An early election

Within the next nine to 12 months we should be all the wiser.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, March 11, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting, March 11, 2018
Last week’s government crisis – real or fake – was one of many indications that our body politic is in a state of growing chaos.
What was the crisis all about? It was allegedly comprised of the following: the demand by United Torah Judaism (or at least part of it) that steps be taken to exempt all Torah students (but in fact all ultra-Orthodox men) from military service – if need be by means of a Basic Law, even though the ultra-Orthodox abhor basic laws, while threatening to vote against the 2019 budget (see below); the refusal of Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman to agree to such a sweeping exemption on principle; and the insistence of the finance minister, Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, that the 2019 budget, which by law must be approved at the latest by March 31, 2019, be approved by March 15, 2018, by hook or by crook.
And because of this concocted Gordian knot, we got very close to an early election being called for June.
Well, not exactly. We were close to an early election in June less because of the political whims of those posing the ultimatums than because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have liked an early election – almost a year-and-a-half early – before the attorney general decides whether to indict him. This is because all the recent opinion polls indicate Likud would not lose any strength if an election were held soon (something that is likely to change if Netanyahu is indicted), and also because the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem in May, possibly including the presence of US President Donald Trump – a joyous event in itself – is sure to boost Netanyahu’s popularity. The government “crisis” was merely a convenient excuse.
But something went wrong.
What went wrong was that most of Netanyahu’s coalition partners do not want an early election. According to opinion polls Yisrael Beitenu and Shas are in danger of falling below the 3.25% qualifying threshold, Kulanu stands to lose three or four seats, while Bayit Yehudi, which is expected to gain a few seats, is convinced that the current government is the best the Right can hope for. Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett was the first coalition party leader to speak candidly of the possibility that the attorney general might decide to indict Netanyahu, and stated that if this should happen Netanyahu will have to step down, insinuating that holding a new election under these circumstances is problematic. Kahlon was the second.
The bottom line is that in order to get the Knesset to vote for an early election in June, Netanyahu needed the votes of at least some of the opposition parties.
It is said that Yesh Atid and Meretz were willing, since according to the polls they are expected to do well (at the expense of the Zionist Camp, one might add, not the Likud) if an election were to be held in the near future.
It also seemed, at first, as though Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay was also game, until some of the senior members of the Zionist Union dissuaded him because at the moment it looks as if the list might lose half its current seats.
While it is certainly desirable that Netanyahu should be challenged electorally as soon as possible, the Zionist Union has no earthly reason to volunteer to be the sacrificial lamb to achieve this goal, especially since holding an election in June rather than later on would primarily be in Netanyahu’s interest.
In short, a combination of insufficient support for an election in June and question marks regarding his ability to form a new right wing-religious government after such an election convinced Netanyahu to back down.
After announcing that a new election would not be held in June, Netanyahu chose to mock the Zionist Union, arguing that the decision had “brought the color back to their cheeks.” However, there is no doubt he himself was the main loser this round, since even though the option of an early election has not been removed, it is now technically impossible to hold and election before the end of 2018 (after the high holidays) or the beginning of 2019, by which time the prime minister’s legal situation is expected to be more complicated.
By that time the attorney general will certainly have made his decision known with regard to cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, and even though Netanyahu’s supporters argue that he will only be forced to resign if he is found guilty by the Supreme Court (and after appeal), it is difficult to see him continuing to serve as prime minister after being indicted even in only one of the cases.
Incidentally, it was not only Netanyahu who mocked the Zionist Union for shirking a June election. Last Friday’s Haaretz was also full of opinion pieces from left-wingers attacking the Zionist Union for cowardice.
I disagree. As I mentioned above the Zionist Union, like all other parties and lists, has the right and even the duty to calculate its moves from a strategic perspective, and an election toward the end of 2018 or early 2019 rather than in June seems to have a better chance of achieving the goal of ousting Netanyahu and the Likud, though there are many unknowns in the equation, and nothing is certain.
For example the coalition members in danger of disappearing could find ways of saving themselves. At least theoretically, Shas could reach an agreement with its Ashkenazi counterpart to run in a single list, while Liberman, who was responsible for raising the qualifying threshold to 3.25% before the 2015 election in an attempt to weaken the Arab parties (and miscalculated), could submit a bill to return the qualifying threshold back to its previous 2%.
In addition, we do not know how various new parties and lists that will undoubtedly be formed before the next election will fare. At the moment the great surprise is the popularity of the new party launched by MK Orly Levy-Abecassis, who broke away from Yisrael Beitenu in May 2016 and poses a threat not only to her former party (which has also been hurt by the current trial against several of its former MKs), but to Kulanu as well, due to Levy-Abecassis’ distinct social agenda. With the backing of her father – former senior Likud member David Levi, who is about to be one of the recipients of the Israel Prize for 2018 – Levy-Abecassis could even take votes away from the Likud.
Within the next nine to 12 months we should be all the wiser.