WHEN AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN became Israel’s defence minister in 2016, he vowed to eliminate the leader of Hamas within 48 hours. Two years later Ismail Haniyeh is still alive—and may have just helped eliminate Israel’s government. On November 14th Mr Lieberman (above, left) resigned, withdrawing his party from the ruling coalition over its supposed meekness in the latest flare-up in the Gaza Strip.
That leaves the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu (above, right), with a one-seat majority in the Knesset. He may lose that if other right-wing parties follow Mr Lieberman’s example. The general election scheduled for November next year is likely to be brought forward to the spring. A week that began with efforts to bring calm to Gaza has sparked a coalition crisis in Israel.
After more than a decade under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, Gaza seems as intractable as ever. Conditions for its 2m people are dire. Poverty is widespread; infrastructure is crumbling. Since March large crowds have been protesting every week at the border fence. Scores have been killed by Israeli snipers. Flaming kites launched from Gaza have burned thousands of acres of Israeli land. Frequent exchanges of rockets and air strikes threaten to turn into a full-scale war. In the past decade there have been three.
Mr Netanyahu has sought a deal to prevent a fourth war. On November 8th Israel let a Qatari envoy into Gaza carrying three suitcases stuffed with $15m in notes. The cash was distributed to civil servants. Many had not been paid since the summer. Israel also allowed lorries laden with diesel oil, also donated by Qatar, to enter the fuel-starved strip, letting its sole power plant restart a second turbine. Gazans now get at least eight hours of electricity a day. That is an improvement, given that they endured barely four hours in the summer. In return for these meagre comforts, Hamas agreed to limit the protests.
Blood money disdained
Many Israelis disliked the deal, seeing it as akin to paying protection money to the militants. But Mr Netanyahu believed he could withstand the criticism. Keeping Gaza out of the headlines would reduce the pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians, which he has spent his career trying to avoid. On November 11th, while visiting Paris for Armistice Day, Mr Netanyahu said the deal would prevent “unnecessary war” and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
The calm lasted only a few hours. That evening a squad of Israeli soldiers in civilian clothes, some dressed as women, ran into gunmen from Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, during an intelligence mission there. A firefight ensued, with a car chase to the border. The commandos called in air strikes and helicopters to extract them. Seven Palestinian militants and an Israeli officer were killed. Hamas and its allies fired 460 rockets and mortars at Israel; Israel struck 160 buildings in Gaza. Eight more Palestinians were reported killed in Gaza, and one in Israel.
Egypt soon brokered a truce. Neither side wanted a war. Mr Netanyahu was bent on the deal, as was Hamas, which hopes better conditions in Gaza will sustain its unpopular rule. But Mr Netanyahu’s allies were furious. They wanted a stronger reaction. In Sderot, a town close to the border with Gaza, hundreds of residents came out in protest, burning tyres. Mr Lieberman claims to have advocated a much tougher line on Gaza, one opposed by Mr Netanyahu and Israel’s generals. Announcing his resignation, he accused his boss of a “surrender to terror”. The truce, he said, would bring short-term quiet at the expense of Israel’s real security.
The leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, covets the defence ministry. But the prime minister is loth to elevate one of his chief rivals. Instead Mr Netanyahu will take over the post himself, adding it to his jobs as foreign minister and head of government. As a result, Mr Bennett seems likely to quit the coalition and force an election.
Mr Netanyahu had hoped to start the election campaign on his own terms. In July the Knesset passed a law declaring Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people. Though largely symbolic, it alienated Israel’s non-Jewish minorities and drew scorn abroad. But it pleased his base. Last month the prime minister visited Oman, which has no official relations with Israel, and met its sultan. He hoped to campaign as a statesman and staunch nationalist who has brought peace and quiet to southern Israel. Instead he is having to fend off attacks on his security record.
But Mr Lieberman will not have an easy time either. As defence minister, he endorsed many of the decisions he now criticises. Mr Bennett has attacked his record for months. All three will compete for the same right-wing vote. Mr Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, which draws support from an ageing crop of Russian émigrés, is polling poorly. His attack on Mr Netanyahu’s policy in Gaza, although well timed, feels like a desperate bid for survival.
After a decade in power, Mr Netanyahu could soon surpass David Ben-Gurion’s record as Israel’s longest-serving leader. With a divided field and an uninspired opposition, he may still win the next election. But corruption charges have cast a shadow over his administration. His list of challengers is long and growing. For years they avoided attacking him directly, thinking they would lose. But Mr Netanyahu may no longer have that weapon of deterrence.