Analysis

Netanyahu Has a Solid Excuse to Go to Early Elections. Will the Coalition Call His Bluff?

As the legislative crisis reached a boiling point, Ministers Bennett and Shaked hustled to resolve it, Kahlon and Lieberman issued threats – and the prime minister took refuge in applause in Washington

Illustration: Sara Netanyahu lands a plane as police and politicians watch from the tarmac.
Amos Biderman

About a month ago, in the Knesset, a few Likud legislators engaged in a conversation. One was coalition whip David Amsalem, who offered two insights. The first was that the draft-deferment legislation is a land mine that will be nearly impossible to neutralize; the second was that Likud needs to charge headlong into an election before the attorney general decides the disposition of the investigations involving the prime minister.

One participant in the conversation identified in real-time the equation inherent in Amsalem’s words. He reported to an interlocutor that the bill in question – which would anchor in law the deferment of army service for yeshiva students – could be an ideal pretext for dissolving the Knesset and holding an early election. He assumed that Amsalem, perhaps inadvertently, had revealed the longings of the person who appointed him.

All the pieces of the puzzle were in place. The early election would be held after the police reveal their conclusions in the cases involving Benjamin Netanyahu, which would fuel the prime minister’s narrative of being persecuted and hunted down (as is indeed happening); after the 70th Independence Day celebrations, which are expected to glorify Netanyahu on a mythological scale (under the supervision of the responsible minister, Miri Regev); and before the attorney general decides whether to indict Netanyahu – a set of decisions that is likely to be made after the Jewish holidays in the fall.

Since that conversation in the Knesset, more puzzle pieces have been added that only reinforce the theory: Case 4000 was born, and is now emerging as involving suspicions of flagrant bribery; two potentially lethal state witnesses have been recruited, Shlomo Filber and Nir Hefetz; and U.S. President Donald Trump decided to move up the U.S. Embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem to May 14, possibly with him in attendance.

The forecast mooted in that conversation materialized miraculously before our eyes in the last 10 days. The crisis surrounding the draft bill, and the fact that its outcome has been tied to the vote on the state budget, erupted and escalated by the minute. The participants dug in, threatening and painting themselves into the corner with declarations. Netanyahu, for his part, stood aside and watched with a certain pleasure – a poor man’s pleasure, given his situation – as the paint spread.

All the factors have converged to give the premier a one-time opportunity to go to an election and win, form a new government, and then, after he’s indicted, argue that the public made its choice knowing what the suspicions were, and therefore the accused can continue to manage his trial while also managing the country.

In other words, any decision Netanyahu makes early next week – after returning from his busy trip to the United States – that does not lead to an election in June, will come as a surprise. This on the assumption that he retains the option to blame such an election on coalition chaos. If the coalition succeeds in pulling the rug out from under his feet by reaching an agreement and presenting to the public a blueprint that gets the budget passed and resolves the issue of exempting religious men from the draft in a way that satisfies the High Court of Justice, the prime minister, to his great regret, will have to swim with the tide. In other words, his bluff will be called.

Netanyahu has not been a partner to the efforts being made to resolve this debacle. But in practice he has been the main player. Comments he made to reporters accompanying him to the United States revealed additional pieces of his plan. Or, alternatively, they were a smokescreen for camouflaging yet another scheme.

The final two-part condition for not holding a snap election, which the premier conveyed back home from his plane, was: finding a permanent solution to the draft issue and securing a commitment from all coalition partners to remain in the government until the last day of his term, in October 2019 (i.e., even if Netanyahu is indicted). If not, he threatened, we’re headed for the polls. And he shrugged, as if this was not what he wanted.

This was yet one more red herring that he tossed into the fraught political arena in order to further complicate the already tangled course of events. Such a commitment from his coalition members is of no value or validity. Who can know what will happen should an indictment be handed down, on bribery charges in one or more cases, against the serving prime minister? Can life continue as usual?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ponders a media question after he visited the '3000 years of history: Jews in Jerusalem' exhibit at United Nations headquarters, March 8, 2018.
Richard Drew/AP

There’s no way. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon will never commit himself, because in the past he said the point of no return would be the attorney general’s decision. Education Minister Naftali Bennett will not commit himself, because he has no reason to link his fate to that of someone accused of bribery. It’s hard to know what will be with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, don’t care about a commitment, because in any case they won’t promise to fulfill it.

In short, this whole situation is starting to smell pretty bad, like the kind that comes from a barrel full of red herrings.

Alternative reality program

In the week before Netanyahu’s U.S. junket, Haredi party leaders – Arye Dery (Shas), and Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) – sought repeatedly to meet with the prime minister about the army-service bill. He didn’t find time for them, so when Netanyahu was already airborne, they turned to Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (both from Habayit Hayehudi) for assistance.

Bennett and Shaked, who were also en route to America, started to cook up potential solutions. They cooked and cooked, together with former minister Ariel Atias, from Shas, who consulted with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, until they came up with a palatable dish. Throughout, Bennett and Shaked had no idea whether what they’d concocted would pass muster among the judges on this reality program.

In any case, they wanted to call Netanyahu’s bluff. They spoke of a “fake crisis” in the government, declared that it was easily resolvable and hinted that a certain someone didn’t want it solved. The two ministers explained their vigorous activity as being in the best interest of the country and its economy. “An election now is unnecessary and will cost the country billions of shekels,” Bennett intoned.

That wasn’t the only thing bothering Bennett: He’s also afraid that Netanyahu will “waste” his party – wipe it out, finish it off. A version of that is what happened in the 2015 election. Habayit Hayehudi went in with 12-14 Knesset seats in the polls and came out of it with eight, with most of the lost votes presumably going to Likud.

And just wait until next round. The election campaign will be even more unrestrained, violent, bitter and polarizing than ever, in the shadow of the investigations of the prime minister/Likud leader. The right will be called to man the barricades to save the leader of the “national camp.” The discourse will focus solely on the suspect: Is he guilty or innocent, criminal or victim, persecutor or persecuted?

Netanyahu and his gang of social-network thugs will fan the flames, summon the faithful, call on them to mobilize and vote Netanyahu and Likud, Likud and Netanyahu. Either you’re with us, they'll say, or you’re with the left, the media, the police and the prosecution – all of whom are in a conspiracy to topple a government by beheading it.

Those who don’t rally to the flag will be denounced as traitors, stoolies. And nothing frightens Bennett and Shaked more than this scenario. If they defend Netanyahu, they’ll be lying to themselves and by their own hands will be dispatching their voters to cast a ballot for him and his party. If they turn their back on him, or express any displeasure, it’s curtains for them.

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor-Zionist Union) met the two ministers at the AIPAC conference in Washington this week. They sat together in the front row during the address by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and afterward were spotted having a long talk. Herzog presented an alternate option to an early election.

“Netanyahu wants to drag you to perdition,” he told them. “This time, he’ll wipe you out completely. Shas will be hurt, also Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu. All the right-wing parties face a clear and present danger. Let’s send him home once and for all and form an alternative government in this Knesset – a temporary one, until the end of the year, with an agreed-upon date for an election. We’ll all be part of it. We will not evacuate settlements, we will not annex territories. We will preserve what exists now, the economy, security, society.

“It will be a government of healing. We will mend the rifts, calm the passions, restore sanity, bring back respect for the law enforcement and judicial systems. No party will lose; whoever takes part in that government will gain. We’ll restart the system and then go to an election.”

Who would lead such a government? Whoever declares that he does not intend to run for prime minister in the future. Herzog, for example. He represents the second-largest party in the Knesset after the ruling party (and is also aiming to be the next president of Israel). If not him, then Finance Minister Kahlon or Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud).

Ministers Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett.
Ofer Vaknin

Herzog’s idea makes sense. Under laboratory conditions, it could even be realized next week: A no-confidence motion is submitted, the name of the alternative prime minister is stipulated, as is required, a vote is held – and Netanyahu is history, on his way to the police fraud squad in Lod for more interrogations. And this time not under conditions set by him.

That won’t happen, of course, because the political arena here is nothing like a laboratory; logic plays no part in it. But it’s nice to dream.

Dangerous games

Even if a solution is found to the crisis over the army-service bill and state budget vote, and an early election doesn’t take place, the bruises suffered by a few key players won’t easily fade.

Netanyahu could have dealt with this muddle early on; for reasons explained here, he ignored the crisis and then boarded a plane and took off. In the United States he put on a show, speechifying and drawing applause, while back home, in the land of hot winds and haze, his coalition partners scurried about, perspiring and scared, trying to extricate themselves from this barrel of troubles. They felt he was abusing them, toying with them, laughing at them from on high.

Dery will never forget this. He felt betrayed and exploited. For Litzman, the person who fomented the whole crisis, he actually has understanding. The leader of the Gur Hasidic sect, to which the latter belongs, issues an order, and the emissary has no recourse but to obey. You don’t mess around in that world.

Dery also understands Kahlon, who is committed to passing the budget. But he’s furious at Bibi. For almost three years, since the advent of this government, the Shas leader has been a loyal partner, helping out where needed, giving lauding interviews. But when the Leader finds himself in trouble, he dumps his friends. Dery is the last politician one would suspect of being naive, but when it comes to Netanyahu, it seems that the interior minister is always amazed by the depths of his cynicism.

Then there’s Moshe Kahlon. Suddenly he’s become the enemy of the Haredim, although he’s their good friend – the finance minister who has done the most for them. All the billions, the abundance that’s come their way under this government, has emerged from the treasury Kahlon is in charge of. Netanyahu promised, and he, Kahlon, is delivering. But now they’ve made him the fall guy.

On the issue of the induction bill, the ultra-Orthodox have taken Kahlon hostage; they have brought him to the brink. For the first time in this term – and there have already been crises and conflicts – he went before the cameras, enraged, and announced his resignation date: the end of this month, if the budget isn’t passed by then.

“People don’t understand why it’s urgent for me to pass the 2019 budget this month,” he explained this week. “Over and above the commitment I made, over and above the agreement of the coalition parties, this budget also contains clauses that relate to the current budget, of 2018. I want to transfer billions of shekels to the disabled, to single parents, to childless people who are dependent on caregivers. The money for that is contained in the 2018 budget, but I can’t move it without the Knesset approving the 2019 draft budget.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.
meged gozani

Gafni, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, told him: So, let’s approve only the social-welfare clause, to unfreeze the funds. Yeah, sure, Kahlon’s aides replied; as if we’re working for you.

And Lieberman? He and his party are the wild cards. Some people think he’s in league with Netanyahu. He will dig in, torpedo every possible compromise and give the premier an excuse to declare: Without Yisrael Beiteinu, we don’t have a functioning coalition, so we’re going to an election.

For his part, Lieberman denies this categorically. He says he has even detected signs of possible coordination between Litzman and Netanyahu. “No one volunteers to give up the Defense Ministry,” he said this week, “but I can’t agree to the draft law of the Haredim. We will vote against, and leave the coalition.”

There’s also another version of events, cited this week by a senior government figure who was in contact with Netanyahu. Possibly, he conjectured, there is coordination on the Lieberman-Yair Lapid axis (referring to MK Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which has surged in the polls). By this theory, they have worked it out so that the defense minister can hold fast, and bring about an election, after which he recommends to President Reuven Rivlin that Lapid form the next government, and gets another term as defense minister.

The only person not being mentioned is Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay. Well, that’s not quite true; in his party, he’s all they talk about. A Channel 10 poll (supervised by Prof. Camil Fuchs) that predicted that Zionist Union (in which Labor is the senior partner) would get only 12 seats, if an election were held now, has seriously demoralized the party.

A scenario in which Gabbay is ousted is already being mooted. But what then? Who would save the party? Even Ehud Barak was mentioned this week. Again.

In the first stage, Labor MKs intend to meet with Gabbay, individually or as a group, and demand that he forgo the four spots on the Knesset slate for people of his choosing, as the party convention guaranteed. One such seat only, they’ll tell him – on condition that the person is a real star.

Dark horizon

On Monday, four MKs and ministers, mostly from Likud, gathered around a table in the Knesset. They talked about Nir Hefetz, the Netanyahus’ spin doctor who’s now a state witness, whom some of them know well. The consensus was that the case against Netanyahu is all sewn up. The conversation spilled over into decidedly unpleasant realms of trials and possible convictions, and of a lengthy prison term, as is obligatory in bribery cases.

The group grew gloomy. A second successive prime minister within a decade walks into Ma’asiyahu Prison, in Ramle, the iron door opens, a police officer nods, the door clangs shut. The very thought is enough to turn the stomach.

There’s only one scenario in which that won’t happen, one of the four said. A pardon, he said, a presidential pardon. The public will not be able to tolerate seeing another prime minister jailed. How will the country look? Even Netanyahu’s rivals and haters would support a pardon that will keep him out of jail. What’s important is that he’s history.

His interlocutors considered this. Imagine, said one, that all this unfolds during the next three years – three years and three months, to be exact. The president will still be Rivlin. The pardon request will land on his desk. Oh, the irony of it all, everyone guffawed. Of all the people in the world, it has to be Rivlin. There is sky-high resentment between them, Netanyahu went wild to prevent Rivlin’s election as president in June 2014, and since then he’s incited against him, personally and via the social media. And Rivlin could be the one to decide Netanyahu’s fate? You have to admit, you don’t see plays with plots like that, not even on Broadway.