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Security Threats Are Still Hovering Over Israel's Coalition Talks

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office in March 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a speech at his Jerusalem office in March 2020.Credit: Gali Tibbon / POOL New/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

For two weeks, Gaza fighting and riots in Israel halted all progress on negotiations toward a coalition. But since the war ended, the ball is back in the political court. It appears that a government free of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now hinges on whether Yamina’s Naftali Bennett can impose party discipline on his five Knesset members, some of whom are unenthusiastic about teaming up with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.

Could things take a turn for the worse in the security arena and thwart Bennett? Netanyahu’s remarks on Sunday evening are cause for concern. With the constant twists and turns in coalition negotiations, Netanyahu has not been on his best behavior for quite some time. But his last speech marked a further decline: More pressure, more lies, more irrelevant arguments.

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When he warned about the danger Israel faces without himself at the country's helm, Netanyahu combined the Iranian nuclear threat with Israel’s relations with the Biden administration. Later, he cautioned against a security cabinet whose members would include Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg. This final claim was especially interesting, coming from the man who, to the astonishment of the defense establishment, gave Miri Regev observer status in the security cabinet.

Avigdor Lieberman, who enjoys adding fuel to the fire, claimed on Monday at a meeting of his Yisrael Beiteinu party that “it’s not certain that (Netanyahu) is 100 percent healthy mentally and is fit to serve in the post of prime minister.”

What kind of damage could Netanyahu do to Lapid and Bennett in the week or so left before their government is sworn in? The left floats paranoid scenarios involving a provocation against Iran, Lebanon or Gaza. But that doesn’t seem likely. The heads of the various security arms appear to be confident enough to thwart any irresponsible moves anyone might try to take.

Netanyahu tried something like this once, in September 2019, when he called for attacks on senior Islamic Jihad officials in Gaza. It was supposed to be in response to a rocket attack on Ashdod during a Likud election rally that had occurred just days before the second election. The affair required the chief of staff and Attorney General Avichai Mendeblit to stand together to block an operation (it was undertaken two months later, this time without any connection to politics).

Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid in the Knesset in 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

That leaves Jerusalem. The last round of violence with the Palestinians, which ended with a war in Gaza and clashes between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, started in the capital. Dubious measures taken by the police at the Damascus Gate and Temple Mount inflamed Palestinians and led the Hamas leadership to join in by firing rockets at the Jerusalem region.

However, defense officials who have been asked about it reject the possibility that Netanyahu anticipated the chain of events from Jerusalem to Gaza (Hamas’ decision to launch rockets also caught Military Intelligence by surprise).

Still, Netanyahu did give free rein to police in Jerusalem at the start of events, and that’s the kind of rabbit the prime minister may pull out of his hat again by way of his trusty internal security minister, Amir Ohana; the police commissioner; and the Jerusalem police commander. The big question here is about the independence of the commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, who in the last few weeks has fought with Netanyahu and Ohana for greater freedom of action.

There are two other scenarios that should be considered in the coming days. One is the security details assigned to the right-wing parties seeking to join the so-called change government. The second is the possibility of acts of terrorism by Jews against Arabs amid continued tensions in mixed Arab-Jewish cities.

The coalition deal Yamina and New Hope are making with Lapid, which aims to evict the Netanyahu family from the prime minister’s official Balfour residence, has brought out Netanyahu’s hard-core supporters. Angry posts on social media have encouraged raucous protests in front of politicians’ homes. People who have seen these Bibi-ists up close talk about the crazy look in their eyes and the atmosphere of violence that pervades.

We’re not talking about thousands of violent people. At no protest or rally has Netanyahu succeeded in recruiting huge numbers to shout in his support. The hard-core supporters who gather in front of the homes of Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar, Ayelet Shaked and others, numbers at most a few hundred people. But the escalating rhetoric and the frequent use of the word “traitor” raise the risk that it will end in real violence.

Protesters hold signs reading 'leftists are traitors' outside Ayelet Shaked's home, Monday.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The security detail provided by the Knesset guards to Bennett has been beefed up, and Shaked has gotten bodyguards for the first time. Social media is being monitored in real-time.

Still, even if the Knesset security staff are skilled and well-trained, we can only hope that the professionals who make the decisions are attentive to what is happening. One violent incident could change the whole political picture.

Another scenario remains. For a small group of Netanyahu supporters, the move that’s underway to remove him from power is heresy, tantamount to an existential threat to Israel’s security. It is in some way reminiscent of the atmosphere that gripped the extreme right on the eve of the Gaza disengagement in the summer of 2005. Then, there were people who believed that attacking Arabs could stop the withdrawal, and the result was serious attacks in the Shiloh industrial zone and on a bus in Shfaram, resulting in the deaths of eight people.

Over the next week, in the midst of an unusual political crisis and with the violence between Arabs and Jews last month still fresh, we need to consider the possibility that a lone individual will come to the erroneous conclusion that he or she can single-handedly change the course of events.

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