Israel heads to unprecedented snap election in blow to Netanyahu

Within Likud, the blow to Netanyahu could mean that those opposed to him might mount a challenge to his leadership.
Sunday 02/06/2019
A reversal of fortunes. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks following a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, May 29. (AFP)
A reversal of fortunes. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu speaks following a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, May 29. (AFP)

LONDON - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suffered a serious blow by failing to form a coalition government before a May 29 deadline, forcing unprecedented snap elections.

The Knesset voted to dissolve, sending the country to the polls September 17. It is the first time snap elections were called in Israel before a government was formed.

Netanyahu won a mandate to form a government after his Likud party won 35 of 120 Knesset seats April 9. It soon became clear that he would have trouble forging a compromise that would bring together Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Netanyahu needed both to secure a majority in parliament.

Netanyahu was defiant after the deadline passed, saying that a “sharp, clear election campaign… will bring us victory.” He blamed Lieberman for the failure to form a government. “Avigdor Lieberman is now part of the left. He brings down right-wing governments,” Netanyahu said.

Lieberman, a secular right-wing politician, accused Likud of having surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox, “fully” bearing responsibility for the snap elections.

Likud negotiators had tried to bridge differences between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Lieberman. The key sticking point was an exemption from the otherwise mandatory military draft granted ultra-Orthodox seminary students. Lieberman is opposed to demands by ultra-Orthodox parties to soften a draft bill on the issue that he submitted during the last legislative term.

Netanyahu had pushed on with negotiations while setting conditions for the Knesset’s dissolution. Calling snap elections guaranteed that no other member of parliament, including Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, which also won 35 seats, would be tasked with forming a coalition.

Speculation was rife whether Lieberman’s conflict with the Haredi camp was part of a larger strategy. “We don’t know the real reason for Lieberman’s stance,” said Israeli journalist Peggy Cidor, adding that everyone was surprised by “how adamant he was on this issue.”

Gideon Levy, of the Haaretz newspaper, said it was “hard to tell” whether Lieberman’s plan was to use the draft bill to remove Netanyahu from power.

Cidor said that while the situation was dynamic, she did not expect dramatic changes in the election results in September, meaning that Netanyahu could be asked again to form a government.

The dissolution of the Knesset set in motion a series of political manoeuvres. The Arab-majority parties are in talks to run on a joint ticket after splitting before the April elections.

There is also talk within the Blue and White party, Cidor said, of Gantz ending the alliance with Yair Lapid and trying to reach an agreement with the Israeli Labour Party. Lapid is anathema to the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are likely to be part of any future governing coalition. Cidor said there was no confirmation for such a move by Gantz.

Labour Party Chairman Avi Gabbay said the party would either merge with Blue and White or the left-wing Meretz party before the elections.

Within Likud, the blow to Netanyahu could mean that those opposed to him might mount a challenge to his leadership but Cidor said it was unlikely that Netanyahu could be removed.

The failure to form a government could complicate Netanyahu’s reported plans to advance legislation to grant himself immunity from prosecution before he potentially faces corruption charges. Part of this strategy was to pass a bill that would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down legislation such as the planned immunity law.

Netanyahu could face criminal charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases as well as bribery in one of them. Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has scheduled a pre-indictment hearing for October 2-3, only weeks after the elections.

The drama in domestic politics raised questions about Israel’s foreign policy and the effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The snap poll could hold up plans by the Trump administration to release its peace plan. US officials had previously stated their “Deal of the Century” would be released after the Israeli elections and then after Ramadan.

US President Donald Trump tweeted out his support for Netanyahu and expressed disappointment that coalition-building efforts had failed. There was no immediate statement by the White House on whether the peace plan’s publication would be postponed but Reuters cited a US official as saying an economic conference in Bahrain remained scheduled for late June, adding that political parts of the plan would be released “when the timing is right.”

Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israel Radio: “Now it is the deal of the next century.”

Netanyahu’s potential successor will be assessed by the Arab Gulf countries, said Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, stressing that it was the relationship between the intelligence communities that “forms the basis of the regional threat assessment.”

Karasik said the joint assessment of Iran as the number one priority was “unlikely to change” despite the snap elections and the prospect of a new government.