In Depth

Will the Gaza crisis help Benjamin Netanyahu hold on to power?

The Israeli PM’s political problems have been overshadowed by escalating conflict with Hamas

After missing the deadline earlier this month to form a coalition government following Israel’s latest inconclusive election, Benjamin Netanyahu also appeared to be running out of time to save his career.

With his opposition in talks to form their own government, the country’s longest-serving leader looked set to be ousted from power, ending a 25-year domination of Israeli politics and fuelling the threat of a corruption trial that has dogged his government.

As political commentator Mati Tuchfeld wrote on the Israel Hayom news site, “even the greatest magician of all times at some point runs out of rabbits”. But then tensions in East Jerusalem exploded into violence – providing Netanyahu with the chance to pull off another political trick.

‘Silver lining’

The ongoing violence between Israel and Palestinian militants is “Israel’s greatest security crisis in years” and “threatens to destroy what is left of the Middle East peace process”, writes The Telegraph’s senior foreign correspondent Roland Oliphant. But for Netanyahu, the chaos “has an undeniable silver lining”.

The civil unrest between Jews and Arabs has “dealt a strong blow” to efforts to unseat the Israeli prime minister “after a series of inconclusive elections”, Reuters reports.

Prior to the fresh outbreak of fighting, Naftali Bennett, head of the ultranationalist Yamina party, had been in negotiations to form a coalition government with a group of opposition rivals including the United Arab List, a small Islamist party commonly known in Israel by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am. But the raging conflict has made a deal between Arab and Jewish parties “politically impossible”, Oliphant says.

Bennett last week called off the talks, in “a nod to the inherent absurdity of a coalition between Jewish nationalists and Palestinian Islamists”, says New York Magazine. And the Yamina leader now “claims to be working toward a broader unity government that would include Netanyahu”. 

Yet “there is little chance of this coming to fruition” either, the magazine adds - with the political stalemate providing Netanyahu with “yet another chance of rescuing his career”, as leader of any caretaker government.

“Netanyahu was on the ropes at the beginning of this week,” Anshel Pfeffer, author of biography Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Telegraph.

The PM’s “preoccupation with his own political and legal problems is part of the reason why he has not reined in Israeli police's heavy-handedness in Jerusalem, and part of this rapid escalation of the crisis can be explained by that preoccupation,” Pfeffer argues. But “there is a silver lining for him here”.

Netanyahu is still “fighting on three fronts”, writes Jamie Seidel on news.com.au, pointing to the stand-offs between Arabs and Israelis, “a political brawl that has left his country paralysed”, and “a court battle over charges of corruption”.

As “his forces stomp on Palestine and Hamas”, however, “his rule suddenly seems untouchable”, Seidel continues. “Bullets and bombs have saved him.”

Reigning over chaos

“No one is saying Netanyahu engineered the current crisis for his own benefit,” says The Telegraph’s Oliphant. And “the crisis is far from an unalloyed boon”, with many Israelis “furious with him over his perceived mishandling of the crisis so far”.

All the same, the Israeli PM “has not made any significant efforts to contain the violence”, says Israeli writer Akiva Eldar on Al Jazeera. Instead, Netanyahu has warned that while his government will “do whatever it takes to restore order and quiet”, the operation against Hamas will “take time”.

“Netanyahu has been fighting for his political life with everything he has got,” Eldar continues. Along with the looming threat of a corruption trial, the Israeli leader “fears” the increasing threat to his power posed by “change bloc” politicians including Yamina’s Bennett, White and Blue Alliance chair Benny Gantz, New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, Labor Party head Merav Michaeli and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz. 

But as the Israeli military bombards the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas rockets, “Netanyahu’s career has inadvertently been resurrected”, says the Financial Times (FT). “Suddenly, the 71-year-old political veteran who has seen off numerous rivals during his three-decade career, appears to have a fresh chance.”

Aviv Bushinsky, a former aide to Netanyahu, told the newspaper that his former boss “had no cards left to play, and suddenly, he was saved by the bell.

“He’s so lucky, every time.”  

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