To stave off a war that no one really wanted, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week called it quits after responding to more than 400 Gaza-fired rockets with precision strikes on numerous Hamas installations, including a television station that Israel Defense Forces say had been used for pro-terror propaganda. But in accepting an Egyptian negotiated ceasefire with Hamas, Netanyahu probably set the Jewish state on the path to new elections.
Israeli politics has always been a chaotic affair, so things may still change. But it appears increasingly likely that snap elections will take place sometime in March. That likelihood was set in motion soon after announcement of the ceasefire, when amid protests from the right flank pushing for a continued offensive against Hamas, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman abruptly resigned from the government. Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party then demanded the defense portfolio for himself, threatening to pull his party out of Netanyahu’s coalition in the Knesset if he didn’t get his way.
The move was “to fulfill one goal only,” Bennett said in a chilling echo of another populist politician, “that Israel start winning again.” Netanyahu called the bluff — keeping for himself the Defense Ministry, along with the Foreign Ministry and Health Ministry — and Bennett reversed course. But with only 61 seats left in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu’s coalition is still vulnerable if another minister bolts.
As much as it scrambles Israel’s politics for the moment, Netanyahu’s gambit can be seen as preserving a status quo. That’s because despite significant disapproval from the citizenry on a variety of specific decisions — including the ceasefire with Hamas — Netanyahu remains the most-popular option in a field of competing center-right and right-wing politicians. Pundits are split on whether a snap election will further strengthen Netanyahu’s coalition in the Knesset, or result in power shifting to the left after more than a decade in political exile.
What this portends for U.S. President Donald Trump’s much ballyhooed peace deal, or for the continuing power struggle between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the only takeaway is that Israeli politics is just as volatile (though not at all violent) as the Gaza border tinderbox, and that Israelis — along with the rest of the region — are due for months of uncertainty.
It would be easy to blame the ceasefire itself, as it solved nothing. It probably didn’t make residents of Israel’s south any safer, since Hamas still has a large arsenal of rockets. And, it didn’t make Hamas any less likely to use those rockets in a future engagement, which could come at any time. Nonetheless, it put a stop to the bloodshed of two days, leading one commentator in Haaretz to write that “the result suffices to command respect.”
Will an election do much to change the environment? We doubt it.