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AnalysisHis hold on power appears to be slipping

Did a dry, procedural Knesset vote just signal the end of the Netanyahu era?

The PM has failed 4 times to win an election. On Monday, he lost control of a parliamentary committee that may have offered his best chance at an alternate path to cling to power

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Nothing has changed. And everything has. All at once.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost the driest of procedural votes in the Knesset plenum on Monday evening, a vote that changes nothing at all when it comes to the parliamentary math of his political position.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, the head of its largest parliamentary faction, and the leader of roughly the same-sized bloc he’s led across four indecisive elections, is still all of those things.

But the vote revealed the depth of Netanyahu’s political problem, and altered in one fell swoop how nearly everyone, including Likud party lawmakers, now thinks about his prospects.

Netanyahu is just as stuck as he was before Monday, with no path to a government that doesn’t involve one or another potential coalition partner breaking a fundamental campaign promise: If far-rightist Bezalel Smotrich doesn’t agree to a coalition backed by Islamist party Ra’am; or, alternatively, if ex-Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, the man who told voters that “if you want Netanyahu as prime minister, don’t vote for me,” doesn’t agree to serve under the same Netanyahu — then the Israeli leader has no government.

New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar at party headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In the 15 days still left of his mandate from the president to form a coalition, Netanyahu could still, in theory, convince some individual MKs to defect from the other side, or sway either Sa’ar or Smotrich to renege on promises that have come to define them politically.

But few now believe there’s even a remote chance he’ll succeed. In the words of Likud’s stunned coalition chairman, MK Miki Zohar, after the Monday vote, “We’re starting to understand and internalize that the right-wing parties are headed to the opposition. Netanyahu will be opposition leader.”

The vote

It must be said: It would not be wholly unfair to suggest that Netanyahu’s current predicament is of his own making. He hasn’t won an Israeli election outright since May 2015. The main reason for that failure: fully 20 Knesset seats now belong to right-wing parties that oppose him to various degrees and that campaigned to oust him. The leaders of those parties have longstanding grievances against the prime minister.

And Monday’s vote demonstrated that Netanyahu’s position isn’t just stuck, it’s getting worse. His hold on power appears to be slipping.

The Plenary Hall during the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset, at the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

The drama unfolded as the Knesset plenum gathered to settle a debate on the precise mathematical formula for distributing seats on the 24th Knesset’s very first committee, the so-called “Arrangements Committee.”

The panel is a short-lived entity established by each new Knesset to manage the parliament’s agenda and conduct much of its business between the new Knesset’s swearing-in and the official formation of a ruling coalition a few weeks later.

The committee is immensely powerful for the duration of its brief lifespan. It is responsible for establishing the new Knesset’s committees, appointing their chairs and members for the interim period, and coordinating the legislative agenda between the parliamentary factions and with the as-yet interim government.

The upshot: Whoever controls the Arrangements Committee controls the legislative schedule.

And that matters, because when Netanyahu lost the fight over how the committee would be staffed, he almost certainly lost his ability to legislate a solution to his predicament.

‘Direct election’

The prime minister doesn’t want a fifth parliamentary election, a fifth opportunity to show that he still lacks enough supporters to win the race. A new election could also drag out the deadlock until mid-November, when still-alternate-prime-minister Benny Gantz would finally, against all odds, reach the moment of rotation stipulated in law, replacing Netanyahu as Israel’s premier.

To prevent the Gantz rotation, Netanyahu must see another government formed, any government, even for a moment. It’s the only way to reset the last government’s rules, including the rotation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, prior to Israel’s 73 Independence Day, on April 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Last week, Likud planners hit on a curious solution to the problem, an idea so peculiar no one quite knew what to make of it.

The proposal, drafted by Likud and submitted in the Knesset on Monday by Shas, was simple: The Knesset would pass a law setting a direct election for prime minister in 30 days’ time, with parliament left out of it.

The bill “solves the dead end in which Israel finds itself,” Shas leader Aryeh Deri said in announcing the initiative. “It doesn’t change the rules,” he insisted. Otherwise, he warned, “We’re facing a fifth [legislative] election, which will only be preparation for a sixth.”

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri leads a Shas faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Like so many initiatives over the last two years meant to grant Netanyahu more time in office, the bill was unprecedented. Granted, an election for a prime minister alone is not unheard of — Israel briefly adopted the idea in three elections between 1996 and 2001 — but this time the bill would be a one-off. Just this once it would let the people settle the question rival parliamentary factions could not: who would be prime minister.

The bill was mocked by many and criticized by many more. It seemed designed solely to meet Netanyahu’s needs, stipulating that the candidate who wins the votes of 40 percent of the electorate – roughly the support in polls for Netanyahu as PM – would become prime minister. If no candidate does so, the bill said, they go to a second round.

Workers count votes in Israel’s national elections at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

To ensure no one interpreted the new snap direct election as a “fifth” election, the bill even stipulated that “a person with the right to vote in the election to the 24th Knesset, and only those with that right, have a right to vote in the direct election.”

That is, the parliament was effectively returning to the people with the question: Who do you want to lead you? We’re unable to decide.

Hard questions, hard truths

The bill is in many ways a shocking move, and a silly one. It left a great many questions unanswered, including the most basic one: Is it legitimate to change the nature of the choices available to voters after the vote? Voters picked their parties on March 23 based on the information available to them about those parties’ policies, loyalties and future coalition prospects. Can a political camp that fails to win a majority by that method then ask to relitigate part of the election’s results based on different rules?

What of those who came of voting age between March 23 and the date of the proposed direct election sometime in late May or early June? By what right would they be excluded, as the bill stipulated?

And how, in the end, would such an election actually enable the winner to govern in the still-fractured Knesset?

Netanyahu is famous for pulling political rabbits out of proverbial hats, for unforeseen last-minute maneuvers that leave his opponents in the dust. Was the direct-election gambit really all he could muster?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at a voting station in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

According to Netanyahu himself on Monday, the point of the move was to prevent small parties from extorting him for a rotation deal.

“There’s a solution to the political pickle, and an enormous majority supports it,” he asserted, though his basis for that claim was not clear. “Instead of establishing absurd governments, for example with a prime minister who won just seven seats in the election [i.e., Yamina’s Naftali Bennett], there would be a direct election for prime minister.”

He called on Bennett to do two things: support Likud’s proposal for the staffing formula in the Arrangements Committee that favored the pro-Netanyahu parties, and support the direction-election bill.

“If he doesn’t do that,” Netanyahu said, “that means he’s joining with the left.”

Netanyahu’s public pressure on Bennett turned out to be misplaced. In the end, Bennett voted with Likud on the Arrangements Committee question, after Likud promised to give him one of its own seats on the panel, to make a total of two for Yamina.

But Netanyahu neglected the Islamist party Ra’am, apparently feeling its leader Mansour Abbas was in his pocket. And Abbas did not like being ignored. Opposition leader Yair Lapid made Abbas a better offer, and Ra’am’s vote with the center-left proved decisive, handing the right its first clear defeat in the new Knesset.

Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett, it turned out, couldn’t give Netanyahu control of the Arrangements Committee, and thus of the process for Netanyahu’s legislative workarounds, even if he wanted to.

The newly appointed committee is now effectively paralyzed. Because Netanyahu holds the mandate, the panel is currently chaired by Likud’s Zohar, who can decide on its agenda and prevent any undesired votes. But it is staffed by a majority from the anti-Netanyahu bloc. The prime minister’s party is therefore blocked from advancing any proposal his opponents don’t want it to — almost certainly including the direct election gambit.

A tipping point?

Netanyahu has clung to a clear narrative about the last four elections. In the April 2019 race, Avigdor Liberman’s refusal to join his government caught him by surprise and forced him to trigger new snap elections, he argued. The second race in September was a failure because of a lackluster campaign. He could do better. The March 2020 election ended in the unity government formed in May — and in his wily rout of the naive Gantz who believed his rotation offer.

But this time was going to be different. After a world-leading vaccination campaign, peace deals with several Arab countries, the fracturing of Israel’s Arab parties and the collapse of the once formidable Blue and White alliance and with it a cohesive center-left opposition — Netanyahu was supposed to finally win outright. He appeared to truly believe he would.

That the overall results from March 23 were, in the end, almost unchanged from those of every single election of the past two years breaks that narrative.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assails an International Criminal Court decision paving the way for an investigation of possible Israeli war crimes, February 6, 2021. (video screenshot)

Whatever is keeping Netanyahu from victory, it turns out, has little to do with Liberman’s politicking, with Arab parties uniting or splintering, or even with the growth or collapse of Blue and White. It is more fundamental, embedded deeply into the Israeli electoral landscape. The battle lines are resilient, the voters refuse to change their minds, even as party names and campaign strategies shift. Netanyahu’s coalition seems no closer to hand today than four elections ago.

Mansour Abbas of Ra’am (left) meets with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, April 19, 2021 (Courtesy)

On Monday, even as Netanyahu discovered just how troubled his political prospects had become, Yair Lapid and his allies in the so-called “change camp” continued their efforts to block him at every turn, with the Yesh Atid leader meeting the leaders of various factions, including publicly announced and photographed talks with the once-taboo Arab MKs in Joint List and Ra’am.

Lapid is eager to step into the breach. He’s betting, like any Likud MK one talked to after Monday’s disastrous Knesset vote, that Netanyahu had just tried his last trick.

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