The ongoing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories has claimed around 200 lives in the past week, the vast majority of them Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Mounting civilian casualties over the weekend and Israel’s targeting of a Gaza City tower that housed media offices including the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera led the Biden administration to step up pressure on Israel to ensure the safety of journalists and seek a quick resolution to its military campaign in Gaza.
The Israeli government says it shared “smoking gun” intelligence with President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials showing that the militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, was using the building as an intelligence office to plot attacks on Israeli civilians, effectively using the press as human shields. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also stressed that nobody was killed in the attack that leveled the building, as Israel had warned its occupants to evacuate beforehand. Still, the image of the Israeli military bombing journalists’ headquarters was bound to fuel perceptions of its disregard for collateral damage.
Despite growing international pressure to seek a ceasefire, Netanyahu said on Sunday that the offensive against Hamas would continue for some time as Israel sought to exact a “heavy price” on the group for rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. Israel will inevitably “win” this round of fighting once it has “mowed the grass,” as some in the Israeli security community offensively describe these military campaigns. In practice, that will mean killing some Hamas militants along with many innocent bystanders, and destroying a lot of vital civilian infrastructure in Gaza, all in the effort to degrade the ability and/or willingness of militants to launch more rockets.’
This will be a hollow victory, however, as it will only return Israel to a status quo of ever-present tension and threat: in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and every Israeli town where Jews and Arabs live in close proximity. The only real winner here is the man who sold Israelis on the idea that this state of permanent war and occupation is acceptable: Netanyahu himself.
Before this escalation, Netanyahu looked to be on the verge of losing the prime ministry, which he has held for the past 12 years. His rivals, Yair Lapid of the center-right Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett of the right-wing nationalist Yamina party, were in talks to form a “government of change” spanning left to right, united by little more than a desire to finally unseat Netanyahu. The United Arab List, an Arab Islamist party, was being courted provide the last few seats Lapid and Bennett needed to secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, but the violence derailed those negotiations. On Thursday, Bennett announced that the government of change was “off the table” and he had resumed negotiations with Netanyahu’s Likud party.
This political horse-trading comes after parliamentary elections in March, Israel’s fourth in two years, in which neither Netanyahu nor his rivals have been able to muster a majority coalition. Likud won the most seats, giving Netanyahu the first crack at forming a government, but he failed to do so before his May 4 deadline. Lapid, whose party performed second-best, now has a mandate to form a government, which will expire in a few weeks. His tentative power-sharing deal with Bennett would have seen the two men take turns as prime minister. It now looks as though Lapid will also fail to form a government.
Bennett on Thursday said his party could not join a government with the UAL while violence is ongoing in mixed Jewish-Arab cities — a nod to the inherent absurdity of a coalition between Jewish nationalists and Palestinian Islamists. He claims to be working toward a broader unity government that would include Netanyahu, Lapid, New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz. There is little chance of this coming to fruition, however.
With the “change coalition” off the table, Netanyahu remains prime minister for the time being and has yet another chance of rescuing his career. Once Lapid’s mandate expires, there will be a three-week period during which any member of the Knesset can form a government if they can secure the support of 61 MKs. Netanyahu could secure his position during this period, but would need to peel off a few defectors from some of the opposition parties: Even with Yamina on his side, he doesn’t have a majority, and governing with the UAL is a nonstarter for his far-right allies.
In the most likely scenario, Israelis will end up going to the polls for a fifth time. Netanyahu has pushed for changing the law to allow for direct election of the prime minister, to govern separately from the Knesset, but he does not appear to have the votes for that in the legislature, either. The idea of changing the country’s entire system of government so that he can remain prime minister without a Knesset majority is indicative of how desperate he is to stay in power. Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption, and a more secure hold on the prime ministry would better position him to seek some form of immunity.
Meanwhile, by scuttling the prospective change government, the ongoing violence has bought Netanyahu some time to change his fortunes. His rivals are not blind to this: Lapid on Sunday alleged that political considerations were at play in the government’s response to the crisis, noting that “the fire always breaks out precisely when it’s most convenient” for the embattled prime minister. It’s impossible to predict how Netanyahu, Lapid, or the other contenders would fare in yet another election: Both the far right and the change camp could argue that the latest escalation in the conflict is a reason to vote for them. If what’s past is prologue, Israel could find itself in another political deadlock six months from now, with Netanyahu still hanging on.
It is ironic that the current violence should benefit Netanyahu politically, because it graphically illustrates his failures. He has buried the peace process, foreclosed the possibility of a Palestinian state, brought virulently anti-Arab Kahanists into his government, and opted to “manage” the conflict rather than resolve it. His message to Palestinians in the occupied territories and to Arab citizens of Israel is that they will always be treated as the enemy, that their rights will always be secondary to the rights of Jews, and that the state that rules over them (directly or indirectly) will never value their lives. His message to Israeli Jews is equally bleak: The conflict is existential, the Arabs will always despise you, and so you must fortify against them and accept a perpetual state of war or ceasefire, but never actual peace.
A dozen years of this divisive right-wing leadership has fomented extremism and racism, alienated Israel from American Jews and the community of Western democracies, and led to political paralysis, stagnation, and civil strife. The Jerusalem Post — hardly a left-wing rag — published an editorial on Saturday urging Bennett to reconsider his decision to abandon the change coalition, charging that “the current leadership has invested itself tirelessly in weakening the democratic institutions of the country” and that Israel is “in desperate need of change.” Even many right-leaning Israelis can see that Netanyahu has been putting his own interests before the country’s interests for some time.
The Jerusalem Post editors call for a “restart coalition” dedicated to “strengthening the foundations of this country as both a Jewish and a democratic state.” It’s hard to imagine what such a coalition would look like, however, when most of the key players in Israeli politics are only interested in one half of that vision.