On April 9, Israel held Knesset elections. In September, Israel is once again going to hold Knesset elections. Here is your one-stop explainer for why.
Ok, why is Israel having new elections?
On the face of it, Israel is going to elections again because Prime Minister Netanyahu received a mandate from President Ruvi Ruvlin to form a government but was not able to do so. Despite the fact that parties representing 65 seats in the Knesset recommended Netanyahu to Rivlin, Netanyahu was unable to sign coalition agreements with all of them. Actually, it’s worse than that; Netanyahu was unable to sign a coalition agreement with any of them. The basic dispute is between Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and its five seats and the Haredi UTJ and its eight seats, and it consists of neither side willing to back down from its demands over a new military draft law. Without both of them agreeing, Netanyahu cannot get to the magic number of 61, and despite weeks of pressure from him on Liberman to back down, Liberman refused. And Israel is going to new elections.
That seems straightforward. Why did you say, “on the face of it?”
Because the open secret is that a national unity government could be formed in the space of two minutes between Likud with its 35 seats and its competitor Kachol Lavan with its 35 seats. Not only was that Kachol Lavan’s preferred outcome for the last election, it is still what it would like to see happen, as would a number of others within Likud itself. None of this wrangling between Likud and the smaller parties that are supposed to be making up its prospective coalition has to take place at all, and their leverage could be removed instantaneously.
If it’s so easy smart guy, why didn’t it happen?
It didn’t happen because the one obstacle in its path is Netanyahu. Kachol Lavan essentially ran on a platform of Netanyahu policies without the Netanyahu corruption and assault on state institutions, making it impossible to climb down from its anti-Netanyahu tree and retain a shred of capability. What Kachol Lavan wanted prior to the election was to beat Likud by enough seats that the party would push Netanyahu out the door and make forming a broad center-right government as easy task. Were Likud MKs to somehow sideline Netanyahu now, this would still be the most sensible option for both sides. But as should be glaringly obvious to everyone by now, Netanyahu has one overriding interest, and that is to remain prime minister come hell or high water.
So what were Netanyahu’s options to stay in his post?
In 2009, Tzipi Livni was given the first chance to form a government after Kadima took one more seat in the election than Likud, and her refusal to capitulate to Haredi demands ultimately left her unable to cobble together a coalition by the deadline. Netanyahu was then given the next shot at forming a government, and he has been prime minister ever since. Netanyahu did not want to risk suffering Livni’s fate if Rivlin had appointed Benny Gantz to try and form a coalition after Netanyahu failed, although the likelihood of that working would be small since the basic coalition math still does not add up for Gantz. More pressingly and embarrassingly for Netanyahu, what he was really trying to avoid was Rivlin appointing another Likud member to put together a coalition, since that would have cleared the decks for a unity government with Netanyahu left on the sidelines. After weeks of trying to get Liberman to cave, and then a few hours of pressure on the Haredim to cave, Netanyahu was out of options, and pushed through the bill to dissolve the Knesset and go to elections yet again as the only way of preserving his position and getting another bite at the coalition apple.
And he thinks that if there is another election, the math will change in his favor and make it easier to form a government?
He would definitely like things to shift by at least one seat, which would have given him the space to form a government this time without being held hostage by Liberman. But the true aim here is not about increasing seats; its about forming a government and passing an immunity law and/or Supreme Court override before his indictment hearing on October 2. It is why he did not request another extension from Rivlin and risk having elections any later than mid-September, and also why he suddenly flipped on the Haredim at the last second yesterday and tried to get them to back down once he realized that Liberman wouldn’t blink. Netanyahu thought that threatening new elections would scare one or both of the intransigent prospective coalition members, but they both called his bluff. He is now forced into elections despite not really wanting them given the extremely short time horizon it will give him to form a government and get those laws passed. He is now hoping for one of two outcomes; either the combination of Likud and Kulanu – which are now running together as a joint list – will do better than the 39 seats for which they combined this time and will push Liberman underneath the threshold, or the tens of thousands of wasted rightwing votes that went to Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s Hayemin Hehadash and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut last time will this time get one or both of those parties over the threshold, giving Netanyahu more parties to work with and thus more leverage over all of them.
Is his gambit going to work?
There is simply no way of knowing. On the one hand, there is the scenario I just outlined above, in which Bennett and Shaked run again and make the Knesset, Likud and Kulanu are bigger the second time around than the sum of their parts the first time around, and Netanyahu ends up with a relatively easy march to a coalition. On the other hand, since the election Netanyahu has bent over backwards for the Haredi parties and their demands regarding the draft and shutting down the country on Shabbat, positions that are broadly unpopular with Israelis writ large. He has bent over backwards for the Union of Right-Wing Parties and their plan of attack on the judiciary and secular and gay Israelis, and tacitly endorsed their extremism that is also broadly unpopular with Israelis writ large. The new elections are also unprecedented in Israeli history and a naked attempt to save his own skin rather than protect the right-wing government for which most Israelis expressed a preference, not to mention that another round of elections will cost hundreds of millions of shekels from state coffers and prolong Israel’s current political stasis. There is a good chance that all of this will backfire, particularly if Kachol Lavan is able to quickly absorb the mistakes it made last time and readjust its tactics and messaging to accord with the inevitable frustration among Israelis at what just happened.
Without the benefit of letting the dust settle first and peering into the clear air, my hunch is that this will backfire on Netanyahu. Israelis are not sympathetic to the Haredi positions, and not only did they harden them during these negotiations, Netanyahu made it crystal clear that he was siding with them. Going to elections again for no obvious reason is also going to give Israelis a new sense of Netanyahu fatigue, and it may also create a measure of resentment over a perception that Israel is broken in an unprecedented way. I also expect for some of the cracks in Likud to become fissures, and for the behind the scenes grumbling about Netanyahu to emerge more openly now that the aura of inevitable invincibility that he like to project has been pierced. But this is all mere speculation until September, so in the meantime enjoy another four surprise months of Israeli campaign season!