The IDF successfully evacuated the Beit Hamachpela building in Hebron today without incident – making me very happy that the proper procedure was followed and the rule of (military) law prevailed – but there are going to be long term political consequences that have the potential to upset the stability of the Netanyahu coalition. The evacuation was driven by Ehud Barak, who bluntly told Netanyahu that he had no choice in the matter and that there could be no further delays in carrying out the IDF missive, and this has predictably made Barak a target of right wing ire. Moshe Ya’alon, who is vice PM and himself a former IDF chief of staff like Barak, has lashed out at Barak and called for authority over the settlements to be taken away from him and given to a special ministerial committee, which would be highly unusual given the fact that the legal status of the West Bank is that it is under military occupation and hence unmistakably under the purview of the defense minister. Barak is not taking the criticism lying down and accused Ya’alon of playing politics with national security issues, which will not endear him to other Likud members who are wary of him to begin with. Additionally, Avigdor Lieberman made some comments about coalition members taking unilateral moves and contrasting that with what he described as Yisrael Beiteinu’s efforts to keep the coalition together, and warned that Barak had made a “grave diplomatic mistake” by not taking into account the views of other government members.

Netanyahu and Barak are an odd pair, bound together over the Iran issue but not a good match in any other way. Barak has no attachment to the settlements or to the Israeli right wing, and does not see any reason to jump through hoops to remain in the right’s good graces. He wants to serve as defense minister and continue to dominate Israel’s defense and security policy, and his breaking away from Labor and forming his own Atzmaut party for the sole purpose of remaining in the cabinet betrays the fact that he has no intention of attempting to become PM at any point. Unlike Netanyahu, traditional political and electoral concerns are the last thing from Barak’s mind at the moment. Netanyahu maintains this co-dependent relationship because he needs Barak around to deal with Iran, and Barak is no mere figurehead in this regard but a true partner as the two of them have frozen out the rest of the security cabinet.

Now, however, a number of issues are coming to a head that will test whether Bibi can hold his coalition together. It appears increasingly unlikely that an attack on Iran is imminent, a point driven home by Hillary Clinton’s warning yesterday that a unilateral Israeli strike is not in anyone’s best interests. If Iran is put on the back burner, then the Netanyahu-Barak relationship will come under a good deal of stress. Nobody questions Barak’s stranglehold on the defense portfolio while Israel is contemplating serious military action, but if a consensus emerges to delay it means that Barak is no longer a vital piece of the coalition puzzle. The evacuation of the Hebron settlers has meanwhile inflamed members of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, and Netanyahu’s base is going to start clamoring loudly to boot Barak out of the coalition. Given the fact that such a move would be seen as naked politics taking priority over legitimate national security concerns, this will be a tough move for Netanyahu to make. He has so publicly hitched his wagon to Barak that removing him as defense minister over an issue that Barak indisputably has authority over is bound to damage Netanyahu’s credibility both at home and abroad. If, however, Netanyahu ignores the anger coming from Likud voters and even from other coalition ministers such as Ya’alon and Lieberman, then he is putting his position as PM in danger. There is no way for him to replace Yisrael Beiteinu should it decide to leave, since a deal with Kadima before the next election reduces Kadima’s Knesset contingent is impossible, and Mofaz seems determined so far to see if he can make a play at becoming prime minister. If there is indeed a right wing revolt over the Hebron issue and a narrative takes hold that accuses Netanyahu of caving to Barak too quickly, the stability of the Netanyahu coalition is going to be seriously challenged. Stay tuned…

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