Over the weekend, Ha’aretz reported that the Trump administration, like the Clinton and Obama administrations before it, has grown frustrated with Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambivalence for the peace process. Washington is reportedly irked by Israel’s refusal to engage in goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians, including in the much-ballyhooed area of economic development. Although the White House strongly denied the report, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which an American administration’s efforts to reach a two-state solution (which, despite the Trump administration’s confounding ambiguity around the matter, remains the only plausible final status conclusion) come into direct conflict with a Likud-led government’s interest in maintaining and, when possible, incrementally expanding the settlement enterprise.
We have been here before. In 2014, instead of trying to form a more moderate coalition, Netanyahu reneged on his government’s commitment to release pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners. He narrowly escaped sole blame for the collapse of the Kerry process when the Palestinians subsequently advanced applications to join international agencies and agreements.
At the moment, Netanyahu faces multiple threats to his continued presence in the prime ministerial residence on Balfour Street. In addition to a looming Trump peace plan and possible indictments in at least two corruption investigations, the prime minister must now contend with the dissatisfaction of Agudat Yisrael’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter. Agudat Yisrael is one half of the United Torah Judaism party, which represents Israel’s Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews. On Friday, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman carried through on his threat to resign after it became clear that Jewish workers would in fact assist with railroad repair work on Shabbat.
Despite these additional challenges, there is no reason to believe the end is near for Netanyahu. There is more smoke than fire in the ultra-Orthodox drama; the Trump administration’s efforts, even assuming they are serious, are unlikely to end in a way in which Netanyahu could be unambiguously blamed for the collapse; finally, even if he is indicted, a decision which is not expected until at least next year, there is no opposition leader who could effectively capitalize on such charges.
Litzman’s resignation is not enough to extrapolate intent to leave the coalition entirely. UTJ only accepted a position in the cabinet two years ago when the High Court invalidated an arrangement in which Litzman controlled the Health Ministry as a deputy minister; it was a bizarre case of a senior political figure reluctantly accepting a promotion after one of his chief antagonists, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, filed a lawsuit to force it. Instead of a sprint to new elections, it is more likely compromises on other issues will keep the coalition intact. Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon plan to present the 2019 budget to the Knesset this January for approval, an indication the prime minister does not favor a new election at the moment.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu has ample reason to be concerned about the coalition’s stability if the Trump administration’s efforts to reach a final status accord are serious. Not only will he find few friends in the American Jewish community willing to exert influence in the wake of the government’s disastrous moves on religious equality and that community’s aversion to Trump, but he will find a less friendly Trump administration as well. The gross display at the Zionist Organization of America’s annual gala, where Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka were honored guests, was notable mainly in who was missing: individuals with actual clout in the administration, such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster, whom Bannon and the ZOA – apparently backed by Sheldon Adelson – unsuccessfully tried to oust for his alleged hostility to West Bank settlements.
This is not to suggest the Trump administration will actually adopt positions at odds with Israeli concerns on critical issues such as land swaps, an enduring military presence in the Jordan Valley, and the status of Palestinian refugees. For that matter, though constructive hope should never be discouraged, anyone who believes an inexperienced and understaffed administration will succeed where previous talented ones have failed miserably will surely come away disappointed. What is relevant here are the political challenges that would face in any right-wing government in Israel confronted with an American-led peace process with a veneer of seriousness. If the reports of Jared Kushner’s success in recruiting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to his efforts are true, it will behoove Netanyahu not to be seen as the primary obstructer and cooperate fully with the Trump team – even if that means taking measures that will anger his allies in the settlement movement and force Naftali Bennett and Bayit Yehudi out of the coalition. He has made too much of Israel’s improved standing among Arab leaders and in the Trump administration to recast them as enemies at the gates.
In this regard, though, there is still little for Netanyahu to worry about: he will probably receive help from both the Trump administration, which won’t be willing to risk its pro-Israel credentials, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who’s shown little enthusiasm for both past and present American efforts, which he believes are slanted heavily in favor of Israel. Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, in their meticulous new biography of the octogenarian Palestinian Authority president and PLO chairman, write that, “Abbas and his advisers felt [former Secretary of State John] Kerry was prioritizing Israel’s needs over theirs in a way that would leave them shortchanged once Kerry presented his ‘bridging document.’ Their doubts were primarily based on the fact that Kerry devoted much more time to speaking with Netanyahu than Abbas.”
But perhaps no factor works more in Netanyahu’s favor than the utterly hapless Israeli opposition. Neither of the two major parties outside the coalition, Zionist Union or Yesh Atid, has shown a capacity to challenge Likud on diplomatic and security issues.
Avi Gabbay, who was elected chairman of Zionist Union in July, has sought to make his party’s positions almost identical to those of Likud. His statement that isolated settlements may not have to be evacuated is consistent with Netanyahu’s blanket condemnation of all demands for settlement evacuation as “ethnic cleansing.” As for its political impact, the most recent poll from Channel 10 is not promising: it shows Zionist Union falling 7 seats, from 24 to 17.
Yesh Atid is doing better, tying Likud in the polls, but this number is deceptive. As I noted in a previous article for Matzav, the center-left opposition would immediately face a 12-to-13-seat deficit before any coalition talks begin, a result of a reasonable prediction that the Joint List won’t join a governing coalition. This would be a challenge for any leader tasked with forming an alternative coalition to Netanyahu’s, but it’s an even more arduous task for Lapid, who alienated both Shas and UTJ early in his career (his father, the late television personality-turned-politician Tommy Lapid, is still reviled in ultra-Orthodox circles for his distinct brand of secular politics, which his son partly adopted prior to the 2013 election). Paradoxically, if Lapid chooses to take advantage of the latest Shabbat crisis, it may have the effect of both boosting his poll numbers and dooming whatever chance he had of forming the next government.
There is, of course, the possibility of a surprise: Netanyahu could be indicted and forced out of the Likud leadership in an internal coup, but this doesn’t seem in the offing; just yesterday, the Knesset approved the first reading of a law that would bar the police from publicly releasing summaries of evidence in cases against public officials, a transparent attempt to protect the prime minister that received the support of Likud members and other parties in the coalition. Barring conviction and removal from office, Israel will only see the back of Netanyahu after the oppositions finds a candidate who could both offer a robust alternative and find the numbers to out-maneuver the prime minister.