Netanyahu’s time for choosing

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid (L) seen speaking with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett during a plenum session in the Israeli parliament last year. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sit to the right. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

And you thought March would pass without a coalition crisis. Silly you.

Tremors in Israel’s governing coalition came with the starts of December, January and February. But when I checked the news from the beginning of March, there seemed to be no similar fight looming. Israel’s coalition appeared more united than ever — defying a protesting opposition by pushing through a trio of controversial bills. Soon afterward, I wrote a story noting that, despite the internal conflicts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition had survived its first year.

But peace talks with the Palestinians are still (barely) ongoing, which means in-fighting can’t be far away. And now Netanyahu’s coalition could be close to collapse.

Despite each of them meeting with President Obama this month, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appear no closer to a deal after eight months of negotiating. Ahead of the (now-delayed) fourth round of Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners, hawkish elements in the coalition have begun banging the proverbial shoe in protest.
In a JTA op-ed, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, Netanyahu’s longtime frenemy, vowed to resign his post if more prisoners are released. The pro-settler Jewish Home party, according to reports, will quit the coalition if another prisoner release goes through.
Despite a deafening silence on the prisoner issue in his official statement to his Cabinet this week, Netanyahu said in a separate speech to his minsters that any further release of prisoners would come to a Cabinet vote. He has reportedly offered to release 400 more prisoners in return for a six-month extension of talks, but there’s little chance Jewish Home — or the hawkish wing of Likud — would countenance the move.

Two related conflicts are converging here: In endorsing a Palestinian state and entering negotiations, Netanyahu has opposed the party to his right — Jewish Home — and the faction to his right within his own Likud party that is led by Danon and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin. Now, both of those groups are threatening to leave him.

Meanwhile, Abbas will likely quit the talks if Israel reneges on the last release. A recent report suggests that Abbas wants 1,000 more prisoners released if he is to continue talks.

Netanyahu must decide, essentially, between negotiations breaking up or breaking up his own coalition — and maybe even his own party.

The prime minister is a master of political survival, so he may find a third way. But at some point, he’s going to have to make a choice.

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Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.