This week Benjamin Netanyahu won a spectacular election victory, his fourth in the last decade. Yet though supporters have once again bowed down to King Bibi, his victory parade may not last long. Netanyahu’s new coalition represents little more than a reincarnation of its former self, and its first year will be marred by the very same divides that threatened to collapse the previous government.
Long live the king
Tuesday night’s election was a nail-biting finale to Israel’s soap opera election season. Having watched events unfold since the Knesset was dissolved in December, with polls fluctuating wildly and candidates taking mudslinging to new, dirty lows, the prospect that Netanyahu could be dethroned seemed almost too good to be true. When initial exit polls showed the incumbent prime minister on the ropes and his shiny new rival Benny Gantz on the verge of making history, everyone held their breath.
Scenes from the Likud party headquarters were eerily quiet; tumbleweed dancing across the screen would not have looked out of place. Meanwhile over at Gantz’s HQ, streams of blue and white confetti and scenes of jubilation added to the sense that, maybe, 2019 was the year Netanyahu would be defeated.
Alas, it was not to be. Unlike Gantz who rushed to give his victory speech, Netanyahu paused, collected himself, and waited for reality to set in. Exit polls in Israel are notoriously unreliable, and as the night wore on and the first official votes trickled in, sure enough, it was King Bibi who came out on top. By the early hours of the morning it was virtually business as usual, with Netanyahu delivering yet another rousing speech, loyal supporters cheering on cue.
Whatever you think of Netanyahu as a prime minister, politician, or indeed as a human being, one cannot deny that he plays the game better than his political rivals. He spews venom when necessary, playing on Israeli society’s deep-seated tribalism to secure votes at the expense of the country’s minorities. He rubs shoulders with the strongmen of the world to polish his Mr. Security, Bibi-can-fix-it image. He holds his Trump cards close to his chest until the last minute, throwing them down on the table at exactly the right moment to devastating effect.
A short-lived victory
In securing re-election, Netanyahu cemented his place as the king of kings, surpassing even the state’s founder David Ben Gurion in the annals of Israel’s history. Yet though he will inevitably spend the next few weeks basking in this glory, his victory lap could prove short-lived.
Netanyahu is facing the same predicament that plagues all Israeli prime ministers – how to form a strong coalition from an amalgamation of parties which have less in common than that which unites them. Yes, these parties all belong to the right-wing bloc, which once again proved itself dominant this week. However, below this surface-level alignment, the parties which look likely to make up Netanyahu’s coalition are vehemently opposed to one another and disagree on a number of existential questions facing Israel’s government.
The ‘deal of the century’
First up on Israel’s list of existential crises is the long-awaited “deal of the century”, US President Donald Trump’s plan that he has promised will succeed where decades of peace negotiations have failed. Delayed time and time again, the deal is reportedly ready, but is being kept under wraps until Netanyahu forms his new government, seemingly at the prime minister’s request.
Though many have seen this as evidence of Netanyahu’s influence over the White House, what his request for a delay in fact shows is that, despite his posturing, the deal could cause him serious harm. This is not because, as the Trump administration has claimed, “both sides will need to make concessions,” but rather because the Knesset factions are unlikely to unite behind the deal.
Just days after the election, the “deal of the century” has already touched nerves. Controversial MK-elect Bezalel Smotrich – who heads the National Union faction and is placed second on the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP)’s slate – said Wednesday that his party would not sit in a government which even considered President Trump’s peace plan.
“I am not negotiating a plan that is going to establish a terrorist state on the border of the State of Israel,” he told Israel’s Kan radio, in reference to a future Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. “If he [Netanyahu] thinks about the Trump plan, that’s OK. But if he moves forward with it, then he probably won’t have a right-wing government. Not only because of us, but because of his own Likud members,” Smotrich added.
Netanyahu needs Smotrich on side; though his National Union party makes up only a small proportion of the URWP, his controversial statements and pro-settlement views have made him a messiah among the right-wing. This, combined with the fact that Netanyahu owes URWP for bringing the once-untouchable Otzma Yehudit into the fold, makes Smotrich’s ultimatum all the more menacing to the coalition’s stability.
The Haredi draft law
Slated for July, the pending verdict on the so-called Haredi draft law threatens to anger a far more powerful element of the coalition: the ultra-Orthodox. The two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) promised to stand by Netanyahu if he were re-elected, having received numerous concessions for the Haredim in return for their loyalty to previous Netanyahu governments. They now bring a combined 15 seats to the new coalition, eight for Shas and seven for UTJ.
Yet beneath this marriage of convenience, storm clouds have been brewing. These have come in the form of the Haredi draft law, which seeks to conscript the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli army, a duty from which they are currently exempt. In September 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down the current law, granting the government a year to amend the legislation or face an automatic draft of ultra-Orthodox youths.
One alternative put forward proposed minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox enlistment that, if not met, would result in financial penalties for those yeshivas which fall below the threshold. The ultra-Orthodox parties have, naturally, fought vehemently against this amendment, prompting the Supreme Court to extend the law’s deadline in a bid to ease tensions and keep the ruling coalition afloat.
The latest delay was granted in December, after then Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who has spearheaded the draft as part of his attack on the ultra-Orthodox – resigned his position, leaving the coalition unlikely to survive the vote.
At the time, commentators speculated that this deadlock could cause the government to collapse. In this respect the new coalition will prove no different, being reliant once again on the same ultra-Orthodox parties that have for so long opposed any progress on the matter. Yet this time Netanyahu’s struggles will be compounded by the fact that Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party holds five seats – the exact amount which could topple his majority.
Lieberman ran his election campaign by attacking the Haredim, going so far as to compare them to Hamas – his other nemesis – with the slogan “it doesn’t matter if you surrender to those who raise weapons [Hamas] or those who refuse to raise weapons [the Haredim]. Surrender is surrender.” Lieberman will be acutely aware of his newfound kingmaker position, and will inevitably use this as leverage to follow through on his campaign promises.
Netanyahu’s corruption trial
Faced with these challenges, prison may look to Netanyahu like an appealing alternative. After years of police investigations in what have become known as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in February recommended that Netanyahu be indicted for several counts of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. If found guilty, he could be handed a prison sentence of up to ten years.
Netanyahu’s trial was originally slated for no later than 10 July, but reports emerged this week that Mandelblit is considering delaying the proceedings until September. This, of course, comes at the request of Netanyahu and his legal team, which has continually pressured Mandelblit to delay his decisions to suit its own timescale.
Netanyahu has already begun the necessary manoeuvring to hold his coalition together should he be indicted. On Friday, his Likud party reportedly reached out to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party – which won four seats in Tuesday’s election and is expected to join the coalition – to suggest a merger. Kahlon had previously claimed he would not sit in a Netanyahu government if the latter is indicted, suggesting Netanyahu’s move is a bid to ensure that he cannot quit the coalition in such an event.
Netanyahu is no stranger to these intricate schemes and has wasted no time in devising a plan to ensure another successful reign. Perhaps his delaying of both the “deal of the century” and the Haredi draft law is part of a carefully-crafted strategy, buying time until his fate is decided in court. If he is found guilty, he will be able to leave these questions for his successor to grapple with, a scenario which could well suit his narrative of invincibility.
One thing can be said with certainty; if onlookers thought Netanyahu’s victory was absolute, that his new coalition would transcend the messy sum of its parts, and that with it the drama of Israeli politics would die a death this week, they will be sadly mistaken. Netanyahu faces another tough year, and it could just be his last as Israel’s prime minister.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.