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Doug Schoen: Israel is on an out-of-control political roller coaster after collapse of government

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Israelis will go to the polls yet again Sept. 17 to elect a new parliament, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suffered an enormous setback when he failed to put together a coalition and form a new government following weeks of talks after the last election April 9.

The parliament, called the Knesset, voted to dissolve itself late Wednesday night and call new elections. This marked the first time since the creation of modern-day Israel in 1948 that the person tapped to become prime minister was unable to form a government.

Unlike in the U.S., where there are only two major political parties, Israel has a parliamentary government that requires the support of a majority of Knesset members from a coalition of small parties. That means one party needs the support of at least 61 members in the 120-member Knesset to govern the Jewish state. No single party has ever captured 61 Knesset seats on its own.

ISRAEL FACES 2ND SNAP ELECTION IN 2019 AS PARLIAMENT VOTES TO DISSOLVE ITSELF

The collapse of Netanyahu’s coalition-building effort is a clear loss for the prime minister, his conservative Likud Party and really all of Israel, leaving the nation with a weak caretaker government in place. The only true winners are the foes of Israel.

Despite the April election that seemed to guarantee Netanyahu another term as prime minister, now neither the left nor the right can claim absolute victory.

Ultimately, it is clear that Israel is paralyzed and will remain in a state of unprecedented uncertainty until a new government is formed after the next election.

Ultimately, it is clear that Israel is paralyzed and will remain in a state of unprecedented uncertainty until a new government is formed after the next election.

Key questions now arise as we consider Israel’s fate.

What happens to the Trump peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians?

President Trump has been promising to unveil a still-undisclosed peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians since early in his administration, and asked his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to put the plan together. In fact, Kushner met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem Thursday to discuss the plan.

The peace plan, which deals primarily with economic and not political issues, was on life-support even before the dissolution of the Knesset. Palestinians are opposing it sight unseen to protest President Trump’s support of Israel, including his move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of the city as Israel’s capital. Palestinians want to establish a capital in Jerusalem for their own state.

Now Netanyahu has no incentive to make big concessions to the Palestinians, for fear that could cost him votes in the September election. Even if he did make such concessions, Palestinians show no signs of being in the mood to make compromises on their ambitious goals.

Can Netanyahu stay in office?

While he remains in office until the September election, no one knows if Netanyahu will get the chance to try to form a new government by cobbling together another coalition. His Likud Party won 35 seats in the April election but was unable to get the support of an additional 26 Knesset members to form a government.

Another party could be asked by the president of Israel to form a coalition if it wins more seats than Likud in September or is believed to have a better chance of forming a governing coalition.

An anti-Netanyahu coalition gathered for a mass rally last week – including the Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz, as well as the Labor Party, the Meretz Party, and even the Israeli Arab parties. But at this point it’s uncertain if this group of parties with differing agendas represents a real, credible and lasting alternative to Netanyahu that has the possibility of forming a coalition government.

What is the impact of the religious divide among Israeli Jews?

Israeli political parties are divided not just based on political ideology, but between Orthodox and other Jews. Orthodox parties have never won enough votes to form a government, but they can determine which larger party gets to govern my joining that party in a coalition.

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was expected to align his small ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu Party with Netanyahu’s Likud Party so Netanyahu could form a government after the April election.

But Lieberman’s refused to join Netanyahu’s government in a dispute over a law that would end the sweeping exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from the military draft. Lieberman – like many secular Israelis – wants the exemption ended. But Netanyahu refused to agree to that, because doing so would cost him the support of the religious parties he needs to form a majority coalition.

Now Netanyahu and members of the Likud Party are placing the blame for Likud’s failure to form a government squarely on Lieberman.

“Lieberman never intended to reach an agreement,” Netanyahu said following the collapse of his coalition-building effort. “He clearly wanted to shoot down this government and he is doing so because he reckons he will receive a few more votes” in a new election.

To be sure, it is not yet clear whether this is a short-term political tiff between Netanyahu and Lieberman will be papered over in a new election, or whether this will constitute a lasting separation by the ultranationalist Lieberman coalition that could jeopardize the religious coalition, and ultimately Netanyahu.

Similarly, it is important to consider whether this failure was about one issue that did not get resolved, or whether it is about the larger issue of whether Netanyahu has the support and the ability to bring together enough parties to control a Knesset majority of 61 seats.

This latest development also raises the question of what the makeup of the new Knesset will be after September.

High-profile parties such as the New Right Party led by Ayalet Shaked and Naftali Bennet just barely missed the threshold for Knesset representation in April. However, if they could capture more than the 3.25 percent of the vote needed for representation in the Knesset in the September election, the Israeli government would be much further to the right than ever before.

Will Netanyahu be indicted on corruption charges?

As if trying to win more support in a new election so he can form a coalition government is not a big enough challenge, Netanyahu also faces the possibility of indictment in three corruption cases. Israel’s attorney general has set a hearing to make a final decision on charges for October, at which point a new government may or may not be formed.

After Israel’s elections in April, Netanyahu was poised to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister by far, and seemed unbeatable even in the face of corruption charges and fierce opposition. His grip on power has been truly remarkable, and the leverage he has had over all areas of life in Israel – ranging from security, to business, to the economy and the media – is unparalleled.

However, the question of whether Netanyahu can and will last in the face of these charges, a possible conviction, and a new election is now very legitimate.

Indeed, it is entirely possible that Netanyahu will be indicted either during, or more likely after, the second election campaign. His failure to form a government also impeded his plans to have the Knesset grant its members (including Netanyahu) immunity from prosecution while in office.