How the violence plays into Netanyahu’s hands

By letting violence escalate, the outgoing prime minister is sabotaging the formation of a cabinet by the opposition.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid leave after a joint news conference in Jerusalem on July 3, 2013 [File: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun]

In the beginning, the usual suspects from the left were the only Israelis who said it out loud. Next was the former minister of defence and chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, who made the link between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal interests and the violent confrontation that started in East Jerusalem and spread to the Gaza strip, the occupied West Bank and Israel. “The security escalation serves Netanyahu and Hamas, both for internal political reasons,” tweeted Ya’alon.

Then even former defence minister and chairman of Yisrael Beitenu party Avigdor Lieberman declared that “The strategic purpose of the [military] operation is to improve the public opinion of Netanyahu. As long as the mandate to form a government is with Lapid, Netanyahu will try to extend the operation.”

Indeed, the incumbent Israeli prime minister has not made any significant efforts to contain the violence. Last month, he could have ordered the police to remove the roadblocks from Damascus Gate in the old city of Jerusalem. Why did he wait until it became a battleground between the police and hundreds of young Palestinians? Why did he allow the police to throw stun grenades in Al-Aqsa mosque during prayer times?

Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party, former finance minister, and leader of the so-called “change bloc” had an answer even before the escalation started. Shortly after the March 23 elections, he met with defence minister and White and Blue Alliance chairman Benny Gantz and, according to Haaretz writer Yossi Verter, told him the following: “There is one thing you need to consider. If Netanyahu feels that the government is slipping through his fingers, he will try to create a security incident. In Gaza or the northern border. If he will think that this is the only way to save him, he will not hesitate for a moment.”

For the past two years, Netanyahu has been fighting for his political life with everything he has got. He has been charged with fraud and corruption and is potentially facing a hefty prison sentence, if he falls from power.

He now fears the “change bloc”, which Lapid and Gantz are part of and which emerged in an effort to oust him from power. It also includes right-wing Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party, and Gideon Sa’ar, head of the Likud splinter “New Hope”, as well as the left-wing Merav Michaeli, leader of the Labor Party, and Nitzan Horowitz, head of Meretz. This heterogeneous and rather fragile alliance had the sole purpose of setting up a government that excludes Netanyahu.

After Netanyahu failed for the fourth time in two years to form a government, the president offered the mandate to Lapid, the leader of the largest party in the “change bloc”, which has 17 mandates in the Knesset. The recent wave of violence found him amid his last efforts to complete the negotiations with the other parties.

Until a few days ago the “change bloc” was four Knesset votes short of the 61 that are needed to accomplish this mission. These votes were expected to come from the Palestinian Ra’am Party, headed by Mansour Abbas. He promised to join any political coalition that will be able to form a government.

As the tensions heated up in Jerusalem, Ya’alon urged the leaders of the “change bloc” to accelerate the moves to form a new government. But it seems that his advice came a little too late.

On May 13, the bloc fell apart. Bennett announced that he was leaving the “change bloc” and resuming negotiations with Netanyahu. Lapid said that he will keep trying to form a government, but his options have dramatically shrunk.

Apart from Mansour, he will also have to convince the Palestinian Joint List to “replace” Bennett’s party. If he fails to do so in less than three weeks, he will have to return the mandate to the president. In this case, Netanyahu may lead the country to a fifth election in two years and meanwhile appoint an attorney general that will find a way to halt his trial.

At this point, one must ask whether the “change bloc” that leans on Palestinian political forces will be able to avoid the next round of confrontation between the occupier and the resistance forces. Can a Palestinian-Israeli politician stay in a government that orders the police to attack Muslims in Al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan and sends pilots to drop bombs on Gaza, killing innocent Palestinian children?

The different responses to the current events demonstrate the huge gap between the potential partners of the “change bloc”. While Abbas and the other Palestinian Knesset members must take a step back from the new potential partners, the Zionist leaders cannot turn their backs to their constituents, who fear the barrage of Hamas rockets and inter-communal violence in mixed cities.

Sa’ar hurried to call on Netanyahu and Gantz to respond strongly to the attacks on Israeli civilians. He promised that his party will back the government’s strong response to restore deterrence. Lapid also stated that he will support the government’s actions “in the war against Israel’s enemies”. None of the centre-right leaders has said a single word about the source of the conflict, neither offered a strategy to reach a political settlement.

The escalation in the occupied territories is a reminder that the “change bloc” must, first and foremost, change its idle policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its discriminative policy towards the Israeli Palestinian minority. The current events remind us that no Israeli government can afford to ignore this issue without harming the safety of Israeli citizens, jeopardising relations with neighbouring Arab countries and antagonising the international community.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like a car with only two gears: “drive” and “reverse”. You must choose between the two. There is no “parking” or “neutral”. If you are not making progress, you are doomed to go backwards.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.