Understanding Netanyahu's savvy: How early elections were averted

Netanyahu reaches an 11th hour deal with the Haredi parties to stave off a coalition crisis over draft legislation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reads in the Knesset, March 12, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reads in the Knesset, March 12, 2018.
THE KNESSET ended its winter session in the middle of March after passing the 2019 state budget by a large majority, ending two weeks of political uncertainty when the future of the coalition hung in the balance.
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The coalition crisis was sparked when the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, threatened to delay passage of the budget unless its amendment to the IDF conscription legislation was passed. The amendment aimed to legally anchor exemptions from military service for Haredi yeshiva students.
The conscription measure was opposed by Yisrael Beytenu, led by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the head of Kulanu, who threatened to quit the government if the budget was not approved by March 15.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing possible bribery charges but maintaining his popularity in the polls, saw a window of opportunity and, according to most analysts, was prepared to dissolve the Knesset and opt for a summer election, a year and a half before the end of the current term of the government in November 2019.
However, after a number of coalition partners reportedly made it clear they would thwart plans for a June election, preferring a date later in the year, probably October, Netanyahu backed down. Instead, he endorsed a compromise drawn up by Jewish Home ministers Naftali Ben- nett and Ayelet Shaked, together with Shas minister Aryeh Deri, enabling the draft bill to pass its first reading in the Knesset while Defense Minister Liberman will present his own draft of the bill by the beginning of the summer session, which will be integrated into the existing draft.
The leaders of the coalition parties were convinced from the outset that Netanyahu was promoting early elections in order to boost his support with the public ahead of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision on the investigations into his affairs. Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett declared that he would run against Netanyahu for prime minister if he dismantled a right-wing government because of personal reasons.
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At the height of the coalition crisis, when a June election looked like a distinct possibility, public opinion polls were published showing that although the Likud would emerge as the largest party by a wide margin, two of Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners in a new government, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, were hovering precariously close to the minimum threshold required to gain Knesset representation, complicating plans for forging a new right-wing/religious coalition.
It could be that these polls were the decisive factor prompting Netanyahu to rule out early elections, although he maintained all along that he preferred to see the government remain intact.
Addressing the Knesset plenum after the end of the crisis he said, “I promised to preserve the government and I kept my word. I thank my partners in the coalition for demonstrating responsibility so that we can continue to lead Israel with determination and success in [the fields of] security, economy, society and foreign relations.”
Taking aim at the opposition, Netanyahu said, “That was scary, wasn’t it? I see you have some color back in your cheeks. I know that I spared you some anguish because if we held elections, I would still be standing here and you would still be sitting there. The public’s support for us is tremendous.”
Netanyahu’s comments followed reports that key members of the opposition Zionist Union also worked behind the scenes to prevent early elections in June, preferring to go to the polls if, and when, Netanyahu is indicted, in contrast to the public call by party leader Avi Gabbay who demanded elections as soon as possible. A June poll suited the prime minister because of his solid position in the polls and because the vote would be held shortly after Israel celebrates its 70th Independence Day and the scheduled ceremony marking the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a key diplomatic success for Netanyahu.
An election in October was too much of a risk for Netanyahu, traditionally cautious when it comes to taking political gambles. Seven months is a long time in Israeli politics and there is a good chance that by October the attorney general will have al- ready decided whether or not to indict the prime minister.
ACCORDING TO Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, the crisis was a win-win for the prime minister.
“The prime minister was indifferent to any possible result. The polls heavily favored him and the seat numbers flowed in every poll,” he said. “On the other hand, it is better to have one bird in hand than two in the bush and who knows better than Netanyahu that when you get into elections, there is no way to know the results. So he was calm, but he had no interest in holding early elections and that was made clear to the coalition chairmen.”
The “fake crisis,” as it was dubbed by Naftali Bennett, at least provided the prime minister with a short respite from the daily reports about the ongoing corruption allegations, which took a turn for the worse in early March when Netanyahu’s close associate Nir Hefetz agreed to turn state’s witness and testify against the prime minister.
There is no doubt that the two-week crisis only highlighted the mistrust among the coalition partners, among themselves and between them and Netanyahu. The Knesset summer session begins on April 29 and the next critical juncture, if there is no new crisis – real or manufactured – before then, will be later this year when the attorney general decides whether or not to indict Netanyahu and on what specific charges. An indictment involving bribery could make the prime minister’s position untenable although constitutionally he is not required to step down under such a scenario.
Ostensibly, Netanyahu emerged from the political crisis strengthened, as head of a coalition that still has a year and a half to rule. But, there is little love lost between the prime minister and his main coalition heads Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Liberman – a fact he may come to regret if, as expected, he needs their support if the attorney general decides to indict.