64 (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- June 17, 2024)


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. The number 64 presumably refers to all the members of Knesset in Netanyahu’s coalition. Why is this significant?

A. The 64 MKs who remain in Netanyahu’s coalition following the long-anticipated withdrawal of generals Gantz and Eizenkot constitute a seemingly immovable core. In the space of barely 18 months, this coalition has survived two upheavals that would almost certainly have fragmented any of its 36 predecessors in 76 years of Israeli parliamentary history.

The first upheaval was mass public opposition to Netanyahu’s alarming anti-democratic attempt to “reform” the judicial system by downgrading its authority in favor of the legislature where he had, and still has, a right-messianic majority. The second was the attack of October 7, 2023 and the war that has followed. In both cases, the most seasoned political pundits in Israel predicted confidently that the coalition would collapse and Netanyahu and others would resign.

Q. Yet the coalition has held. Why?

A. By Israeli standards, this is an unusually coherent coalition. All its components have a right-conservative-hawkish political orientation. All are either religious or highly tolerant of the needs and demands of orthodox and ultra-orthodox (Haredi) Judaism. Indeed, many of today’s Likud MKs may ostensibly belong to a secular party, but they themselves are national religious (settler or pro-settler) in orientation and would fit easily into Itamar Ben-Gvir or Bezalel Smotrich’s far-right messianic parties.

That the Likud party these extremists are gradually taking over is still led at the most senior level by secular Jews--Netanyahu, Galant, Regev, Katz, etc.--ensures it can still garner roughly one-fourth of the votes in an election. But this no longer describes the party’s real orientation, which is openly West Bank-annexationist and ultra-nationalist.

Further, each component party in the coalition has a strong vested interest in the status quo. The ultra-Orthodox have generous budgets for their yeshivot and, despite the needs of an army at war, comprehensive draft-dodging arrangements for their male youth which were recently again ratified in a preliminary Knesset vote. The two extremist National Orthodox settler parties have, for the first time, grasped control of major security portfolios (police, West Bank), along with the Finance Ministry, that enable them to advance their West Bank-annexationist agenda at the risk of opening another war front. And the Likud, by controlling the remainder, can continue quietly to advance ‘judicial reform’ by weakening legal restrictions in ministries like communications and transportation.

All these narrow, sectarian vested interests would be lost were the coalition to fall. All this would have been jeopardized were even a handful of Likudniks to have abandoned cynicism, revolted after October 7, and called for their prime minister to step aside in accordance with principles of ministerial accountability they have long advocated.

Don’t hold your breath. Here is United Torah Judaism/Agudat Yisrael leader Yitzhak Goldknopf, Haredi minister of housing and construction, in a recent post on Kikar HaShabbat: “I don’t see anyone leaving this government. Who has it bad here? 64 MKs, they have government ministries. There’s a budget. A day after the war the government must fall? How does this government belong to the war?”

Q. Are this man and his Haredi party totally cut off from Israeli society?

A. They ARE Israeli society, or the fastest growing demographic segment thereof.

Q. The IDF is extending compulsory service to three years and reserve service to age 50, and drafting reserves repeatedly for periods of half a year. It needs two reserve divisions it does not have. Its cumulative losses in Gaza (dead and wounded) in eight months total the equivalent of a brigade. The toll on reservists’ families and the economy is growing. And Goldknopf and his colleagues are legislating yet another exemption to service for yeshiva students?

A. At least we can note that Defense Minister Galant, alone in the coalition, voted against the new draft exemption law in deference to the military under his ministerial authority. His secular security-minded colleagues in the Likud shamefully toe the coalition line. Galant, alone, is the one-off exception that proves the rule. That ‘rule’ was underlined recently when ministers Gantz and Eizenkot, who joined the coalition after October 7 in a wartime display of national unity, left it precisely to avoid identifying any longer with Netanyahu’s conscription (and hostage) policies.

Q. And if, despite all the narrow political calculations and vested interests, the government should fall due to internal contradictions or a revolt by more liberal Likudniks over, say, military service. . . ?

A. If you looked at opinion polls six months ago, it appeared that in the shadow of October 7 new elections precipitated by collapse of the political right would lead to the formation of a centrist government. Today that is no longer the case. Netanyahu, ever tenacious and calculating, is shoring up his political base. The center parties, led by Gantz and Yair Lapid, have delivered a lackluster performance and are losing support. That is why this scenario of the coalition of 64 collapsing is so unlikely.

The ‘street’, the hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters who demand a hostage deal and elections, has failed to--or perhaps wisely elected not to--coalesce politically. The hostages, US pressure and the compulsory service issues have not proven strong enough to threaten the coalition. The only likely challenge to Netanyahu on the horizon comes from fellow right-wingers with popular appeal like Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Liberman, Gideon Saar and newcomer Yossi Cohen, a former Mossad head. None are among the 64.

In other words, under present circumstances a transition government or post-election government, however unlikely, might still be led by Netanyahu and still have an interest in prolonging the war, thereby enabling the right to hold onto power.

Q. Why prolong the war?

A. First--the obvious, lest we forget--because Netanyahu, who controls this coalition with masterful if ugly maneuvers, needs it to continue to avoid criminal prosecution that could eventuate in jail time.

But there are now a lot more reasons, good and bad, in the eyes of the Israeli public.

Because by and large the public remains convinced of the need to thoroughly dismantle Hamas in Gaza and to strike a strong blow at Hezbollah in Lebanon. Because October 7 taught the public that these pro-Iran Islamist movements represent a genuinely existential threat to Israel. Because the attitude of Israel’s Arab state neighbors--fighting shoulder to shoulder with Israel against Iran in April, tolerating Israel’s war against Hamas because they too fear the version of Islam it represents--appears to confirm this assessment.

Because even the Biden administration in Washington, with all its criticism of Netanyahu’s world view and behavior, continues to back Israel against Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. And, as Netanyahu undoubtedly calculates, President Biden may have only half a year to remain in office. (Even if a reelected President Trump is less supportive than Biden in this war--a position he has hinted at--Netanyahu undoubtedly calculates that he will have an easier time finding common language with Trump on a host of other issues.)

Because the extreme elements in Netanyahu’s coalition, Smotrich and Ben Gvir, can at the drop of a hat bring down the coalition in protest over a ceasefire. Because under cover of this war in Gaza they are radically expanding their security and settler control over the West Bank.

And because this coalition of 64 represents the antithesis of the liberal, two-state orientation of the secular Gaza Periphery settlers and Nova/Re’im music festival participants who constitute a large proportion of the remaining hostages, but whose share of the Israeli political pie is shrinking. Sad to say, if the hostages were National Orthodox or Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, the coalition’s attitude toward the ceasefire price to pay for their release would be far more forthcoming.

All these, then, are factors likely to prolong this war and, by extension, this coalition, and to prevent discussion of any concrete plan for transferring authority in Gaza to Palestinians.

Q. What about international pressure, boycotts, legal measures and accusations of genocide at The Hague? Can an Israeli government survive in this sort of growing global isolation?

A. Netanyahu and most of his coalition partners thrive ideologically on images of Jewish victimhood and accusations of anti-Semitism--particularly when some of Israel’s critics in Europe and on American campuses really do sound anti-Semitic.

Israel’s Arab neighbors remain for the most part quietly supportive in view of the Islamist factor.

A recently published CIA assessment concluded that Netanyahu believes he can dodge pressures to present a plan for post-war Gaza. He “probably believes he can maintain support from his security chiefs and prevent [coalition] defections” by continuing to discuss the future of the Strip in “vague terms”.

Q. What about Hezbollah? The situation on Israel’s northern border is escalating daily.

A. On the one hand, Hezbollah and its Iranian patron really are, like Hamas, Israel’s existential enemy. The chances of a negotiated ceasefire on the northern front, even after a ceasefire of sorts in Gaza, are slim in view of Israel’s demand not to return to status quo ante with Hezbollah but to push its Islamist forces back from the border so 60,000 refugees can return to homes in northern Israel.

On the other hand, all-out war with Hezbollah now would mean a major missile attack on Tel Aviv and other Israeli population centers. It could mean Iranian involvement, with global strategic ramifications. And it would certainly prolong for many more months the existence of Netanyahu’s right-messianic-annexationist coalition of 64.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Here is Nachum Barnea in Monday’s Yediot Aharonot: “[This is] Israel’s first Kahanist government . . . its stability is the reverse image of that of the country. . . . A lot depends on the combat soldiers--the reservists, the conscripts, the standing army officers and their families. They are the first to pay the price of submitting to the Haredi sector, the National Religious, the opening of a third front in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].

“The US administration . .  . is the main actor constraining Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. It acts first of all on the basis of its own concepts and interests, but it also listens to the voices coming from Israel. When a foreign government refuses to give up on Israel, who are we to lose hope?”