On a day of extraordinary political theater in Israel, as the Knesset at noon Wednesday began debating a bill to dissolve itself a mere month after it was sworn in, the following 12 hours appeared to present three possible outcomes: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu solves his government-building crisis and manages to sign up a 65-strong coalition; Netanyahu runs out of time, cannot form a coalition, and the Knesset votes for dissolution and new elections in September; Netanyahu fails to form a coalition, the Knesset does not vote for dissolution, and instead President Reuven Rivlin restarts the process of identifying the Knesset member with the best chance of putting together a majority coalition.
The third of these options was deemed the least likely, at least as of this writing: If Netanyahu cannot appease Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman and finalize a coalition, the last thing he wants is for a political rival to be given the chance to do so. He would rather go back to the public and hold new elections, hoping that he will be rewarded with a more amenable Knesset next time around. This option too would be problematic for Netanyahu, since it would leave him with very little time to try to advance legislation that could render him immune from prosecution in the three criminal cases against him. (His hearing ahead of a likely indictment is set for early October, though he would doubtless seek a postponement.) But it would still be less problematic than seeing someone else become prime minister. Therefore, if he can’t form a coalition, he has told his Likud MKs and their potential coalition allies to vote to dissolve parliament.
This has created the surreal situation in which the “defeated” parties from the April 9 elections, led by Blue and White and its chair, Benny Gantz, are opposing the dissolution of the Knesset, because they think they might yet be given the chance to form or join a government, while the “victorious” parties, led by Netanyahu’s Likud, may have to seek to dissolve parliament. (Some Arab MKs in the opposition might conceivably vote for dissolution, incidentally, hoping their parties might fare better next time.)
The only evident circumstance in which Netanyahu might lose complete control of this process is one in which it turns out that behind-the-scenes deals have been hatched between Liberman, Gantz and, critically, several Likud malcontents in order to, first, prevent a Netanyahu-led coalition, second, prevent the dissolution of parliament, and, third, recommend somebody else to Rivlin to potentially form a government.
If such a behind-the-scenes plot has been hatched, however, it would constitute a staggering act of disloyalty to Netanyahu by the Likud MKs involved. (Some Likud MKs are indeed disgruntled, including over the Likud merger with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which was pushed through on Tuesday, and which could cost some of the lower-ranking Likud MKs their seats if we have new elections. No Likud MKs, by contrast, have been publicly disgruntled by Netanyahu’s bid to curb the authority of the Supreme Court as part of his efforts to place himself above the law and avoid potential prosecution.)
And it would have been a remarkably well-hidden plot, since there has been no evidence of it (unless you count a photo of Liberman chatting with ostensible Likud Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa’ar in the Knesset canteen on Monday).
אווו אתמול ליברמן עם סער
מעניין מה קרה שם??
הפכנו להיות זקנות משועממות מרושעות מחפשים רק רע וצהוב pic.twitter.com/1oUhhGtLdo
— דניאלה חרמון (@SP4Ky7dtzaeutwI) May 28, 2019
The far more likely denouements to Wednesday’s political maneuverings are that Liberman — who has insisted that his price for joining the coalition is the passage, unchanged, of a bill that passed its first reading last July to raise the proportion of ultra-Orthodox males doing IDF service — and the ultra-Orthodox parties and Netanyahu agree on a formula to put aside their differences, or that the Knesset does indeed vote for dissolution. Which of these two is more likely? As of this writing, nobody knows, or if they do, they’re not saying.
If you are (somehow) still following this, these four points are also worth noting:
One, Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg has declared that she plans to prevent a vote on dissolving the Knesset by the midnight deadline by leading an opposition filibuster effort — a plan whose viability is far from clear. The goal would be to subvert Netanyahu’s binary coalition-or-election equation, and create a circumstance under which Rivlin would again enter the fray and seek a potential new prime minister.
Two, even if Netanyahu fails to build a coalition, and the Knesset (improbably) does not vote for dissolution, it is anybody’s guess whether a different candidate might subsequently be able to cobble together a governing majority. By the way, Rivlin would be permitted to again charge Netanyahu with forming a coalition if he seemed best able to do so.
Three, if Netanyahu and Liberman do manage to bury the hatchet and Netanyahu gets his coalition, it would be formed in the shadow of the vicious bickering of recent days, and would, by definition, be far from stable. Liberman plainly reviles Netanyahu, and Netanyahu plainly cannot afford to trust him.
Four, if Israel does go to snap elections, a mere five months after the last round, it would be unprecedented in the country’s history, would cost an estimated NIS 431 million ($120 million) in direct election day expenses alone, would paralyze the government and legislature for months, and would be as hard to predict as all other Israeli elections.
It might be argued that little has changed, and therefore the next Knesset would look much the same as the one being dissolved after a month — a period so brief, incidentally, that 20 fresh MKs have yet to give their maiden speeches, and the only law this parliament would have passed is the one to dissolve itself.
But the public might blame Netanyahu for the rapid re-vote, and punish Likud accordingly. It might blame everybody but Netanyahu. It might resent that Netanyahu, in the run-up to the April elections, indicated he would not seek fresh immunity laws to avoid prosecution but was apparently planning to do so. It might empathize with his arguments for avoiding prosecution. Lots of Israelis might not bother to vote next time, but the ultra-Orthodox community’s disciplined voters would likely maintain their customary high turnout, which could further boost the number of ultra-Orthodox MKs (already up from 13 in 2015 to 16 in April.) And all manner of other considerations, including dramatic domestic or regional news developments, could also come into play.
All of which is why, of course, Netanyahu is feverishly seeking to muster a coalition in the next few hours, and why Liberman has been able to cause him such anxiety. Apparently.