Yair Netanyahu observes his father Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casting a ballot in the 2015 elections..
(photo credit: REUTERS/SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/POOL)
The Israeli political scene just spent two weeks in a state of “crisis” as declared disagreements over ultra-Orthodox army enlistment threatened to break apart the governing coalition.
There is a narrative being passed around according to which Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked prevented the coalition’s fall by mediating between ministers who advocate for ultra-Orthodox conscription and those whose mission is to prevent it, and by working to ensure that even if the coalition collapsed the Knesset would not schedule the next election until the fall.
While I do not doubt the efforts of Bennett and Shaked, I do not believe this is the whole story because I do not believe that the “crisis” erupted as naturally as the Bennett-Shaked narrative presents it, two weeks before the Knesset’s Passover recess.
Though the Supreme Court struck down the framework through which ultra-Orthodox are exempted from service and gave the Knesset a limited amount of time to legislate a new system, the Knesset has until fall to pass revised legislation. Though theoretically Yisrael Beytenu opposes the exemptions, that has never precluded it sitting alongside ultra-Orthodox parties in coalitions which have consistently upheld them.
The corruption investigations involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife and at least one of his sons is the real context: a prime minister in need of a public relations diversion. Notwithstanding his stated desire that the coalition live out its term, the idea that Netanyahu, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Ya’akov Litzman, chairman of United Torah Judaism, may have engineered the “crisis” together is not surprising. Netanyahu’s actions and statements left many questioning his dedication to the coalition’s survival and from his detractors to his supporters there are few left who consider Netanyahu credible. The question is whether his manipulations are a flaw or a virtue.
The investigations make this a counterintuitive time for Netanyahu to want an election, but corruption is not enough to turn Likud voters into ultra-Orthodox or left-wing voters. His chairmanship of the Likud is not in jeopardy, and he has been gaining in recent polls.
Being reelected just prior to being indicted, despite the leaking of many details of the investigations, would strengthen Netanyahu’s morale going into a trial. “Vote for me, I am about to be indicted” was not the slogan Netanyahu was going for, though, and an invented religio-political crisis helps both Liberman and Litzman rally their bases.
The presumption was that if a “crisis” over enlistment brought down the coalition it would lead to a new election. Netanyahu is known to consider capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox a political necessity, so his coming out against them was not a realistic scenario. Though Yisrael Beytenu was willing to stage a confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox, the coalition would still have a one- seat majority without them. That is the only explanation I can see for why Litzman picked an additional, otherwise unnecessary fight with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu Party, declaring that if the exemption legislation did not pass before the Passover recess his party would vote against the proposed 2019 budget.
Like the exemptions, the 2019 budget could theoretically wait until after the Passover recess, but I do not believe Kahlon was involved in any back-door schemes. His relationship with Netanyahu is contentious and parts of the budget bills pertain to 2018. Furthermore, though Kahlon does not like speaking about the possibility of Netanyahu being indicted and though the attorney general’s decision on the matter is not expected until fall, it could still come sooner than expected, which actually would likely bring about the next election and throw the budget off course, and for Kahlon and his party, budgets are holy.
So what happened? I believe the enlistment exemptions were a readily resolvable matter that was intentionally drawn out for nearly two weeks, during which two things dissuaded the conspirators.
First, many people were not buying the charade, the “crisis” was labeled a fake and the prospective election was still viewed as being about corruption. Bennett deserves credit for his efforts in this regard, including his insistence that for the Israeli Right the current coalition is a dream come true and no better outcome can be hoped for from an election.
Second, the expectation that an election was approaching contributed to MK Orly Levy-Abecassis’s decision to announce that she was forming a new party. In the polls that followed, Levy-Abecassis, who opposes the coalition, received five seats, likely to the detriment of coalition parties. I believe the anticipated outcome of the prospective election was all that mattered to Netanyahu et al. They faked its onset to better test the waters. The test worked, but the results showed much less support for Netanyahu than what he wants you to believe. The very presence of Yisrael Beytenu and Shas in the next Knesset has fallen into question, Levy-Abecassis is in close range of drawing enough votes to block the current coalition from reincarnating itself, and so the election plan was aborted.
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