Israeli politics can best be described as a volatile and tumultuous show. Recent events have provided yet more evidence of this phenomenon and have cemented president Benjamin Netanyahu’s reputation as Israel’s Frank Underwood.
The current saga began several months ago, when diplomatic feelers were exchanged between Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party. After leading ZU to a respectable though disappointing 24 seats in the 2015 Knesset elections, Herzog has done a lackluster job of leading the alliance between the Labor party and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party. As a result, his hold on the party’s leadership became tenuous, and a corruption probe also began. He felt under threat from several potential contenders, including former Labor leaders Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz, venture capitalist and Knesset member Erel Margalit, and current Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. Thus, for Herzog, joining the government promised perhaps the only way of gaining concrete achievements before a potentially messy leadership primary. According to reports, Netanyahu promised Herzog the Foreign Ministry along with several other ministries — possibly including the Defense Ministry –, he promised to halt most settlement construction, and he promised to spearhead a new Middle East peace plan.
The problem is that his party didn’t buy it. In 2009 former leader Yachimovich, precipitating a split, turned down an opportunity to join Netanyahu’s coalition with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Yachimovich has not changed her mind since. Former Justice Minister Livni remembers Netanyahu’s promises to her in 2013, how once she joined the coalition he undercut her at every turn. Other party members remember the many times Labor has served as political doormats for Likud or Kadima governments and do not wish to return to those days. Regardless, they scoff at Herzog’s ability to play power politics with Netanyahu within the coalition. Furthermore, a new generation of Labor politicians, for example Stav Shaffir, have become skeptical of working with Likud at all. They would rather Labor provide a strong opposing message to Likud’s political malaise. Thus, almost all factions of ZU’s parliamentary representation were dead-set against a unity government, leaving Herzog isolated and vulnerable.
Negotiations between the two major parties were soon eclipsed by reports that an IDF officer had shot and killed a terrorist after he was neutralized and disarmed. Initial media and government reaction was harsh, however the soldier in question gained the support of the public. A political noose then began to form around Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon from Likud, who agreed with army leaders that such behavior was unbecoming with IDF guidelines. Yaalon was already marginalized within Likud for his perceived (and overstated) moderation, but this last episode provided the catalyst for decisive action against him.
Enter Avigdor Lieberman. The Soviet-born firebrand nationalist from the Yisrael Beitenu party. He, surprisingly, had turned down Netanyahu’s offer to join the coalition when it was first formed out of a mutual loathing. Yet it appears that while Netanyahu was negotiating with Herzog, he was conducting parallel negotiations with Lieberman, promising him the Defense Ministry — far too large a prize for Lieberman to pass up. After news of the negotiations broke, Herzog, understanding that he was being played, broke off negotiations. However, he had already lost all respect within his parliamentary party, with four prominent MKs (including Yachimovich and Shaffir) boycotting a meeting Herzog organized in which he attempted to explain why he thought that anything good would come from attempting to join the coalition. As of now, his position as leader is essentially worthless, and the question is no longer if he will be toppled but when. It is unclear whether it will happen soon enough to repair the damage caused to the party’s standing in the polls as a result of his antics. From 24 seats in the election, a recent poll showed Zionist Union at just 13 seats, a decline of almost fifty percent. Most of those voters have gone to Yesh Atid, whose leader, Yair Lapid, in perhaps the first wise decision of his political career, has stayed as far away from the government as possible during this fiasco.
The question remains: is Herzog a congenital dimwit? Why would he risk his party and his reputation on, what every cognizant observer insisted was a scam. And while Herzog’s innate idiocy cannot be counted out (or, perhaps understated), recent revelations have elevated this whole affair to the level of farce. For as it turns out, the negotiations between the two parties were largely a product of pressure by certain foreign actors, aimed at moderating the coalition in anticipation of a Middle East peace conference. These actors included American Secretary of State John Kerry, Egyptian president Abd-el Fatah al-Sisi, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This brings me to an important rule of thumb: in the realm of Middle Eastern Affairs, when Tony Blair asks you to do something, assume it is in fact the worst possible decision and do the exact opposite.
And now we come to the big winner, the Frank Underwood of the Knesset: Netanyahu himself. In one sweeping gesture, he has hobbled Zionist Union indefinitely, he has removed a key potential rival from the Likud leadership, he has broadened his coalition so that it no longer holds only a majority of one seat in the Knesset, and he has pacified his right flank. The only real cost to him will be his relationship with Egyptian president al-Sisi, and that can always be fixed later. Perhaps Lieberman will be controversial as defense minister, and some of his conditions for joining the coalition (a move which is not yet finalized and is still not guaranteed) will be controversial – most notably his proposal to instate the death penalty for Palestinian terrorists. The amount of damage he does will be determined by two factors: how much Netanyahu is interested in humoring him and his proposals and whether the IDF, still friendly to Yaalon, will isolate him in his new role as Defense Minister.
Until the knot is tied, however, remember that this is Israeli politics, and just about anything can happen.