Israeli politics are famous for their unpredictability, and events in recent days have only underscored that reputation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday fired two senior coalition partners and announced snap elections next March—all this, not even half way through his third term.
In a televised press conference, Netanyahu accused Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of plotting to topple his government.
He cited their opposition to Israeli policy on Iran’s nuclear program, settlement construction and, most recently, a controversial “nation-state bill,” which defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”—not Israel’s Arab citizens.
Netanyahu also cited Livni’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in May, which he said he had not authorized.
But is this reason enough to dissolve a government? Chemi Shalev, U.S. editor and correspondent for Haaretz newspaper, doesn’t think so.
“Trust has never been—and I don’t think ever will be—a prerequisite to any coalition holding together. It’s not a commodity that one usually requires in politics,” he said.
So what really drove Netanyahu’s actions this week?
Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid party gives a statement outside his home in Tel Aviv, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013.
“The night before the firing, there was a meeting between Lapid and Netanyahu,” said Jeremy Man Saltan, an official with the Jewish Home Party of Naftali Bennett, Israel's economy minister.
“Netanyahu gave five demands from Lapid in terms of what’s needed to return the trust between them and try to move the relationship forward. And Lapid said out of all five of them, he’s not interested in even one of them," Saltan said.
Netanyahu reportedly demanded Lapid’s support on the nation-state bill, stop undermining the government on issues such as the settlements and relations with the U.S., drop a proposed affordable housing plan, transfer the funds to cover the army’s planned relocation to the Negev, and hand over a promised $1.6 billion to Israeli defense budget—the approximate cost of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
Many Israelis think the current crisis dates back to November 12, when the Knesset approved legislation designed to shut down a pro-Netanyahu daily newspaper owned and financed by U.S. casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson.
“This was so embarrassing for Netanyahu, and he was so angry that his coalition partners had voted in favor of this law, that this set off a chain of events that has brought us to this point now,” Saltan said.
In his speech Tuesday, Netanyahu blamed the crisis on the 2013 election.
“The current government, from the day of its inception, has been a rebellious government…forced upon me because of the results of the elections,” Netayanhu said. “The reason for this is simple: The ruling party under my leadership -- the Likud -- did not receive enough seats. That is the simple reason.”
Recent polls show Israel’s right wing gaining support and suggest that Netanyahu could once again be elected premier.
“The polls are talking about something from 70 to 84 seats for the right religious bloc of Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Bennett, ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, along with the ultra-orthodox parties,” Saltan said.
"There are some polls that show that the current coalition of Lieberman, Bennett and Netanyahu--that is the caretaker government in Israel right now--could even have a majority in Parliament without the additional parties," he added.
But Haaretz’s Shalev says it's still a long way til the March 15 vote, and anything could happen between now and then.
“It’s like a war: You know where you start; you don’t know where you finish,” he said.
“And many events that are going to take place in the three, four months that are left before the election—including the new formulations of political parties and new players that will come in—and Netanyahu himself personally is not very popular right now," Shalev said.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (L-R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni shake hands at the end of talks in Washington, July 30, 2013.
Peace process a ‘misnomer’
Most analysts agree these developments considerably dull prospects for resumed Middle East peace talks for the near future, maybe longer.
“We are at a fork on the road,” said Shalev. “One, we could have a different government which would be more moderate, especially if Netanyahu were not prime minister—in which case, there would be a whole new path for peace talks to go forward.
Then again, he said, Israel’s new government could be even more religious and right wing than it is now—a scenario he believes is more likely.
“And then the prospects for the peace process will probably dim—and that’s an understatement.”
In Brussels this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he remains committed to the peace process, “which may at this particular moment be a misnomer.”
Kerry said he hopes the new Israeli election will “produce the possibility of a government that can negotiate and move towards resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians, and obviously, the differences in the region.”