For the first time in its history, Israel will go to the polls because the Knesset Israelis elected in April could not form a government.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu crowed after the election results came in that his Likud had defied critics and won a comparatively easy reelection. The number of small right-wing parties in the Knesset made it impossible for the opposition Blue and White bloc to assemble the 61 seats needed for a bare minimum majority coalition, leaving Netanyahu a free hand to form another government. Or so it seemed to everyone.
But there’s right-wing and then there’s right-wing. As in any country, a range of issues and interests combine to make up political parties and movements. While they may be in sync on a whole range of economic, social, internal and foreign policy issues, the one thing that unified Likud and its ostensible allies among the smaller right-wing parties was animosity toward the left, which Netanyahu demonized during the campaign – even accusing the veteran military figures who lead Blue and White of being too far left. The leftist bogeyman Netanyahu was conjuring is, at this point in Israeli history, largely fictitious. The Labour party, once the dominant force in the country, suffered its worst showing ever, finishing with less than 5% of the vote.
What divides the right-wing parties are a few issues of core principle. The ultra-Orthodox parties are right-wing and prefer Netanyahu as prime minister. But they want special considerations for religious institutions maintained and strengthened. Nationalist parties, like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, are right-wing, but secular, and Lieberman would not budge on his assertion that there should be no compromise on a new law – promulgated under his watch as Netanyahu’s minister of defence – that yeshivah men not be automatically excused from conscription. The five seats Lieberman’s party won in April were the lynchpin for a fifth Netanyahu government – and the notoriously combustible Lieberman ultimately kiboshed the government and the 21st Knesset.
Some commentators suggest principle was less a factor in Lieberman’s choice than personal pique. The two men were once the closest of allies – and nothing is more bitter than a family fight. A number of policy issues have frayed the relationship. For example, as defence minister, Lieberman publicly excoriated his boss for what he characterized as letting Hamas off the hook too easily in the most recent flare-up of cross-border violence from Gaza. Lieberman, it appears, would have preferred a far more punishing response, though he has a history of making dire threats on which he does not follow up. He once brazenly gave Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to live if he did not return an Israeli hostage and the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers. The gambit failed. The millionaire Haniyah remains very much alive, luxuriating in a waterfront palace he built with a 20% tax on all goods traveling through the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. Lieberman meanwhile continues with similar bellicosity to stoke his base, primarily older Israelis with roots in the Soviet Union.
Whether Lieberman’s dashing of Netanyahu’s plans was an ego issue or a strategy to improve his party’s weak showing in April, or whether it was, in fact, a matter of principle, doesn’t matter much now that new elections have been slated for September.
Most of Israel’s 2019 will have been eaten up by election campaigns and, unless the electorate has a swift change of heart – or the criminal charges hanging over Netanyahu’s head shift the discourse – the results in September may be very similar to those of April. Then what?
Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who has been both ally and opponent to Netanyahu, posited last week that, whatever the outcome in September, Netanyahu is finished. While there are anonymous sources inside Likud suggesting the leader may be ousted after the next election, the fact is that Netanyahu’s career has been declared dead several times before, but he has defied prognosticators and triumphed. Not for nothing is his nickname “the Magician.”