Analysis: Is Israel heading for new elections?

Israel appears to be edging towards a general election – less than two months after Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected on 9 April.

With the deadline to form a new coalition government fast approaching on Wednesday night, the prime minister’s effort to secure a Knesset majority appears to have stalled. For several weeks, Netanyahu has been attempting to close a deal with the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.

But the party, led by former defence minister Avigdor Liberman, is locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with the ultra-Orthodox parties whose support Netanyahu also needs to form a government.

On Monday, the Knesset voted by 65 votes to 43 to trigger snap elections with six MKs abstaining. The bill, pushed by Netanyahu loyalists and backed by his Likud party, appears designed to prevent Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, from inviting opposition leader Benny Gantz to attempt to form a government if Netanyahu fails. The bill requires three more rounds of votes to complete its passage through the Knesset.

If it does, it will be an unprecedented moment in Israeli history: never before has the country been forced into new elections so soon after it has voted.

Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, together with Labor, voted against the bill. Gantz instead said he should be given the opportunity to negotiate a coalition deal.

“My friends in Blue and White and I maintain that the responsibility for forming a government should be given over to the only existing alternative — the party that I lead,” the former IDF chief of staff said at a Knesset meeting of his party.

His party, which was formed shortly before elections were held in April, fought Likud to a virtual draw, matching its 26 percent of the vote and 35 Knesset seats. However, it is difficult to see how Gantz would secure the 61 votes he needs to become prime minister, given the strength of the right-wing bloc in the Knesset.

His ally, Yair Lapid, has thus floated the idea of a national unity government with Likud – on condition the party ditches Netanyahu. “The public wants a national unity government,” Lapid suggested. “Netanyahu is an obstacle to a unity government. If someone else stands at the head of Likud – anyone except Netanyahu – we can form a national unity government [that is] functioning, without extortion, without extremists, without billions in political bribes.”

Netanyahu was invited by Rivlin to form a government in the wake of the elections after the leaders of parties with a majority of seats in the Israeli parliament recommended he should become prime minister. He has already been granted one extension to the original 28-day deadline for negotiating a coalition and there are reports that, if he doesn’t strike a deal with Liberman by midnight on Wednesday, he might be able to pull off a rarely used manoeuvre and gain a further 14 days.

A poll conducted on Sunday evening suggested that Netanyahu could emerge strengthened by new elections. It showed right-wing parties advancing from 65 to 68 seats, while the centre-left and Arab parties drop to 52 seats. Among the possible shifts, the centre-right Kulanu party might drop below the electoral threshold, while the New Right party, led by former ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayeled Shaket, might enter the Knesset and pick up five seats. One of the two Arab coalitions, the Islamist United Arab List, also appears in danger of losing its four Knesset seats.

The threat of elections has provoked several political develoments. A merger between Likud and Kulanu – whose leader is finance minister Moshe Kahlon – now looks likely. Meanwhile, pressure is growing on Labor leader Avi Gabbay to hold primary elections within the next 30 days.

The dispute which is threatening the new poll centres around a bill which would tighten the exemption ultra-Orthodox young men have from performing national service. The law would raise over the next decade the proportion of Haredi youth conscripted into the military from 10 to 20 percent. The ultra-Orthodox parties – who hold 16 seats in the Knesset – are demanding that Netanyahu waters down the bill, which received its first reading last year. Liberman, however, is demanding the measure proceed unamended. The former defence minister’s party, whose political base is formed by Russian immigrants to Israel, is fiercely secular.

As one commentator suggested: “Liberman is both standing up to the ultra-Orthodox as a matter of principle, and feels he has a lot to gain and little to lose by doing so. His voters (and many more besides) support his anti-theocracy outlook. He believes Netanyahu — whom he regards with almost undisguised contempt — capitulates to the ultra-Orthodox parties with dismal regularity.”

Yisrael Beitenu and Likud are now engaged in a war of words after last-ditch talks appeared to falter on Monday night. Liberman said that Likud’s description of the ultra-Orthodox parties “extraordinary flexibility” was a lie. “This isn’t flexibility, this is dishonesty,” he suggested. Liberman also appeared to raise the stakes declaring: “The draft law is just one symptom of ultra-Orthodox extremism.” His party, he said, was not “looking to topple Netanyahu … but we’re also not willing to compromise our principles”.

In a live TV address, the prime minister appealed to Liberman to put “the good of the nation above every other interest” and labelled the row over the draft bill as a question of “semantics” and “cosmetics”. “You don’t hold elections over cosmetics,” the prime minister argued.

But Netanyahu has a very personal interest in avoiding a new election. He’s due in court in October for a pre-indictment hearing on corruption charges. Since the elections, the prime minister and his allies have engaged in various attempts as a part of the coalition negotiations to provide him with immunity and restrict the power of the courts to stop them from doing so.

Thus the Knesset vote on Monday evening is something of a bluff. If the Knesset is dissolved and Israel is forced into new elections in the late summer, it will leave Netanyahu without the means to give himself the protection from state prosecutors he’s long been working to achieve.