Analysis

Did Netanyahu Really Win the Election? Maybe Not — and Certainly Not Yet

The prime minister made the fundamental mistake of believing he had received a personal mandate from the nation to govern when the election results were announced. Avigdor Lieberman has given him a harsh political lesson

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a ceremony at Mount Hertzl for Memorial Day, Jerusalem May 8, 2019.
Heidi Levine/Reuters

At 2 A.M. on April 10, Benjamin Netanyahu entered the Likud rally at Expo Tel Aviv to deliver his victory speech. With the actual results coming in, exit poll projections had all been adjusted and showed Likud as the largest party, with its bloc of right-wing and religious parties holding a clear majority in the next Knesset. It was over. “Bibi the Magician” had won his fifth election victory.

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Six and a half weeks later, we’re still talking about Netanyahu’s victory. But he has yet to form a governing coalition, and with just three days to go before the deadline — and despite all the caveats that “it always works out at the last minute” — it’s beginning to look dicey.

Avigdor Lieberman and Yaakov Litzman, two politicians not known for capitulating, are very publicly staking out opposite positions on the law that offers army exemptions to yeshiva students, not leaving any room for compromise. Likud’s secretariat is already planning to pass a motion canceling the need for new primaries to choose a new leader and candidates if a new election is called. Netanyahu has already warned that he could bring a bill bring forward as soon as Wednesday for a new election.

Israel has held 21 Knesset elections, and all but one of them produced a clear winner. The only one that was tied, in 1984, resulted in a national unity government with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir splitting the term as prime minister between them. The law provides a mechanism for rerunning the election (even without Likud passing a special bill as Netanyahu is now threatening), but that has never happened before. So what happened? We told you Netanyahu won back in April, but did he?

Well, not quite. Let’s rewind. As far as the voting went, Netanyahu’s Likud won only 26 percent of the vote — essentially the same as Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, which received only 14,489 votes fewer than Likud and the same number of Knesset seats, 35.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his way to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 26, 2019.
Emil Salman

But Gantz did not have the potential to form a coalition as the center-left parties won only 55 seats, while Netanyahu’s bloc of “natural allies” got 65. And those lawmakers all endorsed Netanyahu during the government-forming consultations with President Reuven Rivlin.

The moment Netanyahu passed the “61 endorsements” line with the president, even before Moshe Kahlon’s four Kulanu lawmakers added theirs as well, it should have been the checkered flag followed by one final victory lap.

The ensuing coalition negotiations, while not exactly a formality, were not expected to be particularly arduous. After all, the parties had nowhere else to go. Even if Kahlon and Lieberman entertained thoughts of negotiating with Gantz as well, there was no prospect of him gaining a majority.

It was clear that the army draft law would be the main stumbling block, but Lieberman did not have to make his “I will not change even one comma” ultimatum about it. Or the ultra-Orthodox parties could have swallowed it, in the knowledge that the quotas outlined in the law could easily be met with some creative accounting.

This is an unnecessary crisis that is happening only because Netanyahu didn’t actually win. Not yet.

Why is Lieberman doing it? He is one of the most inscrutable politicians in Israel. He could have decided that he wants Netanyahu to leave and he’s using a matter of principle to push him closer to the exit door. It could just be brinkmanship and he will compromise at the last moment — once he’s extracted the maximum price from the man who 22 years ago was his boss. Does he have a Plan B in which he gets Kahlon and Arye Dery’s Shas party to join him in an alternative coalition with Gantz and the left?

Whatever happens, Lieberman has little to lose. Yisrael Beiteinu’s base of elderly, Russian-speaking immigrants is beholden to the party that has controlled the Immigrant Absorption Ministry for most of the last two decades, and they are all but guaranteed to put him back in the Knesset in the next election, whenever it takes place.

Meanwhile, Lieberman is reminding not only Netanyahu but all Israelis of a fundamental fact of political life.

Netanyahu and his supporters remind us at every opportunity that he won “a personal mandate from the nation” — a mandate so strong that it should override the impending corruption indictments against him and any possible intervention by the High Court of Justice. Don’t buy that lie. Israel doesn’t have a presidential voting system. Netanyahu won a personal mandate to be a Knesset member along with 119 colleagues. That mandate allows him to serve in the Knesset, vote on laws and be one of 120 candidates for the prime minister’s job. That’s it.

Netanyahu’s longevity in power has made us forget that Israel actually has a parliamentary system, and in principle it should be as simple for the Knesset to replace a prime minister as it will be in Britain in a few weeks, when the Conservative Party elects a new leader to replace Theresa May.

Lieberman and Litzman are not exactly exponents of democracy, but they and the rest of the potential coalition’s recalcitrant lawmakers are simply reminding us of basic constitutional facts: They are the ones with the power; they won the election.

Netanyahu hasn’t won. Not yet at least. He wins only when his government is sworn in. And even then, he serves at the Knesset’s pleasure. And if the last six and a half weeks are anything to go by, there are those in the Knesset who will keep Netanyahu on the hook, even after he wins. That is, if he wins.