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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Likud's Imminent Fall




Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on the political ropes again, this time for real. While his budget passed last Monday, his foreign minister, David Levy, has resigned over its terms, taking his five-member faction out of the government and leaving the ruling coalition with a one-vote margin in the Knesset.


That alone is not particularly big news by Israeli standards; after all, Netanyahu was able to survive a vote of no confidence Monday. Moreover, Yitzhak Rabin managed to govern for a long while with as slim a majority and, for a while, with an even slimmer one, implicitly relying on Israel's Arab Knesset members in crucial votes. But the Likud Party today is different from the Labor Party then (and now). It is fractured deeply and may not long survive as a recognizable entity.


The relatively dovish former mayor of Tel Aviv, Roni Milo, is organizing a third party. Levy himself might run for prime minister. So might Rafael Eytan of the National Religious Party, or Tzomet. Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, probably will challenge Netanyahu from within, as well, causing even further fractures.


Moreover, the Sephardi and Ashkenazi (European-origin) elements within the Likud no longer share enough interests to keep them firmly together; many Sephardi voters probably will opt for Milo or even Labor next time, and many of the Ashkenazi for the Tzomet Party, depending on their respective orientations toward religious issues. What we are seeing is not just the fall of a prime minister and his coalition, but the fall of a major political bloc in Israeli politics over the past decades.


Even this is not all. The Netanyahu government has been a failure in most respects, including the most basic one of all -- general competence. Even those who generally agree with Netanyahu's hard line toward the Palestinians acknowledge that the prime minister has bungled and sleazed his way through 18 months of unmitigated and unprecedented political high anxiety; the list is long and sad -- the Jerusalem tunnel door episode of September 1996; the disastrous Mossad-Mashaal affair of September 1997, over a botched assassination attempt in Jordan; and the alienation of Israel's professional foreign and defense ministries and its intelligence services.


Even those problems the prime minister did not create he has not handled especially well, and in consequence the Israeli establishment as a whole has judged Netanyahu unfit. Ironically, this verdict has made him temporarily more popular among segments of the electorate that feel marginalized by the "system,'' but after each blunder the pool of those disenchanted with Bibi has grown and the novelty of the defiance he cultivates has worn off.


Then, of course, there is the paralysis in the peace process and the consequent deterioration in relations with the United States and those Arab associates that Israel has managed to gain -- Jordan and Egypt in particular, but Morocco, Qatar and other countries as well. Most of those who voted for Netanyahu did so in expectation that he would fix the peace process, not destroy it; but he has not done either.


For all these reasons, jockeying for new elections has been going on for months -- including within Likud. Over the last few days, an almost universal consensus -- or better, a state of political mind -- has emerged that the government is doomed. That itself is a not insignificant factor in the psychodrama of parliamentary politics.


So what will bring the government down, and with what consequences?


Practically anything could bring the current coalition down. But two issues stand forth as most likely to turn the trick. One is the "conversion question,'' which is really the question of the relationship of the Orthodox rabbinate to the state. It concerns whether conservative and reform clergy can officiate at conversion rituals in Israel. This is one of the issues Netanyahu did not create -- it springs from an effort by the "pluralist,'' anti-Orthodox religious movements based mainly in the United States.


But, for the present coalition, it is a no-win issue; when a group called the Neeman Committee finally reports its conclusions after examining the issue, which may be within a few weeks, some coalition faction will bolt the government over it.


But there may not be time for that issue to bring the government down. While the peace process was definitely not the issue that led Levy to leave the coalition, it could be the one to seal its fate. Israel must present a West Bank withdrawal plan by Jan. 20, when Netanyahu is to meet U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington. If the plan calls for more than a 10 percent to 12 percent withdrawal, the National Religious Party will defect; if it is smaller, the Third Way Party will defect. Either way, down goes the government.


The first effect will be the freezing of the peace process for at least two months. That is how long it will take to conduct elections and form a new government. This is not especially problematic, however, for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been stiff-arming the peace process since March and trying, with much success, to blame the deadlock on Israel. So little will be lost in the waiting.


The more significant impact, of course, turns on the leadership and the shape of the next Israeli government. At this point, no one can be ruled out, not even Netanyahu. Nor, unfortunately for those who care about Israel, can an extremely bitter and even violent political season be ruled out either.


Adam Garfinkle, executive editor of The National Interest, wrote "Politics and Society in Modern Israel: Myths and Realities.'' He contributed this comment to Newsday.