Analysis

Netanyahu’s Hesitation at the Brink Shows He’s Vulnerable

Three ways in which the prime minister is in a worse position now than before the snap-election crisis was resolved on Tuesday by his coalition partners

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, March 11, 2018.
Marc Israel Sellem

There can be no question that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to hold an election as soon as possible.

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The crisis over the draft deferment bill for yeshiva students may or not have been manufactured, but it was no more serious than dozens of crises the prime minister has defused since this government was sworn in three years ago.

He spent a week in the United States ignoring it and then when he finally returned, barely went through the motions of crisis resolution – while behind the scenes his aides worked on building a majority for a Knesset dissolution bill and snap elections on June 26.

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The reasoning in favor was clear. The polls now are in Likud’s favor, with so many right-wing voters seeing Netanyahu as the underdog, persecuted by the media and the legal establishment. Going to the nation in June would almost certainly preempt Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s decision to indict him on bribery and fraud charges.

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Netanyahu believed a fifth election victory and renewed mandate would make it easier for him to claim he would not have to resign, even if indicted, as he is the people’s choice and can remain in office even while being charged on multiple counts of corruption.

But on a deeper level, Netanyahu desires to fundamentally shift the balance of power in Israel and establish the ultimate supremacy of the elected leader – above the police, the state prosecutor’s office and the courts of law. That is what these elections were supposed to be about. A final showdown: Netanyahu and the people against the left-wing elites.

However, there were two problems that made him hesitate. A parliamentary majority for dissolving the Knesset was easy to find. But he was not going to get an election date in 15 weeks. And in a five-month election campaign, a lot could go wrong. Mendelblit could publish his decision on whether to indict and, more seriously, the polls could shift against Netanyahu.

Even as they stand now, there is a fly in the ointment. In the two polls on television Monday night, Likud was doing well and Netanyahu’s right wing-religious coalition had a small but stable majority if elections were held this week.

But two key allies – Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu – were down to five seats each, and on that sinking trajectory they are hovering perilously near the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. If either dips beneath that on Election Day, they won’t be in the next Knesset and the political arithmetic changes – jeopardizing Netanyahu’s majority.

“If there are elections we will win,” Netanyahu confidently predicted on Monday night in the Knesset. But as one of only four serving MKs who were elected before 1992, Netanyahu certainly hasn’t forgotten the night of June 23, 1992, when it emerged that the far-right Tehiya party hadn’t crossed the threshold, giving Yitzhak Rabin victory – despite the right-wing and religious parties receiving more votes than the center-left.

The chances of this happening to either Shas or Yisrael Beiteinu are still relatively slim, but it is a risk. Even then, Netanyahu still preferred to take it. But when the governing coalition partners arrived at a compromise over the draft bill on Tuesday, almost without his involvement, he took the deal – and early elections were off the table.

This wasn’t just another crisis in a long series of them: Netanyahu’s vulnerabilities have now been clearly exposed.

First, for all his confidence in his invincibility, the electoral facts remain: The majority of the religious-right bloc remains, but it remains small.

For all the talk of the death of the left, and despite the inarguably weak performance of the opposition, the center-left still has about a 48 percent share of the vote. It still lacks a leader capable of shifting a couple of percentage points across the divide, but another victory for Netanyahu, or his replacement as Likud leader, is not inevitable. And he knows it.

Netanyahu’s second vulnerability is his weakened standing with his coalition partners. They resolved the crisis without him, almost against his will. Now Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s 2019 state budget is almost assured a smooth passage through the Knesset and the Kulanu leader – the weakest link in the coalition, at least as far as Netanyahu is concerned – will feel free to carry out reprisals.

And the third and perhaps most damaging vulnerability is that Netanyahu has now lost control of the political timetable. Without an election campaign this year, his nemeses – Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and Attorney General Mendelblit – will now be the ones calling the shots.

The next crisis is around the corner and this time Netanyahu won’t have his partners to get him out of it.