Analysis

Netanyahu's Chain of Critical Mistakes During Coalition Talks

For the prime minister, the only acceptable option is to form a new government. Anything else, and his party will realize that there is life after him

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to attend an inauguration ceremony of Israel's 21st Knesset, or parliament, in Jerusalem April 30, 2019.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

It’s been less than 50 days from election night, when Benjamin Netanyahu stood onstage in Tel Aviv and celebrated his enormous victory, to Monday night, when he showed up in the Knesset, humiliated and desperate, to plead for his life.

In his view, this was a shocking and unnecessary event that merely underscores the pressure he is under. “You don’t call early elections over cosmetic issues,” he told Avigdor Lieberman. But even the heavy layer of makeup on his face couldn’t hide its pallor.

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His message was confused and contradictory. While his people are energetically advancing a bill to dissolve the Knesset, he has gone out of his way to explain why a do-over election is unnecessary, expensive and paralyzing, a real scandal. Look, even U.S. President Donald Trump opposes it!

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His hasty press conference was just the latest in the series of critical mistakes that has characterized his conduct of the coalition negotiations with his toughest partner. The barb he aimed at Lieberman – “In 48 hours, a lot of things can get done” (a reference to Lieberman’s unfulfilled threat to kill Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours of becoming defense minister if the latter didn’t return the bodies of missing Israeli soldiers) – certainly won’t soften the Yisrael Beiteinu party chairman.

The bitter attacks on Lieberman over the past few days by other members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, with artillery support from the Netanyahu family’s mouthpiece in the media, also won’t pave the path to his heart. Only Monday night, very belatedly, did Netanyahu remember to order members of his party to take a vow of silence and stop assailing Lieberman.

Even the delusional election date Netanyahu has proposed, August 27, is meant to serve one segment of the public only – his beloved ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman will never agree to that. And it’s far from clear that there will be a majority for it in the Knesset.

Another strategic mistake, whose impact will become clear only if the bill to dissolve the Knesset is brought up for a final vote, is the leaks that have emerged from Netanyahu’s associates about his plan to reserve spots on the Likud ticket for Moshe Kahlon and other MKs from Kahlon’s Kulanu party.

Likud backbenchers are beside themselves with panic. The person occupying the ticket’s 35th slot will be pushed down to the 40th. And who can promise that Likud will get 40 seats in the next election? It’s not even clear if the party can reproduce its current 35 seats when the new election will take place under the cloud of Netanyahu’s failure. So will Likud’s entire bottom 10 really vote for early elections and thereby end their own careers prematurely? It’s not a given.

Netanyahu is a wounded animal. The man is fighting for his life, and we shouldn’t make light of his abilities.

Moreover, the Israeli political system is full of surprises. On May 8, 2012, we went to sleep with early elections and woke up to a unity government between Likud and Kadima. There can indeed be dramatic developments in 48 hours.

For Netanyahu, the only acceptable option is to form a new government, at the latest by Wednesday. Early elections would mean an indictment and a trial, with no immunity law and no law allowing the Knesset to override the Supreme Court.

If, despite this, a few deserters from his coalition thwart the Knesset’s dissolution, the president will be entitled to let another MK try to form a government – presumably Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz. Gantz will find it very difficult to form a coalition, but he will have almost a month to try. And during this time, views within Likud might change.

Knesset members – not just in Likud, but also among its partners – would understand that Netanyahu is history. Even if he managed to stitch together a coalition after Gantz failed (the law allows this), nothing in the world would prevent a pre-indictment hearing followed by an indictment. For the prime minister, this would be his personal Ground Zero. And during this time, someone would arise within Likud to challenge him and suggest to party members that there’s life after Bibi.