of Both Worlds for Netanyahu?
May 30, 2019
power for ten years, the Israeli prime minister appeared to stumble on Wednesday
when he drove the Knesset to dissolve itself and call new elections. Ostensibly
this was because Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to form a coalition government.
But how could the master politician who has dominated Israeli politics for a
decade and has thirty years of experience in the Knesset's coalition politics
end up in a situation like this? What if it is actually the best of both worlds
for him? He continues on as prime minister with polls showing that he will
likely do well in September, and his rivals have to fight over the scraps.
secured 74 votes to dissolve the Knesset. He got more support for new elections
than he got for his coalition. If the smaller parties had been smarter, they
might have refused to disperse the Knesset and forced the mandate back to
President Reuven Rivlin. However, Netanyahu outplayed them, as he has outplayed
rivals in the past. He got Kulanu's Moshe Kahlon to join Likud just before the
last-minute Knesset discussion, ensuring that Kahlon couldn't oppose new
elections. This may have been cynical, but it worked.
Avigdor Lieberman's resignation as defense minister last November
has successfully pushed a narrative since calling elections in late December
2018. Let's recall that defense minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned in November
over the Gaza crisis. At the time, Bayit Yehudi's Naftali Bennett and Ayelet
Shaked also appeared likely to resign and trigger elections. But no. Netanyahu
convinced them of the importance of staying on. In early December, Israel
announced Operation Northern Shield. Netanyahu could say that he had postponed
any major operation in Gaza because of the threats in the North. Shaked and
Bennett looked responsible for not bolting. Lieberman looked doomed.
things changed in the first months of 2019. Lieberman's hopes rose and Bennett
and Shaked fumbled the campaign for their new party, the New Right. They fell
short of the threshold. Netanyahu, as usual, needed those right-wing votes that
might have bled over to the New Right, and he gobbled up enough of them on
election night to keep Bennett and Shaked out of the Knesset. But Lieberman made
it in with five seats and 4% of the vote. Math seemed to favor Netanyahu. So did
Israel's voters, who have become more right-wing and religious over the years.
Several parties openly ran under various banners of being either the "new
Right" or the real and authentic Right. Arye Deri's Shas campaigned under
the idea that Netanyahu needs a "strong Arye." Indeed, he got 6% of
the vote and eight seats.
Naftali Bennett (right) and Ayelet Shaked (left) fumbled the
electoral campaign of the New Right.
the end the math wasn't quite there for Netanyahu to form the right-wing
government he championed. Instead, those he pilloried as "Left," the
Blue and White party of several former chiefs of staff and Yair Lapid received
the same 35 seats that Likud got. But Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had no
path to the prime minister's office. He didn't appear to try very hard either in
the month and a half after the April elections. He let Netanyahu take the
discussions down to the wire. When 100,000 did gather in Tel Aviv to protest on
May 25, they were looking the wrong way. They were protesting Netanyahu's drive
for an immunity law, a "defense shield for democracy." What they got
was more democracy in the form of more elections.
is some irony to Gantz saying that night that Netanyahu was turning Israel into
"one-man rule" and Lapid claiming that "we're not your
subjects." Dispersing the Knesset on May 29 enables Netanyahu to continue
to rule. He continues to hold on to numerous ministries and concentrate power.
While it's true there will be more elections, it's unclear if the electorate
won't simply slip into apathy.
If Netanyahu continues controlling the narrative and demanding a
strong mandate, he might find the coalition math in his favor.
was off to a quick start to grab the narrative on May 29. He argued that the
people had chosen him to lead and form a government, and Lieberman had prevented
it. Now, Netanyahu may have the best of both worlds ahead of him. If he can keep
the narrative going, blaming Lieberman and demanding a strong mandate in the
next elections, he might find the coalition math in his favor and he will have
two months to govern as he wants. This comes at an important time for Israel.
The US wants to roll out a peace plan, and the new elections could postpone
that. Netanyahu can also try to continue to seek a way out of a pre-indictment
hearing on corruption charges. It was already postponed until October.
Disagreement over a draft bill for conscription of ultra-orthodox
haredim contributed to the impasse in forming a new government.
is super-conservative when it comes to any major moves in politics or strategy.
He doesn't want a war in Gaza. He doesn't want a real political crisis that
could give an opportunity to opponents. He wants to manage each crisis in such a
way that all the small parties need him more than he needs them. That means
giving the haredim most of what they want in the draft discussions, it means not
rocking the boat on the continuing discussions about the Western Wall, it means
not removing small bedouin communities such as Khan al-Ahmar or Susiya that
caused international opprobrium. It means not causing another crisis related to
deporting African migrants.
in good time. Let the small parties fight over these issues, let them all claim
they are more right-wing than the next party, while Netanyahu waits for
elections. He has shown in the past that he can do magical things just before
elections, always behind in the polls, he comes out ahead or equal in the end.
Even when he loses – as Likud did in 2009, coming in second – he finds a way
has successfully managed coalition crises before.
has successfully managed coalition crises before. He signed an agreement with
Kadima's Shaul Mofaz in May 2012, averting elections. Ehud Barak even broke up
Labor in 2012 in a move that helped Netanyahu's government. Netanyahu briefly
neutered Yisrael Beytenu when Lieberman ran with Likud in 2013. Yair Lapid was
even co-opted into the coalition in 2013 as Finance Minister.
almost like people forgot all this on May 29 as Israel headed to new elections.
Netanyahu doesn't leave things to chance. He is conservative and contemplative.
He doesn't allow risk and crises to dominate. He certainly did not want
Lieberman in his coalition, forever being able to scupper it. And he evidently
didn't want other Center or Left parties in. He also didn't want to give Gantz a
chance. So he chose what might be a better path: New elections.
Netanyahu may receive more palatable and malleable choices on the
Right in the next government.
New York Times and others have headlined this as a defeat for Netanyahu. But
what has he lost so far? He may lose Lieberman, who he doesn't mind being rid
of. He has gained Kahlon. Depending on how things play out, he may also receive
more palatable and malleable choices on the Right in the next government that he
hopes to form. And he likely knows that the Lapid-Gantz coalition in Blue and
White may not be a long marriage. And he knows that Avi Gabbay's Labor has
internal struggles, as do the Balad-Ra'am and Hadash-Ta'al marriages.
Netanyahu came through the smoke and mirrors of the coalition discussions unable to form a government. But in calculating the other scenarios, it may be the best of both worlds for him. At least, in the short term. And Netanyahu prefers to govern for short-term gains, not long-term strategies that require too much risk.