Netanyahu’s Future in Doubt

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 5, 2019. (Abir Sultan/Pool via Reuters)
A second election could reshuffle Israel’s political deck.

Israel’s political system was derailed this week over a conflict between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews over national service. Or at least that was the reason given by Avigdor Lieberman, the politician whose hard-line stand in favor of requiring the ultra-Orthodox to serve in Israel’s military — as does the rest of the population — prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a government despite apparently winning election to a fourth term.

But, as with political conflicts in any democracy, it’s not quite that simple.

The refusal of Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu party to join the coalition Netanyahu had assembled, despite having run in the April 9 election on a pledge to join the prime minister, effectively erased what had seemed like a decisive victory for the Likud.

When Israelis elect their Knesset, or parliament, they don’t vote for individual members in districts. Instead, they cast a single ballot for one of the host of political parties representing every conceivable political, religious, and ethnic constituency. Any party that passes the cutoff point for entry into the Knesset — a mark that has varied over the years but is currently set at 3.25 percent of the total vote — gets a proportional share of the 120 total seats up for election. That has made it virtually impossible for any single party — no matter how mainstream its appeal — to attain a majority on its own. That’s why every Israeli prime minister since the country’s founding has been forced to assemble a coalition of like-minded or at least compatible factions in order to get to the 61 votes that would enable them to govern. The system has functioned because the various parties are members of blocs; they compete with each other for influence but join together once the election is over.

Thus, it was assumed that Lieberman’s party would join with Netanyahu’s Likud. But Lieberman, who once was a personal aide to Netanyahu and has served as foreign minister and defense minister over the course of the last decade of Likud-led governments, had other ideas. Without the five votes of Lieberman’s faction, Netanyahu was stuck at 60, one short of a majority. And no amount of persuasion or inducements, including offers of office, could get any members of the opposition to give him the ability to govern.

Netanyahu could have chosen, as is the tradition, to respond to this dilemma by having Israel’s president ask someone else to take a shot a getting a majority. But Netanyahu had no intention of allowing Benny Gantz — the former general who heads the Blue and White party, which tied the Likud for the most seats in April but doesn’t have enough smaller allies to get to 61 votes — a chance at the job. So instead, Netanyahu asked and got a majority of the Knesset — which had been sworn in only a few weeks ago — to vote to dissolve itself and hold new elections in September.

For all of the chaos and unseemly wrangling that usually attends Israeli coalition-building, nothing like this has ever happened before. And as angry as the voters may be at the waste of time, effort, and money that will go into holding a second national election, it’s not clear whether the results will change.

There is a perception that Netanyahu, who has stood atop Israel’s political world virtually unchallenged over the course of the last ten years, has been weakened and may be nearing the end of his time as Israel’s leader. And it is that weakness, rather than any devotion to principle, that induced Lieberman to send the country careening down this path.

Lieberman’s party has always been perceived as an offshoot of Likud that appealed directly to voters who were, like its leader, immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They are mostly secular, and like the rest of the country’s non-religious population, they deeply resent the fact that — stemming from a deal made with the ultra-Orthodox by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister — religious young men who are enrolled in Torah-study programs are exempt from the military draft to which all non-Arab Israelis, male and female, are subject. In Ben Gurion’s time, the arrangement affected only a small number of potential draftees, but now, due to the growing ultra-Orthodox population — a group that is distinct from those who consider themselves Modern Orthodox and enthusiastically embrace the obligation of national service — involves tens of thousands of men. Given the political clout of the parties that represent this group, change has been impossible.

But while the issue is a legitimate sore point for voters, Lieberman’s stand was hypocritical. The bill that he insisted Netanyahu pass in the coming Knesset would not actually increase the number of people drafted. Lieberman has a record of cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox political parties, whose total of 16 Knesset seats makes them integral to any coalition Netanyahu might form, and he had expressed no interest in the issue when he was defense minister.

The real reason for Lieberman’s obduracy was his belief that Netanyahu will be taken down by the corruption investigation that is hanging over him. With a hearing scheduled now for October over three possible charges, it appears the only way for Netanyahu to avoid being indicted is for the next Knesset to vote to give prime ministers immunity from criminal charges while in office. While such immunity is far from abnormal in modern democracies, Netanyahu’s critics claim the passage of such a law would be a blow to the legitimacy of Israel’s system. With a majority, Netanyahu could probably have won approval for such a law, because his political allies — and the majority of the voting public — consider the charges against Netanyahu (which include dubious claims of attempted bribery of hostile media) to be too flimsy to justify his removal from office.

But by delaying the installation of a new government until after the October hearings that will finally decide whether Netanyahu will be indicted, Lieberman has likely ensured that an immunity bill can’t be passed until after the prime minister is formally charged. Though Israeli law doesn’t require him to resign under those circumstances, it remains to be seen as to whether he could actually govern.

That sets up Lieberman as a potential kingmaker: He could possibly name Netanyahu’s successor, whether it is Gantz or, more likely, one of the prime minister’s colleagues in the Likud caucus.

This isn’t the first time his opponents have counted Netanyahu out. But the challenge he faces in the coming months is formidable. The public’s lack of faith in his centrist and left-wing opponents makes it likely that the right-wing and religious bloc will again command a majority after September. Yet while polls show him either maintaining the Likud’s number of Knesset members or increasing it, it’s not clear if Netanyahu will be any better positioned to form a government without Lieberman after the next election. And the greater the uncertainty about his future, the more likely it is that at some point someone within the Likud — such as former minister Gidon Sa’ar — might try to unseat him as party leader.

Israel’s voters may well still consider Netanyahu to be the country’s indispensable man, since he is likely to be facing the indictments armed with another mandate from the voters. But the embarrassment he suffered in the last week has chipped away at the perception of his political invincibility. Unless he can find a way to make his legal problems disappear, this setback may be the beginning of the end for the man who has defined both Israeli politics and the U.S.–Israel alliance for the last decade.