The ministers of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet were not notified in advance of his meeting Sunday night with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but they seem to have been working toward the same outcome: the imminent collapse of the coalition.
Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz had spent Sunday commissioning an inquiry into the murky circumstances surrounding the procurement of submarines and missile-boats from Germany, in which Netanyahu was allegedly involved. Then he gave a threat-laden interview to daily Yedioth Ahronoth in which he once again repeated his ultimatum that “either we get a budget and a functioning government or we’re going to elections.”
Gantz went to sleep expecting to dominate the next day’s news agenda, but was instead upstaged by Netanyahu’s Saudi news.
Not only was the prime minister basking in his diplomatic triumph and still withholding the 2021 budget, but he upped the ante during the day, when his oldest political ally, Interior Minister and Shas leader Arye Dery attacked Gantz in a fiery statement. “I think it’s a shame that Gantz is using the IDF as an instrument for political attacks,” he said of the submarines inquiry. “In light of his recent behavior. I’m doubtful there’s any justification and use in continuing the partnership.”
Dery’s message was clear. He was the original guarantor that Netanyahu would honor the coalition agreement signed with Gantz seven months ago. Now he is accusing Gantz of breaking the deal. It sounded like the death knell of the coalition and most ministers are already counting down the days before the official campaign for an early election in March. And what better timing to launch that campaign than on the heels of a triumphant return from a historic meeting in Saudi Arabia.
This may look like an opportunity for Netanyahu to pull the ejection handle of this coalition and call an early election, in the hope that this time a divided and unpopular opposition will not win enough votes to deny him a majority to pass immunity-from-trial laws. But he may not act so fast.
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For a start, he still has four and a half weeks left until the official budget deadline, and he has always believed in counting down the clock until the last minute, keeping his friends and foes all guessing. Who knows what the electoral landscape will look like in a month?
There are three sequences of events beyond his control. His corruption trial in the Jerusalem District Court, the pandemic and a new administration in Washington. The panel of judges presided over by Rivka Friedman-Feldman is expected to rule in the coming weeks on a series of delaying motions by his lawyers. If the ruling goes against him, that will mean the headlines in the first months of 2021 will be dominated by thrice-weekly evidentiary sessions in which witnesses for the prosecution will be testifying against him.
The next few weeks are critical on the COVID-19 front as well. As restrictions are gradually removed and winter sets in, infection rates are expected to inch upwards, most likely too quickly for the hoped-for arrival of coronavirus vaccines to prevent a third outbreak. From the start of the pandemic, Netanyahu has positioned himself as Israel’s chief fighter against the virus. Yet another lockdown during the campaign could be disastrous.
And then there is the effect of the incoming Biden administration. The meeting with MBS may not be the last diplomatic gift the Trump team will bestow on Netanyahu, but come January 20, Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, Jared Kushner and David Friedman will all be gone, and with them the unprecedented level of intimacy between Jerusalem and Washington. The big question is whether Joe Biden and his officials intend to signal the new distance in policy decisions or in personal gestures early on in the term. Netanyahu may want to test the diplomatic waters before committing himself to an election.
The Netanyahu-Gantz coalition may be crumbling, but an early election is far from a foregone conclusion. Netanyahu is loath to launch a campaign when Likud is still languishing in the polls, and his prospects of boosting its electoral fortunes in the next few months are so uncertain.