Day after day for a week and counting, Israel’s elected leadership has been running around in headless chicken mode, plunged into crisis over whether the Knesset is going to dissolve itself a year and a half early and subject the nation to new elections.
Rather than, say, running the country, the men and women chosen by the electorate to take care of our national interests have instead been posturing, and pontificating, and positioning themselves to try to ensure that, when the music stops, they’ll retain those comfy chairs they have in the Knesset.
Depending on their particular assessments of what their voters want from them, our politicians have depicted the crisis as revolving around everything from how many ultra-Orthodox men perform army service to the future of Israeli democracy.
In fact, this is a crisis initiated and overseen, and one that will ultimately be resolved, by one man and one man only: Benjamin Netanyahu. And it derives from one concern only: his desperate effort to fortify his political position ahead of his possible indictment for corruption in one or more of the investigations in which he is a suspect.
Unsurprisingly interested in saving his own skin — and widely supported in an Israel where many voters feel saving his political skin truly is a major national priority — Netanyahu has concluded that the attorney general may be less likely to prosecute a prime minister who has just received a fresh mandate from the voting public. And even if another election success would not prove sufficient to deter the attorney general from pressing charges, Netanyahu reasons that his coalition colleagues would be less likely to force his ouster if he and they had been freshly returned to office. Newly elected, he’d at least be fighting from a position of immense power.
This, and only this, is what the “coalition crisis” is about.
Initiating the meltdown last week almost out-of-the-blue, Netanyahu latched onto demands from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners for legislation that will untenably protect their electorate still more hermetically from the obligations of national service. He then issued the self-serving threat to call elections unless all coalition partners vowed to stick with him until this Knesset term comes to its intended conclusion at the end of 2019. In other words — unspoken words — he was requiring his current array of unreliable allies to promise in advance that they won’t abandon him even if he is charged and finds himself under escalating pressure from the opposition, the media and law enforcement to resign.
With Netanyahu a constant three moves ahead of his allies/rivals on the political chessboard, the crisis to date has involved a great deal of internal debate in the bizarre corridors of ultra-Orthodox power, featuring elderly sages miscommunicating via fax machines.
It has featured Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon — perhaps the only Israeli political figure of any real or imagined substance who actually doesn’t want to be prime minister — threatening to quit if his budget isn’t passed in the next few days.
It has seen Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — conscious that his natural constituency is evaporating as Russian immigrants turn into veteran Israelis — digging in his heels against the proposed draft-dodging legislation in an effort to produce a credible political achievement to show to potential voters.
It has involved Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett castigating Netanyahu, vowing to stand by him, and then castigating him again, as he tries to figure out whether we’re really heading to the polls. (In 2015, Netanyahu sabotaged Jewish Home in the days just before the elections by terrifying voters from the religious right into abandoning Bennett and voting Likud with the threat that they’d otherwise risk finding Labor’s Isaac Herzog in the Prime Minister’s Office.) On Monday, Bennett accused Netanyahu of “fake leadership,” no less.
And it has featured endless tracking, backtracking, calculation and recalculation from Netanyahu himself, as he counts Knesset votes to see if he can engineer the precise scenario he seeks — elections as soon as possible (probably June 26), rather than a lengthier campaign that could give the attorney general more time to wrap up the probes and indict, and give his political rivals more time to try to plot his electoral defeat. (He might even be tempted, once reelected, to try to rush through legislation, a la France, under which the national leader cannot be prosecuted while in office. French presidents, it might be noted in this context, are limited to two five-year terms.)
A few days ago, Netanyahu was all gung-ho — and the narrative was that Israel needed new elections because he couldn’t run a government that was endlessly vulnerable to minor parties’ political extortion. By Sunday, he wasn’t quite so sure he had all his ducks in a row — he was reportedly concerned that the Knesset forces might conspire against him to schedule elections only toward the end of 2018 — so he was talking about the imperative to keep this coalition in power to continue its important work on behalf of all Israelis.
In the Knesset on Monday, he ostensibly pleaded with his colleagues not to bring down the government, telling them “it’s late, but not too late” to stave off elections. “We need to act responsibly… We have to carry on together.” But that didn’t sound too convincing, coming from the man who had sparked the crisis, and who vowed in the next breath, “If there are elections… we’ll win.”
There’s nothing surprising about a politician trying to save his skin. For a prime minister who is convinced that he has no remote rival when it comes to securing Israel’s national interests, and who insists that all these investigations are part of a despicable plot by an improbable alliance of haters including the press, the left, the cops and the state prosecution, nothing could be more natural than trying to work the political system in order to retain power.
Israelis keep telling the pollsters they don’t want elections, which is why, in the Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu went to great lengths to blame others for forcing the elections he’s been working towards. But Israelis also make clear that Netanyahu is by far their most popular choice for prime minister — at 36% according to a survey for Hadashot TV news on Monday night, with Yair Lapid in a distant second place on 12%. In recent months, Netanyahu’s “I’m the victim” approach has seen his Likud steadily gaining ground in opinion polls. Monday’s Hadashot survey gave Likud 30 seats — precisely what it won in 2015, and its best performance in opinion polls ever since — comfortably placed to form a new coalition. (It also indicated that the outmaneuvered Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas are in danger of disappearing altogether.)
Simply telling Israelis straight out that he’s considering a resort to early elections to further strengthen his position — essentially, an electoral referendum on his fitness for office — would likely help Netanyahu even more. After all, it’s precisely what much of the electorate wants him to do.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing if he just came and said it: My fellow Israelis, I’m trying to work the angles to give me the best chance of outflanking all my enemies — of retaining power, avoiding prosecution and staying out of jail.
One thing’s for sure: It’s an insult to the electorate to depict this “coalition crisis” as being about anything else.