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Politics Threaten to Reclaim Center Stage as Gaza Violence Nears End
(L-R) Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. (Gil Cohen-Magen, Mehahem Kahana, Debbie Hill/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Politics Threaten to Reclaim Center Stage as Gaza Violence Nears End

Fifth election looms after Netanyahu-less unity government thwarted

With the latest round of fighting in Gaza and on Israel’s southern border gradually winding down, and following concerted efforts by international actors to wrap up combat activity by the end of the week, focus in Israel is quickly shifting back to the long-standing political stalemate befuddling the nation for over two years.

If we had a government, political considerations would not get mixed up with security ones. No one would be asking themselves why the fire always starts when it’s most convenient to the prime minister

On Thursday, Member of Parliament Yair Lapid, who was tapped by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government earlier this month, accused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government of “failing in all aspects” regarding the conflict in Gaza.

“This government chose to preserve the Hamas regime in order to weaken the Palestinian Authority,” Lapid charged, adding: “If we want to prevent the next round, Israel needs new leadership.”

Earlier this week, Lapid, who chairs the center-left Yesh Atid party and served as opposition leader in the previous parliament, implied that Netanyahu had a role in inciting the violence that eventually led to the latest escalation in Gaza.

“If we had a government, political considerations would not get mixed up with security ones,” he said. “No one would be asking themselves why the fire always starts when it’s most convenient to the prime minister.”

Last week, as tensions reached a boiling point between Israel and the Palestinians and among Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens, Lapid’s supposed unity government partner, right-wing lawmaker Naftali Bennett, announced that he would not join Lapid’s coalition, leaving the latter essentially empty-handed with two weeks left on his clock.

The intended government was expected to include a predominantly Arab party, the United Arab List, for the first time in the nation’s history.

“We were dragged into this round by Hamas, to be sure, but make no mistake – Netanyahu could have prevented this whole thing from escalating,” MP Ram Ben-Barak from Yesh Atid told The Media Line.

I’m not saying he planned for missiles to be launched on Israeli citizens. But sometimes when you play with matches, you have some unintended consequences. When Hamas fired rockets on Jerusalem, Israel was forced to respond

“He allowed the tensions in Jerusalem to ferment for political purposes, to thwart any government that would oust him. He didn’t prevent his own MPs from coming to the highly volatile Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and stirring up trouble, or from extreme-right groups to stage protest marches in the Old City, knowing that would provoke clashes.”

“I’m not saying he planned for missiles to be launched on Israeli citizens,” Ben-Barak stressed. “But sometimes when you play with matches, you have some unintended consequences. When Hamas fired rockets on Jerusalem, Israel was forced to respond.”

We’re still exploring several options, some surprising ones too which we can’t expose so as not to hurt their chances. And Bennett can always come back to the negotiating table

After Bennett’s abrupt about-face, and following Netanyahu’s own failure to present a government during the month afforded to him by the president in April, Israel is now in all likelihood headed to its fifth election in two and a half years.

“That seems like the most probable outcome, yes,” Ben-Barak admitted. “We’re still exploring several options, some surprising ones too which we can’t expose so as not to hurt their chances. And Bennett can always come back to the negotiating table.”

“But I’m not very optimistic,” he added.

In the March 23 election, the fourth contest since April 2019, Netanyahu’s Likud party clinched 30 seats but failed to secure the 61-seat majority in the 120-member parliament required to swear in a homogenous right-wing government.

Netanyahu’s desperate attempts to coalesce the Islamist United Arab List with some extreme right-wing parties in his bloc eventually came up short, leading Rivlin to award Lapid the chance to form a government.

He now has 13 days left to swear in a coalition.

Meanwhile, on Thursday sources within the Likud told the daily Maariv that Netanyahu was prolonging the military operation in Gaza, dubbed Guardian of the Walls, in an attempt to run out the clock on Lapid’s attempts to establish a government.

The rocket launches from Gaza onto southern Israeli towns, along with the airstrikes by Israeli jets against Hamas targets, have been accompanied by numerous acts of violence erupting between Arab and Jewish Israelis.

Thursday evening, dozens of prominent officials and members of Bennett’s Yamina party launched an open letter to the party’s head and MPs, imploring them to reconsider joining a unity government with Lapid.

“We’ve reached the crucial hour and we have to make decisive calls, with the choice between bad and worse,” Keren Harel, who heads the party’s central branch of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank, said in a statement sent to The Media Line.

“We have no perfect fallback option. Sometimes you need to cut off a limb to save the body. We can’t keep deluding ourselves any longer. It’s either the same government with a weak Netanyahu or fifth elections that will have identical results or a government with Bennett leading the way, and, yes, other figures whom we might not have preferred as ideal partners.”

“I have no dilemma as to the better option.”

We’ve reached the crucial hour and we have to make decisive calls, with the choice between bad and worse

If Lapid ultimately fails in bringing together Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar – another right-wing party leader recently disillusioned with Netanyahu – with left-wing and Arab parties in the time remaining, any Israeli parliament member will then have three weeks to present a 61-member coalition, a highly unlikely feat.

Failing that, the embattled country will head to a fifth election, with no end in sight.

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