Gaza Operation Churns On, but End of PM's Coalition Closing in Fast

No one in Netanyahu’s close circle believes this government will last more than another year, 18 months tops. And the premier himself sees no cause for optimism down the line.

As of this writing (Thursday morning), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not exercised his right to commandeer a few minutes of television broadcast time, in order to deliver some resounding Churchillian oratory that would explain his decision to launch Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza. Nor has he gone to the Knesset in order to explain his motives to the public’s elected representatives. He remembers vividly the dramatic way in which his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, launched the Second Lebanon War exactly eight years ago. Olmert’s speech generated tremendous expectations and was widely acclaimed. We all know how that ended.

So far, Netanyahu has made do with two or three ultra-brief, seemingly off-the-cuff remarks. He’s avoided using bombastic words like “vanquish,” “trample” or “crush.” Nor has he posited noble, pompous goals, other than to warn that Hamas will pay a “steep price.” On Wednesday, during a visit to GOC Southern Command, he repeated the messages in a sound bite. He looked gloomy, ashen and shrunken, his whole being broadcasting a personal wish: Yalla, let it end already.

His restraint during five days of incessant firing from the Gaza Strip cost him credit, particularly among his political supporters. The far right condemned him, many in his party thought he was displaying hesitation, and when he finally decided to act, it was in drips and drops. But most Israelis appreciate his behavior. Moreover, it’s paying off: Gaza is being pounded by the Israel Air Force, with dozens of Palestinians killed and hundreds wounded, but not one Western country has demanded unequivocally that Israel stop the operation. A public opinion poll, whose main findings were published in Haaretz on Wednesday, found that most people thought the prime minister had been right to wait a week before launching the attack.

In conversations he held with politicians during the operation’s first two days, Netanyahu sounded like he was looking for the broadest possible support. Consensus is his thing. He shared with one interlocutor his displeasure, not to say loathing, for certain right-wing cabinet ministers (guess who) who portrayed him as wobbly and weak, saying they did not see the broad picture as their ministerial rank obliges, and did not grasp the strategic necessity for restraint. “Do you see what they’re doing to me?” he complained. Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri said, after meeting with Netanyahu, that he sounded “judicious and balanced.”

I asked Deri whether they also talked politics. “No,” he replied. Later, though, “sources in Deri’s circle” claimed that feelers have been put out by somewhat low-ranking people who aren’t very close to Netanyahu about the possibility of establishing an “emergency government.” What smells like spin, sputters like spin and cackles like spin usually is spin.

The last emergency government was formed on the eve of the Six-Day War, in June 1967, when many good people thought Israel was on the edge of destruction. Netanyahu might feel more comfortable if he met people like Deri and Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog in security cabinet meetings, but the political likelihood of such a move is negligible.

On Tuesday, on his way to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu called Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On. She advised him not to listen to “the warmongers in the security cabinet,” and not to gallop toward a ground operation in Gaza that would exact many lives on both sides without producing a long-term change. What would she propose? “You have to punish Hamas, but also strive for a diplomatic move, with the aid of the Egyptians, that will produce a cease-fire,” she told him.

In two, three or four days, when the air force ends its work, the “bank of targets” is empty and everything that was slated for destruction has been reduced to a heap of smoking rubble, the age-old question will once again surface: How to end it?

On the eve of the Second Lebanon War, on his way to a security cabinet meeting, then-Vice Premier Shimon Peres called Ehud Barak, who was at the time in private business. What should we do, the worried Peres asked Barak. The latter suggested that he ask the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Dan Halutz, a straightforward question: “Do you and the army know how you intend to conclude the operation?” That’s the main thing when you launch an operation like this, Barak explained: How do you end it?

Peres asked Halutz, or didn’t, and got an answer, or didn’t. In any event, with a heavy heart, because he felt he couldn’t let Olmert down, he voted for the operation, which developed into a war that afterward developed into a last-minute, blood-drenched, traumatic ground invasion. And the rest is written in the pages of the Winograd Commission Report.

No cause for optimism

No one in Netanyahu’s close circle believes this government will last more than another year, 18 months tops. It’s clear to all the politicos that the 2015 budget will be the last one that this, the third Netanyahu government, will pass. Many believe the budget will encounter major obstacles, and that a general election will be held in the first quarter of next year. Be that as it may, Netanyahu cannot be free of political calculations as he manages the war, together with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu knows that the right wing, in both its ideological and militant branches, was disappointed in him even before the current period of restraint began. He went into Operation Protective Edge battered and bruised. His behavior during the presidential race damaged him badly – within Likud and on the right as a whole. At the same time, the center-left camp accuses him of not doing enough to preserve the peace process.

He will soon come under public pressure from Gal-On, Herzog and others to combine the end of the Gaza operation with a diplomatic initiative that will lead to the renewal of talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But that looks like an impossible mission. What price will be demanded of Netanyahu and what can he agree to pay? Freeing Palestinian prisoners is a nonstarter, after the kidnapping and murder of the three teens, and a construction freeze in the West Bank is also out of the question. His own party, together with Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu, will torpedo anything of that nature.

Netanyahu, then, sees no cause for optimism down the line. He has no allies or ideological partners in the political realm. Once he had Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, but no more (see below). Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni are looking for a way to dump Netanyahu. They are also holding frequent, intensive talks. One option they are considering is having their parties run together in the next election.

Herzog, for his part, isn’t making concrete offers to Livni in the talks the two hold occasionally. Ironically, the only party leader Netanyahu can rely on for future support is Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Despite all the bad blood between them and the feelings of revenge – and despite Sara, Sara, Sara – ultimately there is more that unites Netanyahu and Bennett than divides them.

The Kahlon effect

The decision to conduct the poll whose findings are being published here in part was made in the wake of Yisrael Beiteinu’s split with Likud, which was announced Monday morning. The next day, as the pollsters were at work, the Gaza operation began. So, the necessary adjustments in the questions were made and the poll was conducted between one air-raid siren and the next, amid pressure, tension and frayed nerves.

The findings are relevant only for the period in which the poll was conducted, from Monday evening to Tuesday evening, and they are testimony to the public’s mood at inconvenient, stressed moments. But they are not unimportant, and they will serve as a benchmark for future polls.

Here, for example, is the (partial) picture of the Knesset, if an election were to be held now: Likud 25 seats (after the Lieberman divorce), five more than it has now; independent Yisrael Beiteinu 14; Yesh Atid 13; Labor 15; Habayit Hayehudi 16; Meretz 10; Hatnuah 4. Obviously, the right wing soars when the cannons roar. Lieberman and Bennett would add seven seats between them to their current strength. It’s a true bonanza, and at the expense of Likud (which had 27 seats prior to the 2013 election).

What happens when the party being formed by former communications and social affairs minister Moshe Kahlon is factored in? A tornado happens. Kahlon gets 15 seats and devastates parties on both the right and left. Likud falls to 21 seats, Yisrael Beiteinu to 12, Yesh Atid plunges to 11, Labor to 13, Hatnuah disappears, Meretz gets 9, and only Bennett’s party emerges unscathed. All told, Kahlon and his currently nonexistent party would take 3 seats from new or undecided voters, 6 from the right wing and 6 from the left. Say hello to the new Yair Lapid, Israel’s next centrist social-justice party head.

Kahlon’s achievement is even greater given the current war situation. He wasn’t spotted on any news broadcast this week, and took part in no dreary panels of the usual aging security experts. He didn’t add his voice to the hollow clichés uttered by MKs and deputy ministers at the rate of a rocket launcher. In fact, Kahlon doesn’t exist in the public discourse. He’s doing his thing outside and below the public radar, hidden from the eye and far from the heart. But it turns out that his social vision and economic agenda – and all that “Kahlonism” stands for – are alive and kicking, engraved in the collective consciousness.

The prime minister fares poorly in the Haaretz poll, which was carried out by the Dialog Institute under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs, of Tel Aviv University. Only 40 percent of those polled are satisfied with Netanyahu’s general performance; 50 percent are dissatisfied. That’s surprising, because at the outset of a consensus-backed, nationally supported operation like the one in Gaza, Netanyahu should be at the height of his popularity and enjoying a strong tailwind and broad support. The troubles usually come later, in the almost inevitable entanglements and snafus. If the public isn’t giving him appropriate credit as the leader and chief decision maker at this point, there’s room for concern on his part.

Even so, according to this poll, with or without Kahlon – and with Reuven Rivlin in the President’s Residence – it’s more than likely that Netanyahu will be the next prime minister. The reason is that the others – Bennett, Lieberman, Kahlon, Herzog, et al. – can’t find common ground or an agreed leader.

We also asked the public its opinion on Lieberman’s motives for ending the partnership with Likud just before the Gaza operation began. Not surprisingly, 45 percent attributed this to “party and personal reasons,” while 35 percent thought he acted out of “reasons of principle.” The party he heads is getting stronger, because the nation is shifting rightward, but he personally lost a lot of points for what was perceived as an appallingly cynical and self-interested move.

In the security cabinet meeting on Tuesday, he and Netanyahu went at it like two cackling hens sparring to be first in line for the manure heap. One participant in the meeting said he never saw them so mutually hostile as they were in that sensitive security meeting. They interrupted each other’s remarks, and each was flagrantly contemptuous of the other’s views. According to this source, Lieberman, who not so long ago was being touted – in this column, too – as the “responsible adult,” flanked young Bennett from the right with militant, aggressive ideas. So much for being the responsible one.