Sunday, June 2, 2019

Best of Both Worlds for Netanyahu? - Seth Frantzman

by Seth Frantzman

Polls show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely do well in snap elections in September.

In power for ten years, the Israeli prime minister appeared to stumble on Wednesday when he drove the Knesset to dissolve itself and call new elections. Ostensibly this was because Benjamin Netanyahu had failed to form a coalition government. But how could the master politician who has dominated Israeli politics for a decade and has thirty years of experience in the Knesset's coalition politics end up in a situation like this? What if it is actually the best of both worlds for him? He continues on as prime minister with polls showing that he will likely do well in September, and his rivals have to fight over the scraps.

Netanyahu secured 74 votes to dissolve the Knesset. He got more support for new elections than he got for his coalition. If the smaller parties had been smarter, they might have refused to disperse the Knesset and forced the mandate back to President Reuven Rivlin. However, Netanyahu outplayed them, as he has outplayed rivals in the past. He got Kulanu's Moshe Kahlon to join Likud just before the last-minute Knesset discussion, ensuring that Kahlon couldn't oppose new elections. This may have been cynical, but it worked.

Avigdor Lieberman's resignation as defense minister last November backfired politically.

Netanyahu has successfully pushed a narrative since calling elections in late December 2018. Let's recall that defense minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned in November over the Gaza crisis. At the time, Bayit Yehudi's Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked also appeared likely to resign and trigger elections. But no. Netanyahu convinced them of the importance of staying on. In early December, Israel announced Operation Northern Shield. Netanyahu could say that he had postponed any major operation in Gaza because of the threats in the North. Shaked and Bennett looked responsible for not bolting. Lieberman looked doomed.

But things changed in the first months of 2019. Lieberman's hopes rose and Bennett and Shaked fumbled the campaign for their new party, the New Right. They fell short of the threshold. Netanyahu, as usual, needed those right-wing votes that might have bled over to the New Right, and he gobbled up enough of them on election night to keep Bennett and Shaked out of the Knesset. But Lieberman made it in with five seats and 4% of the vote. Math seemed to favor Netanyahu. So did Israel's voters, who have become more right-wing and religious over the years. Several parties openly ran under various banners of being either the "new Right" or the real and authentic Right. Arye Deri's Shas campaigned under the idea that Netanyahu needs a "strong Arye." Indeed, he got 6% of the vote and eight seats.

Naftali Bennett (right) and Ayelet Shaked (left) fumbled the electoral campaign of the New Right.

In the end the math wasn't quite there for Netanyahu to form the right-wing government he championed. Instead, those he pilloried as "Left," the Blue and White party of several former chiefs of staff and Yair Lapid received the same 35 seats that Likud got. But Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had no path to the prime minister's office. He didn't appear to try very hard either in the month and a half after the April elections. He let Netanyahu take the discussions down to the wire. When 100,000 did gather in Tel Aviv to protest on May 25, they were looking the wrong way. They were protesting Netanyahu's drive for an immunity law, a "defense shield for democracy." What they got was more democracy in the form of more elections.

There is some irony to Gantz saying that night that Netanyahu was turning Israel into "one-man rule" and Lapid claiming that "we're not your subjects." Dispersing the Knesset on May 29 enables Netanyahu to continue to rule. He continues to hold on to numerous ministries and concentrate power. While it's true there will be more elections, it's unclear if the electorate won't simply slip into apathy.

If Netanyahu continues controlling the narrative and demanding a strong mandate, he might find the coalition math in his favor.

Netanyahu was off to a quick start to grab the narrative on May 29. He argued that the people had chosen him to lead and form a government, and Lieberman had prevented it. Now, Netanyahu may have the best of both worlds ahead of him. If he can keep the narrative going, blaming Lieberman and demanding a strong mandate in the next elections, he might find the coalition math in his favor and he will have two months to govern as he wants. This comes at an important time for Israel. The US wants to roll out a peace plan, and the new elections could postpone that. Netanyahu can also try to continue to seek a way out of a pre-indictment hearing on corruption charges. It was already postponed until October.

Disagreement over a draft bill for conscription of ultra-orthodox haredim contributed to the impasse in forming a new government.

Netanyahu is super-conservative when it comes to any major moves in politics or strategy. He doesn't want a war in Gaza. He doesn't want a real political crisis that could give an opportunity to opponents. He wants to manage each crisis in such a way that all the small parties need him more than he needs them. That means giving the haredim most of what they want in the draft discussions, it means not rocking the boat on the continuing discussions about the Western Wall, it means not removing small bedouin communities such as Khan al-Ahmar or Susiya that caused international opprobrium. It means not causing another crisis related to deporting African migrants.

All in good time. Let the small parties fight over these issues, let them all claim they are more right-wing than the next party, while Netanyahu waits for elections. He has shown in the past that he can do magical things just before elections, always behind in the polls, he comes out ahead or equal in the end. Even when he loses – as Likud did in 2009, coming in second – he finds a way to win.

Netanyahu has successfully managed coalition crises before.

He has successfully managed coalition crises before. He signed an agreement with Kadima's Shaul Mofaz in May 2012, averting elections. Ehud Barak even broke up Labor in 2012 in a move that helped Netanyahu's government. Netanyahu briefly neutered Yisrael Beytenu when Lieberman ran with Likud in 2013. Yair Lapid was even co-opted into the coalition in 2013 as Finance Minister.

It's almost like people forgot all this on May 29 as Israel headed to new elections. Netanyahu doesn't leave things to chance. He is conservative and contemplative. He doesn't allow risk and crises to dominate. He certainly did not want Lieberman in his coalition, forever being able to scupper it. And he evidently didn't want other Center or Left parties in. He also didn't want to give Gantz a chance. So he chose what might be a better path: New elections.

Netanyahu may receive more palatable and malleable choices on the Right in the next government.

The New York Times and others have headlined this as a defeat for Netanyahu. But what has he lost so far? He may lose Lieberman, who he doesn't mind being rid of. He has gained Kahlon. Depending on how things play out, he may also receive more palatable and malleable choices on the Right in the next government that he hopes to form. And he likely knows that the Lapid-Gantz coalition in Blue and White may not be a long marriage. And he knows that Avi Gabbay's Labor has internal struggles, as do the Balad-Ra'am and Hadash-Ta'al marriages.

Netanyahu came through the smoke and mirrors of the coalition discussions unable to form a government. But in calculating the other scenarios, it may be the best of both worlds for him. At least, in the short term. And Netanyahu prefers to govern for short-term gains, not long-term strategies that require too much risk.

Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.


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