Political Affairs: The ‘dozen election’ enigma

Could the Likud follow in the footsteps of Boris Johnson?

BRITAIN’S PRIME Minister Boris Johnson welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Downing Street in London, yesterday. (photo credit: SIMON DAWSON/ REUTERS)
BRITAIN’S PRIME Minister Boris Johnson welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Downing Street in London, yesterday.
(photo credit: SIMON DAWSON/ REUTERS)
London – After weeks of speculation about which world leader would host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the election, it wound up being Boris Johnson. Will it turn out to be a prophetic visit?
There was talk of a quickie visit to the US to remind voters of Netanyahu’s diplomatic credentials. Trips to India, South Korea and Japan were planned and canceled. A flight to Moscow could still end up happening next week.
But it turned out to be London, where the political quagmire faced by the new British prime minister is so baffling, it makes Israeli politics look like a game for children.
Until now, the world election Israel’s current race was being compared to was the next one in the United States. The similarities between Netanyahu’s and US President Donald Trump’s political tactics are well documented.
If Blue and White leader Benny Gantz finds a way to emerge successful in the September 17 election, his strategies would be studied by whoever ultimately becomes the Democratic presidential candidate in order to see what proved effective against a Trump-like incumbent.
But could there be an election in Israel similar to the one that was held in England that Johnson won on July 22? That election was an internal primary in the Conservative Party that initially had several candidates, and the winner became prime minister following a rubber-stamp vote in parliament the following day.
England did not have a national election, which Johnson wants to have now, and the opposition in parliament blocked on Wednesday. While Johnson wants to have a national election like Israel is having, Netanyahu wants to avoid a race like Johnson’s.
HOW COULD it end up happening that Netanyahu’s Likud would hold a primary race, whose winner would immediately become prime minster? The answer is complicated.
The premise is that while people think Israel is on its second of two elections, it could actually really be in its seventh of 12, depending on how you count them.
The first of the dozen elections was the municipal race on October 30, which acted as a bellwether for the Knesset election on April 9, which was election No. 2. That election was technically won by Netanyahu, because he emerged as leader of the largest political bloc, his Likud won the most votes and he received the mandate from President Reuven Rivlin to form the government.
All along during that election, pundits said that with all due respect to the six million eligible voters, the most important election would be the one when only Rivlin would cast his ballot. That vote for Netanyahu was election three.
The fourth vote took place in the Knesset. Netanyahu needed to attract the support of 61 MKs. He got only 60, after Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman stabbed him in the back at the last minute, so Netanyahu lost that election.
The fifth was the Knesset’s vote to disperse itself at Netanyahu’s request. A majority of MKs elected to give up their jobs and not let Gantz have a chance to form a coalition.
There was a mini-rebellion among backbenchers in the Likud, who Shas leader Arye Deri this week confirmed approached him. If it would have succeeded, or if then-Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay had agreed to enter the coalition, the elections could have stopped there. But once the Arab MKs decided to join the coalition in voting to disperse, the rebellion proved hopeless and ended.
It has become rare in Israel for a party to hold a leadership primary, so when one does, it must be recognized and counted. So Amir Peretz’s July 2 victory in the Labor primary to succeed Gabbay was election No. 6.
We are now on election No. 7. But according to current polls, it might not be lucky for anyone. If nothing dramatic changes over the next 10 days, the results will be painfully inconclusive.
If Netanyahu does not succeed in his goal of obtaining 61 MKs on the Right without Yisrael Beytenu, there will be no obvious choice for Rivlin in election eight. If Yisrael Beytenu and every party from Blue and White leftward recommend Gantz, he will be given the first chance to build a coalition.
But while Yisrael Beytenu and the Joint List can agree that they prefer Gantz over Netanyahu, they cannot be part of the same coalition. Gantz could try to form a minority coalition with the Joint List’s support from outside, but Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi revealed his demands this week. The NIS 64 billion he requested for development in the Arab sector could prove prohibitive.
If Gantz fails to form a government in election eight, Rivlin would choose Netanyahu again in election nine. Gantz’s six weeks would end at the beginning of November. Netanyahu’s six weeks in mid-December.
That is exactly when Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to rule on a final indictment for Netanyahu in his three criminal cases. Mandelblit reportedly will rule before State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan’s term ends on December 15.
Parties could be hesitant to enter a coalition led by a leader who could be gone shortly thereafter. That could result in Netanyahu failing to form a coalition again.
Would that automatically lead to yet another Knesset election? No.
According to a loophole that MKs talked about in the Knesset cafeteria on Wednesday, a majority of the new Knesset could ask Rivlin to give another candidate a chance to build a coalition. That candidate would then be given 14 more days, and only if he fails would elections be initiated automatically.
The Likud, which is known for its unwavering loyalty to its leaders, is unlikely to unseat Netanyahu unless something drastic happens. An indictment and a second failure to form a government fits the bill.
That finally brings us back to Boris Johnson and election No. 10. Just as there initially was in the Conservative Party race, there will be many Likudniks who decide to throw their hat into the ring.
After all, Likud leader is a job with staying power. The party and its forerunner have had only four leaders in Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu. Who knows when you will get another chance?
That is why Gilad Erdan decided to turn down a plum job as ambassador to the United Nations. He could join as many as 10 candidates in running for leader of Likud, including Gideon Sa’ar, Yuli Edelstein, Israel Katz, Miri Regev, Yuval Steinitz, Nir Barkat, Tzachi Hanegbi, Avi Dichter and Danny Danon.
The winner of the Likud primary would be chosen to build a coalition in election No. 11, and will have a much easier time than Netanyahu, because there will be no legal cases or years of animosity to get in the way.
The Knesset voting to approve that government some time at the end of December would be the final election among the dozen. Israel would begin 2020 with a new leader, whose coalition could be unprecedentedly stable, due to Israelis’ trauma from having way too many elections.
This scenario is still less likely than Netanyahu again somehow finding a way to win, as he has so many times before. But if it does happen, Netanyahu could look back at the irony of his decision to visit Boris Johnson in London.