Netanyahu Caught Between Rock of Risky Election and Hard Place of Criminal Trial

In one-man-rule Israel, overwhelming opposition to new election accounts for nothing

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A protester wearing a mask of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau's face in a prison suit and shackles in Jerusalem, August 8, 2020.
A protester wearing a mask of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau's face in a prison suit and shackles in Jerusalem, August 8, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Israel is struggling to contain an alarming resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic. Its economy is contracting, with close to 20 percent unemployment. The anti-government protest movement is picking up steam. Political polarization is deepening. Confidence in government is eroding. The threat of political violence and bloodshed hangs heavy in the air.

The very last thing the country needs right now is a new election. An election campaign would paralyze medical and financial relief efforts, wreak political havoc and inflame internal divisions. Given that Israelis went out to the polls less than six months ago to vote for the third time within a year and that the ballot produced a theoretically strong and stable broad-based government, it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of Israelis of all political stripes view a snap election as destructive and even deranged.

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The one crucial exception is Benjamin Netanyahu. In recent days, the prime minister has dispelled any lingering doubts about his ultimate intentions. Over the weekend, Netanyahu initiated a coalition crisis with Benny Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party by blatantly reneging on a central clause in the coalition agreement they signed in May, concerning the state budget. No one in Israel believes that the sketchy economic arguments Netanyahu makes in favor of a stop-gap short-term budget and against the two-year budget he pledged to enact have anything to do with his true motivation for forcing Israel into an election it does not want or need.

But no one is surprised either. Veteran observers of the prime minister have been forecasting his decision to plunge the country into yet another election campaign from the moment the results of the previous March 2 ballot were announced. Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest party, but his overall right-wing bloc failed to gain the 61-seat majority he needs in order to legislate his way out of his upcoming criminal trial. For Netanyahu, they assumed correctly, nothing else matters.

Netanyahu’s original plan was to go through the motions of trying to set up a new coalition, declaring failure and setting a date for a fourth election. He was sidetracked by the sudden realization that Gantz could be coaxed into an illusory power-sharing agreement, thus precipitating the break-up of Netanyahu’s center-left opposition while delegitimizing his partner’s leadership role at the same time. Gantz was forewarned that Netanyahu was laying a trap for him, but decided, naively and disastrously, to walk straight into it.

Gantz tried to guard against Netanyahu’s machinations by demanding and receiving ironclad commitments, enacted into law, which would compel Netanyahu to hand over power in November 2021, as agreed. The contract between the two included a stipulation that if Netanyahu would nonetheless try to bring down his own government, he would have to step down and Gantz would serve in as interim prime minister until an election is held.

The agreement left only one narrow escape hatch: The budget. Israeli law stipulates that a government that fails to pass a budget falls automatically and a new election is called. If the government approves a two-year budget, as originally agreed, Netanyahu would be forced to hand over power one way or another – either on the originally agreed date of November 2021 or earlier, if Netanyahu precipitates a coalition crisis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz at a Knesset meeting in Jerusalem, June 28, 2020.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

This is why the prime minister decided to push for a short-term budget until the end of the year, insisting, contrary to most economic experts, that its passage is critical to Israel’s economic wellbeing. Netanyahu's true reason, however, is that a short-term budget would allow him to bring down the government without handing over power by early next year.

Finally realizing he was being taken for a ride, Gantz rejected Netanyahu’s ultimatum over the weekend to pass his short-term budget now or face the consequences. The Sunday cabinet meeting was cancelled, Israeli politics went into a tailspin, the government coalition teetered on the brink of collapse and Israelis watched in disbelief and horror as yet another, totally superfluous election campaign appeared on the horizon.

Contrary to appearances, however, Netanyahu’s grand strategy is not proceeding according to his original plan. After neutering Gantz, splitting Kahol Lavan and once again emerging as Israel’s ultimate “comeback kid,” Netanyahu soared in the polls. Contrary to the previous three elections, in a new ballot Netanyahu would stand alone, king of the mountain, with no serious rival like Gantz to block his way. His coveted 61-seat majority, which could not only help him avert trial but also allow him to cement an appropriate nationalist-right legacy, finally seemed within his grasp.

Netanyahu, however, was soon undone by his own ambitions. Preoccupied with political intrigue and ongoing battles against the legal system, Netanyahu let his guard down. He neglected his hitherto successful campaign against the coronavirus crisis, allowing the plague to resurge and to stifle the economy once again. Israelis, who had been deluded to believe that the worst of the disease was over, were demoralized. Their premature relief gave way to unprecedented outbursts of frustration and anger.

Netanyahu, who made sure to take all the credit for the government’s successes in combating the first wave of the coronavirus crisis, could not avert responsibility for the failures in containing it later. Confidence in his personal ability to manage the crisis plunged, along with the Likud’s hitherto skyrocketing standings in the polls. On Thursday, they hit Netanyahu and Likud like a ton of bricks: Within a few short weeks, the prime minister’s party had gone down from 40 to 30 seats in the polls. Netanyahu’s sure-fire formula for quick victory suddenly seemed highly doubtful.

The polls indicated Netanyahu’s continued success in undermining Gantz along with the entire center-left opposition, which remains divided, leaderless and lusterless. The energies of outraged and frustrated anti-Netanyahu voters shifted to the burgeoning street protests outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, his private home in Caesarea and on hundreds of bridges and junctions across Israeli highways. Netanyahu, who reacted at first with panic, came to realize that the protests served him well: By demonizing the demonstrators as anarchists, leftists, disease-spreaders and what not, he reignited enthusiasm in his own Likud ranks and rallied his right-wing troops behind him.

An unpleasant surprise

The threat emerged from unexpected quarters: While Netanyahu was busy defanging Gantz, he failed to take notice of the sudden ascent of religious-nationalist and Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett. Yamina, which secured only six seats in the March ballot, was now approaching 15-20 in the polls. Netanyahu’s perennial standing as the inevitable leader of the right is still secure, but can no longer be taken for granted.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaking at the Knesset, August 5, 2020.Credit: Adina Valman

Under such circumstances, it’s obvious that Likud support for Netanyahu’s drive to hold a new election is wearing thin. It's one thing for newly-elected Likud members to follow Netanyahu to ever greater treasures in new elections, and quite another thing to acquiesce to his whims if it means that many of them will lose their jobs. The same is true for most of the other 119 Knesset members - with the possible of exception of Bennett and possibly opposition leader Yair Lapid, who now sees himself as Netanyahu’s main rival – who could soon find themselves dispersing against their will and contrary to their own interests.

Netanyahu thus finds himself wedged securely between a rock and a hard place, between the January opening of his trial, which he is desperate to postpone, and the increasing risk that a fourth election campaign won’t produce the 61-member majority that he failed to garner in the three previous rounds.

Under cover of the sudden coalition crisis that he precipitated over the budget confrontation and what appears to be the unofficial launch of his election campaign, Netanyahu is making a last ditch effort to square the circle. He is trying to entice two to three renegades from the opposition to form a majority of 61 in the current Knesset or to cajole his current coalition partners to bend the law in his favor in exchange for withdrawing his election threat.

As things stand now, however, Netanyahu seems stuck in what former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used to fondly describe as the “corales”, the Spanish name for the fenced gateway in which cattle walk to their slaughter. New elections are a gamble: If coronavirus continues to spread, the economy continues to tank and Netanyahu continues to slide in the polls, his near-certain victory could turn into a spectacular downfall.

Without an election, however, Netanyahu’s situation is even worse. He will be forced to come to court in January to be tried like a common criminal. He will be forced to face the prospect that two years of hijacking Israeli politics, subjecting the country to four elections, perpetuating paralysis, sowing division, spreading hate and tearing Israel apart in general have all come to nothing. What a waste.

One thing is clear: Netanyahu may be down, but he’s far from out. The prime minister is still calling the shots. He continues to look out for number one, and everything else, including Israel’s very sanity, is negligible. 8,999,999 of Israel’s nine million citizens may not want an election, but their wishes carry no weight in Netanyahu’s Israel. His is the very definition of a one-man rule.

The prospects of Israel heading for its fourth straight election in two years soared the moment the results of the previous March 2 ballot were announced. Veteran observers of the prime minister realized at once that the die was cast.