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Middle East

Is Israel heading for early elections?

Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has officially resigned and his kingmaker party is leaving the coalition. Though longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can survive, early elections now seem inevitable.

What began with Israeli political efforts to bring calm to Gaza after last week's flare-up is slowly turning into a crisis in the country's governing coalition, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman officially filing his resignation Thursday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition technically can survive without the five seats held by Yisrael Beiteinu, Lieberman's party. However, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett is already eyeing the post and has given Netanyahu an ultimatum: Either Bennett gets the Defense Ministry — or his far-right Jewish Home party is leaving the coalition, thus toppling the government.

Netanyahu's Likud party, however, has tried to convey stability. "There is no need to go to an election during this sensitive period for [Israel's] national security. The government can see out its days," party spokesman Jonatan Urich said on Twitter. Netanyahu did not reject Bennett's demand altogether, but according to his advisers he is likely to refuse and hold the position himself. His office said that he had not yet made a decision on the issue, and he is due to meet Bennett on Friday.

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Lieberman: 'A surrender to terror'

But despite the pacifying tones, Lieberman's resignation couldn't come at a better time for him or a worse time for Netanyahu. "Yesterday, we surrendered to terror," Lieberman said during his resignation announcement on Wednesday. "We are buying silence for the short run, while compromising Israel's security in the long run." 

The resignation came as a response to the cease-fire reached earlier this week with Hamas, the Palestinian political and military movement classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and the EU. But "the last straw" — as Lieberman put it — was "the transfer of money to Hamas members in Gaza. There is no supervision. The money went straight to the hands of terrorists' families," he claimed, further eroding Netanyahu's public image in the eyes of many Israelis. 

On top of that, much like during previous escalations of violence, many Israelis living near the Gaza border feel neglected, and the general public opinion in the country holds that the army's response was miserable and far too weak. Although senior figures in Hamas are claiming a victory by announcing they were able to rock the Israeli political system, by opting out now, Lieberman can reap the benefits of fame among the Israeli electorate without ever really putting his military proposals to the test or being held accountable for the potentially catastrophic outcome.

Paying a price for being 'soft'

Lieberman's tenure as defense minister was hardly memorable, as the prime minister rejected almost all of his recommendations for Gaza. But with Wednesday's announcement, the 60-year-old politician was able to claim one small victory: He has de facto started the Israeli election campaign — an advantage Netanyahu thought he would have for himself.

Although this is not the first time Lieberman has resigned or left a ruling coalition — he had done so also in 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2012 — this time his potential voters are most likely to remember his allegedly "altruistic" act, as opposed to Netanyahu's response. 

An Israeli bus set ablaze after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza (Getty Images/AFP/M. Kahana)

An Israeli bus set ablaze after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza

The Israeli public prefers calm over anything. But in many Israelis' minds, if rockets fired from Gaza are already a given, they would like to see a fierce military response. Previous conflicts in the area have shown that Israeli leaders pay a heavy price politically for being "soft," but barely pay any price at all for doing nothing to prevent terrorism or to advance peace.

This tendency underlines why it was so important for Netanyahu to reach a quick cease-fire: Not only to avoid another round of violence in Israel's south and restore the relative quiet, but primarily to sweep the continuous failure in Gaza under the carpet and off the political agenda ahead of the election.

'Si vis pacem, para bellum'

Now, with Lieberman's resignation and Bennett's ultimatum, the topic remains on the table, enraging the Israeli right and increasing the despair among the Israeli left.

"Netanyahu has no interest in escalating the situation, after he paid a public price for allowing Qatari funds to flow into Gaza to pay for salaries of Hamas civil servants," says Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking. "This was a routine operation gone wrong, not an assassination attempt that would have escalated the situation," she adds.

"If Netanyahu wanted war," she says, "he could have just blocked the transfer of the Qatari funds, as Israel has done in the past, and let pressure and misery in Gaza to build up. A war would have erupted, and the Israeli public — taught to view Hamas as a terrorist actor that can only be dealt with through violence — wouldn't have blamed Netanyahu for such war."

Read more: Israel's new nation-state law and the politics of superiority 

People look at the rubble of a building in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike (Getty Images/AFP/M. Hams)

People look at the rubble of a building in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike

Yet many observers have suggested that if Netanyahu really wanted to avoid war at all cost, as he claims, it is unclear why he would approve such an operation in Gaza — which has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade for over a decade — at such a delicate time, putting not only soldiers at risk but also jeopardizing a pre-existing cease-fire process.

"Whether you like it or not — Israel was in advanced stages of reaching a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, in cooperation with Egypt, Qatar and the UN — including support from the US," says Barak Ravid, a senior diplomatic correspondent for Israeli Channel 10. Routine operation or not, "it wasn't supposed to be exposed," he claims. "But it did, and now it led us to where we are today. Anyone who does not want an unnecessary war should have asked himself whether this failed operation in Gaza wasn't also equally unnecessary."

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