Israelis went to elections on April 9, 2019. While the main two parties came out almost even, it was clear, based on the victories of the smaller parties, that Israelis were voting for a right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. However, after asking for a two-week extension to form a coalition, Netanyahu has not been able to put together a 61-seat majority government. There are many factors.
Before the elections, Netanyahu promised the public that if he were indicted on bribery and corruption charges (as is expected in the coming months), he would not seek to pass a law, known here as the “French law,” granting him immunity while in office. In fact, he said that passing such a law was, “out of the question.”
However, now that he has won, he has changed his mind. His reasoning is that since Israelis, voted for him to be the Prime Minister (knowing of his legal troubles), they clearly want him to serve as Prime Minister without the distraction of bring tried in court for corruption. One might argue the opposite. Since Bibi said he would not seek immunity, he gained 4 or 5 seats, giving him the victory.
This has caused outrage, not only in the opposition, but also with some on the right. One of the most respected, former Likud ministers is Benny Begin—the son of famed Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He lashed out at Netanyahu:
“I am witnessing this with great sadness—the prime minister hiding behind the shield of immunity as a Knesset member, with or without legislative changes, is a corrupt act. With this act, the prime minister intends to misuse his leadership power for personal gain, and he is dragging others down with him. The Knesset members who support the prime minister’s attempt to escape justice will be abusing their office by lending a hand to a clear act of corruption.” —Benny Begin
On a comedy show, a character playing Netanyahu was asked how he could switch positions after promising not to support the immunity law. “I have a very simple answer,” responded the Netanyahu character, “I lied.”
Lieberman won’t Cave
The second issue facing Bibi is that the longtime leader of the right-wing secular party, Israel our House, Avigdor Lieberman, has made five demands in order to join Bibi. Two of those five demands are that the IDF be free to deal with Hamas in Gaza, so that they cannot continue to terrorize Israel’s southern towns and that the IDF bill that compels the ultra-orthodox to serve in the military (like the rest of the country) not be changed.
On the first, Netanyahu has seemed loathe to take on Hamas in a real war. He seems to prefer the status quo, where they send rockets and we respond. But with the four Israeli deaths in the recent attacks and our southern residents living in trauma, Lieberman is saying enough is enough.
On the second issue, our supreme court declared it unconstitutional that the ultra-Orthodox are exempt from army service. They tasked the Knesset to pass a law rectifying this. There is a bill ready to be voted on, but with Bibi needing the 16 seats controlled by the ultra-Orthodox who oppose the law in its current form, he feels he must compromise. Thankfully, Lieberman is saying no to that and the Israeli public is behind him.
In our last election, Moshe Kahlon had ten seats in his Koolanu (All of Us) party, but is now down to just four. He was seen as someone with high integrity. Before the election, he was clear; he would not support immunity for Netanyahu, if he were indicted. However, he has now changed his tune—and says, with only four seats, he doesn’t have the clout to oppose Bibi. Or in other words, I don’t want to be responsible for new elections, where I might end up with zero seats! (As four is the minimum and he just cleared that 3.25% threshold.)
Who needs a Supreme Court?
Meanwhile, the opposition is apoplectic, saying that Netanyahu could destroy Israel’s democracy. For me, this thinking is a stretch, but I understand their concern. If Bibi is granted immunity, there is only one institution that could nix it—the Supreme Court. But now it is being suggested that Bibi and his coalition will pass a law clipping the wings of the Supreme Court. This would create a too-powerful executive branch.
Presently, the Supreme Court can overturn laws passed. But since we have no constitution, the Supreme Court’s power could be curtailed if the Knesset chose to vote that way. And that could lead to a dangerous tyranny of the majority. Without a Supreme Court to overturn laws they deem illegal, minorities would be at severe risk. Plus, with most of Bibi’s coalition partners being ultra-Orthodox, you would have a small segment of the country with way too much power.
Can he even form a Government?
Now, for this to happen, Bibi would need to form a government with an unheard of number of 60 seats. That is one seat less than the needed majority. The only way this could happen would be if 61 or more ministers voted for the government. That means at least one vote would have to come from someone outside the new government.
Netanyahu’s thinking is that even if Lieberman doesn’t join the coalition, he will surely not vote against the formation of a minority government and be blamed for new elections. But Lieberman has made it clear that he will not vote for a minority government with 20 plus orthodox.
“A government of 60 is not a right-wing government, but an ultra-Orthodox government that, instead of preserving Israel as a Jewish state, will change it into a theocracy.” —Avigdor Lieberman
So, that is where we stand. One of three things will happen by the end of May.
- Lieberman will change his mind and join Bibi.
- Bibi will form a government without Lieberman of 60 seats and Lieberman will reluctantly vote for it (though he has pledged to “vociferously object” to it).
- We are heading to new elections, less than two months after previous elections.
This has never happened!
As far as I know, this is an unprecedented situation. Certainly, since I have been aware of Israeli politics (beginning in the mid-80s), there has never been a time where a government could not get 61 seats. Normally, in such a predicament, the two largest parties would form a national unity government as Shimon Peres’ Labor did with Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud in 1984. That could still happen. First, though, Bibi has no interest in having those who would replace him so close and, second, the opposition has said that they will not sit in a government with the Prime Minister under indictment.
My best guess—get out the bumper stickers and robocalls. We are on our way to a new election.