Monday, May 18, 2015

Why Bibi May Soon Turn Up The Heat On Iran

Israeli politics is in a state of disunity. The 34th Knesset was seated on Thursday after a contentious set of speeches during the opening session. Formation of the 61-seat governing coalition, the minimum required number of seats, involved last-minute offers to controversial Knesset members and was met with incredulity by the press and Knesset ministers. The political right is split between the government and the opposition, and the government has already faced a vote of no confidence by centrist MK Yair Lapid. The government won by only three votes.

Outside the Knesset, protests by Israel's Ethiopian Jewish community in Tel Aviv come alongside a worker strike in the impoverished city of Dimona. Protests in past weeks have seen outbreaks of violence against protestors and police alike and prompted responses from both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Rivlin. The protests have gained international press coverage and are likely to gain support from left-wing movements that coalesced in 2011 during the social justice protest movement.

Ironically, Prime Minister Netanyahu's intent in calling snap elections in December 2014 was to consolidate power and a unified base of support. However, the result has been fracturing and disunity among both political parties and segments of Israeli society. His appointment today of Likud MK Silvan Shalom to lead any future negotiations with Palestinians is likely to draw further criticism since Shalom does not believe in a two-state solution.

Prime ministers in Israel historically have responded to disunity by focusing the public on a common threat. Netanyahu himself employed the tactic in August 2011 after an attack in Eilat killed seven Israelis. Bibi responded with an airstrike in Gaza, and Hamas reacted by shooting rockets at Ashdod and several other southern cities, uniting the Israeli public around the prime minister.

This time, Bibi is unlikely to exacerbate tensions in Gaza so soon after last year's Operation Protective Edge. Escalating with Hezbollah in the North would also be risky given the group's preoccupation at the moment with the fighting in Syria where most of its resources that could be otherwise used against Israel are being spent.

A safer bet for the Prime Minister would be to raise an alarm about Iran and continue to warn Israelis of the danger the Islamic Republic - and its proxies - pose to Israel. Such a message has widespread support in Israel and would be difficult for the opposition to rally against. The move, unlike inciting a conflict with Hamas or Hezbullah, would have minimal costs with regard to Israel's relationship with the US, and would draw attention away from both disunity in the Knesset, and the budding ethnic equality movement on the streets.

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