Israeli politics at its lowest ebb thanks to Netanyahu
Whether you love or loathe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last week’s decision by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to indict him on allegations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust might nevertheless present you with mixed emotions. It is a case of the proverb “rejoice not when thine enemy falleth” being most appropriate. Because, although the combination of Netanyahu’s failure to win two consecutive elections and his indictment on very serious corruption allegations might bring his abysmal tenure to an end — and sooner rather than later — it leaves Israel’s political system and society at their lowest ebb for a very long time; leaderless and directionless.
It would be artificial and futile to decouple the failure to form a coalition government after three attempts over the last half-year from the corruption allegations against Netanyahu. It is not farfetched to envisage a coalition of some sort being formed, almost instantly, if the current prime minister should do the decent thing and vacate the political scene in favor of concentrating on clearing his name in the courts. He should do this without dragging the country through the mud because Israel needs a fulltime leader at the helm of one of the most complex political jobs on Earth. At the end of the day, the failure of both the leader of the Blue and White alliance Benny Gantz and Netanyahu before him to form a coalition has left the country in the hands of an interim government led by a prime minister who, if convicted, might serve many years behind bars.
Admittedly, Netanyahu’s legal complications are not the only obstacle to forming a new government. First and foremost, it has been a numbers game in which all attempts to reach the key quota of 61 MKs who would support a government, or at least not oppose it, have ended in failure. Israel’s politicians are too often accused of opportunism and a lack of political and moral backbone, but in recent months they have stuck to their election promises — though it could be argued that this has been more a matter of expecting delayed self-serving benefits than immediate gratification. One could praise both Blue and White and the Labor Party for sticking to their promises and refusing to join a government that would include Netanyahu, or to accept a rotating premiership should Netanyahu be indicted.
Netanyahu’s indictment has made possible a challenge to his leadership of Likud, but it may have come too late.
However, for Netanyahu the game plan has, from the outset, been one of ensuring that he stays in power even if indicted and to pass a bill that would prevent him from being prosecuted as long as he was serving in public office. But this strategy undermined his prospects of sharing power with Blue and White, while the right-wing bloc of 55 MKs who dug in their heels in support of him was just not big enough. A right-wing coalition needed the support of the eight MKs of Yisrael Beiteinu, the party led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has become a central figure in this Shakespearean tragedy of a political drama. It was his resignation from the government a year ago that hastened an early election. And, after the April vote, he insisted on reducing the influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties on the country’s daily life and character as a condition of joining the government. Then, following the September elections, his insistence on participating only in a government comprised of Likud and Blue and White, without the ultra-Orthodox parties or the Arab Joint List, made forming a government almost impossible. Lieberman also ruled out, in line with his revolting language against the Palestinians, a minority government led by Gantz, who has the support of the Joint List.
Lieberman is a shrewd, sinister and dangerous politician who is almost impossible to read. What motivates him beyond his unchecked lust for power; how much of his stance is ideological; and to what extent it is sheer opportunism mixed with a strong desire to hasten Netanyahu’s demise and in the process position himself as a most powerful figure in any future government are difficult questions to answer. Lieberman’s most recent proposal that the prime minister be directly elected is a sign of his unchecked ambition to top Israel’s political pyramid; while he is prepared to excoriate just about anybody, including his former idol Netanyahu, if he thinks this would gain him more supporters.
Gantz’s predictable failure to form a government threw the dice back to the Knesset, and it is now in MKs’ hands to appoint someone among them to perform the miracle of assembling a coalition — but this must be within 21 days, about a third of which have already passed. Netanyahu’s indictment has made possible a challenge to his leadership of Likud, but it may have come too late for this or for a coalition government — especially one in which Netanyahu plays no part — to be successfully negotiated in just two weeks.
Given Netanyahu’s indictment, his refusal to depart without kicking and screaming foul play, the unusual rigidity of the political blocs, and the short time until the law requires the Knesset to be dissolved, the most likely scenario is a third election in less than 12 months, probably next March. If by then Netanyahu should still be in the running, we shall probably see the most vicious election campaign ever, one in which he sinks to new lows of incitement against anyone who stands in his way. Should he be out of the picture, maybe, just maybe, a slow and painful process of national healing might start, and with it a more rational political debate. But I’m not so sure that this is anything more than wishful thinking.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg