In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that Benjamin Netanyahu—who is likely facing multiple criminal indictments and who only a third of Israelis think should be prime minister—has had some trouble rallying allies to his side. But after all the comebacks and near escapes he has pulled off in his long career, it seemed foolish to bet against him after April’s election. Now, however, his career, and possibly his freedom, are in jeopardy after he failed to form a coalition government by the deadline Wednesday, forcing parliament to dissolve itself and call a new election in September.
To recap, Netanyahu’s Likud party won 35 Knesset seats on April 9, a total that was tied with the centrist Blue and White alliance led by Benny Gantz. But President Reuven Rivlin asked Netanyahu to attempt to form a government because he had the much clearer path to victory, with right-wing parties controlling 65 seats. (Only 61 are needed for a majority.) Some horse-trading would certainly be required, but it was widely assumed that the right-wingers would fall in line.
Much has been written about the dramatic overall shift to the right in Israeli politics, and that narrative is true, but “the right” in Israel contains multitudes, and many of those multitudes hate one another’s guts. Just because Israel’s traditional leftist parties have been decimated in recent elections doesn’t mean that there’s any sort of consensus among the parties that remain. The parties that are lumped in as “right” or “far-right” in media coverage (particularly international coverage) include religious West Bank settlers, secular West Bank settlers, Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, centrist neo-liberals, pot-smoking ultra-Zionist libertarians, and outright terrorists. Many of the disagreements between these parties have little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian issues that much international coverage of Israel tends to focus on.
In this case, the role of spoiler was played by Avigdor Lieberman, the controversial former defense and foreign minister whose Yisrael Beiteinu party draws most of its support from Russian-speaking émigrés who arrived in Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Lieberman was born in what is now Moldova.)
Lieberman, a secular West Bank settler, has railed against the growing clout of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. Most controversially, while military service is mandatory for all 18-year-old Jewish Israelis, students in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are exempt. Lieberman, who controlled five seats after the last election, refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition unless the prime minister committed to passing his bill, without amendment, that would conscript more ultra-Orthodox men and impose penalties on yeshivas that don’t comply.
That would have been a red line for the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, who jointly controlled 16 seats and were critical for Netanyahu’s coalition. (The schism over the bill was what led to the election being held in April in the first place.)
Netanyahu spent several days desperately bargaining, offering ministries and law changes in attempts to win over parts of Gantz’s party, the moderate Kulanu, and even the left-wing Labour Party. The leading Arab politician Ayman Odeh got some laughs on the floor of the Knesset by joking that Netanyahu had called to offer withdrawal from occupied territories and recognition of the Nakba if Odeh would join the government.
While Lieberman probably does feel strongly about ultra-Orthodox conscription, he may also just relish being the one to stick the knife in Netanyahu. Although he got his start in politics by working in Netanyahu’s office, the ultra-hawkish Lieberman has become a staunch rival of the prime minister, accusing him this week of fostering a “cult of personality.” Lieberman resigned as defense minister in November—and pulled his party from the coalition—over Netanyahu’s handling of a recent round of fighting in Gaza . Lieberman accused Netanyahu of “surrendering to terror” for accepting a cease-fire with Hamas and allowing Qatari investment in the beleaguered Hamas-controlled territory.
Netanyahu had less room to maneuver than he normally would because of the pending corruption indictment against him. If he had formed a government, Likud had planned to push for a law that would have shielded the sitting prime minister from prosecution. That gave political rivals little incentive to support him. Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing is currently scheduled for October, and while he could theoretically continue to govern while he’s on trial, pressure on him to resign will likely grow, even if he wins another election in September.
On July 17, Netanyahu will break David Ben-Gurion’s record to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. In light of that fact, normally I would say it would be a mistake to count him out. But after this week’s humiliation, it would be just as much of a mistake to assume that he’s invincible.