Is This Netanyahu's Last Chance at Political Redemption?
The longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history has the odds stacked against him. But he still has a fighting chance of staying in power.
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is back from the dead. After his Likud Party suffered a devastating defeat in parliamentary elections earlier this month, it looked as if the prime minister was about to be shown the door. But his opponents haven’t been able to put together a coalition—opening up the chance for Netanyahu to seek redemption.
The prime minister and cabinet are elected by the members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. On Wednesday, Israel’s ceremonial president, Reuben “Ruvi” Rivlin, handed Netanyahu the mandate to try to form a government.
“They thought they could break up our partnership in the nationalist camp, but that is stronger than ever,” the prime minister told a crowd of supporters in Tel Aviv, who chanted “Bibi, King of Israel” in response.
Neither Netanyahu nor any of his opponents have the sixty-one seats needed to win, but Netanyahu is the closest, with fifty-five members of Knesset endorsing him.
This was a stunning reversal from last week, when retired Gen. Benjamin “Benny” Gantz thought he could count on fifty-seven votes from the Knesset. But his uneasy coalition between the Center and the Left broke down with a dramatic rupture in the Joint List, a conglomerate of Arab and far-left parties.
There are nearly 1.9 million Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel, making up a fifth of the population. This number does not count the estimated 4.5 million Arab residents of the Palestinian territories, which Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Netanyahu had used fear of an “Arab-leftist government” to mobilize his own base, but that strategy seems to have backfired, mobilizing enough Arab voters to anoint the Joint List the third-largest party in the Knesset.
Three of the four parties in the Arab bloc wanted to endorse Gantz, giving him the Joint List’s thirteen votes. This would be the second time in Israeli history that the Arab parties voted for any Israeli prime minister.
Balad, the most uncompromising member of the alliance, bucked its partners and denounced the former chief of staff’s “right-wing positions that are not much different from the Likud and his bloody and aggressive military history.” Eventually, the parties agreed to subtract three votes from their endorsement, leaving Gantz with only fifty-four votes total.
That was enough to make Netanyahu the leading candidate in Rivlin’s eyes.
“I think it was a pathetic decision, not reflecting the will of the Arab masses who voted for them,” said Mohammad Darawshe, director of the Center for Shared Society at the Givat Haviva Institute and former director of the United Arab List, one of the three Joint List factions that endorsed Gantz.
“They are stuck in high ideological castles, without real connection to real politik in Israel,” he told the National Interest. “I think that their reading of Israeli political dynamics are not realistic, and this leads them to a non-pragmatic political behavior.”
However, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh claimed on Wednesday that Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party had actually asked the Arab parties to limit their support.
If this is true, then the Blue and White is betting on Netanyahu’s inability to form a government. In the Israeli system, a party’s mandate to form a government lasts for twenty-eight days. If they fail to win a majority of votes by that time, then the president then hands the mandate to the next party.
“None of the parties were really anxious to be the first one to have a stab at this,” explained Matt Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy. “I think each of them were thinking that they both have an uphill climb, and that it’s better for the other party to go first and fail, because whatever plan that they may have will look far more palatable if they go second.”
But the gambit might not go as planned. When Netanyahu failed to win a majority in April, he successfully pushed the Knesset to vote for a do-over election for the first time in Israeli history. He had an unlikely ally last time: the parties of the Joint List.
“It seems that their logic the last time was that elections would position them in a better electoral position than they currently held, and that has borne out,” explained Harry Reis, director of policy and strategy at New Israel Fund. “A third election is very unpopular in Israel. It’s hard to see any majority being put together that would vote in favor of a third election.”
Nadav Newman, a self-described “right-wing voter,” told the National Interest that a third election would be the “second worst” outcome. According to him, the worst outcome is “a strong leftist government, which I highly doubt will happen.”
Now the Likud is leading talks to form a unity government with the Blue and White. Rivlin has proposed that both parties rotate the prime minister’s office.
Avigdor Lieberman’s center-right Yisrael Beiteinu party controls the nine seats in the Knesset that could be a tiebreaker if talks fail. Representing a constituency of mostly Russian Jews that is equal parts secular and nationalist, Lieberman is demanding a unity government that excludes both Netanyahu and his allies in the religious Jewish parties.
“[Lieberman] might as well be asking for unicorns,” Brodsky claimed. “He’s got to decide between what he hates less. Does he hate the Orthodox [Jewish] platform that is in the coalition with Netanyahu, does he hate Netanyahu personally more, or does he hate the coalition that he would have to be a part of with the far-left parties and the Joint List more?”
After this month’s election, Lieberman stated that the religious parties are merely “political opponents,” but the Joint List is an ”enemy” that is “directly and indirectly trying to destroy the country from within.”
So far, Netanyahu is sticking to his guns, demanding that any deal with the Blue and White also include all of the Likud’s partners.
“That is a gross distortion of what is meant by national unity,” said Emily Landau, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies of Tel Aviv University. “It doesn’t mean that everybody is in the government. It means that you have a broad government, but it has to be something that is balanced.”
Landau told the National Interest that Netanyahu is trying to shore up support from other right-wing parties to help deal with his legal issues.
The prime minister will have to appear at a hearing for corruption charges on October 2. He is accused of three different quid-pro-quo schemes: one that traded personal gifts for tax breaks, and another two attempting to buy positive media coverage with favors to media moguls.
According to a poll from Channel 12, fifty six percent of Israelis support ousting Netanyahu if he is indicted.
Gantz is “counting on the fact than an airing of that type of stuff on the news is going to make the public like [Netanyahu] less,” Brodsky said. “But at the same time, Netanyahu tried to play this brilliantly. He said, ‘let’s make this a public hearing, so everyone can see it,’ and he was turned down by the attorney general.”
“Israelis have never had a prime minister who refuses to step down from his post in the face of indictment in three cases pending against him,” Reis warned. “Israelis themselves are in uncharted waters trying to figure out what this all means, in part because constitutional norms have been flouted.”
Netanyahu has been single-minded in holding onto the parliamentary immunity keeping him out of jail. He spent much of April’s coalition talks demanding a law protecting him from the Supreme Court, and even forced Likud officials to sign loyalty oaths in fear that they would expel him through a primary election.
Reis warned that Netanyahu could try “dangerous” tactics to shore up support, including the “fabrication of an emergency situation,” According to a Ha’aretz investigation, Netanyahu almost started a military campaign in the Palestinian territory of Gaza in order to delay elections.
Reis speculated that President Donald Trump could even give the Likud a last-minute election favor, in the form of a “green light” to annex parts of the Palestinian territories that both Netanyahu and Gantz have promised to hold on to.
All of this takes place as Israel enters the High Holidays, which start on the Jewish New Year at sunset on September 29.
“Even in a normally extremely politically-active society, there’s going to be a whole lot more of people getting together and talking about this,” Brodsky said.
“I think it was a wake-up call for a lot of people, second elections, that it is very, very, very clear that there are two groups in Israeli society, and we're not united enough, period,” Newman said. “When you think about the Jewish state, you think the idea of the creation of the Jewish state post-Holocaust, post-genocide in North Africa, and Iraq and Yemen and horrible atrocities that brought Jews together, I think it's absolutely ridiculous how split the Israeli population is.”