Israel’s Turmoil Hands Political Lifeline to Embattled Prime Minister Netanyahu

TEL AVIV—Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

is pressing an aggressive campaign against Hamas, targeting its leaders, strategic infrastructure and military sites to deter the militant group from continuing its attacks on Israel. The operation could aid Mr. Netanyahu’s other vital goal of staying in power.

One week earlier, Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents were poised to unseat him and form a new government, potentially ending the rule of the country’s longest-serving leader as he faces corruption charges. He denies wrongdoing.

But the past six days of national turmoil have offered the Israeli prime minister a political lifeline. When Arab parties and a right-wing politician pulled out of talks this week to join or back a rival coalition, the threat to unseat Mr. Netanyahu appeared to collapse.

“Netanyahu has always thrived in environments of uncertainty, of chaos and crisis,” said

Mitchell Barak,

an Israeli pollster and director of Keevoon Global Research, who worked as an aide to Mr. Netanyahu in the 1990s. “He basically goes from crisis to crisis.”

Smoke billowed from an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City on Friday.



Photo:

Ashraf Amra/Zuma Press

Even before the recent conflict and internal tensions, Mr. Netanyahu has had to navigate the country through a difficult year. Israel had one of the worst coronavirus rates per capita before a successful vaccination campaign; its economy was battered by pandemic-related shutdowns; and it has faced off against Iran, hitting its allies in Syria and its ships at sea.

On Saturday, Israel and Hamas continued to trade heavy fire. In Gaza, around 140 people have been killed since Monday, including 39 children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Eleven Israelis have died in rocket attacks and missile strikes, including one child. Israel said it has killed at least 75 Hamas operatives.

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Violence between Jewish and Arab Israelis also continued overnight, with a 12-year-old Arab Israeli boy hospitalized after he was hit with a Molotov cocktail in Jaffa, Israel, according to a Sheba Hospital spokesperson. Demonstrations are planned Saturday in the West Bank for Nakba Day, an annual event to mark the displacement of Palestinians in 1948, as well as at the Lebanese and Jordanian border. Eleven Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank on Friday.

In the middle of turmoil, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party has restarted negotiations with Yamina, the party of right-wing politician Naftali Bennett who backed away from a potential unity government with centrist

Yair Lapid

along with Arab parties in support. Mr. Bennett changed course amid the communal violence roiling the country, according to a person close to him.

“Given the current emergency situation in the mixed cities in Israel, the change government…would not be able to deal with the situation,” Mr. Bennett told associates, according to the person.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid says he is still trying to form a coalition government.



Photo:

Oded Balilty/Associated Press

Mr. Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, has a mandate to form a government until June 2. He said he is still seeking to cobble together a government and would support a fifth election, if necessary, to replace Mr. Netanyahu.

“Bennett is wrong,” Mr. Lapid said after his erstwhile political partner changed course.  “I will continue turning over every stone to form a government.”

If Mr. Lapid fails, the mandate gets passed to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The Knesset would then have three weeks to present a prime ministerial candidate. If that also fails, Israel will head to a fifth election in two years. In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu will remain in power for at least several more months.

Mr. Netanyahu has an additional incentive to remain in power, as witness testimony in his trial for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust is under way. He has sought to build a right-wing religious coalition that could help him pass legislation to better insulate him against these charges.

The Israeli military stepped up its bombardment of Gaza with tanks, artillery and continued airstrikes. The army said troops amassed along the border but hadn’t entered the territory. Photo: Ashraf Amra/Zuma Press

Even with Mr. Bennett’s return to his camp, Mr. Netanyahu faces the same challenges he did after the March vote—he doesn’t yet have the numbers to form a 61-seat majority coalition.

Mr. Netanyahu is hoping to win over Blue and White party leader

Benny Gantz,

who formed a short-lived unity government with him after a March 2020 vote. Analysts have pointed to close cooperation between the pair during the military operation as a basis for future collaboration. Mr. Gantz so far has stuck by his promises not to join Mr. Netanyahu again.

Mr. Gantz is among the Israeli leaders across the political spectrum who have aligned against Mr. Netanyahu, leaving him in roughly the same spot as before the recent fighting. Mr. Netanyahu failed to form a government after the most recent election, and since then, he has been unable to come up with any new formula that would allow him to remain prime minister even if he gets the chance to try again, said

Dahlia Scheindlin,

a pollster and political analyst.

“The developments on the ground become more extreme but the same political quagmire or Gordian knot remains,” she said. “Nothing’s over until it’s over here.”

The Israeli-Palestinian Crisis

Write to Felicia Schwartz at [email protected]

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