Wither the 21st Knesset. We hardly knew ye. Just six weeks after it had appeared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had won Israel’s legislative election, and secured a record fifth term in office, Israeli voters are being asked to try again. For the first time in the history of the State of Israel, no government was formed by the incumbent Prime Minister, and no one else was allowed to try, following a general election. Israel’s first electoral mulligan will take place on September 17.
Indeed, at least on the night of April 9, Netanyahu’s position looked secure. He had beaten back a strong challenge from Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, and appeared to keep his coalition of secular nationalist and religious conservative parties together. More importantly, he had defeated his real political foe, Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt, and the pending legal cases against him. But how much can change once the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. A long-simmering feud which plagued the last Netanyahu government came to a head, leaving his right-wing bloc with all wings and no body.
At issue is the draft law, a bill requiring ultra-Orthodox men to be conscripted in to the military. Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman strongly believes they should be drafted, current Israeli law and the religious parties say they should remain exempt. Refusing to budge, Lieberman pulled his secular party of former Soviet immigrants out of government. Protesting the attempts at government formation as “complete surrender by Likud to the ultra-Orthodox,” Lieberman pledged, “we won’t be partners in a government run according to halacha,” Jewish religious law.
Caught in the middle, and unable to keep both sides to stay in power, Netanyahu frantically looked elsewhere. By midnight Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin could give the role of matchmaker to any other MK, and effectively end Netanyahu’s premiership. Netanyahu sought potential partners and made concessions to anyone he thought would listen. Arch-rival Labor said no, so did the centrist parties. Aymad Odeh, co-leader of Arab party Hadash-Ta’al, brought hoots of laughter to the Knesset when he joked that Netanyahu approached him, and offered to withdraw Israeli territory to the pre-1967 borders.
Netanyahu’s previous campaign was not merely a race against an all-encompassing “left,” (a group that now apparently includes the ex-Minister of Defense) but increasingly against time. A pre-trial hearing for corruption charges has been scheduled for October. On Saturday, thousands protested in Tel Aviv against a proposal by the Prime Minister to grant himself immunity from prosecution. If Netanyahu is hoping for a reprieve, or, ideally, triumph in the face of stalemate, it’s unlikely he’ll get that either.
The first post-dissolution polls show voters aren’t thrilled by the idea of an election essentially to save Netanyahu. The next Knesset might not look that different from the last: according to Channel 13, 57 seats for a Likud-led right-wing bloc, 54 seats for a Blue and White-led left-wing bloc. That leaves nine seats, and effective role of kingmaker, to the man Benjamin Netanyahu cannot remain Prime Minister without, and the man who swore never to partner with him again.