Story-ideas-1011172

Netanyahu loses election he has already won

  • Paula
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost an election he had already won. For the first time in the country’s history, a party (in this case Netanyahu’s Likud) was unable to form a majority coalition after parliamentary elections.
by PAULA SLIER | May 30, 2019

Following the 9 April poll, Netanyahu was given 42 days (that included an extension) to put together a new government. Not for one moment did anyone think he wouldn’t succeed. But suddenly, former ally and Defense and Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman became a wild card. Without Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel is our home”) party’s five seats, Netanyahu had only 60 out of 120 Knesset (parliament) mandates. He needed 61 to hold a majority.

An immigrant from Moldova in the former Soviet Union, Lieberman has been pushing for years for ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This put him at odds with the religious parties Netanyahu also needed as part of his coalition. As things currently stand – and how religious parties would like them to continue – ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt from national service, unlike the rest of the Jewish population in Israel.

But this was a smokescreen. The real reason for the stalemate was a political power fight between Lieberman and Netanyahu for Israel’s top job. Lieberman wanted the position of deputy prime minister, which would have meant that should Netanyahu travel abroad or for another reason be unable to perform the duties of premier, it would be Lieberman who would have had to step in. No doubt he was hedging his bets that if Netanyahu went on trial over the pending corruption charges that have been brought against him, he would automatically become the next prime minister.

Lieberman has also been much firmer on Gaza than Netanyahu, repeatedly calling for a full-scale invasion to topple its ruler, Hamas. Netanyahu was against this because of the massive use of force and inevitable casualties it would entail.

Many observers believe that Lieberman was counting on Netanyahu’s time in power coming to an end. He presumably identified this moment as his best chance at the premiership. His supporters backed him on the ultra-Orthodox conscription issue, and so he could mask his play for power in more palatable terms, even though he essentially prevented a right-wing government from coming to power.

This does not mean that Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc won’t win again come September, the month new elections are slated to be held. In fact, the latest polls this week showed the right would get even more votes than it did in April, but there are risks. Arab-Israelis, who voted in historically low numbers in the past election, could turn out en masse, boosting the left. Alternatively, right-wing supporters might stay at home and view the second elections to be held in six months with a growing sense of apathy.

What’s more, the country now needs to spend a lot of money that could have been used for other projects to arrive essentially at the same position.

The treasury estimates that new elections will cost 475 million shekels (R1.9 billion). This excludes the loss to the economy of an election-day holiday, estimated at more than $1 billion (R14.6 billion). There’s reportedly no money in the budget for this, so the cash will need to come from spending less on other activities.

Likud supporter and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Ayalon, said that in spite of his years of zigzagging, Lieberman had worked over the years to foster an image of himself as a “bulldozer”, but in practice had no real record to speak of.

“According to my assessment,” said Ayalon, “Lieberman has reached the understanding that, as a member of Yisrael Beytenu, he has no chance of making it to a position from where he can replace Netanyahu as prime minister.”

The timing was far from ideal. On Thursday morning, Jared Kushner, senior advisor to American president, Donald Trump, arrived in Jerusalem to see Netanyahu. Kushner is in the Middle East seeking support for an “economic workshop” that Washington plans to host at the end of next month in Bahrain as part of Trump’s Middle East peace plan. The administration has offered Palestinian businessmen billions of dollars in investment if they come on board, but the Palestinians and several other countries, most notably Arab states and Russia, have said they will shun the event. Israel has indicated it will attend.

Kushner planned his trip to the region in advance on the assumption Netanyahu would by now have formed his new government. His arrival in Jerusalem unintentionally sent the message that it was “business as usual” no matter what happened in the Knesset.

This isn’t actually Trump’s position. Taking to Twitter on Monday, the American president expressed support for Netanyahu.

“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation,” he tweeted, and “Bibi [Netanyahu] and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!”

What remains to be seen is whether Trump will be willing to put his highly touted “deal of the century” on hold should new elections need to be held. (He clearly did so without admitting it earlier in the year, waiting until Netanyahu had won the April vote before advancing – at least publicly – with it.)

The irony is that while the White House allowed Netanyahu to set its schedule vis-à-vis the United States’ plan, it’s now found out that it was Lieberman who was setting Netanyahu’s.

As for the left-wing Blue and White party headed by former IDF chief, Benny Gantz, and journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, which came second to Likud in April, the maximum number of seats, including the support of the Arab parties, it could garner was 55 out of 120.

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