Analysis: Is time running out for Netanyahu?

With two weeks left to form a government, Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a major blow on Monday when his supporters lost a key vote which effectively cost them control of the Knesset. The loss increased speculation that the long-serving prime minister’s days in office are numbered.

What happened

  • The anti-Netanyahu bloc secured an important victory in a crucial Knesset vote on Monday which determines whether the prime minister’s supporters or opponents have the upper hand in the Israeli parliament until a new government is formed.
  • In what appears a last-ditch gambit, Netanyahu is backing a proposal to introduce a one-off direct elections for the premiership.
  • Opposition leader Yair Lapid is working to assemble a left-right “unity government” if Netanyahu’s attempts to assemble a coalition run aground.
  • Underlining the significance of the Knesset vote, close Netanyahu ally and Likud parliamentary chair Miki Zohar, said afterwards: “We’re starting to understand and internalize that the right-wing parties are headed to the opposition. Netanyahu will be opposition leader.”

Bibi’s committee vote blow

Yesterday saw a major test of strength between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu forces when the Knesset voted on the Arrangements Committee – a key body within the Israeli parliament which decides on legislative priorities until a new government is formed.

  • Despite winning the backing of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, Netanyahu’s proposal for the committee’s membership was defeated by 60 to 58.
  • In a second subsequent vote, in which Yamina abstained, a Yesh Atid proposal passed by 60 to 51. The Islamist Ra’am party, widely seen as the kingmaker since last month’s inconclusive election, sided with the opposition following a meeting between Lapid and its leader, Mansour Abbas.
  • “I am thankful to my partners,” Lapid wrote on Twitter. “The victory in the vote on the Arrangements Committee is another step on the way to a unity government in Israel.”
  • The committee also decides which other parliamentary committees will be formed and who will sit on them.

Trouble ahead?

The opposition’s majority on the committee could help it advance anti-Netanyahu legislation, including a bill that would prevent a candidate who is under criminal indictment from forming a government, suggested Jerusalem Post chief political correspondent Gil Hoffman.

Beginning of the end? 

Israeli media reports on Monday evening suggested that Lapid and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett were edging towards an agreement.

  • On Sunday, Lapid said he expected Rivlin to call him next to form a government if Netanyahu’s efforts prove fruitless in the coming days. “We have to form a government that will unite us. Not a right-wing government, not a left-wing government, but an Israeli unity government,” he suggested.
  • Lapid held meetings with potential members of the so-called “change coalition” yesterday, including Labor leader Merav Michaeli and the Joint List.
  • Lapid was recommended by parties – including Labor and Meretz – representing 45 MKs after the elections, but he’s hoping to win the backing of Yamina’s seven parliamentarians by offering Bennett a “rotation” agreement by which the two men would take it in turns to serve as prime minister. Like Ra’am, Yamina went into the elections uncommitted to either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu blocs.
  • As Lapid acknowledged, the government would bring together right-wing parties, including Yamina, Yisrael Beitenu and former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope; the centrist Yesh Atid and Blue and White; and Labor and Meretz on the left.
  • Although such a coalition would still be three seats short of a majority, Lapid is working – apparently with the support of New Hope and Yamina – to secure a form of “confidence and supply” with the Israeli-Arab parties by which they will back the government from outside its ranks. Labor operated a similar arrangement with the Israeli-Arab parties under Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s.
  • According to Channel 13, Lapid is proposing that government ministries will be distributed on the basis of one for every three seats held by a party. He is also negotiating a mechanism for agreements and sensitive issues which will be placed off-limits.

A different new vote

  • Also on Monday, right-wing allies of Netanyahu submitted a bill in the Knesset which seeks to introduce a one-off direct election for the prime minister. “The simple proposal is aimed at saving Israel from this crisis,” Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said.
  • The proposal aims to break the current political deadlock by staging an election for prime minister within 30 days; however, there would be no new vote for the Knesset and only those eligible to vote in the 23 March general election could cast a ballot. The winner of the vote will automatically determine who forms a government. However, they would still need to assemble a coalition to back them in parliament, albeit from the strengthened position of having a national personal mandate.
  • The plan appeals to Netanyahu as polls show he remains the most popular pick among Israelis to be prime minister, although he is not the choice of a majority of the country. “There’s a solution to the political pickle, and an enormous majority supports it,” Netanyahu said yesterday.
  • A similar proposal was made in September 2019 after that year’s second inconclusive election, but before the starting gun was fired on the March 2020 poll. However, the plan ultimately went nowhere.
  • Netanyahu’s loss of the Arrangements Committee is likely, commentators suggest, to scupper the bill’s progress. Led by Lapid, opposition parties have made it clear that they won’t support the proposal.

Unhappy precedent

Israel briefly experimented with directly electing its prime minister from 1996-2001. Netanyahu narrowly beat Labor’s Shimon Peres in the first such election in 1996. Netanyahu was, however, ousted by Labor’s Ehud Barak in a landslide victory in 1999. Barak was, in turn, heavily defeated by the new Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, in 2001. The system proved messy, however, with Labor winning more seats than Likud in 1996, even as Netanyahu eked out a wafer-thin win over Peres. The experiment was ditched ahead of the 2003 Knesset elections.

Houdini in a knot

Netanyahu, widely seen as the Houdini of Israeli politics thanks to his ability to wriggle out of political and legal difficulties, appears to be running out of options to secure a majority coalition.

  • The prime minister continues to negotiate with Bennett in the hopes of winning Yamina’s backing, but, even with it, Netanyahu is stuck on 59 seats.
  • On Monday, he turned up the pressure on Bennett suggesting: “He promised not to sit under [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid, with Meretz and Labor and with the support of the Joint List. So he must stop galloping toward a left-wing government.”
  • Netanyahu’s weekend plea to Sa’ar to “come home to Likud” was swiftly rebuffed by the New Hope leader on Monday, who said his party would continue to oppose the prime minister remaining in office.
  • Netanyahu also faces trouble on his far-right flank, with Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist party, repeating his refusal to countenance a government backed by the Islamist Ra’am party, whose support the prime minister most likely needs even if he secures Bennett’s. “Fifth elections are … much better than this suicide,” said Smotrich, who added that, even if Lapid formed a government, it would only “last a few months and crash and the right will return stronger”.

What happens next

If Netanyahu can’t form a government by the 4 May deadline, Rivlin has indicated he won’t grant him a 14-day extension. The president could then turn instead to Lapid, giving him 28 days to negotiate a coalition. Alternatively, he could throw the decision to the Knesset which could pick any of its 120 members able to secure the support of 61 of his or her colleagues. (If Rivlin taps Lapid and he fails, the Knesset will still get its 21-day opportunity). If the Israeli parliament can’t choose a prime minister, new elections – the fifth since April 2019 – will automatically be triggered.