One does not need to have been a fly on the wall to guess how Monday’s 22-minute conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman unfolded.
The two politicians’ mutual contempt prevented any practical discussion or compromise on the ultra-Orthodox military draft bill that serves as the point of contention between the sides. Netanyahu rightly believes that if there were true willingness to find a solution on Liberman’s part, one could be devised quickly.
The prime minister apparently hoped to swiftly come to such an arrangement, but Liberman took pleasure in turning the premier down, irritating him, making him sweat — and if new elections must be held, so be it. Liberman, after all, believes he could win 10 seats instead of his current five in such a race.
Called upon to explain his behavior, associates of Liberman on Monday cited the joke about a woman who suddenly slaps her husband, seemingly out of nowhere. When asked to her reason, the woman shrugs: “Believe me, he knows.”
In other words, after 25 years of acquaintance, cooperation and intense rivalry, and with so many quarrels along the way, Netanyahu need not seek and Liberman need hardly quest after justification for the current crisis. It’s all there in the pair’s fraught relationship. The question is, will this animosity lead to new elections in several short months’ time?
At Liberman’s press conference on Monday, he was not terribly persuasive as to his motives. It is difficult to see why he would suddenly make the draft law his hill to die on. When did he suddenly take such an interest in its passage? After all, when he quit the government in November it was not over the long-stalled law’s failure to move forward, but because of the government’s policy in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, do his his voters, veteran Russian immigrants, truly care if the ultra-Orthodox serve in the army or not?
It is far more likely then that this is personal — vindictive even. And any counter-offensive by Netanyahu — including vicious headlines in pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom, threats to snatch the Russian vote in an election and recent salvos by Likud officials at Yisrael Beytenu — will only lead Liberman to further entrench himself in his position.
Netanyahu continues to seek some path towards compromise. He truly does not want another election and has appealed to Liberman to give some ground. Liberman insists he has already done so, by offering that Haredi MKs could leave the Knesset plenum when the enlistment bill is approved.
In fact it may very well be the ultra-Orthodox parties that will eventually pave the way to a solution. The Haredi politicians are shrewd. Though the draft law’s very existence is unpopular with their electorate, they know very well that it is in effect much more of an anti-draft law, one that may well present a historic opportunity to get the military off their backs once and for all.
In recent days top officials have sought to find compromise within the community, and senior figures have expressed confidence that an election will be averted once the ultra-Orthodox manage to convince a key holdout to yield: Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, leader of the Gur Hassidic sect and one of the chief policy influencers of the United Torah Judaism party.
Meanwhile Netanyahu is moving ahead with legislation to disband the Knesset, in order to prevent President Reuven Rivlin, who he hardly trusts, from having the opportunity to offer the task of forming a coalition to another. He prefers another election to the possibility of Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, or a different Likud member, getting the chance to form a government — though they would be highly unlikely to succeed where he has failed.
The legislative process to dissolve the Knesset will continue until Wednesday at midnight, the legal deadline to form a government. If a deal is reached at the last minute, Netanyahu could reasonably ask Rivlin for another week to finalize the agreements.
Walking through the halls of the Knesset on Monday, the dourest of faces were those of the new MKs — the fresh politicians who no one knows yet and perhaps no one ever will if new elections are called. Those of them on the right could yet be called upon to vote for their own dissolution, ending their own legislative careers before they’ve truly begun. Temptation must be strong in those quarters to announce an impromptu vacation or sudden illness when the time comes to vote on the final passage of the bill to dissolve the Knesset: After all, without 61 votes, even a reluctant bid by Netanyahu for a new election could be halted in its tracks.