Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands during a vote on a bill to dissolve parliament on May 29 at the Knesset in Jerusalem. MPs voted 74-45 to dissolve and hold a new vote on September 17. Photo: Menahem Kahana / AFP

Israeli political dysfunction has reached new heights. For the first time in history, a prospective prime minister was unable to form a coalition. A month and a half after the last ballots were counted, the country will now be subjected to a second round of elections – and plunged into dark uncertainty.

Netanyahu came as close as one possibly can to forming a coalition. The Likud leader obtained the agreement of 60 members of the Knesset to join his prospective coalition, while 61 are needed to sustain a majority government and pass legislation. However, he was ultimately unable to secure a functional coalition before the deadline which passed at midnight on Wednesday, May 29.

Netanyahu tried with increasingly desperate maneuvers to form a coalition right up until the deadline. For days, he had been tempting members of the Blue and White party with jobs and amendments to controversial laws. The prime minister also offered the Labour Party an extravagant last-minute offer to join the coalition, but it was all to no avail. “King Bibi” has lost his magic touch.

In the end, Netanyahu was forced to face his failure and pass a motion to dissolve Knesset by a vote of 74-45. This makes the twenty-first Knesset the shortest-lived parliament in its history.

Right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties were joined by the two Arab-Israeli parties in supporting the motion. The move to dissolve the Knesset was pushed through because, according to law, if the designated prime minister is unable to put together a coalition, the president may ask another member of the Knesset to form a government. And that would likely be Benny Gantz, the current head of the opposition.

Netanyahu wished to avoid this eventuality even at the cost of forcing another electoral campaign on the weary Israeli people.

Liberman demands draft

When Netanyahu celebrated his victory on election night, he expected a coalition would be relatively easy to form. The right-wing parties, his natural partners, had received 65 seats and the normal bartering was expected to lead to a stable ultra-orthodox dominated government.

Never had a victorious slated premier been unable to form a coalition before. It seemed highly unlikely that the wily veteran who had formed several governments successfully would be the first to fail. But things did not go according to plan. The question of the enlistment of the ultra-orthodox in the Israeli military quickly emerged as a bone of contention.

The religious United Torah Judaism wished to obtain an exemption for yeshiva students from mandatory military service as part of the coalition agreement. But Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisreal Beitenu party, demanded that they be drafted in accordance with recommendations of the defense ministry.

This appeared at first to be a typical negotiation wrangle which would be settled either through compromise or the buying off of one side. Yisreal Beitenu had a mere five seats and was expected to compromise in the face of the larger and more invested ultra-orthodox parties.

As the clock ticked down towards the deadline, it became increasingly clear that Liberman was unwilling to succumb to the normal process of persuasion. He pointed to his preferred draft of a law on enlistment and would not budge an inch. The upset even prompted US President Donald Trump to weigh in on Twitter and express his backing for Netanyahu.

Since the matter of drafting yeshiva students is existential to the ultra-orthodox parties and their core constituency, normally the secular parties give way on matters of religion in return for plumb ministries and committee appointments. The tough former defense minister proved to be the exception to this tried and true rule. Eventually, Netanyahu was forced to give up on his attempts to form a coalition and prepare for new elections.

It is unclear what Liberman’s motivation was in dragging the country into another round of elections. One theory is that this is payback for Netanyahu firing the former defense minister from his post. Another theory is that he is attempting to gain more seats by teaming up with the popular former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (whose party did not manage to gain enough votes to enter the Knesset) in the upcoming elections. Preliminary polls show Liberman doubling his support if Shaked were to join his party. The two have met on at least two occasions recently and may plan to run together.

The final option is that Liberman was playing a high stakes game of chicken with the prime minister and found himself unable to back down. Either way, never have the narrow interests of a small party with so few seats prevented the forming of a functioning government before.

Indictment hearings loom

The implications of this for the beleaguered prime minister may be quite severe. Netanyahu has been unable to obtain the immunity bill he craves and now faces elections four months down the line, just before his pre-indictment hearings will begin in October.

It is possible that Netanyahu may be punished at the polls and fail to regain power. But assuming that the Likud is victorious in the new elections, it will take at least a month to form a coalition – and he may run into the same trouble yet again. By then, the hearings will be well underway.

 رئيس الوزراء الإسرائيلي بنيامين نتنياهو (وسط) ووزير الدفاع أفيجادور ليبرمان في زيارة للموقع الذي دهس فيه فلسطيني مجموعة من الجنود الإسرائيليين في بداية 2017. صورة: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is seen walking with his former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in early 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun

Netanyahu’s timetable is making him increasingly uncomfortable, and the odds of his survival have become smaller.

Will the voters and the other members of the Likud party continue to stand by silently as Netanyahu drags the country into turbulent waters in order to assure his political survival and personal freedom? Bibi’s impressive ability to maneuver has always been the source of his power, and it has led to the blind obedience of his party. However, this failure is a tremendous show of weakness.

There is blood in the water and members of the Likud have already begun circling. Gideon Saar and other members have come out against the slated immunity bill he promoted. Liberman humbled Bibi in negotiations and the law is snapping at his heels.

An ailing Netanyahu stumbles towards elections he did not want, and the fate of the Israeli political system has never been more uncertain.

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