In a press conference immediately after the synagogue attack, Netanyahu made a U-turn on early elections, instead inviting opposition parties — those representing Palestinian citizens of Israel exempted — to join a national unity government. While Labor and the more dovish Meretz rejected the invitation out of hand, the parochial but pragmatic ultra-Orthodox parties are considering it. Even if expanding his coalition doesn’t buy Netanyahu much time, it could provide some buffer against pressure from the opponents whose challenge is most threatening: his coalition partners on the right.
Until now, the hawks in his coalition have demanded more of what Netanyahu was already doing, such as expanding settlements and blasting Gaza. But on Jerusalem, they seek a qualitative change, looking to alter the delicate status quo in the city, especially regarding the Temple Mount. Pressure on Netanyahu from right-wing nationalist groups to expand Jewish access to the Temple Mount, home to Al-Aqsa mosque, has begun to lend an increasingly religious character to what was hitherto a primarily national conflict — just as religious violence is spiking across the Middle East.
Netanyahu has built his career on opposing the creation of a Palestinian state, standing up to U.S. pressure for territorial compromise and sounding the alarm about Iran’s nuclear work. While he may be more pragmatic than some of his coalition partners, his coupling of low-key settlement expansion with fiery rhetoric has pushed Israel’s mainstream political median steadily to the right. Those right-wing coalition allies may have made Netanyahu look like a responsible stalwart of the center-right, but their momentum could carry the prime minister along.
Having been unceremoniously sidelined by the international community over Iran, Netanyahu now confronts a domestic security crisis for which he very deliberately offers no political solution. He has taken ending the occupation and Palestinian statehood off the agenda, but having seen off U.S. efforts to complete the peace process, he offers no alternative beyond the status quo.
The factions and parties to Netanyahu’s right are demanding he makes good on his rhetoric, but the pragmatist in him will be aware that further escalation could see the situation spin further out of control — particularly if the recent pattern of right-wing citizens’ groups taking matters into their own hands is repeated in revenge attacks for the Jerusalem murders. His political instincts and the security challenges he manages as prime minister may be pulling him in opposite directions. And long gone is the uncontested political authority that had Time magazine crown him “King Bibi” just two years ago. Fewer and fewer Israeli politicians are still bend the knee to Netanyahu, even as he confronts the most challenging crisis of state of his entire tenure.