Netanyahu's Desperation Is the One Certainty Left in Israel

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before voting in the Knesset in Jerusalem. 

At 12 midnight on Wednesday night, time ran out for Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government. At that moment, the law required Israel's president to start looking for another member of parliament to build a coalition and become prime minister.

At 12:09 a.m., parliament voted to hold new elections. 

As if stuck in a national version of Groundhog Day, Israelis will go back to the polls on September 17. The current term of parliament will last all of five months and eight days, by far the shortest in Israeli history. With new elections set, the law says that the current lame-duck government stays in power. Netanyahu remains prime minister.

And a small, news-addicted country woke in the morning to collectively ask, “What the ----?!”

After coffee, that question became more coherent and broke into two: How did this happen? And what happens next?

On the surface, the answer to the first question has nothing to do with the threat of three major indictments for graft hanging over Netanyahu. Less than two months after Netanyahu's apparent election victory, his attempts to form a coalition failed either because of personal animosities or because of a crack-up in the usual alliance of secular rightists and clerical parties. 

In reality, though, Netanyahu's legal problems explain both his failure to form a government and his rush to new elections.

Let's go back: On April 9, in an election that was largely a referendum on Netanyahu's rule, his Likud Party won 35 out of 120 seats in parliament. Five other right-wing and clerical parties who'd declared support for Netanyahu as prime minister won another 30 seats between them. The next week, the president formally chose him to form a government. All Netanyahu had to do was put together a coalition agreement, and he'd have a parliamentary majority. 

Netanyahu has negotiated such agreements altogether too many times already; his fifth term as prime minister seemed assured. True, he was asking potential partners to support legislation designed to protect him personally—a bill to make it harder to prosecute members of parliament, and another that would allow lawmakers to overturn Supreme Court decisions. The second bill was designed to protect the first from meddling judges. But crippling the judicial system aroused scant protest on the right.

Instead, negotiations collapsed over an old point of contention in Israel: the loophole in the military draft that allows ultra-Orthodox men to stay out of uniform as long as they continue religious studies. In practice, this means that most of the ultra-Orthodox avoid military service. 

Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the small, hawkish Israel Is Our Home party, demanded that the new coalition pass a reform that would slowly increase the number of ultra-Orthodox men in uniform. The United Torah Judaism party, also essential to a Netanyahu majority, opposed the bill. Up to the last day Netanyahu was seeking compromises and Lieberman rejected them. Lieberman's party has five seats in parliament. Without it, Netanyahu was just short of a new government.

Lieberman's motive for refusing to budge is a subject of fierce debate. It's possible that the draft reform really is a matter of principle, or political necessity, for him. Lieberman is a hardline nationalist and draws most of his support from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who are overwhelmingly secular. They serve; the ultra-Orthodox do not. 

It's also possible that the dispute was purely personal. Lieberman began his career as Netanyahu's chief of staff in the late 1990s and was pushed out to satisfy Likud critics. At long last, he may have found the moment for revenge.

But here's the key point: Lieberman only had the power to scuttle a coalition because of the prime minister's corruption scandals. Normally in a multiparty system the leader of the strongest party can play the others off against each other. In other circumstances, Netanyahu could have offered a coalition deal to one or more of the opposition parties. This time the opposition's greatest objection is to Netanyahu personally, and to him leading the country while preparing for an almost certain criminal trial. 

So Netanyahu had no wiggle room, and Lieberman's splinter party had the power to deny him a government.

And when that happened, Netanyahu was terrified of letting the political process take its normal course. President Reuven Rivlin's most logical choice would have been to assign Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White opposition party, to try to form a government. Blue and White is openly willing to form a coalition with the Likud—as long as Netanyahu steps down. 

Rivlin's other option would have been to invite a Likud lawmaker other than Netanyahu to form a government, likely setting off a civil war in the party. In either case, Netanyahu would become an ex-prime minister, unable to use the machinery of power to evade prosecution.

Instead, he decided to gamble on new elections.

So what happens now? No one can possibly know. Snap polls will be worthless. It will take days, or weeks, for voters to absorb the fiasco and decide who to blame. Lieberman could suffer for scuttling a right-wing government—or become the hero of secular rightists. It's possible that Netanyahu's voters have all taken the corruption charges into account, and will vote for him again. It's equally possible that some will be fed up with his attempts to write laws that amount to a “Get out of Jail Free” card. 

In the April election, Arab turnout was low, and Arab-backed parties shrank. If the rematch brings more Arab voters to the voting places, the opposition will gain seats. This is a very short list of the variables in a campaign that could be a mix of frenzy and exhaustion. 

Even when the votes are counted, it won't be over. The lessons of a vote at nine minutes after midnight are that politics are unpredictable, Israeli politics are more unpredictable, and the actions of a leader desperate to hold power and stay out of jail are utterly beyond prediction. 

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