By Yossi Mekelberg
Once upon a time nuances or even fundamental disagreements within the Israeli government were discussed behind closed doors. Only those privileged enough to be close to the inner circle of the decision makers would become aware of them. In the past deliberate leaks to the media were always a useful tool to reveal rifts or send coded messages to political rivals and allies alike. It seems that the current Israeli government is happier with displaying their dirty laundry in public, preferably on Facebook. A number of ministers are particularly generous in sharing their disagreement with the government’s policy in Gaza via TV studios and in the social media networks. Even as a long-term ceasefire was announced yesterday, three leading ministers rushed to brief the media about their objections to the agreement.
It is unprecedented that an Israeli prime minister would fire a member of the government and rebuke two other senior members of the cabinet in the middle of a war. Disagreements over Operation Protective Edge resulted in the sacking of Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon and continuous public squabbling. The spat over Gaza between Prime Minister Netanyahu with some of the most senior members in the coalition, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftalie Bennett, threatens the stability of the coalition. It is no secret that there are some fundamental differences among members of the cabinet on how the war should best be conducted and what its most realistic outcome would be. A common complaint by ministers is that they are not consulted about the war or negotiations with the Hamas. They argue that at best decisions and developments are reported to them by the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister Moshe Y’alon. It is a reflection of both the decision-making culture of this government and the distrust that Israeli prime minister has in some of the members of his own government. In an astonishing expression of distrust in his government, the Israeli Prime Minister did not call for a vote on the latest ceasefire agreement with the Hamas, nor did he even discuss it with his cabinet.
Trying to assert authority
Sacking Danny Danon, who criticized the government for showing too much restraint (I wonder what his definition of restraint is?) in dealing with the Palestinian factions in Gaza, was understandable. The Prime Minister was, rather unsuccessfully, trying to assert his authority vis-à-vis his ministers, and deter other cabinet members from criticising the government in public. It was evidently wishful thinking. Unlike Danon, Lieberman and Bennett are not members of the Prime Minister’s Likud Party, but leaders of two of the main partners in the coalition. This provides them with more immunity from sacking. Moreover, beyond their substantive criticism, they are not exactly free of political ulterior motives. They disagree whether the intended aim of the war should have been to defeat the Hamas, or ‘just’ deal it a severe blow to make them more receptive to Israeli demands. However, bringing down the prime minister and replacing him is not a lesser motivation for either of them or other political rivals.
One of the outcomes of Operation Protective Edge is likely to be a genuine challenge to replace PM Netanyahu
Beyond sheer opportunistic considerations, there are genuine fundamental discrepancies among Israeli politicians about dealing with the Hamas. Netanyahu might harbor extreme hawkish views on international affairs, nevertheless, he is more aware than some of his colleagues of the complexity of the conflict and the impact it has on relations with the world. In the early days of the war Netanyahu sarcastically commented that it might be more beneficial for Lieberman and Bennett to make the effort to show up for cabinet meetings and express their views than do so in the media. The inconclusiveness of the war opened the way for the more extreme elements in the Israeli government to launch broadsides at the prime minister and the military leadership. The criticism ranges from blaming Netanyahu for a lack of transparency in the decision making process, to the absence of a coherent strategy or courage in the war against the Hamas, and a complete rejection of negotiating with the Hamas. Moreover, irresponsible politicians are riding the nationalist wave that swept through the country and using it to pour scorn on anyone who would dare to take into account concerns expressed by the international community about Israeli military actions in Gaza.
In reality the prime minister and his ministers turned the decision making process into a circus. The Hamas’ leadership must be grateful that the recrimination within the Israeli government is done in public. This provides them invaluable real-time intelligence, at the click of a mouse. Lieberman, for instance, had a dig on his Facebook page at the prime minister’s desire for an agreement based on ‘calm for calm,’ concluding that, “There is no alternative to a determined Israeli move with a single goal – defeating Hamas.” Even Tzipi Livni, who has built some reputation as one of the more pragmatic members of the government, found the need to send a message against negotiations with the Hamas via social media. These recriminations, within the government and also among the opposition, are exacerbated the longer the war continues. The constant barrage of rockets and mortars into Israel make Netanyahu politically vulnerable, and his rivals sense that. His public approval ratings have plummeted, according to one of Israel’s main media networks (Arutz 2), from 82% at the beginning of the war to 38% at the beginning of this week.
The political and military leadership came under increased scrutiny because there was no reduction in the number of rockets and mortars launched at Israel until the ceasefire was called. The distress of the Israeli residents living close to the border with Gaza is visible. This leaves the Israeli prime minister open to accusations from both sides of the political map. Some believe that not enough military force has been unleashed. Others contend that the war should not have happened in the first place, especially without a strategy for success. Seven weeks into this war the official opposition can be seen as almost benign in criticism, compared to the bruising from within the government. Some elements in the opposition, such as the Ultraorthodox parties have openly declared their support of the prime minister. By doing so, they are settling some old scores with Lieberman and Bennet. However, more significantly, they are positioning themselves for a potential return to the coalition benches.
It remains to be seen whether Protective Edge 2014 will be for Netanyahu what The Second Lebanon War was for Ehud Olmert –the beginning of the end of his premiership. His public rebuke of some of the most senior ministers, signals that even at this crucial moment in the war he is ready to risk losing their support. He might be doing this because of what he perceives is for the good of the country, or because he is already eyeing other partners in the coalition. Yet, the constant wrangling in the Israeli political system, especially at time when the army is engaged in a bloody conflict, underlines the intrinsic fragmentation in the Israeli society and lack of good governance. One should not be surprised that one of the outcomes of Operation Protective Edge is likely to be a period of instability in the Israeli political system including a genuine challenge to replace Prime Minister Netanyahu.