Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative party. He runs TRD Policy.
An embattled prime minister under attack because of a troubled mission extricating their country from a decades long foreign entanglement. The responsible Cabinet minister resigned, believing the Prime Minister has gone soft, conceding to technocrats and selling the people short. All eyes turned to a famous hawk, deeply suspicious of Iran and known for his divisive work at Education. Yet, confounding expectations, this minister has refused to resign.
But enough about Theresa May’s troubles and Michael Gove’s decision to support her. This government crisis is taking place in Israel.
The resigned minister is Avigdor Lieberman, the former defence minister who wanted a more aggressive policy in Gaza than the Israeli army thought wise.
The unresigned minister is Natfhali Bennett. Unlike Gove, who refused the post of Brexit Secretary and stayed at Defra, Bennett wanted to be moved to the vacant defence ministry, and threatened to resign if he didn’t get it.
In Israel’s proportional system, parties are small and coalitions are formed after elections rather than within parties. Lieberman and Bennett both lead right-wing parties and were once rivals to lead a broad right-of-centre coalition.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has learned to master the system, tacking sufficiently to the right to compete for voters who prefer the red meat that Bennett in particular promises, while remaining acceptable at least to centre-right politicians like Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister.
As long as Israel’s strategic situation stayed uppermost in voters’ minds this was enough to keep him in the lead. Israeli voters do not, by and large, believe there’s a viable peace process, and the Palestinians have been unable to convince them otherwise.
Their traditional Arab allies are either distracted or hostile – preferring indeed a discreet anti-Iranian alliance with Israel – and the United States and EU, who might otherwise devote some attention to imposing an arrangement less to Israel’s advantage than the status quo, are otherwise occupied.
All this makes Netanyahu’s pose as “Mr Security” less relevant. The focus has shifted to corruption and the web of police investigations closing in on Netanyahu himself.
After Lieberman pulled his party out, he was left with a one seat majority. Had Bennett left the government as well, elections would have followed. Netanyahu had until recently thought new elections to be an advantage. Electoral politics after all is his favourite pitch. A new election and endorsement by “the people” could buy him time before the law might catch up with him.
Indeed, the political landscape appears to favour Netanyahu. Polls suggest his Likud party would be by far the single largest, with around 30 seats. Bennett’s nationalist Bayid Yahudi (Jewish Home) is useful to him because there was no chance of them forming a coalition with anyone else, yielding a right-wing bloc of about 40 seats.
A centrist group, including Kahlon’s Kulanu (currently in the government), a new party formed by Orly Levy (who left Bennett’s party to start her own movement) that refuses to position itself on the traditional left-right security spectrum, and the explicitly centrist Yesh Atid, would together win another 30.
The Left, comprising the Zionist Union (led by Tzipi Livni and Avi Gabbay), Meretz and the Joint (Arab) List, secures another 30.
(Religious parties — the Israeli DUP if you like — traditionally support whichever side gives them the largest subsidies, and command around 15 seats.)
That leaves Yisrael Beitenu, a party with its base among immigrants from the former Soviet Union led by the just-resigned Lieberman, and traditionally leaning rightwards, to make up the balance. Lieberman is a right-winger, but it would be perverse (if hardly unIsraeli) for him to resign from a government only to return to it after elections left the distribution of seats pretty much where it had been before.
Though Netanyahu himself can only rely on about 40 seats – a third of the Knesset, including Bennett’s party, to which the Prime Minister can now consider himself hostage – his opponents lack a unifying figurehead. The search is on, and, as is traditional, is zeroing in on the Army barracks.
The decoy general is Ehud Barack, the former Prime Minister. A polarising figure, he is simultaneously Netanyahu’s former commander, the man who beat him decisively in a direct election for Prime Minister in 1999, and someone despised with such intensity in many parts of the political spectrum that he could be called Israel’s Hillary Clinton.
The officer Likud actually fear is Benny Gantz, recently Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces and already under attack from culture minister (and member of Likud) Miri Regev. Mark him. He could be the man to end Netanyahu’s decade in power.