Strike Hamas, Get a Government: Netanyahu May Be Forced to Change His Gaza Policy

Eyeing a return to the defense ministry, Lieberman demands more aggressive steps against Hamas. This juncture of political considerations and strategic policies could have far-reaching implications

Prime Minister Netayahu (front center), and the heads of all the parties in the Knesset, April 30, 2019.
Emil Salman

Though less than a week remains before the clock runs out on forming a coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely succeed in the end. Too much hangs in the balance – for Netanyahu himself as well as for his future partners – for them to allow themselves to fail.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu met for several hours with Avigdor Lieberman. It is widely believed that this meeting paved the way for Lieberman to return to the Defense Ministry. Afterward, and with Netanyahu’s approval, Lieberman met with Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kochavi and the director of the Shin Bet security service, Nadav Argaman.

It remains to be seen how Netanyahu and Lieberman will overcome the main obstacle: the latter’s demand that the new government include in its basic tenets a different, more aggressive policy toward Gaza. Lieberman cited the government’s rejection of his call to hit Hamas hard as the reason for his resignation as defense minister last November, at the end of another round of fighting. Throughout the election campaign, he was critical – though not as harshly so as before and without resorting to personal attacks – of Netanyahu’s conciliatory Gaza policy.

>> Read more: Netanyahu and Lieberman are in a standoff over Gaza. the government's fate is at stake | Analysis

So far the prime minister has shown no sign of altering his approach. During the most recent escalation, in early May, Israel conducted itself in pretty much the same way as in previous rounds. And now Israel is again promising an easing of conditions for the Palestinians in the hope of sealing a long-term cease-fire with Hamas.

Netanyahu and Lieberman will somehow have to overcome this paradox with some mention in the government’s basic tenets. Too much of Lieberman’s public image is invested in it. It’s hard to picture him returning to the government with his tail between his legs, without some direct reference to a change of policy in Gaza.

Certainly one could ask, who even reads the document laying out the government’s basic tenets, and how many of the promises contained therein were fulfilled by previous governments? But a precedent will be set here nonetheless: The political negotiations among the parties will ostensibly yield a basic commitment to military, and possibly also strategic, moves.

Could a prime minister be constrained in this way in the future to pledge to take offensive action against the Iranian nuclear program, or against Hezbollah’s massive rocket arsenal?

The Union of Right-Wing Parties also has military and security-related demands, but theirs are much more specific and related to certain communities within the population. Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson reported the other day that the party’s lawmakers Rafi Peretz and Betzalel Smotrich hope to introduce a number of controversial innovations: the establishment of a Knesset subcommittee to examine the impact of female combat soldiers in the IDF, to be headed by a party-approved lawmaker; prohibiting “outside elements who do not support pushing for victory and adherence to the target” (i.e., leftists) from appearing before soldiers; and equalizing the conditions between ultra-Orthodox soldiers who get substancial financial support from the state in an attempt to eventually integrate them in the workforce and Hesder soldiers, or those who combine yeshiva study with army service.

This is an interesting point. When the army tried to extend the active service of Hesder soldiers a few years ago by just one month, to 18 months (6 months less than the minimum service for women), representatives of this community that did their utmost to block it. Now these lawmakers seek to improve financial conditions for Hesder soldiers and at the same time create a women-free environment for them, as the army did when it surrendered to the demands of ultra-Orthodox soldiers.

In its coverage of the coalition negotiations, the press has been rightly focused on the aim to legislate a so-called override clause to nullify decisions made by the High Court of Justice and its potential implications for Israel’s standing as a state of law. But the list of the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ demands shows that further threats to the army, and possibly to Israeli society as a whole, lurk in the details.

As a matter of fact, the override clause could also have implications for Israel’s security. For years, Netanyahu has comfortably taken cover behind the explanation that “the High Court won’t allow it” as he tried to halt legislative initiatives or other moves proposed by the right that would cause him undesirable entanglements.

The High Court, that terrible ideological enemy, has actually protected Netanyahu quite well from demands to put into effect proposals to execute terrorists and carry out mass demolitions of terrorists’ families’ homes – and even with the continually delayed evacuation of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar. These arguments are likely to disappear once the override clause is in place. Then, for the first time, we’ll see an unfettered Netanyahu – even if he may have been secretly glad about some of those fetters at times.

Frustration all around

In recent months, Netanyahu has convened the security cabinet only infrequently. There were basically just two meetings: March 17, before the election, and May 5, after the election, toward the end of the latest flare-up in Gaza. As on several earlier occasions, the prime minister used the opportunity to award prizes to politicians-cronies. Ministers like Miri Regev, who in the next government could be a permanent cabinet member as Minister of Internal Security, were invited to attend the meetings.

This trend is making officials in various security organizations uncomfortable, because it ostensibly creates two systems for decision-making, when only one is really relevant – and it’s not the one that is officially supposed to do this. Officially, the cabinet is the only body for these decisions, but this gives a false appearance. The real decisions are made on a direct axis and with hardly any involvement by other ministers, between the prime minister and the heads of the organizations, certainly with Netanyahu also serving as defense minister.

The result is frustration all around. Some of the organization heads feel that their time is being wasted in artificial, meaningless discussions, where they are often compelled to sit as mute audience members while guest ministers put on a show of hurling accusations at them so these will be recorded in the protocol, or even better, leaked to journalists who will portray them as courageous public servants. Netanyahu often signals to the security chiefs during these attacks that there’s no need for them to make a big deal out of any of it.

The frustration is also shared by some of the permant cabinet member ministers, who understand that the decisions are being made between Netanyahu and top security officials, without them, and that the cabinet meetings are mainly a platform for accolades and letting off steam. Will this be fixed in Netanyahu’s next term? It’s hard to believe. This sort of thing may even get worse, given the multitude of ministers who’ll have to share the ministerial crumbs. In that case, membership or even observer status in the cabinet will be given out as consolation prizes, which will also diminish the seriousness of the forum, despite the highly important standing accorded it by the legislature.