Analysis

The Real Obstacle to Forming a Government Is Netanyahu Himself

The combination of Netanyahu’s personality and the indictments awaiting him has turned him from the big victor of the 2019 election to the trampled doormat of the subsequent coalition negotiations

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, May 26, 2019.
Emil Salman

Even Sunday night, as all the potential coalition partners – except one – were coming and going from the Prime Minister’s Office, the idea that Israel might find itself holding another election this summer seemed inconceivable. It defies all logic, and of course it’s unprecedented. If it happens, it means that Israel’s political system, which has stood difficult tests in the past, is now imploding and turning into a black hole.

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We’re not there yet. Perhaps things will miraculously work out by midnight on Wednesday, even though the tone sounded increasingly bitter on Sunday and the deadlock seemed more hopeless than ever.

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But one conclusion arises from the madness of the past 40 days: The main obstacle to forming a government is Netanyahu. It’s not the mulish Avigdor Lieberman or a few extremist rabbis.

The combination of Netanyahu’s personality and the indictments awaiting him has turned him from the big victor of the 2019 election to the trampled doormat of the subsequent coalition negotiations. In 2009, when his Likud party had 27 seats and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu had 15, he formed a government fairly easily. Ten years later, when Likud has 35 seats to Lieberman’s five, he looks like a shorn Samson.

What a painful lesson he’s now learning. What a huge gap between his post-election intoxication and reality.

Avigdor Lieberman speaks in the Israeli city of Netivot, May 24, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

The pending indictments, coupled with his criminal plans to trample democracy and the rule of law and protect himself from standing trial via a corrupt coalition (plans he denied during the campaign to avoid driving away normative Likud voters), have destroyed any alternative. The Kahol Lavan party, which would have raced into his arms under other circumstances, is out of the game because its leaders can't even imagine being part of his accomplices.   

The conscription law, whose details nobody understands – and certainly not Lieberman’s voters – may just be an excuse. Perhaps Lieberman has simply decided to chop down the man who has been his partner and rival for the last quarter-century. Maybe he sees this as a national service. Maybe he is tired of being, for the fifth time, the Netanyahu's bridge to power.

But one thing is clear. If Netanyahu weren’t who he is, and if he weren’t facing indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, this problem wouldn’t have grown to its present proportions.

Even if he somehow forms a government, the humiliation to which his “natural” partners have subjected him reveals his weakness. From now on, he will no longer be “King Bibi.” A prime minister suspected of crimes, even prior to his pre-indictment hearing, isn’t just an embarrassment to any decent country; he’s a burden above all to his own party.

There’s no doubt he knows how to win Knesset seats with brilliant campaigns filled with lies and smears. But what about finishing the job?

Gideon Sa’ar in Tel Aviv, February 19, 2019.
Moti Milrod

If anyone else – whether Gideon Sa’ar, Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz or Gilad Erdan – were heading Likud today, with the same numerical advantage, there would already be a functioning government. And it would almost certainly be a sane one, built on Likud and Kahol Lavan and devoid of messianic nationalists.

If the Likud ministers Netanyahu convened on Saturday (who said he was nervous and hysterical) were leaders rather than spineless wimps, they would have stood up, one after the other, even Ofir Akunis and Miri Regev and told Netanyahu they’ve lost confidence in him – him personally, not the party and ask him to step aside. But no one said a word. No one wondered where the prime minister has led us and where he is continuing to lead us. Fear of him is incomprehensible. It’s a matter for psychologists. He wouldn’t survive such a rebellion, which many Likud MKs would doubtless join.

That’s what happened in Britain last week to Prime Minister Theresa May. It’s what happened to her legendary predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, almost 30 years ago. And that’s the whole difference between truly senior politicians and those who are senior only on paper.

There’s only one ray of light in the prospect of dissolving the Knesset and holding new elections, probably in September: Until a new Knesset and cabinet are sworn in, perhaps not until late November, there can be no legislation. The immunity bill, the bill to destroy the Supreme Court and the State Comptroller’s Office and ministry legal advisors, and all the other “reforms” that were supposed to be enacted in the next two months will enter the deep freeze.

For Netanyahu, this is nothing less than a disaster. It’s apocalypse now. His pre-indictment hearing is set for early October, and the attorney general’s final decision on whether to indict him is expected in late December. There’s no scenario in which Netanyahu, assuming he’s reelected, can manage by then to tailor the protective suit he so carefully planned when he decided last December to call early elections.

His expiration date is December 2019, his party members know it and all the other political players know it. They’ll consider what to do when the time comes.

Would it be right for them to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin, let’s say in September, that Netanyahu form the next government when his life expectancy is shorter than that of a milk carton? As Lieberman likes to say, nothing’s threatening him.