5/30/19 Elections Again- Why?

The Israeli Knesset has voted to dissolve itself and call for new elections — less than two months after Israelis went to the polls the last time and one month after the new Knesset was sworn in. Knesset members were forced to vote themselves out of a job, even before the newly elected had a chance to receive their state-funded cars.

Last night’s vote came together in slow motion, over the last four days. No one believed it could happen. Yet, it did happen … before the eyes of the country … on live television.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from the last election 50 days ago with a clear majority to form a government. 65 out of 120 members of the Knesset recommended to the President that Netanyahu be given the mandate to form the government. However, Netanyahu's potential coalition partners did not rush to agree to join his new coalition. In the previous election, everyone had seen that the last party to sign on received the best deal, by far.

During the last election campaign, Prime Minister Netanyahu promised he would not seek immunity after the election. However, as soon as the negotiations began, it became clear that a critical element in the coalition talks revolved around cementing an agreement between all of the coalition partners to support legislation that would effectively grant Netanyahu immunity; i.e., freedom from prosecution in the three cases in which the Attorney General stated Netanyahu would be indicted, pending a hearing. That same legislation would limit severely the power of the Supreme Court.

Once Netanyahu’s primary goal was clear, his potential coalition partners had even less incentive to rush to reach an agreement. Party leaders knew they were the only people standing between the Prime Minister and a potential prison sentence. Coalition negotiations began very slowly In the past, nevertheless, Netanyahu had always been able to sign an agreement with at least one or two of the smaller parties early in the process.

This time, Netanyahu’s hand was especially weak, since the both the Blue and White and the Labor Party made it clear they would consider joining a coalition government with the Likud, but only after Netanyahu was no longer its head. The remaining parties understood Netanyahu had no choice but to agree to their terms. During the past week, although it was expected negotiations would come down to the wire, and that Netanyahu would be forced to give away the proverbial store, most observers — and nearly all the politicians — believed that in the end, there would be a government, headed by Netanyahu.

All this did not take into account the ideological positions and will of Yisrael Beiteinu party head, former Defense and Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, whose base of support (i.e., the first generation of Russian Immigrants) is slowly disappearing. Lieberman made it clear he was unwilling to compromise on a bill that codified relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the army. Without going too deeply into the details of the law, as Defense Minister, Lieberman helped negotiate a bill that was very favorable to the Ultra-Orthodox, which provided them with an almost complete exemption from military service. However, that was not good enough for the elderly leader of the Gur Hassidim. The Gur leader insisted on pushing for an even more complete exemption.

Yisrael Beiteinu, whose supporters are overwhelmingly secular, and vehemently oppose many of the restriction the ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose on the country, considered any attempt to modify the exceedingly generous Army exemption law as bridge too far. Lieberman made it clear from the start that his condition for joining the government was the passage of the original bill, unchanged — a demand Lieberman consistently repeated from the beginning of the election campaign. Unfortunately for Netanyahu, no one believed Lieberman. Everyone was certain he would compromise in the end (as he had in previous elections).

Without Lieberman’s support, Netanyahu did not have the 61 votes he needed to form a government. Although Lieberman’s party had received only five seats, he understood he held the cards. Moreover, Lieberman has also had a long history with Netanyahu, much of it negative. We will never really know how much of Lieberman’s decision to stick to his guns and refuse any compromise was a function of his personal animus to Netanyahu, or how much Lieberman believed this was his last chance to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox, in the name of his constituents.

Ultimately, the one thing Netanyahu could not allow was for the usual electoral process to play itself out. Under the terms of the Israeli election law, if Netanyahu was unable to form a government by midnight last night, he would have to return the mandate do so to Israel’s President, Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin, who could then hand the mandate to anyone but Netanyahu to try. Instead of taking the chance someone else might successfully form the government, Netanyahu took advantage of the provision of the Israeli law that allows the Knesset to dissolve itself at any time. Once the Knesset has been dissolved, new elections are mandated.

So, a new election is now scheduled for September 17th. Meaning, by the time a new government is finally sworn in, Israel will have gone almost a full year with a transitional government, which has limited authority to act. Will the election results this time be any different from the last time? Most observers think that is unlikely. However, there are too many factors at work to accurately predict the outcome.

However, a few things are apparent. Netanyahu will be hard pressed to claim he will not seek some immunity, after trying to secure immunity after this last election. In any case, by the time a new government is formed — assuming it’s a right-wing government led by Netanyahu —there will be very little time to pass the requisite bills that would provide him with immunity from prosecution.

Another factor for consideration is what might happen with Gaza in the meantime. The Netanyahu government had clearly negotiated a set of agreements with Hamas in Gaza; agreements it was likely waiting to fulfill until after the government was formed. It will be nearly impossible for Netanyahu to implement those understandings before the election, for fear of being considered “weak on terror”. At the same time, it's unlikely Hamas will be willing to remain patient for another six months.

One final thought. Israelis love winners. It is clear Netanyahu lost this last round. For the first time in history, an Israeli government failed to be formed after an election. Will enough Israelis blame Netanyahu for this failure change the outcome of next election? While it is unlikely, we will have to wait nearly four months to find out.