While Israel is accustomed to political upheaval, this week was unusual even by Israeli standards. It began with a botched operation in Gaza and with southern Israel blanketed with Hamas rockets, continued with an unusual Jerusalem mayoral election, and culminated with Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as defense minister and the unofficial kickoff of the next Knesset election campaign. While not all of these events are directly related, they are linked in that they will all determine to a large degree the composition and direction of the next government.
The most straightforward event to analyze is the fighting in Gaza, as it followed a familiar pattern that has been repeating since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Prime Minister Netanyahu has held fast to a number of principles related to Gaza since taking the helm of the Israeli government in spring 2009 on the heels of Operation Cast Lead, with the two predominant ones being that he does not want to reverse Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and he also does not want to topple Hamas. Going back into Gaza, forcibly removing Hamas from power, and remaining as an active occupying force would cost Israel enormously in blood and treasure, and Netanyahu is neither alone nor irresponsible in his desire to avoid this scenario. In addition to being costly, doing so would strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which would take over Gaza following Israel doing the hard work of rooting out Hamas, and Netanyahu prefers a weakened PA in the West Bank with no foothold in Gaza as it keeps the Palestinians divided and preoccupied with infighting. This explains why Gaza policy remains in a holding pattern that does not change irrespective of whether it is quiet, whether there are violent riots taking place along the border fence, or whether there are hundreds of rockets launched at Israel. No matter what hawkish words come out of Netanyahu’s mouth, he has diligently worked hard to maintain the status quo.
Hamas does not want a large scale escalation either, which sounds strange after Monday, when more rockets and mortars were fired at Israel than on any other single day since Hamas took over Gaza. But it becomes clearer when setting aside the number of rockets and looking instead at their location. If Hamas was looking to spark something larger and was not afraid of a massive IDF response, it would have shot rockets at Tel Aviv, blanketed Be’er Sheva, and tried to shut down Ben Gurion Airport as it did in 2014. Israel and Hamas are locked into a tit-for-tat game, where each side demonstrates that it is responding to the other, but neither side wants to upend the entire chess board by flinging it off the table.
Netanyahu’s relative cautious response, where he did what he could to avoid an all-out war partially by allowing hours of debate inside the security cabinet without actually calling a vote on whether to escalate or accept a ceasefire, is in my view the responsible course of action. But it activated a predictable and cynical political response, not only from the opposition but from his own coalition partners. Bennett, who for months has been taunting Lieberman over his alleged timidity to use overwhelming force in Gaza, immediately made it clear that he was not in favor of a ceasefire and wants to see Hamas pay a steeper price. Lieberman upped the ante by not only expressing his extreme displeasure at the turn of events – a consistent theme of his for weeks as he has argued against any type of accommodation with Hamas – but by resigning his post as defense minister and quitting the coalition.
As Netanyahu’s ministers rushed to criticize him on security from his right flank, so too did opposition figures such as Zionist Union chief Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid. In Bennett and Lieberman’s cases, they have served in a security cabinet that has heard repeated warnings from the IDF professionals about the folly of reoccupying Gaza and know that it won’t and shouldn’t be done, but want to capitalize on unhappiness on the right with Netanyahu’s typical risk aversion. In Gabbay and Lapid’s cases, they have not put forth actual suggestions of how they would specifically do things differently, but are happy to voice nebulous criticisms about Netanyahu giving in to terror and selling out the residents of southern Israel. This all combines for a campaign season ahead in which nearly all politicians – left, right, and center – try to assert that they will be toughest on Gaza, ramp up the rhetoric, and play to the genuine populist anger that is sweeping through the ranks of right leaning Israelis after months of incendiary kites and balloons, breaches of the Gaza border fence, and now rockets. Whatever momentum was building in favor of an alternate approach to Gaza that seeks to ease the humanitarian crisis, rebuild Gaza’s economy, lower the temperature and appetite for armed conflict as a response to Israel, and bring the PA back to Gaza, is now going to be dead in the water until the end of the election campaign.
Far more overlooked but perhaps even more important for national political trends was the Jerusalem municipal election on Tuesday, in which Moshe Lion beat out Ofer Berkovitch. Lion was backed by Shas, Degel HaTorah (the non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Haredi party), Bayit Yehudi, and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. In other words, a bizarre alliance of Mizrahi and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionists, and militantly secular Russians. This would ordinarily mean an electoral cakewalk in Jerusalem, but Berkovitch – who was the secular candidate – was the beneficiary of a split within the Haredi world, where the Hasidic Ashkenazi Agudat Yisrael decided to tell its voters that they were free to vote for whomever they wanted as revenge for Degel HaTorah not supporting the Hasidic candidate in the first round. Berkovitch was also able to capitalize on the fact that a candidate backed by the strange bedfellows of Aryeh Deri and Lieberman, who are united by nothing more than their reputations for corruption, is one who is not going to be a paragon of good or transparent governance. But the biggest takeaway is not that Lion ultimately won; it is rather that his win was relatively close, and that it is a harbinger of a potential earthquake in Haredi politics.
The split between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic Ashkenazi Haredim has been festering for awhile over competition for resources and which wing should have a greater say than the other. It has also been magnified by a general weakening of rabbinic authority in political matters among Haredi voters, who can no longer be relied upon to vote in seamless blocs. If the split in the Jerusalem municipal elections between Degel HatTorah and Agudat Yisrael – which have run together as UTJ in national elections since 1992 – ends up replicating itself on a national level, while Haredi voters in larger numbers generally decide that they will go their own way, it will transform Israeli coalition politics even more than the competition between Likud, Bayit Yehudi, and Yisrael Beiteinu over who can capture the largest share of right-wing voters. The Haredi parties have been Netanyahu’s most stalwart and in some ways easiest political partners, and if a split into multiple parties and more independent voting means that not all of them make the Knesset threshold, then Netanyahu is going to have a far bigger headache in constructing his next government than in trying to keep both Bennett and Lieberman happy when only one of them can occupy the Defense Ministry.