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Israel's 'government for change' is over before it even began

Israel's operation in Gaza has exposed the vast differences between the political forces making up the 'anyone but Bibi' bloc
Mansour Abbas, head of the Raam party, was touted as a kingmaker of the new coalition, but it is now out of his hands (AFP)
By Lily Galili in Tel Aviv, Israel

Israel's previous operations in Gaza have mostly been deadly exercises in futility. But this one might have a real impact inside Israel - besides the deaths, damage and disruption caused by Hamas's rockets - by killing off the country's coalition government in the making.

The basic assumption on the anti-Bibi side of the political spectrum has been that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do anything to sabotage the formation of a government to replace him. 

As atrocities accumulate and lives are lost, those tasked with trying to cobble together a working administration are running out of time to accomplish that mission, as well as losing some of the popular support they had managed to gain.

It is still too early to close this political chapter, but what seemed to be “just a matter of days” only a week ago has turned into a mission improbable. 

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Late Tuesday night, in the midst of bloodshed and chaos in Lod and other mixed cities, Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Raam party, who has been touted as a potential kingmaker for any coalition, issued a statement calling on both sides to prevent escalation, rejecting all violence.

“I call to preserve the delicate fabric between Arab and Jewish citizens," he wrote. On Wednesday morning, in an interview with Mikan, an Arabic-language Israeli radio station, he went one step further: “We have a real opportunity to play a major role in Israeli politics. There is no other way but to go back to negotiating table to form a government as soon as the fire goes out.”

But Abbas's move may be a case of too little too late for his political ambitions. The future of the alternative government is no longer in his hands alone. It depends mainly on how the operation in Gaza, named “Guardian of the Walls”, continues from here.

Fear favours incumbents

Two recent tweets posted on Monday by the head of Netanyahu’s coalition, Miki Zohar, chair of the Likud faction in the Knesset, set the tone for the direction of political developments.

In the first one, Zohar calls for the use of more force in Gaza - “now and stronger”. Two hours later, came the second tweet.

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“This is the time for a national right-wing government. I call upon [Naftali] Bennett [head of Yamina, a right-wing bloc] and [Gideon] Saar [the head of Hatikva, a centre-right party] to set aside all other considerations and join the effort to form this government.”

Zohar is not the most important politician, yet his greatest asset has been to serve as Netanyahu’s proxy. His role is to prepare the ground for future developments for his boss.

This is exactly what he did when he chose to publish those tweets with Gaza on fire and Palestinians counting the bodies, and the lives of two million Israelis disrupted by rocket attacks.

What better timing for a cynical move to freeze all attempts by Bennett and Saar - the first Netanyahu's erstwhile coalition partner and the second his former Likud party ally - to form a government with one mission only: to remove the current prime minister from office and put an end to his corrupt leadership.

Fear and tension favour incumbent politicians, especially those, like Netanyahu, who thrive on spreading a constant sense of looming danger.

Obedience demanded

Some of this was expected. Few believed Netanyahu was about to give up the ghost and fade away quietly. When all his other schemes seemed to have been exhausted, many asked themselves what else he could do.

The answer came this week. It does not take sophisticated political analysts to decipher the complicated situation. This time, all you have to do is read the posts on social media.

“Thank you Hamas for saving my country from the throngs of this leftist government that would expose us all to the dread of nuclear war [with Iran],” wrote an ardent Likud supporter.

Many agree. The basic assumption behind this line of thinking is that the proposed “government for change”, to be headed by Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid centrist party, is dead on arrival. This would have included factions ranging all the way from the far right to the leftist Meretz party, and relied on Abbas's Raam party for support.

Many on the left have reached the same conclusion. “If I go, everything goes with me,” wrote one Netanyahu critic on Facebook, imagining the prime minister's reasoning and expressing a sentiment shared by many at the same end of the political spectrum.

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The outcome is that the anti-Bibi bloc, which appeared to be “almost there” a few days ago, is now in deep trouble. The Israeli ethos of patriotism forbids all criticism in times of war and demands obedience.

Lapid himself issued a statement pledging the ruling government all necessary support. Politically, he can do nothing else. Confronted with a military system and a bunch of ex-generals turned politicians, he has no standing in such a confrontation.

Lapid's own active military career ended ignominiously when he was transferred out of Lebanon during the war in 1982 after a severe asthma attack and ended up as a correspondent for the army's weekly newspaper.

Bennett, the former defence minister and aspiring prime minister, has a richer military career but also a long history of mocking Netanyahu for being too weak in dealing with Hamas.

Avigdor Lieberman, another former defence minister and the designated finance minister in the new government, once promised to eliminate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and flatten Gaza into a parking lot, and so is hardly the right person to call for restraint.

The same can be said for Benny Gantz, the current defence minister and former military chief of staff who launched his political career by publicising the number of Palestinians killed under his military leadership.

In fact, sources say the two - now supposedly in rival political camps - have worked in perfect coordination over the last days. The ruling government is free to act. Well, almost.

'Operation Abu Yair'

Yet the real political issue now is not conflicting approaches between the coalition and opposition, or between Bibi and the anti-Bibi camp. The bigger problem is the cracks within the anti-Bibi camp, the one that is supposed to form a new government.

The “just not Bibi” glue that kept them together is melting in the heat of the fire. Nitzan Horovitz, the head of Meretz and the designated minister of health in the new government, was the only one who dared yesterday to call for the end of military activity and an attempt to reach some agreement with Hamas.

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Mansour Abbas is reluctant to condemn Hamas, as expected by his new political allies, who need his support and his vote to form the government.

After weeks of trying to artificially blur the differences of the so-called “Abu-Yair” coalition, the harsh realities of the past few days have exposed those divisions for all to see.

Gone is the illusory concept that the proposed new government, a strange creation, can eliminate all ideology and focus on common civilian issues only. Mansour Abbas's only civil demands are void of all signs of national identity and they went up in flames in the fatal confrontation between Palestinian youths and Israeli police in Lod.

The new “unity government”, nicknamed “government for change”, changed its meaning or maybe even its very existence. In the meantime, a resident of Gaza quoted on Israel's Channel 12 on Tuesday afternoon defined the situation as a fully fledged war. He called it “operation Abu–Yair”.

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