Benjamin Netanyahu has long been a fan of multi-year budgets. He and his financial acolytes, like energy minister Yuval Steinitz, have spent dozens of hours lecturing economists from Israel and abroad on the merits of such budgets. When the first drafts of the Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition agreement emerged back in April, there were many details and clauses that observers thought Netanyahu would try to renege on. The clause stating that “no later than ninety days after swearing-in the government, the coalition will ensure the orderly passage of the state budget … the budget will be for 2020-2021,” no-one expected this to be the clause that Netanyahu would first try to blatantly violate. Multi-year budgets have been such a trademark of his economic policies for over a decade now.
The standard explanation for Netanyahu jettisoning his long-held belief is that he is hoping to provoke a win-win political crisis. By standard explanation, I don’t mean Netanyahu’s explanation that a four-month budget is suddenly necessary due to the COVID-19 economic crisis, if that was the case, he could have written it in the coalition agreement.
Should the man who signed the coalition agreement with him, Benny Gantz, capitulate and let this breach of their deal slide, he would create a precedent whereby the agreement can be disregarded at Netanyahu’s whim. Furthermore, if the coalition were to now pass a short-term budget, then Netanyahu would be able to hold the 2021 budget over Gantz’s head and use it to bring down the government and prevent the “rotation” between them for the position of prime minister, currently scheduled for November of next year. If Gantz refuses and the budget for 2020 doesn’t pass by August 24, less than two weeks away, the government falls anyway and Israel goes back to the polls in three months. For Netanyahu, this is an even better outcome, as it gives him yet another chance of winning the elusive Knesset majority he needs to pass legislation that will prevent the resumption of the bribery and fraud trial against him in January.
With neither Netanyahu or Gantz prepared to budge right now, the only way this government can survive is if they agree to pass a law allowing to further delay the passing of the budget. Gantz has already agreed to this, and on Sunday night, Likud agreed as well. But the following morning Netanyahu reneged on that agreement. Gantz gave Netanyahu a 24-hour ultimatum to pass the law, which Netanyahu has ignored. As the ultimatum passed on Tuesday afternoon, the only news was that Gantz was about to undergo a minor operation on his back, leading to the predicted snide remarks on social media about spine transplants. Netanyahu’s win-win scenario seems to be playing out. It would be political high-drama, if Israel wasn’t facing, along with the rest of the world, a pandemic.
But there is something surreal about Netanyahu’s calculations. It’s not just the cynical self-serving hypocrisy in breaking the coalition agreement and going against his own financial principles. It’s not even the absurdity that Israel is now facing an unbelievable fourth election in less than twenty months. It’s that Netanyahu seems to be actually relishing it all.
One of the secrets most successful politicians are best at hiding is how much they detest elections. The public sees them smiling at election rallies, pumped-up in debates, seemingly indefatigable on the trail; the media has created an entire sports-based vocabulary on “the race.” But the hard truth is that this is no sport and very few of them went into politics to fight elections. It’s hard work which takes a terrible toll on them and their families which often ends in heartbreak. And even when they win, campaigns are a distraction and disruption for what most politicians are there to do, which is take part in managing their city or country. Netanyahu is a different type of politician: The rare breed who seems to prefer fighting elections to running his country. It helps of course, that he’s very good at it, elections that is.
Of course, Netanyahu, and his family, love the trappings of his office and he is adept at handling the more glamorous and exciting aspects of the prime minister’s duties, making classified decisions on military and intelligence operations, directing security and diplomatic affairs and engaging with other world leaders. It’s the more mundane sides of the job he has little time for. Being a prime minister in a parliamentary system means having to constantly work to maintain a coalition in order to formulate and implement long-term policy. He has no patience with the minutiae of civilian matters and hates having to compromise and build consensus, especially when parts of the coalition are not aligned with him.
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Between winning the 2015 election and the end of 2018, when he had a relatively pliant majority, Netanyahu was happy to delegate the policy areas that bored him to other ministers and pass multi-year budgets, that saved him the bother of having to negotiate a new budget each year, as he had previously between 2009 and 2013. But when having to deal with a coalition not to his liking, as was the case following the 2013 election – when he dissolved the government after a year and nine months – he immediately grows restless.
Netanyahu got himself a sweetheart deal with Gantz. Eighteen more months as prime minister, with his most serious rival now serving as his bodyguard. And then another eighteen months, in which Gantz would be prime minister only in name, but Netanyahu would remain the most powerful figure in cabinet, and still retain the residence, the convoy and all the other prime ministerial accouterments he cannot bear to relinquish. But less than three months in, he is willing to throw it all away for another roll of the dice. It’s not just his desire to finally win a majority, it’s the kind of rare politician he is: A constant campaigner who prefers living in the limbo of elections to any other form of political existence which isn’t complete control of his government.