Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. This is Netanyahu’s dream coalition: no leftists, few centrists, no Arabs. Nearly all of the 64 coalition MKs are right-wingers, ultra-Orthodox or messianic Jews. Why shouldn’t it last another year?
A. Granted, the advent of a new year, 5784 on the Hebrew calendar, could be seen as simply a convenient excuse to assess this government’s odds for survival. Still, so many cracks have emerged in the coalition’s foundations in recent days, that a look at its staying power appears extremely timely.
Q. What heads your list of threats to coalition unity?
A. Many would say the threat posed by the right-wing messianists led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. After all, they are constantly taking outrageous pro-settler initiatives and making racist-fascist statements that embarrass Netanyahu (and Israel!) on the global stage and especially in Washington. I disagree, if only because these extremists have no alternative coalition. But more about them below.
In contrast, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) factions in the coalition have an alternative. Benny Gantz of National Unity would welcome them into a coalition led by him. Further, the Haredim are accustomed to attaching themselves to whatever coalition needs them and offers to promote a minimum of their needs.
But why would the Haredim bolt the coalition? Well, in their enthusiasm for linking up with right-wing political allies, the Haredim asked for and received commitments to extremely far-reaching and controversial legislative commitments that are not likely to be fulfilled anytime soon.
The Haredi parties would be hard put to remain in a coalition that reneges on its commitments to them; they could not justify this to their constituents. They have already begun hinting that if the Knesset does not pass legislation exonerating their youth permanently from military or equivalent service, they will reconsider their coalition membership. And that legislation is so repugnant even to some Likudniks, that its chances of being enacted any time soon are low.
Q. Doesn’t the Likud itself, fully half this coalition, have a few moderate members of Knesset who could refuse to support some of Netanyahu’s and Justice Minister Levin’s extreme proposals?
A. Netanyahu has ensured that most Likud members of Knesset are extremist right-wingers like Levin. Over the years, moderates like Beni Begin, Limor Livnat and Dan Meridor have left the Likud in disgust and retired from politics, and are now among Netanyahu’s biggest critics.
Still, Defense Minister Yoav Galant, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel and one or two additional Knesset members are becoming increasingly critical of coalition initiatives like the effort to stack the committee that selects judges, and have objected to coalition policies like the threat not to comply with High Court of Justice rulings. When the chips are down, will these lofty principled positions be translated into a vote against the government?
A more likely scenario is a defection or resignation by Galant, perhaps joined by others, in deference to extreme dissatisfaction within the IDF and among other elements in the security community. One cause could be growing disunity and fissures within the IDF caused by ‘judicial reform’. In particular, Israel Air Force pilots could resign in protest at the loss of High Court protection internationally in the event they are charged abroad with war crimes as a result of civilian deaths in combat.
Q. You’re suggesting a war scenario . . .
A. Israel’s intelligence community is warning against the danger, sometime soon, of a multi-front war involving Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Here the image of a weak, fragmented Israel projected by the government’s anti-democratic initiatives could be a key incentive for these Islamist enemies to launch armed provocations. Alternatively, unrest in the West Bank triggered by the passing from the scene of 87-year old Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) could quickly degenerate into a new intifada.
In either case, or both, heavy Israeli civilian losses would likely provoke public and political pressures on Netanyahu to form a national unity government. By the same token Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition National Unity party, would come under pressure to drop his objections to serving again under Netanyahu, precisely in the interest of national unity.
Q. Hasn’t Netanyahu himself intimated that he would welcome into the coalition a more moderate Knesset faction like National Unity, thereby presumably pushing out Smotrich and Ben Gvir?
A. Netanyahu usually sends out feelers to Gantz, and leaks that fact, when he wants to intimidate Smotrich and Ben Gvir, or the Likud’s extreme Yariv Levin, and keep them in line, or when he seeks to signal moderation to the Biden administration. Netanyahu’s problem here is his extreme lack of credibility in the eyes of all the Knesset opposition parties (and of Biden). In particular, Gantz and Yair Lapid, heads of the two largest opposition parties, both have logged bitter experience as Netanyahu’s coalition partners in recent years.
Q. But surely Smotrich and Ben Gvir are an acute embarrassment to Netanyahu and his government. He is constantly having to repair the damage they do.
A. Ben Gvir and Smotrich answer to an extremist constituency which has little patience with the niceties of democratic governance and human rights. If Netanyahu comes down too hard on one or both of them, they could indeed bring down the coalition. Yet in terms of realpolitik considerations this could be suicidal for them. So the issue provoking them to abandon the coalition would have to be extreme: say, harsh security measures against West Bank settlers, prompted by international and Israeli public condemnation and security community pressure, in response to atrocities committed by the settlers.
Q. What about pressure from the Biden administration?
A. This is a particularly intriguing scenario in view of the approaching Biden-Netanyahu meeting scheduled this week for the United Nations General Assembly session in New York. The more moderate Likudniks and the Haredim are particularly sensitive to the ramifications of American pressure.
The Biden administration is highly critical of the Netanyahu government on two fronts: the Palestinian issue and undemocratic ‘judicial reform’ measures. The administration is also a vital actor for effecting any sort of breakthrough in Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Currently, Netanyahu cannot follow through on some of his commitments to Biden--and indirectly, to the Saudis--regarding financial and security assistance to the Palestinian Authority due to opposition from the extremists in the Netanyahu Cabinet. This is a source of embarrassment in Israel’s relations with Washington.
But it would take an extreme instance of American pressure, e.g. withholding of security assistance, to create fissures in the coalition, and this is extremely unlikely. Moreover, Netanyahu is likely to hold out against Biden administration criticism or pressure in the hope that Donald Trump, a like-minded US leader, will return to power in the November 2024 presidential election, now scarcely a year away.
The kind of United States pressure that would be needed to bring down Netanyahu’s government is highly unlikely in the coming year.
Q. Suppose Netanyahu loses the support of, say, five Likud or Haredi members of Knesset and his government is about to fall . . .
A. He would have two options. First, he could try, despite the bad odds, to coopt Gantz and/or Lapid into the coalition. To tempt them, he might suggest that he would only serve an additional year or two--an idea already broached by a fellow Likudnik--before transferring power to one of them. He would agree to expel Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s messianic-Kahanist parties from the coalition. He would give Gantz and Lapid senior ministries and would offer to share with them the credit for moderate gestures to the Palestinians and for a possible consequent breakthrough with Saudi Arabia.
Needless to say, Netanyahu’s problem would still be his lack of credibility. The minute he opens his mouth, fully two-thirds of the country suspect he is lying.
If nothing else works and the coalition is crumbling, disbanding the Knesset and calling new elections would give Netanyahu another six months or so in office even if he and his political allies were to lose in the election. He would seek to postpone or stretch out this scenario to the greatest extent possible in the hope that, say, the advent or prospect of another Trump presidency would boost Netanyahu’s electability in Israel.
Q. Bottom line?
A. Barring a war scenario, this Netanyahu coalition, the most extreme in Israel’s history, is more likely to fall due to internal disputes and contradictions than due to external events and pressures.