By Michael Regenstreif, Editor
Israelis went to the polls in an early election on April 9 – an election did not need to be held until seven months later. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, faced with increasing dissension within his right-wing coalition, a new and credible opposition party, and the possibility of looming criminal indictments in three corruption cases, sensed he would fare better sooner than later in his quest to remain head of Israel’s government.
When the votes were tallied, Netanyahu’s Likud Party had 35 seats, the party’s best showing since Ariel Sharon led Likud to 38 seats in 2003. And although the new Blue and White Party – led by Benny Gantz, a former chief of the Israel Defense Forces – also won 35 seats, Netanyahu was tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a coalition government because the right-wing bloc of parties who indicated their likely support for him formed a majority of the 120 members elected to the Knesset.
Then came the wheeling and dealing necessary to form a government with majority support. Such negotiations typically involve promising control over certain ministries and policies to particular parties, many of which, like the religious parties, are narrowly focused and thus wield influence far greater than their percentage of the vote would indicate. For example, in the April election, Shas and United Torah Judaism, the two religious parties combined, took less than 12 per cent of the vote, but Netanyahu could not have formed a coalition without them – and their presence in the government would ensure continued haredi Orthodox control of religious matters in Israel.
But Netanyahu’s potential coalition also needed the five seats of former defence minister (and former foreign minister) Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party – and that’s where the wrench got thrown into the coalition- building spokes. One of Liberman’s main planks is the end of exemptions allowing haredi men studying Torah to avoid military service – which the religious parties insist on maintaining.
Many Israeli pundits expected Liberman would back down from his position in the coalition negotiations and become defence minister in the new government. But he called Netanyahu’s bluff and the prime minister’s time, and extended time, to form a government ran out. Israelis will vote again in a do-over election on September 17. Netanyahu’s early-election strategy didn’t work.
Opinion polls taken right after the new election date was announced indicated the possibility of similar results to the April election. Those polls also suggested Liberman’s party might increase its seat-count from five to eight, or even 10.
According to the cliché, a week is a long time in politics, which means there are about a dozen long times to go before the election. A lot can happen over the next three months and there might well be new alliances that come together and older alliances that fall apart (recall that in the 2013 election, Netanyahu’s Likud and Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu ran as a joint ticket). Some parties, like the once-mighty Labor, will have new leaders and it remains to be seen what will happen with the New Right Party of once powerful Netanyahu ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, which fell just short of the electoral threshold for Knesset seats in April. Although they are firmly on the right, any loyalty they might have had to Netanyahu is in question after he dumped them from his provisional cabinet in the wake of the new election call.
So, the results of the September vote are not a foregone conclusion. Will Gantz’s Blue and White – which virtually tied Netanyahu’s Likud in the April vote – take more seats this time and have enough possible coalition support to be tasked to form a government?
There is no doubt that Netanyahu was weakened by his failure to form a government after the last election and should he win again in September it’s very possible that the same stalemate that led to the new election will still be there.
And complicating matters further are that Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings on the three corruption charges are scheduled for October 2 and 3, just when he’d be trying to put a coalition together if he is successful on voting day. Those hearings were originally set for July but were rescheduled after Netanyahu’s lawyers argued they needed more time after the April election. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has already rejected Netanyahu’s request for further delay.
As noted, there are 12 long times to go before the election.