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Israel Heading Toward Political Crisis

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman sit in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, May 23, 2016.

“This is a night of a marvelous victory! Marvelous!” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu triumphantly declared after hearing the election results. That was 49 days ago, and Netanyahu appeared securely positioned to — come July — become the longest serving prime minister in the Jewish state's history.

However, early Tuesday, in the second of four readings, the Knesset voted 66 to 44 to order a new round of elections. Netanyahu sought the vote as he has failed to form a coalition and his deadline is Wednesday.

What happened?

Netanyahu’s Likud party and his “natural allies” — the right wing and ultra-orthodox parties — command 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Each faction, but one, can deny him the 61 votes he needs to win the Knesset’s confidence. But two of those factions, the ultra-orthodox Yahadut Hatorah and the secular Israel Beitenu, are led by dominant figures.

Their clash is over a plan to reduce the number of rabbinical students who get automatic, renewable, draft deferments. Some 50,000 Israelis learn in those institutions and the rabbis see to them.

Israel Beitenu’s leader, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, insists on a passing a law to gradually reduce the number of deferments. “We are not talking of a right-wing government, but a government of net halacha [Jewish religious law] and we are definitely no partners to forming a government of halacha,” he said Monday. If Liberman votes against the confidence motion, Netanyahu will not win the Knesset’s confidence.

New elections may not be bad for the right- wing, which is under-represented in the Knesset. More than a quarter of a million votes went down the drain, in April, when two right-wing lists failed to pass the threshold. That is tantamount to some seven mandates and if there are new elections soon, the factions that proved their survivability could gain more power.

Netanyahu’s rush to call for new elections seems to be a move to deny President Reuven Rivlin the opportunity of giving another member of Knesset a chance to form a coalition. Netanyahu feared Rivlin, who is no fan of the prime minister, would ask former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, also of the Likud, to try his hand. There are other options and once a new elections bill turns into law, the president’s hands are tied.

Another option could be former military Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz, who leads the Blue-White faction and like the Likud, has 35 mandates. Blue-White can hardly expect support from the ultra-orthodox or right-wing parties but made a proposal: “If someone else would head the Likud, anyone but Netanyahu, a national unity government could be formed,” Blue-White’s Yair Lapid, a former finance minister, said. Gantz indicated as much. “Netanyahu’s insistence on preserving his seat at all costs is the main and only barrier to forming a national agreement party,” he said.

FILE - Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, prepares to deliver a speech in Ramat Gan, Israel, April 9. 2019.
FILE - Retired Israeli general Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, prepares to deliver a speech in Ramat Gan, Israel, April 9. 2019.

The Likud and Blue-White would then have a majority, would not need more partners, and would follow a center-right, more moderate policy.

Which boils the issue down to Netanyahu. He will be charged with bribery and breach of trust unless he convinces the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, to drop the accusations. The hearing is scheduled for October.

Netanyahu insists the accusations are baseless and he will disprove them in the hearing. But he seems to be doing his best to postpone a hearing and has argued voters chose him despite all the bad news.

A first class campaigner, he persuaded many Israelis that he and his family are victims of persecution. Political science professor Avraham Diskin told VOA that Netanyahu has become “a symbol to Likud voters and members of Knesset, of a pursuit of the Right.” That is why his faction backs him, Diskin suggested.

Netanyahu’s detractors refer to the draft charge sheets, leaked evidence, the fact that the chief of police when he was investigated and the attorney general are right-wingers whom Netanyahu had hand-picked.

To secure his freedom, Netanyahu seeks parliamentary immunity and is likely to get it, especially if he is prime minister.

The High Court of Justice can nullify his immunity and there is a Likud move to amend the law so the Knesset can override a High Court of Justice decision. Netanyahu’s coalition partners support the change which infuriates the opposition, lawyers, and judges who warn against weakening the judiciary that protects people’s rights.