Why no one wants another Israeli election, but it might happen anyway

Avigdor Lieberman (Jewish News)
Avigdor Lieberman (Jewish News)

You might be a little confused by the political crisis in Israel. Didn’t Bibi win the 9 April election? Wasn’t his path to a new coalition a done deal? It’s true Likud won 35 seats but building a new Government, with a 65 -seat majority, was reliant on an uneasy alliance with five other parties who are driving a hard bargain given Netanyahu’s weak position because he is likely to be formally indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The core issue at dispute is conscription of more ultra-orthodox men into the Israeli Army. Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman has insisted that he won’t agree to anything less than an exact repeat of a previous Bill to make this happen. The disagreement over this was part of the reason the previous Government fell in December 2018. To be fair to Lieberman, he has consistently campaigned on this issue for some time. His view is that the compromise in the previous Bill was already a watered-down version of his initial demands. The numbers of ultra-orthodox men that will be conscripted each year will be small – less than 10,000 – to compromise further on that compromise and to remove the policies own enforcement mechanism is, he says absurd. The ultra-orthodox parties have been emboldened by their increased strength at the last election where Shas and United Torah Judaism won 8 seats each, that encourages them to stick to their guns.

The problem for Likud is that Lieberman’s five seats are crucial to a stable Government. Without them, Netanyahu has just 60 seats and no majority. He could soldier on with a minority Government but it would be unstable and weak. In reality, there are now only three likely scenarios.

A coalition deal is somehow agreed – Perhaps Lieberman will be won over at the 11th hour and convinced to join the coalition after a compromise on ultra-orthodox conscription is pulled together. Lieberman would at least be able to make the case that he took it to the wire and squeezed everything he could from Netanyahu.

Another election – Likud have tabled a bill to dissolve the Knesset to show that their bid for another election is no idle threat. If there is no deal, they will call an election on 17 September. But they have to get that passed before the deadline for coalition formation at midnight on Wednesday. Although it easily passed its first reading, the final vote may not be so simple. Why would Kulanu want another election when they only scraped in with four seats in April? Would the United Right party feel confident they would get five seats again

An election is far from an ideal scenario for Netanyahu. He may well find himself in exactly the same position after another election. But a delay causes major problems for his attempts to secure a Knesset vote to make him immune from prosecution or to pass a bill to limit the power of the Supreme Court to overturn that vote. But what if he has a weaker majority in a new Knesset, or no majority at all? The Attorney General is expected to formally indict Netanyahu later this year, after a hearing set for October. Ideally Netanyahu needs a Knesset immunity vote soon to pre-empt that process.

Gantz has a go – If Netanyahu is unable to form a coalition by midnight on Wednesday, and isn’t able to pass a vote to dissolve the Knesset, then President Rivlin will meet with party leaders and ask another party leader to have a go. Benny Gantz is the most likely candidate and he would have a month to work on it. But the numbers just don’t add up unless he can prise Lieberman, Kulanu and one of the ultra-orthodox parties away, or somehow kick off a palace coup in Likud and entice a senior Likud leader to work towards a national unity Government without Netanyahu as leader.

This is a fascinating game of political brinkmanship. Not all the potential coalition parties want a new election and may peel away in the final vote. Gantz would prefer to try and form his own coalition to the option of another election.

Above all, this is the first phase of the battle to succeed Netanyahu, if enough people in Likud believe this crisis demonstrates the beginning of the end for Bibi, they may move quickly to edge ahead in a race where Lieberman has already made himself the unlikely star.

About the Author
James Sorene is CEO of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre in London and an analyst of Middle East Issues. He appears regularly on UK TV and Radio and writes for numerous newspapers and websites. He was previously a UK Government civil servant, Head of Communications for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg from 2011 to May 2015. From 1997 to 2000 he was Head of Public Affairs at the Israeli Embassy in London.
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