Dr. Michael J. Koplow explains why Israel is once again going to hold Knesset elections on Sept. 17 after having them on April 9.
OK, why is Israel having new elections?
On the face of it, Israel is going to elections again because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a mandate from President Ruvi Rivlin to form a government but was not able to do so. Though parties representing 65 of the 120 seats in the Knesset recommended Netanyahu to Rivlin, Netanyahu was unable to form a governing coalition. The basic dispute was between Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (five seats) and the Haredi UTJ (eight seats), with neither side willing to back down from its demands over a new military draft law. As a result, Netanyahu couldn’t get to the magic number of 61 and Israel is going to new elections.
That seems straightforward. Why did you say, “on the face of it?”
Because a national unity government could have been formed in the space of two minutes between Likud with its 35 seats and its competitor Kachol Lavan (Blue & White) with its 35 seats.
If it’s so easy, why didn’t it happen?
It didn’t happen because the one obstacle in its path was 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 credibility.
So what were Netanyahu’s options to stay in his post?
In 2009, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni was tasked with forming a government. 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 and has been prime minister ever since. Netanyahu did not want to risk suffering Livni’s fate if Rivlin had appointed Benny Gantz, or another rival, to try and form a coalition. Netanyahu wanted to avoid the appointment of another Likud member to put together a coalition that likely would have excluded him. 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 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 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 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 right wing 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 in which Bennett and Shaked make the Knesset, Likud and Kulanu are bigger the second time around and Netanyahu has an easier path to a coalition. On the other hand, Netanyahu bent over backwards to embrace Haredi demands that are broadly unpopular with Israelis writ large. He also embraced 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 unprecedented new elections are a naked attempt by Netanyahu to save his own skin rather than protect the right-wing government for which most Israelis expressed a preference. And they come with added costs — hundreds of millions of shekels from state coffers and prolonging Israel’s current political stasis.
There is a good chance all of this will backfire, to Kachol Lavan’s benefit. Israelis are not sympathetic to the Haredi positions, and Netanyahu making it crystal clear he was siding with them. Going to Knesset elections again 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 some of the cracks in Likud to become fissures as Netanyahu’s aura of invincibility has been pierced. But between now and September, enjoy another four surprise months of Israeli campaign season.
Dr. Michael J. Koplow is Israel Policy Forum’s Policy Director, based in Washington, D.C.