“Israel is all messed up with their election,” President Donald Trump told reporters on the White House lawn in early June. “I mean, that came out of the blue. So that’s all messed up. They ought to get their act together.”
Even Trump’s staunchest opponents in Israel would probably agree with his blunt assessment of the state of Israeli politics.
His comments came just a few days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to cobble together a coalition, opting instead for a snap election in September to avoid President Reuven Rivlin tasking another politician with forming a government.
The fiasco in the Knesset ahead of the midnight deadline on Wednesday, May 29, left people dumbfounded.
Most commentators had predicted that a last-minute compromise would be reached on the question of drafting the Haredim into the IDF, enabling Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and the two Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties – United Torah Judaism and Shas – to join the Likud-led government, along with Kulanu and the Union of Right-Wing Parties, together representing 65 of the 120 Knesset members.
But no one was prepared to back down, and Netanyahu’s top priority was to prevent Rivlin from asking another Likud Knesset member, or Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, with forming a coalition – both nightmare scenarios in Netanyahu’s paranoid worldview where the Left, the media and the judiciary are engaged in an ongoing campaign to oust him from power.
The Knesset voted 74-45 to disperse. In a bizarre reversal of traditional roles, most opposition Knesset members voted against the motion, hoping that Rivlin would seek another candidate to form a government.
The opposition Labor Party, which has six Knesset seats, rejected a last-minute offer from Netanyahu to enter the government in exchange for a number of key ministries, as well as promises to drop proposed legislation aimed at Netanyahu securing immunity from prosecution and dropping measures to curb the authority of the courts.
In the early hours of April 10, when Netanyahu addressed the Likud faithful following (yet another) impressive election victory, he had the aura of invincibility.
“He’s a magician,” the adoring Likudniks sang, in praise of King Bibi.
Yes, difficult coalition negotiations lay ahead but that’s always the case in Israel; yet there had never been a scenario in which new elections were called because a candidate had failed to form a working coalition. No one had any doubt that another right-wing/religious Netanyahu-led government would be formed in a few weeks, paving the way for Netanyahu’s fifth term.
Fast-forward to June and Bibi looks anything but invincible. Not only did Israel’s most wily politician fail to form a coalition, but he goes into a new election campaign significantly weakened.
The fact that Netanyahu failed to form a government means he faces a judicial hearing on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust just a couple of weeks after the September election. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit rejected his request for another delay. This means that he will probably have to ditch plans for an Immunity Bill backed by all the coalition parties, which would have prevented him from standing trial while he remains a Knesset member.
Blue and White chairman Gantz described the decision to hold an election in September as a “farce” and a “national joke,” accusing Netanyahu of leading the country into “total chaos.”
“The citizens of Israel know we are going to elections only because Bibi wants to save himself,” Gantz said. “Netanyahu could have returned the mandate to the president, and we would have formed a government. Why is he not doing that?”
The Likud faithful are still asking themselves how Netanyahu got himself into such a mess and let the April election victory slip away. If he is such a political genius, as conventional wisdom held, why didn’t he realize earlier that Liberman and his party would not be joining the coalition and come up with a Plan B?
Netanyahu now faces another election with his image severely tarnished.
Initial polls in early June still showed the Likud as the largest party, and an overall advantage for the right-wing/religious bloc.
However, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon decided to merge his Kulanu party – which won four seats in the April election – with the Likud, so projections for the Likud now are the same as Likud and Kulanu were together in polls at the time of the April vote.
Both Likud and Blue and White won 35 seats in the April election. A poll by the daily Yisrael Hayom in early June showed the Likud with 36 seats against 34 for Blue and White. The most significant shift comes in support for Yisrael Beytenu, which is projected to rise from five to eight seats. Following the failure to form a government, the acrimonious exchanges between Netanyahu and Liberman make it highly unlikely that Yisrael Beytenu could be part of a future coalition headed by the Likud.
Netanyahu accused Liberman of routinely toppling right-wing governments, saying he should now be considered part of the Left. He said further that Liberman had received everything he wanted, including on the military draft bill, but had refused to join the coalition due to his whims and personal interests.
Yisrael Beytenu replied that Netanyahu had failed to form a government, and that he and the Likud bore sole responsibility for the new election.
Pointedly, Yisrael Hayom – considered the mouthpiece of Netanyahu – failed to list Yisrael Beytenu as part of a right-wing bloc in its poll, leaving Netanyahu with the potential support of only 59 Knesset members.
Major political realignments can be expected in the run-up to the September election, across the political spectrum.
With both Labor and Meretz hovering dangerously above the minimum threshold, there was talk again of a merger between the two left-wing parties, but only after Labor concludes its primary vote for a new leader, scheduled for July.
Netanyahu fired Naftali Bennett as education minister and Ayelet Shaked as justice minister as their New Right party failed to gain Knesset representation in the April election.
There was talk of an alignment of all the forces to the right of the Likud, but significant barriers remain ahead of such a scenario.
Tension was also reported among the Blue and White leadership. Yair Lapid, No. 2 on the list, made it clear that he will not back down from the rotation agreement, under which he will replace Gantz as prime minister after two years and eight months if the party heads the next government. Many blame the rotation agreement for losing the party votes in April and burying any chance of the Haredim joining a Blue and White-led government.
The two Arab parties, Hadash-Ta’al and UAL-Balad, are expected to rejuvenate the joint Arab List ahead of the September election.
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