Analysis

Netanyahu Took Credit for Averting Elections. In Truth, He Lost Control

Netanyahu's partners were wise enough at the last minute to unite and isolate him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset the day an early election was averted, March 13, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s show of victory in the Knesset Tuesday evening after the coalition crisis abated wasn’t persuasive. He rightfully mocked the Zionist Union, which was badly frightened by the possibility of early an early election, but in the future the shoe could be on the other foot.

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To Netanyahu, the ideal time for an election would have been June, after the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday and the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, and before the attorney general’s decision on whether to indict him in the corruption cases. It would be better for him to go to an election as a suspect rather than someone under indictment, as a victim of the police’s “leaks,” and not with a nationalist, kippa-wearing attorney general whom he appointed bringing him to trial.

But this window is now finally closed – not because Netanyahu yearned for that to happen, but because his partners were wise enough at the last minute to unite against him and isolate him. From the moment Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman helped thwart the operation, it was over (quashing the suspicion that he had intrigued with Netanyahu to move up the election). The steering wheel was taken out of Netanyahu’s hands.

The events of the past three days were fraught with ups and downs. One minister put it well Tuesday night after the all clear was sounded: “It’s the first time in Israel’s history that the prime minister wants to dissolve the Knesset, and his partners, together with the opposition, are working hard to prevent it.”

The main credit (to those who didn’t want an election) goes to Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, both of the Habayit Hayehudi party, and to Interior Minister Arye Dery of Shas. Over those 72 hours they formed a united, rejectionist front against a June election.

The front was joined by most of the Knesset parties except two: Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, who hoped for an election brought on by corruption suspicions and ultra-Orthodox draft-dodging. The other election-hopeful party was the left-wing Meretz, which is waking up under the almost certain leadership of Tamar Zandberg, for whose party the polls predict seven to nine of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Bennett, Shaked and Dery worked together. Also, rare heartwarming cooperation was spawned behind the scenes between the Zionist Union and Habayit Hayehudi, between the Joint List and Yisrael Beiteinu and all the rest. The conclusion was that a June election, on which Netanyahu had set his sights, wouldn’t happen. When would an election happen? Maybe after the High Holy Days – September, maybe October, after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit decides whether to indict Netanyahu.

The deputy health minister and representative of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party, and the Gerrer rabbi in the Knesset, Yaakov Litzman, dragged his colleagues to the edge of the abyss. But he capitulated painfully. The politician considered the most savvy and level-headed in the Knesset suddenly realized that the ultimatum he had set before Netanyahu would end with an election that would give the secular, centrist Lapid 25 Knesset seats.

Lieberman was able to emerge from this murky saga without bruises except for the trauma he must certainly have experienced from the Israel Television News Corporation poll that gave his protégé, MK Orli Levi-Abekasis, five seats for her new party as opposed to his party’s predicted four. Yisrael Beteinu Minister Sofa Landver, who has totally used up her 15 minutes of fame, voted against the draft-exemption bill without being penalized. So did Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party; he insisted on the 2019 budget being passed by Passover, and by Wednesday night he’ll have gotten what he wanted.

On Tuesday, once the prime minister had understood the situation, he beat a graceful retreat and crafted his surrender so that he would emerge from this adventure with his head held high. The coalition parties’ plan indeed ensures stability and tranquility, avoiding potential minefields at least until next year.

Under normal circumstances, Netanyahu would certainly have something to celebrate, but yes, an election around a year from now is bad news for him. Let’s wait and see what his next move is. There’s sure to be one.