Despite seven weeks of continuous efforts, Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a new coalition. The deadline passed on May 29, at midnight. The president then had the right to delegate the task of forming a government to another politician – that would most likely be Netanyahu’s main electoral rival, Benny Gantz. The situation resembled one from four years ago – then, the prime minister announced the creation of a new government two hours before the deadline set by the president. This time, however, he failed. At the last moment, Netanyahu gathered the majority allowing for dissolving the Knesset and announcing early elections for September this year. These will be the second early elections in a row, but for the first time in history, the Israelis will choose their parliament members twice in the same year.
Too many parties
The arduous process of forming a coalition is a chronic problem in Israeli politics. Since the electoral law provides for a low electoral threshold of only 2-percent, the parliament is usually very fragmented, and the votes of several groups are required to achieve a majority. The situation following the elections of April 9 this year was no different. Hundred and twenty seats in the Knesset have been broken down between 11 parties!
The two major forces, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White acquired 35 seats each. Definitely too few to gain a chance for an independent government. That is why a week after the election, President Re’uwen Riwlin asked party leaders to indicate a candidate for prime minister, whom they would be willing to support. Six right-wing parties, bringing together a total of 65 deputies, pointed to Benjamin Netanyahu. He therefore was entrusted with the task to create a government.
It was a huge success for the politician starting his fourth consecutive (and fifth in general!) term as prime minister. In terms of the length of his office, he can even overtake the father-founder of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion.
The success was all the greater as only a few weeks prior to the election, the Israeli Prosecutor General signaled the willingness to press charges of corruption to the Prime Minister in office. Even though Netanyahu had the right to defend himself in pre-trial proceedings under Israeli law, before the charges were officially announced, the very possibility of pressing them could have had a negative impact on his election results. In addition, his party gained a serious rival in a new party – the Blue and White mentioned above. Nevertheless, Likud managed to reach the highest vote count, and the good results of the other right-wing parties gave hope for a quick formation of a coalition government.
Go to the army, they said
Israel is a state that exists under permanent threat. Therefore, military service is compulsory for all who are 18 years old and it lasts long – 3 years for men and 2 years for women. However, there are two major exemptions to this duty. The first one concerns citizens of Arabic descent; the second one – some ultra-orthodox Jews.
The latter, referred to as Haredi, are a very characteristic and influential social group in Israel, recognized for their very rigorous practice of Judaism and distance from the rules governing modern society. Many of them depend on state aid, devoting their lives to studying religious writings. Those who started their studies in yeshiva could avoid military service. However, this privilege has raised increasing objections of other citizens. In 2017, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the law of universal conscription applying exemptions to ultra-orthodox Jews is, in fact, a denial of the constitutional principle of equality among citizens. The Court ordered it to be changed.
This turned out to be an extremely difficult task for the ruling coalition, which included both ultra-orthodox Jews and the Israel Our Home (Jisra’el Betenu) party, mainly representing Russian-speaking citizens who came to Israel from the territory of the former USSR, supporters of the secular state. Alongside suspicions of corruption against the prime minister, the dispute over the issue of conscription was one of the factors that influenced the announcement of early elections.
The elections, however, changed little. The parties that Netanyahu needed to create a new government included both the ultra-orthodox groups (16 parliament seats in total) as well as Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Our Home. The latter only has a 5-person representation in the new Knesset, which, however, turned out to be crucial in reaching a majority.
Lieberman was perfectly aware of that and therefore made his entry into the coalition conditional upon the new government adopting a law imposing an obligation to send some of their students to military service on the yeshivas. There would be an obligatory number of students a school is to send to the army each year, or they would bear a severe fine. However, such a solution was unacceptable for ultra-orthodox groups. They demanded a significant easing of the Act. Netanyahu made numerous attempts at mediation, unfortunately to no success. Lieberman in particular proved to be relentless. „Lieberman never intended to reach an agreement,” said the embittered prime minister. „Of course, he wanted this government to fail and he does it because he assumes that this will win him a few votes,” he concluded.
Race against time
The closer to the deadline to form a new government, the more it became clear that reconciliation of fire and water within a single coalition would not be possible. Ultra-orthodox Jewish parties could not agree to the bill proposed by Lieberman, while Lieberman would not provide for any concessions.
In this situation, Netanyahu made yet another, rather desperate attempt. He made a coalition proposal to the Labor Party, which had been the major opposition force until the last elections. It was an exceptionally generous offer, considering that the Labor Party came out very weakened after the April elections, keeping only six seats in the Knesset. Netanyahu offered the position of finance minister to Avi Gabbay, the leader of the party, and three other ministerial positions for party members.
Furthermore, he agreed to refrain from the proposal of a law giving him immunity for the duration of his function as prime minister (which would prevent him from appearing in court on corruption charges). Still, the laborers proved tough and rejected the coalition’s offer.
The nervous wait for the end of the appointed deadline began. And although there were those who assumed that Netanyahu could magically repeat the success of 2015 and present a new coalition government at five minutes to midnight (literally), the Israeli prime minister no longer had the aces up his sleeve. He was left with one last option: to dissolve the parliament and announce early elections. 74 PMs voted for such a proposal, with 45 against. The second elections of 2019 became a fact.
Will it backfire on Poland again?
For Benjamin Netanyahu, this may be the most expensive defeat in his political career. When he managed to lead Likud to the next electoral success a few weeks ago, it seemed that despite the shadow of corruption charges, the popular „Bibi” has defended his place in Israeli politics. Once again, he managed to convince his citizens that he remains the guarantor of a thriving economy and safe borders.
Perhaps the close fondness with the US president also helped, who did not hesitate to show active support to Israel under Netanyahu rule: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, accepting the annexation of the Golan Heights, or withdrawing from a nuclear agreement with Iran.
It turned out, however, that voter support is not everything. Netanyahu’s political rivals, such as Lieberman or Gabbay, have perfectly sensed his weakness, associated with the proceedings against him. They reckon, and rightly so, that pressing official charges may exclude Bibi from Israeli politics and significantly weaken Likud. And this can mean an opportunity for big changes on the political stage and increased support for other parties. That is why, in Netanyahu’s opinion, Lieberman might have been hindering the coalition from the beginning.
The upcoming campaign will be exceptionally ruthless. Netanyahu is in for a fight for his life. For others – this can be the beginning of the game for his heritage. This is not good news for Poland – already in the previous electoral campaign, some politicians used anti-Polonism as a way to mobilize their electorate. This time, the issue of the Just Act 447 may become the electoral fuel in Israel. The uncertain political situation in this country may also mean delaying the peace plan for the region, which has long been promised by the Americans. The result of the upcoming tempest is to be seen in September.
Polish version is available here.
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The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.