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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019, after being forced to disperse parliament and call new elections (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yonatan Sindel / Flash 90
AnalysisPM is also now in a race against the state prosecution clock

Netanyahu’s election gambit keeps him alive, but the crown is slipping

How a desperate PM was reduced to subjecting Israel to a new round of voting, why a second election could produce a different result, and where Liberman hopes this could yet lead

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by Yonatan Sindel / Flash 90

For a couple of hours after polling stations closed at 10 p.m. on April 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main challenger, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, thought that he had won. Deluded by an inaccurate TV exit poll, he even delivered a victory speech to his supporters.

For almost seven weeks after polling stations closed on Election Day, Netanyahu also thought he’d won, for a more credible reason: The leaders of six political parties, representing 65 of the 120 newly elected Knesset members, recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that he task Netanyahu with building a governing coalition. That recommendation was tantamount to their commitment to partner with Netanyahu in government, and the incumbent not unreasonably believed that he would now be able to cobble together a majority, albeit after deftly reconciling conflicting priorities and demands among his various potential partners.

In fact, however, the task proved beyond him — centrally because his nemesis Avigdor Liberman, head of the five-seat Yisrael Beytenu party, refused to join the coalition unless a bill regulating conscription of ultra-Orthodox males to the Israeli army, legislation of little practical significance but a certain symbolic value, was passed into law unchanged.

Failing to appreciate that Liberman had no desire to be won over, but was, rather, hoping to prevent Netanyahu retaining his job, the prime minister left it too late to try to persuade the various rabbinical patrons of the two ultra-Orthodox parties to bow to Liberman’s demands, ran out of time and, rather than have Rivlin offer one of the other 119 MKs the opportunity to build a coalition, opted to dissolve parliament and set new elections for September 17.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left with President Reuven Rivlin, right, during a meeting to discuss extending the period of time to form a new coalition government, at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, May 13, 2019. (Haim Zach (GPO)

In the wake of all this political drama, which reached its height (or rather depth) with the Knesset’s 74-45 vote to disperse at midnight on Wednesday night, a key question now is how the new election campaign will play out — or, more specifically, whether the Israeli electorate, which made its political preferences known in April, will elect a substantially different Knesset constellation barely five months later.

Or, more specifically still, whether Netanyahu, King Bibi, the political wizard — who thought he’d won on April 9, who staved off the threat of defeat on May 29 with the last-ditch recourse to new elections, will rise again or be finally dethroned on or soon after September 17. Is Netanyahu now finished — as some have rushed to claim — or will he yet come out on top?

It’s a different fight this time

Israelis in April were weighing their appreciation for Netanyahu — including for keeping Israel safe from outside threats, and building strong international relations with the US, Russia, China, India, certain Arab states and more — against concerns regarding his alleged criminality, his attacks on Israel’s democratic institutions, and his habit of whipping up his base against ostensible internal enemies such as the left and the Arab sector.

US President Donald Trump smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, after signing a proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2019. (AP/Susan Walsh)

September’s vote will bring new factors and considerations into play.

Netanyahu’s international reputation has taken a hit with his coalition-building failure. Even his great American presidential ally, Donald Trump, who gave him Israeli sovereignty over the Golan as a stellar pre-election gift, has been disappointed.

Netanyahu’s coalition options will be reduced, with the ultra-Orthodox and the religious right his only potential partners. Far from being a potential ally, we all now know that Liberman, his former top aide, defense minister and foreign minister, is a resolute and potent political enemy.

Netanyahu has made clear since the Liberman-engineered fiasco of his bid to build a coalition that he will do everything in his power to try to prevent Yisrael Beytenu winning enough votes to get back into the Knesset and haunt him again. But a first new set of polls, taken on Thursday, suggest this will be impossible. Liberman is on the rise.

Yisrael Beytenu did not fare particularly well in April, winning 4 percent of the national vote to gain five seats. Whether because he killed off Netanyahu’s coalition hopes this time, or because he can now depict himself as the true champion of secular Israeli rights — in contrast to Netanyahu, who he has branded a serial capitulator to the ultra-Orthodox — the polls now have Liberman heading for eight or nine seats.

If Liberman does well enough, he is doubtless dreaming of the monarchy himself, at the head of a wildly improbable unity coalition… in an Israel where the wildly improbable cannot be so easily ruled out

For his part, Netanyahu has tried to brand Liberman a “serial saboteur” of right-wing governments, and claims the Yisrael Beytenu leader must now be considered “part of the left.” But it is Netanyahu who tried to woo centrists and leftists into his coalition at the eleventh hour.

It looks possible that Liberman will again hold the balance of power after September’s vote. He could again be kingmaker. Or kingbreaker. If he does well enough, he is doubtless dreaming of the monarchy himself, at the head of a wildly improbable unity coalition, without the ultra-Orthodox, post-Netanyahu… in an Israel where the wildly improbable cannot be so easily ruled out.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (front) and former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sit in the Knesset, May 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Meanwhile, with his gevalt campaign in the final days of the April election battle, Netanyahu helped push Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party below the Knesset threshold. Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut also missed out. Shaked may now join Likud. But Bennett is determined to run separately again, ideally at the head of a new rightist-religious alliance, possibly including Feiglin. Like Liberman, Bennett is a thoroughly disgruntled former Netanyahu staffer and ally. If he does make it back to the Knesset in September, it is not impossible that Bennett would sit in a Netanyahu-led coalition. But it is certain that he would also explore any other potential avenues.

The small matter of Israeli democracy

Although Netanyahu indicated in the run-up to April’s vote that he would not seek to advance legislation designed to help him evade likely prosecution in the three criminal cases against him, it became immediately clear after polling day that this was exactly what the premier had in mind.

He sought to muster a coalition that would back his effort to secure immunity from prosecution via the Knesset, and would then legislate to prevent the Supreme Court overturning that immunity — by radically limiting the authority of the justices via a so-called “override clause” that would prevent them striking down laws and decisions deemed unconstitutional.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meeting Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and her deputy Hanan Melcer (L) at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 28, 2019. (Courtesy)

It is unclear how public attitudes to Netanyahu might be affected by the realization that he planned to remake the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy — and to do so, as the attorney general himself indicated last week, because of his personal legal plight rather than the national interest.

While Netanyahu’s legal troubles were a major factor in April’s vote — with the prime minister declaring that the media, the opposition, the cops and the state’s prosecutors were ganging up to try to oust him — this has now widened into a battle over the fate of Israeli democracy. It seems unlikely that any of this will shift voters from right to left or vice-versa, but it would prove significant even if it only affected turnout (of which more later).

Likud has stuck with him

Some critics of Netanyahu have argued that it was unacceptable for him to have doomed us all to new elections on Wednesday night, when a more gracious approach would have been to admit defeat, go back to Rivlin, and allow the president to let somebody else try to form a government. Such criticism is silly. Politicians seek to get elected. And then reelected. Netanyahu had a legal option via which he could keep trying to get reelected, and he took it.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other party leaders pose for a group picture during the swearing-in ceremony of Knesset members, on April 30, 2019. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90

What’s most telling about his resort to another round of elections is that he was easily able to gather majority Knesset support for the gambit. He had been worried that MKs from his own Likud and other potential coalition parties would double-cross him — that they would vote against dissolving parliament, and then work to see somebody else crowned prime minister.

But the vote to disperse was carried by 74-45 (with Kulanu MK Roy Folkman the sole absentee). Only Labor (six seats), Meretz (four seats) and Gantz’s Blue and White (35 seats) voted against dissolving parliament. The entire Likud, the two ultra-Orthodox parties, the Union of Right-Wing Parties and both Arab parties all voted for new elections. (The Arab parties are set to merge and hope to improve next time on the 10 seats they won in April.)

Looking ahead to September, a central question is whether this wall-to-wall support for Netanyahu inside the Likud will hold. In the frantic run-up to the May 29 deadline, Netanyahu quickly passed a resolution in the Likud secretariat ensuring that he remains the party’s prime ministerial candidate. And it seems likely that the party will stick with him during the campaign, provided that the Likud continues to poll well under his leadership.

The scent of desperation

But will the polls hold up well for him? Will Netanyahu retain the support that gave the Likud 35 seats on April 9? Or will Netanyahu’s right-wing base be dismayed by the evidence of the prime minister’s desperation and his readiness to appeal to longtime political opponents to help save him.

Having fought a campaign disparaging the opposition parties as weak and dangerous leftists, what might some of his loyal voters make of the fact that he sought to woo members of Blue and White and the leadership of the reviled, diminished Labor Party into his government?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (above and at article top) speaks to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019, after being forced to disperse parliament and call new elections (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He was ready to give Labor’s No.2 the post of deputy defense minister. He offered Labor’s hapless leader Avi Gabbay the finance minister’s job (that he had already promised to Kahlon). He promised ambassadorships; even reportedly the presidency (for Labor’s Amir Peretz). Having castigated the Supreme Court’s ostensible over-intervention, he changed his public tone, and reportedly then told Gabbay he would abandon his efforts to rein in the court — all in that last-minute bid for a majority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turns to speak to Labor party leader Avi Gabbay in the course of the Knesset vote to disperse and hold new elections, late on May 29, 2019 (Ynet screenshot)

And most damningly, perhaps, this all failed. He gave and gave — and was so mistrusted in his offers and pledges that he was reduced to having Gabbay film him — and got nothing in return, the very behavior which he had for years mocked Labor-led governments for displaying in their dealings with the Palestinians.

He gave and gave — and got nothing in return

Likud MKs, to a man and a woman, dutifully did as they were asked by Netanyahu on Wednesday, and voted to terminate their own employment. Some of them were freshmen MKs who had yet to so much as deliver a maiden speech. They did so because they believed Netanyahu is capable of ensuring they all get their jobs back in September. They’ll stick with him as long as the polls show that to be the case.

But they are capable of turning on him, and accusing him of abandoning his principles, if the numbers start to change. And in Gideon Sa’ar, who earlier broke ranks to advise Netanyahu against amending the Knesset’s immunity laws, the Likud has a politician waiting for his moment to lead the charge.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa’ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Little shifts can add up

It might sound logical to assume that little will change when Israel goes back to the polls so soon after the last election. But the way the system works, little needs to change for a very different result.

Five seats-worth of right-wing votes disappeared when Bennett and Feiglin failed to clear the threshold. Labor fared abysmally and could disappear next time, or revive under a new leader and/or via a possible merger with Meretz. Blue and White, a union of three disparate factions, could tear itself apart in the next three months, or, with Gantz now a little more experienced, could strengthen.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a discussion on a bill to dissolve the parliament, at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The Arab sector, where turnout was low in April, could be galvanized by anger against Netanyahu’s demonization, or could stay away in still larger numbers amid a growing sense of alienation. The ultra-Orthodox parties, with Liberman as a new bogeyman, will be sure to vote in high numbers; other Israelis, some of them sick and tired of their politicians, might stay away. Small shifts in turnout can produce significant shifts in the distribution of Knesset seats, in turn generating different coalition possibilities.

A race against time

Netanyahu thought, not unreasonably, that he had won the April 9 elections. He envisaged then building a coalition that would advance legislation to help him avoid prosecution, and keep him in the Prime Minister’s Office for the foreseeable future.

On May 29, he was looking at a complete reversal. He had no government, and he faced the prospect of somebody else being charged by Rivlin with supplanting him as prime minister, leaving him completely vulnerable to his looming prosecution. His pre-indictment hearing is set for early October, and the attorney general reportedly wants to issue a final decision on the three cases — in which Netanyahu faces three counts of fraud and breach of trust, and one of bribery — by the end of the year.

Benjamin Netanyahu, second left, seen at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 14, 2016. (Gili Yohanan/POOL)

His midnight maneuver, forcing new elections, was his only way out. It keeps him in office at least until September (and ensures he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister on July 16). It keeps open the possibility that he could win again, and, racing against the state prosecution clock, just possibly force through the legislation in the first few weeks of a new government to save him from a likely criminal trial.

Netanyahu, in short, is still in the fight.

But the crown is slipping.

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