Israeli politics saw two historic firsts this week—neither of them good.
To refresh, the country held an election in September, after no one was able to form a government following the previous election in April. Now, it’s happening again. On Wednesday, opposition leader Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party controls the most seats in the Knesset, announced that after 28 days of negotiations he had failed to form a coalition government. This came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who got the first crack at forming a government after September’s election, also failed to do so in October.
Israel will now, for the first time, enter a 21-day period in which any member of the Knesset can attempt to become prime minister by garnering the support of 61 out of 120 MKs. If none of them can do so—and their chances seem slim—the country will head to its third round of elections this year some time in February or March.
Then on Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced, after months of anticipation, that he is indicting Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Netanyahu is not required to resign even as he stands trial and has made it clear he doesn’t intend to. This means that for the first time, Israel is led by a prime minister facing criminal indictment, and it’s all happening at a time when Israelis have no idea who will be in charge next, despite having just had an election.
In the short term, the government deadlock is good news for Netanyahu. While he hasn’t been able to pass a law he wants that would shield him in prosecution, the power of the prime minister’s office still gives him the means to fight the charges and drag out the trial. But it’s terrible news for the country he leads, which is experiencing “a time of unprecedented darkness,” as President Reuven Rivlin put it, and the longer the deadlock lasts, the worse it will be for the wider region.
The man primarily responsible for the current state of paralysis is former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, consisting mainly of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, controls eight seats in the Knesset.* Lieberman triggered the second election by refusing, back in May, to join a right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu because of differences with the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox allies. The deal with Lieberman is that he doesn’t like Arabs very much. But he also doesn’t like Orthodox Jews very much. And on some days, his antipathy to both seems matched by his desire to put his former boss and mentor, Netanyahu, in his place.
Given the current math in the Knesset, it was impossible for Netanyahu to form a right-wing government if Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox wouldn’t sit together. So the most logical scenario after that was a coalition between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White. But that also proved unworkable. Netanyahu wanted his right-wing allies to sit in the coalition as well, which was unacceptable to some of Blue and White’s more liberal members. There was also the question of who would become prime minister: Blue and White members are not anxious to support a prime minister under criminal indictment. At one point there was also the possibility of Blue and White leading a bizarre coalition that included Lieberman and the small left-wing Jewish parties in the Knesset, with support from the outside by the Arab Joint List, which has never joined a coalition government but has recently gained several seats and therefore some clout. Lieberman ruled that out this week, describing the Arab parties as a fifth column that would undermine the Jewish state.
So, Israel now not only has a criminal defendant for a prime minister, but the country’s polarization makes it impossible to replace him. (It seems unlikely the results of a third election would be dramatically different from the first two.) All this is happening amid recent flare-ups in violence in Gaza and a volatile situation in Syria, where Israel has launched strikes on Iranian military positions in response to rocket attacks.
Having a government in permanent campaign mode is not going to help. Netanyahu has had a tendency throughout his tenure to ramp up anti-Arab rhetoric to drive support to Likud when he’s in campaign mode. This time is no different. In recent days, he has compared a potential minority government supported by the Arab parties to a terrorist attack on Israel and vowed that annexing the Jordan Valley—a strategically important area of the West Bank that, if annexed, would leave a potential Palestinian state totally encircled—would be his government’s first move.
In the past, he has walked back some of his more incendiary statements after forming a new government, but if a government is never formed, he’s going to stay in campaign mode indefinitely. And given the stakes of him losing power—the charges he faces could carry years of jail time—we may hear more scorched-earth pledges that will be very hard to back down from.
The Trump administration also continues to hand symbolic wins to Netanyahu, including the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights just before the first election back in March, and this week’s announcement that the U.S. administration does not consider Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be a violation of international law—a reversal of a 40-year-old legal view. While these U.S. moves don’t have much material impact, they bolster what used to be far-right arguments in Israeli politics and pressure centrist politicians to adopt them. (Gantz also championed Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley while appealing to right-wing voters during the campaign.) And in case you were wondering, this probably means that Jared Kushner’s long-awaited peace plan will be put on hold again.
Sooner or later something will break the logjam. Perhaps Likud will finally cast Bibi aside. At least one member of the fiercely loyal party has suggested he would be willing to mount a challenge. But as long as Israel’s longest serving prime minister remains in office, the paralysis seems likely to continue, and the extremism will continue to fester.
Correction, Nov. 21, 2019: This piece originally misspelled Avigdor Lieberman’s first name.