Behind the Scenes of Netanyahu's Decision to Go to Early Elections

The 36 pivotal hours: How the prime minister decided Saturday night to go to elections in a last-ditch attempt to avoid the AG's charges against him

Netanyahu at the news conference announcing elections.
Olivier Fitoussi

The final decision to go to elections was made, as is usual in the prime minister’s bureau, on a Saturday night. In this particular case it was last Saturday night. The events of the preceding 36 hours paved the way for the dissolution of the government.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s camp concluded that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit seemed tougher and more resolute when it comes to the criminal cases the prime minister is facing. And in the end, on the advice of his lawyer, Netanyahu preferred to go to elections before Mendelblit makes a decision on indictments and run the risk of leaks over embarrassing details regarding the investigation.

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A second realization was that the current narrowest of coalition majorities would not be long for this world. The so-called Gideon Sa’ar bill, which would require the president to call only on a party leader to form a government, was dead and buried, even though it had passed a preliminary vote. The bill would have prevented President Reuven Rivlin from calling on a rival Likud member, such as Gideon Sa'ar, to form a government rather than Netanyahu himself, following upcoming elections.

Legislation on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students seemed on course to cause an early breakup of the coalition. Even before the opposition Yesh Atid's party's shift against the legislation, Netanyahu realized that his ultra-Orthodox coalition partner, Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism, was serious this time in his threat that the moment the conscription bill passed, he would bring down the government.

The prime minister, who for the past few months has been disappointed in the conduct of his good friend Litzman, understood that the United Torah Judaism leader would not come to his rescue, despite Litzman’s representations in the past that, after last October's municipal elections, it would be easier to get the conscription bill passed.

On Sunday, Netanyahu cancelled the regular weekly meeting of coalition heads and headed for the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv for a series of urgent security meetings. Between meetings, he spoke by phone to his close advisers. He also met with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), who supported early elections.

On Monday morning, Netanyahu took advantage of the fact that the conscription bill had reached the boiling point to urgently summon the party heads to a meeting. He did not tell them ahead of time what the meeting was about. They naively thought they were coming to an additional session on the bill.

That morning Netanyahu had taken part in a ceremony swearing in the new Bank of Israel governor, Amir Yaron, and also held a lengthy meeting with the army's ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik. At 1:30 P.M., half an hour behind schedule, the meeting with the party heads began. Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) was absent because he was attending the funeral of Simcha Rotem, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Netanyahu began the meeting by asking to hear what those present thought about moving up the elections. Coalition chairman MK David Amsalem (Likud) said regular efforts had to be made to rein in populist bills and things couldn't continue like this. Kahlon added that, in any event, everyone was already out campaigning. For their part, Litzman and his United Torah Judaism colleague Moshe Gafni, made noises at the meeting in seeming opposition to early elections, but it was important to Netanyahu that the decision be unanimous.

Netanyahu insisted that there was no other choice. The ultra-Orthodox representatives agreed and Bennett was reached by phone and gave his assent, but said he wanted the elections to be held on April 9, not April 2. Netanyahu agreed, but asked that the final announcement of the date be coordinated with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. At 2:17 P.M. the announcement was made.