- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a government, so Israelis will be going back to the polls in September
- The Likud leader’s coalition hopes fell apart when his former ally Avigdor Lieberman declined to join
- The future of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, not just the Israeli government, hangs in the balance
Just a few short months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the clear favorite to continue ruling the Middle Eastern democracy. His approval ratings were among the highest he’d ever seen, and he was set to become the longest-serving leader in the country’s history.
If you had told him that, come June, he would be forced to deny allegations that he was forming a behind-the-scenes alliance with his rival Blue and White party to avoid an election redo of his own creation, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.
Nevertheless, that was the case last Sunday night as Netanyahu took to the press to put to rest the TV account by Israel’s Channel 12, which reportedly referenced inside sources from the prime minister’s own Likud party.
The developments that brought us to this point are just as wild as the situation in which Netanyahu now finds himself.
After a short but stressful 24 hours of too-close-to-call poll analysis following the original election on April 9, it seemed Benjamin Netanyahu had done it.
The incumbent Israeli Prime Minister had received a concession from his election rival Benny Gantz, taken a congratulatory call from President Donald Trump and delivered his victory speech to a sea of roaring supporters at the Jerusalem Convention Center. All that separated him from a fifth term in office was the technicality of putting together a coalition of Knesset parties that ideologically aligned with him.
It was all over. Except, it wasn’t.
Netanyahu, commonly referred to by his nickname “Bibi,” had a 42-day window to officially register the backing of the other right-of-center parties in the 120-seat house. That seven-week period started just after election day and ended May 29 — without Netanyahu closing the deal.
Most media accounts indicate that the 69-year-old incumbent’s failure to pull together a majority of Knesset members was largely due to a disagreement within his bloc over a bill that would force more ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth into the military. According to one expert, these reports miss the true story.
“All that is a cover-up for the real reasons,” Yoram Peri, former political advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and founder of the Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University, told The Daily Caller.
“The real story is what happened behind-the-scenes; behind closed doors,” he said.
Peri describes Netanyahu as a man on a mission to avoid criminal indictment from numerous pending investigations into charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu could have ensured his Likud party remained in power if he stepped aside and allowed another party leader to form a majority coalition when he came up short. Instead, he supported a last-ditch hope to save his tenure and possibly his criminal record; an unprecedented election do-over that could very well result in a victory for Likud’s rival Blue and White party. (RELATED: Trump Calls Netanyahu ‘Your Prime Minister’ While Speaking To American Jewish Group)
If Bibi retains his office, he will attempt to enact a law prohibiting indictment of a sitting prime minister, according to Peri. From there, he could pursue a run for president, a largely ceremonial head-of-state position, and attempt to protect that office from indictment as well.
“There is a lot of talk about immunity laws for sitting politicians and so forth,” said Rabbi Ari Koretzky, Executive Director of Jewish youth outreach organization MEOR Maryland and host of prominent podcast Jews You Should Know.
“Bibi is like a cat; I can’t imagine his political career ending over some cigars and champagne, though stranger things have happened,” he said.
If Netanyahu loses the prime ministership, even if Likud remains in power, he will not be in a position to institute defenses against the pending investigations. The course of justice will carry on, and could potentially find damaging information.
Netanyahu fell just short of establishing the majority coalition required for an operational government, so even though right-wing nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu controls only five seats, the party’s refusal to support Bibi sent shockwaves through the country.
Party leader and former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman made the ultimate decision to keep his party out of Netanyahu’s coalition. He told the media it was an effort to keep a bill obligating ultra-Orthodox men to participate in the military as-written, but Yoram Peri says the truth is far more cynical.
“The whole thing is very personal between Bibi and Lieberman,” he said.
While Netanyahu has been focusing on avoiding indictment, Lieberman, an early Bibi supporter and an important player in the Prime Minister’s initial rise to power, has been losing his base of support from the party. Traditionally backed by a Russian-Jewish bloc, Lieberman felt the need to win over a new faction of voters by taking a bold stance on a hot-button issue. He “just so happened” to pick ultra-Orthodox military involvement, one of the most divisive topics within Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc.
Without the support of his longtime friend-turned-rival, Netanyahu could not claim victory. The only way he had a chance to hold onto his position was to support a redo of the vote, the first of its kind in Israel’s 71-year history.
“There is a general shift away from Bibi’s image as a political magician,” said Ronald Zweig, Director of the Israel Studies program at New York University, former consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice and author of numerous works on Jewish and Israel studies.
“He is now seen as vulnerable. The pending indictments, the criminal conviction of his wife, the appointment of a compliant and unprofessional Minister of Justice and his apparent trading of cabinet positions for commitments to grant him parliamentary immunity; these are all undermining his credibility,” he said.
Regardless, Israelis are now preparing to go to the polls for a second time in September to vote in an election with even more significance than its precursor back in April. Beyond the criminal investigations into Netanyahu, Trump’s Middle Eastern peace plan and international business interests are also on the line.
“It’s too bad what happened in Israel. It looked like a total win for Netanyahu, who’s a great guy, he’s a great guy,” said Donald Trump at a press conference after hearing the news.
“They ought to get their act together,” he continued. “I mean, Bibi got elected. Now all of a sudden they’re going to have to go through the process again until September?”
Trump’s frustration extends beyond his positive diplomatic relationship with the current prime minister. His Middle Eastern peace plan, one of his biggest foreign policy agenda items, is now in flux as Israel focuses on the issue of who will hold the country’s highest office next term.
An envoy of Trump administration representatives, led by his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, was set to begin phase one of the much-discussed peace plan with an economic summit immediately after the new government had formed.
Originally planned to take place in June, the workshop will now either have to be delayed, significantly hindering the prospect of the peace plan being completed before the start of the 2020 United States election cycle, or will occur with an Israeli delegation that may no longer be in power just three months later.
Yoram Peri, who is pessimistic about the propensity for success of the peace plan as a whole, said that it is even less viable now that the election has been postponed. Rabbi Koretzky agreed.
“I think it will push things back, obviously,” he said. (RELATED: Benjamin Netanyahu Wants To Name Town In Israel After President Trump)
International corporations are also looking closely at the results of the election, as business interests hinge on one of Netanyahu’s biggest campaign promises: annexation of the West Bank.
Israeli occupation of the disputed territory has caused problems for human rights organizations and major companies alike, with businesses struggling to negotiate the complex and highly controversial terrain.
Airbnb became the most recent corporation in the news for its handling of the West Bank when it reversed a controversial ban on listings in Israeli settlements in the territory after coming under fire for “discriminating against Jewish hosts” in April.
McDonalds has also been criticized for its toeing of the territory’s line. Despite operating over 180 locations in Israel, the fast food chain has not opened a single branch in the West Bank, a decision that fuels daily protests in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu’s push for Israeli sovereignty, which the United Nations has repeatedly referred to as illegal, has exacerbated the situation. Companies that currently operate in the territory would likely face pressure from the UN and human rights organizations to pull out while facing legal pressure from Israel to continue running.
While Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s main competition for Prime Minister, has criticized the annexation proposal, it is unclear what he plans to do with the West Bank if elected, according to Ronald Zweig. His only remarks regarding the Trump administration peace plan have been that he would expect the envoy to “hold off with their plans until I can form a government.”
Netanyahu might very well look to move on from his annexation proposal, explained Yoram Peri, as his push to attract the right did not render the success he had hoped it would achieve. While this is surprising, as Peri claims there has been a migration of almost one million voters from left-of-center to right-of-center throughout the past decade, it can perhaps be explained by Gantz’s focus on the investigations into Netanyahu.
“During the election campaign you spoke of the security of the State of Israel. Today, you are mainly focused on your own security and your own personal freedoms. You deceived your voters,” Gantz said at a rally just days before the election do-over was announced.
Israeli political pundits are scrambling to calculate their predictions for the second installment. Some believe the additional three months will allow the allegations looming over Bibi to further degrade his chances.
“Netanyahu’s legal problems and the continued weakening of his public image will encourage an internal challenge from within the Likud,” said Zweig. “That might change everything.”
Rabbi Koretzky believes the elapsed time will result in a better showing for Israel’s right-wing parties. He attributes the closeness of the April election in part to lower turnout due to a phenomenon he calls “Bibi fatigue,” and believes that Lieberman blocking the formation of a functional government will bring more right-of-center voters to the polls in September.
“I think there will be different results, and if anything, I would predict a better result for the smaller right-wing parties,” he said. “I think people now see their vote matters, and if they want Bibi to have options and not be beholden to Lieberman, they need to come out in force. Some of the smaller parties will also come after Lieberman’s Russian base to try and chip away at his share of the right-wing vote.”
Yoram Peri said the vote simply too close to call, and with so much time until the poll, it could truly go in either direction.
“You can never know in Israel,” said Peri. “Things are so delicate.”
With the world closely watching, Israelis will decide the short-term future of the country, and all that comes with it, on September 17. Round two is just around the corner, that is, unless Bibi calls it off.