JERUSALEM – Wars, even small ones, often have important but unintended consequences.
Last week’s mini-war in Gaza, code-named by the Israelis as “Operation Black Belt,” did not erase Islamic Jihad or prevent Hamas from firing rockets at Israeli cities. But it did clarify Israel’s political situation.
Clearly, Israel’s center-left has no chance to form a coalition with Arab politicians, some of whom condemned Israel for the war rather than the Gaza terrorists who fired 400 rockets into Israel, badly hurting communities in the southern part of the country – where schools and businesses were shut.
Until the war, many media pundits had suggested that Israel’s center-left (44 seats), led by Benny Gantz, could enlist – in some way – 13 Arab parliamentarians from the United Arab List, along with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party (8 seats) to form a coalition.
But the barrage of rockets fired from Gaza showed just how unreal that option was, when Israeli Arab politicians condemned Israeli attacks on terrorist positions as “war crimes.”
“Even if Lieberman comes to an agreement with Gantz, they only have a government on paper,” asserted Dafna Liel, political commentator-reporter for Israel TV Channel Two. She made it clear that such a coalition would quickly fall apart.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Lieberman underscored the folly of trying to link him with anti-Zionist parliamentarians. “Make no mistake about it, the United Arab List really is a ‘fifth column.’ There is no doubt about it.”
For months Lieberman has been doing an imitation of Madonna, trying to re-create or reimage himself, pretending to be a kind of rock star in front of flashing lights at press conferences. With a big smile plastered on his face, he has enjoyed issuing sets of demands, demanding that the right abandon support from the religious parties.
Lieberman also loved pretending he could set terms and dictate power to a left-led government or to a broad “united secular coalition” where he, not Gantz nor Benjamin Netanyahu, was the final arbiter. Once an ally of Haredi politicians, he tried selling himself as a secular ideologue. In fact, anyone who knows Lieberman realized that he is a Moldavian-born chess player and student of the Cold War, and a staunch devotee of power politics.
As the backlash grew against local Arab politicians for their anti-war stance, it became something Lieberman could not ignore. He saw that binding himself to a left-Arab coalition would be a short-lived affair marking him as a “turncoat” to many Israelis, especially his Russian-speaking base.
Even before Lieberman’s comments, Benny Gantz, head of the center-left Blue and White Party, had scolded the Arab politicians in the Knesset for seeming to side with the terrorists attacking Israel.
For Gantz, it has been a difficult time inside his own party. For three weeks he has tried to form a new coalition, but last night he admitted his failure. His biggest problem was that his senior partners, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, opposed a unity government composed of Blue and White and the Likud Party of Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces three sets of corruption charges.
Israel Attorney General Avishai Mandelblitt is expected to announce his decision this month to present an indictment or to reduce or eliminate charges in the three cases facing Netanyahu. Under Israeli law, an Israeli prime minister can stay on the job until a verdict is delivered in his case.
If there is an indictment against Netanyahu, it could be many months before the case goes to court. Backers of Netanyahu in Likud have suggested that he serve as prime minister for a year or so, then recuse himself, while Gantz takes the reins of power for two years. Gantz realizes this may be his only chance to be prime minister.
However, Lapid and Yaalon refuse to sit in the same government with Netanyahu if he faces charges at all, and the internal strains in Blue and White may even lead to a formal split in the newly formed party – an alliance between the three smaller parties led by Gantz, Lapid and Yaalon respectively.
This leaves Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its religious party partners with an improved bargaining position, but Israel is entering unchartered legal territory. Never have two candidates for prime minister failed to form a government one right after the other.
There are only 21 days remaining before new elections would have to be called, and the right still has only 55 of the 61 seats needed to form a coalition. The center-left has 44, with 13 seats to the Arabs, and eight seats for Lieberman.
A third round of elections is a strong possibility – a possibility no one wants but which no one seems able to avoid, unless people who cannot stand each other learn how to sit and talk to one another.
Netanyahu and Lieberman have stopped insulting each other publicly, and this might mean Lieberman might be considering re-joining a rightist coalition led by Netanyahu.
Israel’s enemies – Hamas, Islamic Jihad or even Iran itself – may supply the clarifying moment.
Israel and Iran are now attacking each other directly. Iran’s allies in Syria launched four rockets at Israel this week. Israel responded with dozens of attacks on Iranian rocket positions and compounds inside Syria, killing many Iranian officers and soldiers.
Iran is beset by domestic strife and reports of 200 dead in its cities. It may seek to use terrorist proxies in Gaza, Syria and maybe even Lebanon, to demonstrate “revolutionary achievements.”
So once again a war – a small one that becomes a bigger one – may lead to unintended consequences: perhaps a new Israeli government, as feuding Israelis learn that they need to hang together as a nation even if they do not always love each other.
Michael Widlanski writes from Jerusalem. He is the author of “Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.”