For the second time this year, Israel is holding a general election in an attempt to form a coalition government. The September 17 vote marks the first time Israel has held an election twice in the same year, highlighting the internal fight that is pitting the right against itself and may jeopardize the 10-year tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the leadup to the election, Netanyahu — who may face formal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that will trouble his political caché whether he emerges victorious or not on Tuesday — has looked to curry favor with the far right and Jewish religious parties, pledging to annex the Jordan Valley and all the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank and “considering” a delay in elections to mount an offensive in Gaza after Islamic Jihad rockets were fired at a campaign rally last week.
However, this rhetoric continues to lay bare a key problem for Israel’s right wing, showing the fissures within the circle of former Netanyahu aides and ministers who are now his main rivals.
While the primary players in the race are little more than interchangeable faces in the occupation guard, which player emerges from the fray on Tuesday charged with forming a coalition government will face ramifications in several key arenas, not least of which is Israel’s relationship with Egypt. However, the water is still murky, and it is possible that even if Netanyahu is selected to form a coalition government, he may not succeed, or indeed survive corruption charges — even if he tries to take the unprecedented move of pushing the Knesset to grant him diplomatic immunity.
To better understand the stakes of the election for Israel’s involvement in various arenas, Mada Masr has sketched out some of the background and regional dynamics, and spoken with Egyptian government sources and analysts to better understand Cairo’s role.
Politicking on the Israeli right
To form a coalition government, a candidate must control a majority bloc in Israel’s Knesset, tipping over the halfway point in the 120-member legislative body with the magic number of 61. In most polls, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is expected to come away today with only 32 seats, tied with the Likud-in-everything-but-name Blue and White party of Benny Gantz, the former chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2011 to 2015, whose party’s raison d’etre is to unseat Netanyahu.
These were roughly the same positions the two majority parties held in the April elections. Without Blue and White, Netanyahu was able to put together a right-wing bloc with a majority 65 seats, seemingly paving the way to another term for the current prime minister. However, Avigdor Lieberman, an ultra-nationalist settler, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party and Netanyahu’s former defense minister — whose resignation over the prime minister’s acceptance of a ceasefire in Gaza in November 2018 triggered the election in April — refused to pledge his party’s five seats to the coalition unless a bill was passed mandating IDF conscription for Ultra Orthodox Jewish men, as it is for all other non Arab Israeli nationals.
The passage of such a law would have alienated important allies for Netanyahu in the sizeable Ultra Orthodox community, which has been exempt from military service since the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and holds a large sway over how power is brokered in the country.
While Lieberman has made plenty of racist comments inciting violence against Palestinians and Arabs with Israeli nationality, including his suggestion that all Arab members of the Knesset are collaborators who should be executed, he has rebranded himself as a torchbearer for a militant secular Zionism.
Faced with Lieberman’s intransigence, Netanyahu called for a second election rather than budge on the bill or turn over the reins to another MP to try their hand at forming a coalition after the allocated 42-day period had elapsed.
But in the intervening months since the first election, Lieberman has only increased his expected takeaway, with polls projecting Yisrael Beiteinu to win 10 seats in today’s election. The former defense minister is fashioning himself, with his brand of militant secular Zionism, into something of a kingmaker.
Gaza, Egypt and the Sisi-Netanyahu romance
Netanyahu ascended the campaign stage in the port city of Ashdod on September 10, about a week before the elections, hoping to rally support in front of a crowd of hundreds.
Instead, he was whisked off stage by security forces as sirens sounded, indicating that rockets were inbound from the Gaza Strip.
The iron dome, the US-majority-funded missile defense system, intercepted two missiles launched from the besieged coastal enclave, and Israel responded with a bevy of airstrikes on Gaza. Netanyahu reportedly considered delaying the elections to mount a full-scale military campaign on the strip — although it is impossible to tell to what extent this was media posturing.
With Hamas largely pacified through Egyptian mediation, there was media speculation that the rocket fire represented a break between Hamas’s political and military wings: an unruly Qassam Brigades bucking a capitulating political apparatus.
A Hamas military source acknowledged that there are a handful of fighters who are not happy with how the political leadership is handling the conflict, with several border skirmishes over the last month coming from their feeling that the political leadership is mishandling peaceful relations with Israel. However, the source said that rocket launches “rarely — and maybe never — happen without political approval.”
Further, a source close to Hamas’s political leadership noted that the group insists on maintaining a peaceful route in the understandings, leaving the “responses and retaliation” to Islamic Jihad. However, according to the source, Hamas has loosened its grasp over Islamic Jihad — even if Hamas is still holding many of the latter’s members in detention for unauthorized missile launches in recent months — in order to apply more pressure on Netanyahu ahead of the elections.
Hamas has largely been reduced to such minor political calculations through Egypt and Israel’s joint containment, with some members looking to the increasingly complicated and in-limbo US economic development plan, the “deal of the century”, as a way to gain greater autonomy from the Palestinian Authority.
But that doesn’t mean Hamas is in lockstep with the Egypt-Israel tandem.
With any security threats from Gaza likely to harm Netanyahu’s image — Lieberman and Gantz, both advocates for a military campaign in Gaza, have presented Netanyahu’s willingness to hold talks with Hamas as a mistake — Egypt met with Hamas in Gaza officials to try to convince them not to fire any missiles into Israel. However, knowing they had a small window to try to extract concessions, Hamas rebuffed the Egyptians’ demands.
The visit to Gaza illustrates Cairo’s position on the elections: a vested interest in Netanyahu that extends much beyond state relations.
According to an Egyptian official who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, Netanyahu is in very frequent telephone contact with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom the Israeli PM praises for what he calls “Sisi’s decision to confront terrorism” and “provide new readings of Islam.”
According to the Egyptian official, who participated in meetings between Netanyahu and Sisi that were not announced when they took place three years ago, the two men are united by their “their realization that they have an interest in working directly together, that bilateral relations are what matter now, and the things that need to be reinforced given the complexities surrounding the Palestinian file. And, of course, there is the chemistry of what we saw in their first meeting.”
The two leaders’ first public meeting in 2017 was seen as a revival of Israel-Egypt cooperation on the peace process.
According to a second Egyptian official, these relations have become immeasurably closer at the leadership level, to the point that the ambassadors of the respective countries may not be able to keep up with the communication between the two men, which takes place directly, by telephone, and at meetings at least twice a year.
Netanyahu’s continued stay at the helm of the Israeli government “is certainly in Egypt’s best interest,” said the first Egyptian official.
For Tareq Baconi, an Israel-Palestine analyst for the policy nonprofit International Crisis Group, Cairo’s interest in Netanyahu’s continued rule comes down to pragmatic issues.
“Netanyahu has been very conservative militarily in Gaza and has been a stabilizing force in a perverse way, at least since 2014, which has allowed a security relationship to develop with Egypt,” Baconi says. “Gantz, in contrast, would be much more trigger happy, as he led the assault on the Gaza Strip in 2014. Egypt would not look favorably on a similar assault, as it would damage its relationship with Hamas — vital for prisoner swaps and Egypt’s security concerns.”
A week before the election, Qatari Ambassador Mohammed al-Emadi also criticized Egypt for what he presented as excessive taxes on goods passing into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing, saying that Egypt is making a profit by maintaining the siege on Gaza.
Egypt has also relied on Israel for direct military assistance where its own forces proved ineffective. In February 2018, the New York Times reported that unmarked Israeli drones, helicopters and jets have carried out a covert air campaign since 2016, conducting more than 100 airstrikes inside Egypt, often more than once a week, with the approval of Sisi.
If Netanyahu survives Tuesday’s election, he and Sisi are expected to meet at the UN General Assembly in New York at the end of September, according to the first Egyptian official. However, absent one half of the dynamic and personal partnership between the Egyptian and Israeli leaders, it is unclear what will become of the two countries’ security relationship and the US-led economic development plan. Egypt stands to benefit from the deal, which would likely not survive a direct assault on Gaza.
Hezbollah and Iran
Against the backdrop of heightening tensions between the United States and Iran after the administration of US President Donald Trump reneged in May 2018 on the nuclear deal signed under former President Barack Obama, Israel conducted strikes on several key Iranian allies in a 24-hour period at the end of August.
This included an airstrike that killed two Iranian-trained militants in Syria, a drone strike on an unidentified target near a Hezbollah office in southern Beirut, and an airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, which left a commander of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia dead.
The direct strikes in Lebanon and Iraq represent a marked shift in Israel’s engagement in these arenas, as it had only taken direct action in Syria, and in recent years, had contented itself with denouncing Iranian policies.
Hezbollah responded to the strike on Beirut, the first to hit the Lebanese capital since the 2006 war, by targeting an Israeli military vehicle patrolling the Lebanese-Israeli border. Netanyahu has stoked fears that Hezbollah has a precision-guided ballistic missile factory in Lebanese territory, a claim that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has denied, while acknowledging that the group does possess missiles.
While Nasrallah has called the strike on Beirut an election ploy, he also announced new rules of engagement: Hezbollah would strike any Israeli drone that enters Lebanese airspace and would carry out strikes on occupied territory.
Netanyahu’s attempts to play to a right-wing base by “considering” a campaign on Gaza amounted to little more than show. However, it may have real consequences for interventions along the occupying force’s northern flank, especially after the Iran-backed Houthi milita’s drone strikes on Aramco installations in Saudi Arabia. Questions remain over whether this tension will cool after the elections close or if Israel will continue to push the line of escalation.