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Netanyahu Overplayed his Hand—Elections Are All but Inevitable | Opinion

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shocked Israel on Tuesday when he accepted the ceasefire terms Hamas set forth. Almost every observer was confident that after 460 missiles had been fired on Israel, Netanyahu would insist on taking more vigorous action, before agreeing to a ceasefire.

Netanyahu had posited before the renewed attacks that almost nothing justified losing soldiers’ lives only to return to the status quo. Still, in light of the concentrated missile barrage, his agreement to an immediate ceasefire seemed hard to believe. Reports that emerged from the security cabinet meeting initially indicated unanimous approval for the ceasefire. However, later in the evening some committee members, including Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett clarified they had opposed the decision. Sderot residents (Israel’s city closest to the Gaza border) were incensed and began to protest at the town entrance on Tuesday night.

Prime Minister Netanyahu no doubt believed he made the right decision and imagined that his image as “Mr. Security” would allow him to ride out the initial criticism of the decision. Netanyahu was likely hopeful an agreement could be reached with Hamas in the coming months, then the border would be quiet, and all would be forgiven. Presumably, he did not anticipate the firestorm his decision would unleash.

Early Wednesday morning, Lieberman announced he would hold a press conference at 1 PM. Speculation began almost immediately that he would announce his resignation. A short time later, I appeared on i24News to discuss events of the previous 24 hours. With me on the special news show was former MK Michael Kleiner, who currently serves as President of the Likud’s internal court (i.e., the court of Netanyahu’s ruling party). During the broadcast, I was shocked to hear a Likud official publicly state the following possible rationale for Netanyahu’s swift acceptance of the ceasefire, a decision which Kleiner, of course, fully supported. Kleiner said it was important not to weaken Hamas too much. 

Why? Because if Hamas became too weak, the Palestinian Authority might regain control of the Gaza Strip. If they successfully did that, they might become a serious negotiating partner. Kleiner asserted the one thing Israel cannot afford is a serious partner for peace, as that might lead to a two-state solution. That, according to Kleiner, would be the real threat to Israel. Does Kleiner’s statement represent the actual beliefs of Prime Minister Netanyahu? I certainly do not know. However, both Kleiner and Netanyahu share a robust ideological attraction to the underlying views of the Herut party, which always opposed to giving up any part of the West Bank. If Netanyahu does concur with Kleiner, it explains why the Prime Minister, despite his bluster has never done anything that might threaten Hamas’ rule—an organization that is committed to Israel’s destruction.

GettyImages-967184322 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a press conference after a meeting with the German chancellor at the Chancellery in Berlin on June 4, 2018. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

My on-air conversation took place early in the morning. By 1 PM Lieberman had indeed announced he was resigning as Defense Minister, claiming acceptance of the ceasefire was the final straw in his disagreements with the government. Lieberman then called for immediate elections. His resignation, together with the rest of his party left the government with a bare majority in the Knesset, holding 61 seats (out of 120). The possibility that Netanyahu would have to call for early elections already seemed very real, on Wednesday afternoon. Education Minister Bennett made it known his party would only remain in the government if he becomes Defense Minister, something Netanyahu will be very reluctant to agree to.

Throughout Wednesday, Netanyahu met with the heads of most of the principal parties of his coalition, most of whom enjoined him to call for immediate elections. Two polls came out over the course of the day, both indicating that over 70 percent of Israelis, including the majority of Likud members, opposed Netanyahu’s handling of the latest crisis. Thursday night, a few thousand residents of the Gaza region came to make their voices heard in Tel Aviv, blocking a major intersection. I spoke to several demonstrators and asked them what they wanted to achieve. Their unanimous answer was—quiet back at home. One said: “I want the government to flatten a few blocks of Gaza next time a rocket is fired, not all of Gaza,” he said, “just a few blocks.” Another area resident, Naftali of Sderot shared: “I have four children, ages two, four, six and eight. All of them are sleeping in the secured safe room tonight. All of them suffer from PTSD. I don’t care what the government has to do stop this; they have to do something and not just talk.”

Friday morning Bennet and Netanyahu met and could not reach an agreement, it was agreed that elections are the only option. Elections will be held most likely in March. A few weeks ago, Netanyahu was riding high. After the past week, his credentials as “Mr. Defense” have indeed been tarnished. While few believed the current government would last until November 2019, when regular elections are scheduled, the sudden call for early elections has caught all of the political parties by surprise.

Beyond the most recent events, there is the “X-factor” in the coming election—and that is the looming criminal investigations against Netanyahu. The police have already recommended he be indicted in two cases. It is widely expected that next month Police will propose indictment of Netanyahu on charges of bribery in Case 4,000, a.k.a. “the Bezeq case.”

It has been Netanyahu's dream to become the longest serving Prime Minister of Israel, exceeding the period served by Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. To accomplish that, Netanyahu must remain Prime Minister for another six months. Whether he will achieve that goal is much more in question this week than last.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​

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