the lines of the Clinton Parameters or the Geneva Accord — but at the same time, all believe that such an agreement is impossible under current circumstances.

If this is indeed how the campaign plays out, and there is no significant global or domestic upheaval, then Netanyahu’s chances of winning are very good. But if Bibi’s opponents shift the conversation to the burning issue of our time — the possibility of a unilateral strike by Israel on Iran’s uranium-enrichment facilities in the next few months — that could all change.

Today, the situation is quite clear: Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak consider that Israel has a rapidly closing window where a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is technically feasible, and they intend to attack if sanctions and negotiations do not produce effective results. Such a development might be disastrous for Israeli security — and Netanyahu’s rivals should say so.

There is broad opposition to unilateral action within Israel’s security establishment. The Israeli security chiefs who have retired from office during the last year, notably former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, oppose an Israeli strike. They believe the best-case scenario is that an attack will merely delay Iran’s nuclearization and argue that it could encourage Iran to produce a nuclear weapon if it has not already decided to do so. They would prefer the military option be implemented — if at all — by the United States, which has far more effective military hardware for this purpose. This is also the opinion of the Israeli parties competing against the right wing, even if not all of them have expressed it publicly.

This is no trivial matter for Israelis. Most citizens would not want to take the military option off the table, and most are opposed to Israel carrying out a strike alone. Barak has already promised that in such an event, Iranian retaliation would cause no more than 500 deaths. Unsurprisingly, such statements have done little to calm the general public.

Iran is a critical issue that Israeli parties should raise in the coming election. It is relevant to the lives of all Israelis, and a different electoral outcome could prevent a conflict from taking place at all. It is likely impossible for the parties to the left of the Likud to join forces — each one has its own message, its own character, and its own culture. However, there is no impediment to all of them making a commitment during their campaigns that they will not lend their support to an Israeli attack on Iran.

This is a simple and dramatic message, one that is easily understood and remembered in an election campaign. Israelis, and the entire world, should know that the results of Israel’s next election will determine whether the country attacks Iran, or whether it imposes the responsibility for preventing Iranian uranium enrichment on the world. The answer to this question will determine, to a large extent, Israel’s future. Let us hope Israeli voters choose wisely.

Yossi Beilin is a former Israeli politician. He served as Israel’s justice minister from 1999 to 2001 and was the initiator of the Oslo Process, the Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings, and the Geneva Initiative.

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