Before the ceasefire agreed between Israel and Palestinian factions, primarily Hamas, on Thursday 20 May, military escalation between the two warring parties had heated up to become the deadliest since 2014. The escalation followed rising tensions in Jerusalem and violent confrontations between the Israeli forces and the Palestinians and extended to Temple Mount, leaving hundreds of injured among Palestinian demonstrators. Internally, mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli cities experienced the worst aggression in years. All of this came at a time of political immobility that existed in Israel for two years and a half due to successive deadlocks in forming a unified government – the latest failure was in 2021 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government. As such, in May, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin entrusted Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid Party, to form a unified cabinet within 28 days. However, amid the military tension with the Gaza Strip and recent acts of violence in Israel Lapid’s failure loomed large, giving Netanyahu a brief opening for saving his political future.
Indeed, the recent Israeli-Palestinian violence left Lapid out of his calculations and posed a significant blow to Netanyahu’s biggest rival seeking his ouster. Lapid’s, a centrist, fears are no longer confined to an ideological dispute with the right-wing parties nor failure to get the support of the Arab members of the Knesset or get the Israeli people convinced of his ability to deal with current violent acts and save the destiny of Israel as his position has become more vulnerable than before the recent developments after Naftali Bennett, Party Leader of Yamina, abandoned the coalition talks headed by Lapid expressing his preference for a wider unity government, leaving Lapid over a barrel with very little opportunity to succeed in forming a new government.
Despite the increasing signs that suggest the recent events will play in the hands of Netanyahu, questions of the impact of the recent escalation on forming the government persist. Is Bennett’s turning back on the change bloc make Lapid’s failure certain? Or will Lapid manage to use the recent escalation and the internal opposition to the current government’s policies to his advantage to oust Netanyahu? Will the recent events be the lifeline for Netanyahu to save his political future or the end of his career?
A look at the current landscape
The internal and external security environment in Israel augurs Lapid’s failure to form a government. The recent violence between Israel and Gaza opened a new front that fueled tensions between the Israelis and the Arab minority where street clashes broke out across Israel, prompting the Israeli President to warn of a civil war between the country’s Arabs and Jews.
In tandem, Bennet’s abandoning Lapid’s anti-Netanyahu block and renewing negotiations with the Netanyahu’s Likud party with the aim of forming a broad-based government put paid to Lapid’s hopes in forming a unity government. By contrast, this step gave new life to Netanyahu who got his hopes up about having time to save his political destiny. The end result is likely to be a fifth round of elections or special direct elections for prime minister.
Relatedly, the situation is made more complex by the increasing chaos at home and the recent conflict with the Gaza Strip, where armed factions in Gaza fired thousands of rockets on Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities. While this situation may undermine support for Netanyahu, it , concurrently, destroys any hopes of Lapid’s getting the Arab members’ support – most notably Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List and the Islamic Movement’s southern wing – where forming a government that calls for the rights of the Palestinian minority and the citizenship rights of Arabs, amid raging conflicts and talks of imminent civil war in mixed cities, seems unlikely.
Early on, the anti-Netanyahu bloc could have brought the Left and the Right together, with Bennett heading the government and it co-opting a party representing Israel’s Northern District Arabs, among other parties that united with the aim of ousting Netanyahu but lacked consensus on the majority of other topics. Now with this political impasse in Israel, expectations of forming an anti-Netanyahu coalition have largely diminished. Ironically, while Netanyahu have been faced with a barrage of criticism and was blamed for all the violence flaring up in Israel for his former policies towards Israel’s Arab Community, and while his government came under criticism for poor handling of the current crisis, he remains the exclusive beneficiary of the current situation. As his rivals were close to forming a new government that would have pushed him out of office, the outbreak of violence gave him more time to take political action that might lead him to stay in power and evade charges of fraud and corruption against him.
Netanyahu’s search for a fake victory to survive
Despite facing a political firestorm at home and war with Palestinian factions, Netanyahu is only trying to play the situation to his advantage. Right now, his chief concern is to lead the Change bloc to miss the opportunity to form an alternative government that would bring an end to his political future. So, Netanyahu seeks to improve his image in Israel and benefit from the current events, all the more so as the events are likely to lead to a fifth round of elections.
On the political level, Netanyahu has done all that he could to undermine Lapid. Immediately after Lapid was mandated to form a government, Netanyahu called on Naftali Bennett, Party Leader of Yamina, and his party members not to participate in Lapid’s government. He also met with leaders of the right-wing parties and agreed to oppose a leftist government headed by Yair Lapid, Party leader of Yesh Atid. Netanyahu efforts paid off as he managed to have Naftali Bennett to his side and provoke division in the opposition bloc that was close to reach a consensus to toss Netanyahu out of office. On the fifth day of attacks on Gaza and during a meeting with the negotiating team of Likud at the headquarters of the Ministry of Public Security in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu facilitated communications between the Likud and Yamina to form a narrow right-wing government upon Lapid’s missing his deadline to from a government.
In parallel, Netanyahu called on the former Likud member Gideon Sa’ar – who split from the party end of 2020 to form his own party – to join him in a right-wing government that protects the Jewish identity and the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Especially noteworthy here is the fact that Sa’ar had left the Likud after Netanyahu was indicted on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust and been accused of favoring personal interests over national ones.
On the security level, Netanyahu has lately been facing a barrage of criticism due to the loss of law and order in the mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli cities that some accused him of being the main culprit of the volatile situation in the Arab cities by passing the “nation-state” law in July 2018 which states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people”, let alone his embrace of anti-Arab racist movements, and allowing repression of Palestinians in Israel and excluding them from the political life, among other policies that paved the way for the clashes between Arabs and Israelis.
It is safe to say there is a close relationship between the Israeli-Palestinian escalation and Netanyahu’s political impasse that followed his failure to form a government. While there is no way to say for certain that Netanyahu provoked the recent conflict, he has undoubtedly contributed to this escalation by reviving the issue of evacuating Sheikh Jarrah’s Palestinian residents, pushing the Israeli police to storm Al-Aqsa Mosque, and declaring the war on the Gaza Strip, all with the aim of achieving political gains and declaring a state of emergency that would enable him to stay longer in power and eliminate the possibility of forming an alternative government. But this is not unprecedented for Netanyahu who is used to fomenting strife whenever he sinks into a quagmire to present himself as Israel’s sole savior who is capable of protecting it against threats. Now, he will seize on the recent events to achieve an illusory victory that will deceptively show him as a “hero”, which is the only way for him to stay in power and evade trial.