Could this be the end the political career of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
JERUSALEM — For the first time in the history of the state of Israel, the head of the party that won the largest number of seats has failed to form a coalition government. Rather than allowing the head of the party that came in second to attempt to form a government, the Knesset voted to hold re-elections only six weeks after Israelis first cast their ballots.
Could this be the end the political career of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? It seems that this is indeed what the heads of several political parties here are determined to achieve. Not unlike hyenas who see a broken down and weak lion and go for the kill, the same Israeli politicians who made a coalition government with him impossible see a weak Netanyahu and hope that another election will finish him off. Still, elections are a risk for all involved — one that Netanyahu decided to take.
In Israel’s government, no one party ever wins the 61-seat majority in the Knesset needed to form a government. This means that coalition agreements between the large parties and the smaller ones are needed before a government can be presented. The elections that took place on April 9 ended with a win for Netanyahu. However, even though he received more seats in the Knesset than ever before, he had only a slim lead over the party that came in second. The question is always whether or not the head of the party who won the most seats can put together a coalition with enough votes to form a government and the assumption was that Netanyahu, the master of this trade, would be able to do so. But that was not the case.
When the dust settled and the horse trading commenced, Netanyahu began to work with anyone who would support him. The Ultra-Orthodox Jewish or Haredi parties, which between them received 16 seats in the Knesset, were obvious partners. They have serious issues regarding the State’s attempts to force the Haredi community to serve in the army, breaking away from a seven-decade status quo in which they were exempt. Pending satisfaction on that score, they were in.
Netanyahu needed more partners to reach the required 61 votes. Two other partners brought him to 56 but he still needed another party to join the coalition, and that is where the wheels came off the wagon. The next logical party to join him was led by Avigdor Lieberman, a corrupt, violent politician about whom volumes can be written. Lieberman served as Netanyahu’s minister of defense and then resigned because he felt that Netanyahu was not tough enough on Hamas in Gaza.
Lieberman said he would not compromise on the issue of the Haredi draft — he supports a law that would force that community to be conscripted into the army — and thus it was impossible for him to join a coalition with the Haredi parties. The only other option was a national unity government, where the two largest parties unite and create a broad coalition. This is quite common in Israel, as the leaders of two parties that fought each other tooth and nail stand together and say that for the sake of the nation they will “put their differences aside.“
This would have been a win-win situation. Netanyahu would have remained in his post, and the political newcomer, former Army chief Benny Gantz, would likely have been minister of defense. Yet Gantz’s joining would mean the departure of the Haredi parties, as his party supports the Haredi draft. This would have been a worthwhile trade for Netanyahu, as Gantz brings 35 seats to the Knesset. However, Gantz announced that while his party was willing to join a coalition government with the Likud Party, they would not do so with Netanyahu at its helm.
Legally, Gantz as the head of the next largest party, was to be given a chance to form his own coalition. However, Netanyahu made an unprecedented move to dissolve the Knesset and call for new elections.
What’s next is anyone’s guess
Netanyahu clearly believes he has a chance to get more seats if the Israeli electorate has another chance to vote. The rest of the political leadership in Israel clearly wants Netanyahu out. Now it is a war of attrition and whoever has the toughest nerves and the best campaign will win.
Netanyahu is the only Israeli politician who can demonstrate any real achievement. Having been in office for a decade, he has impacted the economy, and most people living here would say they are quite happy with his policies. He was behind the passing of the Nation-State Law, which codifies and give a constitutional stamp of approval to the violation of Palestinians rights, and he can show that he has had the support of every U.S. administration, including the Obama administration, notwithstanding the fact that relations between the two heads of state were known to be cold.
The next three months will either see Netanyahu removed from the political scene in Israel — an unlikely scenario — or, more likely, with the next election bringing similar if not identical results as the first, see Netanyahu keep his post, bringing Gantz to work for him as minister of defense.
Feature photo | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during statements to the press in Jerusalem, May 30, 2019 after meeting with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to push the Trump administration’s long-awaited ‘deal of the century.’ Ariel Schalit | AP
Miko Peled is an author and human rights activist born in Jerusalem. He is the author of “The General’s Son. Journey of an Israeli in Palestine,” and “Injustice, the Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five.”