The extraordinary political developments will generate acutely tense days throughout the coming week. The possible upheavals aren’t limited to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to pull off one last “stinking trick” and tempt members of the coalition of change to defect to him. It’s impossible to ignore the security dangers, both externally and domestically, that loom as long as a government hasn’t been sworn in. With so much at stake, and an unrestrained individual waging a desperate struggle for survival, it’s hard to completely rule out the possibility of violence.
Netanyahu said a few years ago that he wanted to be remembered as Israel’s great defender. In his eyes, he is the one who keeps saving the Jewish people from a new Holocaust, whether by blocking Iran’s nuclear project or by importing coronavirus vaccines. With the trial against him endangering not only his continued rule but also his personal liberty, almost all means for survival are justified in his eyes. What began as his declared holy war on the judicial system is liable to slide into incidents of violence in the streets, on the model of the assault on the Capitol by Trump’s followers on January 6.
For some time Netanyahu’s mouthpieces have been spreading virulent incitement. A relatively small segment of his followers, devoted and fired up, is liable to translate those words into violence. The automatic association is an assassination, like Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of Yigal Amir. But there is a whole range of dangers, whose low end could take the form of attacks on cars of vacillating MKs from the Yamina party. It’s not surprising that the Shin Bet decided to move fast: Already on Thursday its Unit 730 was assigned to guard the prime minister-designate, Naftali Bennett.
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Given the time that remains until the government is sworn in, and the fragility of the emerging coalition, the celebrations in the change camp seem exaggerated and premature. Netanyahu has indeed become a lame duck, but he hasn’t yet left the political stage. And he still has sufficient possibilities to be the spoiler.
An operation in Iran, however, is apparently not one of them. As far as can be ascertained, the two events in Iran this week – the sinking of a large military ship and the fire at refineries near Tehran – are unconnected to Israel.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz flew to Washington on Wednesday for a one-day visit, but his meetings there with senior officials of the Biden administration are not related to military moves against Iran. The impression of the Israeli defense establishment is that the United States wants to sign a new nuclear agreement with Iran before June 18, when a presidential election will be held there. Israel wants to take advantage of that remaining narrow window of opportunity to try to get the Americans to take a harder line in the nuclear talks in Vienna. The chances of success look slim. Concurrently, Gantz will ask the Pentagon for special aid (worth $1 billion, according to estimates) to purchase precision-guided munitions for the air force and additional intercept missiles for the Iron Dome system. None of this is directly connected to Netanyahu’s departure.
The immediate dangers lie closer to home: in the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and possibly the Arab locales in Israel. The cease-fire agreement in Gaza did not go beyond “quiet in return for quiet.” No substance has as yet been injected into the accord, and it remains captive to the first wayward Palestinian faction that decides to fire a symbolic rocket into the Negev. (Israel has declared that this time it will respond fiercely to every provocation.)
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Jerusalem is still recovering from the events of Ramadan on the Temple Mount and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. As for the Arabs in Israel, it’s not by chance that the chief allegation that Netanyahu and the mouthpieces are voicing against the United Arab List’s support for the Bennett-Yair Lapid government is that “Bennett sold out the Negev.”
Over the past few days, grumbling has been heard about illegal construction by the Bedouin and the absence of state governance in the south. The complaints against Bennett are ridiculous: It was Netanyahu, not Bennett – who was Netanyahu’s bureau chief and then a cabinet minster under him – who neglected law enforcement among the Arab public. But Netanyahu remembers the scale of the militancy, on the right and the left, that controversies such as Umm al-Hiran (the killing of a Bedouin driver by police) and Khan al-Ahmar (the failed attempts to evict Bedouin from a West Bank locale) stirred. Now, all that’s needed is to press the pedal in law enforcement activity within the Bedouin community, for example, to drive another wedge into the already complex relations between the United Arab List and the Zionist parties.
So the days ahead will be a test of the wisdom and determination of Bennett, Lapid and also their partner Gantz, who is still part of the transition government with Netanyahu. This is also the hour of the gatekeepers, the heads of the security bodies. A decade ago, opposition by the heads of the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the air force scuttled Netanyahu’s plan to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. What’s hanging in the balance this time is perhaps even greater, because it involves preserving the democratic system in Israel.
Even if the so-called government of change is finally sworn in, no picnic awaits Bennett. It’s not only Netanyahu and Likud that will challenge from the right. The new government, with its highly unusual mix of parties, could also face a rapid test from the region’s countries and organizations. The 2006 abduction of Gilad Shalit and the war in Lebanon descended on Ehud Olmert within three weeks, before he had been in office for half a year as the successor to Ariel Sharon. Olmert delivered what was termed a “Churchillian” speech in the Knesset, was swept up by his own demagogy and went into an uncalculated, failed war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Will Bennett be able to avoid that, under similar circumstances?