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Defense Minister Resigns, Firing First Salvo of Israeli Elections. The Timing Couldn't Be Worse for Netanyahu

By resigning now, Lieberman is sticking the failure of Gaza on Netanyahu and signaling Israel's election campaign has begun

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned from Netanyahu's government and his post as defense minister, signaling Israel's election season has begun
\ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s announcement Wednesday that he is resigning and his Yisrael Beiteinu party is leaving Israel's ruling coalition, in the wake of the cease-fire agreements with Hamas, will almost certainly spell elections in early 2019 – at least six months earlier than their scheduled date.

It will force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to defend his unpopular decisions on Gaza during the election campaign, which is exactly what the prime minister had hoped to avoid. In his surprise press conference in the Knesset, Lieberman avoided blaming the prime minister directly as part of his long list of disagreements with the government’s defense policies, but it was clear who Lieberman was gunning for. Nonetheless, his statements were a blanket accusation against all the other cabinet minsters – his political rivals in the looming election.

Lieberman’s timing is brilliant. But with hindsight, this was his one move – a golden opportunity to fight the upcoming election under much more favorable terms.

He is facing three major political challenges:

1. His Yisrael Beiteinu party has for a long time – practically since the last Knesset election in 2015 – been hovering perilously close to the electoral threshold, beneath which lies political extinction.

2. In the fight for the hearts of right-wing voters, he faces the rampant Benjamin Netanyahu and the popular Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.

3. His two-and-a-half years as defense minister have been far from glorious. Also, his unfortunate threat – back in the days when he still was in the opposition – to kill Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh “in 48 hours” if the bodies of Israel Defense Forces soldiers held in Gaza were not returned, has hung around his neck.

By resigning now, Lieberman is stealing a march on his rival Bennett and sticking the failure of Gaza on Netanyahu. He hopes this can boost his standing with the right going into the election – an election he now plans to fight as the selfless defense minister who resigned when he was not listened to by a weak prime minister.

One of Netanyahu’s motives in doing all he could to finalize a cease-fire with Hamas was to push the toxic issue of the Gaza Strip off the national agenda before the election campaign begins.

His plan was to take some short-term damage from the right and rely on the swift Israeli amnesia that sets in over Gaza the moment rockets stop flying over the border.

Residents of southern Israel protest against their government's decision to hold fire in Gaza in response to a similar decision by Palestinian militants, in Sderot, Israel November 13, 2018 REUTERS/ Amir Cohen     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

After a few news cycles and when the anger over Gaza recedes, he could get around to planning his campaign – presenting himself as the only responsible grown-up in the room.

Lieberman has now preempted the prime minister by firing the starting shot for the election, which will be fought over the Gaza debacle and Netanyahu’s “weakness.” With Yisrael Beiteinu out of the governing coalition, the government can still survive theoretically with 61 Knesset members, but it won’t last for long with the slenderest of majorities.

Netanyahu needs a new defense minister – Bennett plans to demand the post, and there are of course other ministerial hopefuls.

Whoever he decides to appoint, or if he keeps the portfolio for himself, it will mean more coalition turmoil. The redrafted draft law must be passed within days, to meet the High Court of Justice deadline. If that doesn’t happen, and without a defense minister and with the ultra-Orthodox parties in disarray after the recent disruptive local elections, that will be impossible.

As things stand, the general election must be held by November 2019, and everyone is expecting it to be brought forward.

If political circumstances were different, if the current Knesset had two or three years still to run, and if the prime minster wasn’t facing multiple corruption charges, a different coalition could perhaps be cobbled together.

But the heavy hitters on the right wing have already sensed Netanyahu’s blood in the water. Lieberman, Bennett, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Likud’s prodigal son, Gideon Sa’ar, have all been much more critical of the untouchable prime minister in recent weeks.

Even Netanyahu loyalists like Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, who defied his boss’ wishes to run a failed bid for Jerusalem mayor, are much more independent-minded. They sense the Netanyahu era is slowly grinding to a close.

Barring a brilliant and unexpected move, the days of this coalition, of the fourth Netanyahu government, are over.

The election campaign has just begun on the most disadvantageous terms for Netanyahu.