Over four stalemated elections in the past two years, Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to hold on to a master politician’s one crucial asset — the air of inevitable victory.
But with two days before the clock runs out on his attempt to corral together a coalition after a deadlocked March poll, Israel’s longest serving prime minister suddenly appears cornered.
His rightwing alliance is two seats short of a 61-seat majority in the Knesset and three weeks of public cajoling, back room bargaining and parliamentary machinations have failed to produce a single defection to the five-time premier’s camp.
If he fails, the president will after May 4 appoint an opposition leader — most likely Yair Lapid, a former television presenter and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party — to try to form a coalition. A splintered opposition united only by the desire to unseat Netanyahu appears to be rallying together to cobble together a minority government, tentatively supported by an Islamist party modelled on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel’s liberal media is already talking about the political demise of the most influential leader the Jewish state has seen since founding president David Ben-Gurion. “Have you ever seen vultures in Jerusalem?” a Likud central committee insider joked in a text message to the FT. They’re circling the prime minister’s residence, “Balfour House right now.”
But while Netanyahu’s options have slimmed, he remains a master strategist, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a veteran pollster. “Part of the reason why he always emerges victorious, [is] because he fights every battle, before the elections and after the elections, like it’s a battle for life or death,” she said. “Like a chess player, he’s always thought a few steps ahead of everybody else, but now, the other players are catching up to him.”
In a sign of what some see as his desperation, Netanyahu’s camp has leaked options such as a Putin-style presidency, where he would overshadow a temporary loyalist in a rotating prime ministership, while remaining in the official residence. (“The Medvedev Solution” said the Times of Israel, referring to the erstwhile Russian prime minister). One candidate is Benny Gantz, who Netanyahu last year persuaded to join a coalition government but headed to the polls before Gantz had his turn as prime minister. Gantz has reportedly declined.
But while Netanyahu seems to have stalled, it is still unclear if the opposition’s dislike of the premier is enough to overcome their differences.
In marathon talks they have disagreed so far on nearly every issue — the size of the cabinet, which of them would have first-go in a rotating prime ministership, how to entice away Netanyahu’s ultra-orthodox allies from the Likud camp and even which one of them would officially receive the mandate to form a coalition after May 4.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing them is one that has already defeated Netanyahu. Poised at the centre of Israel’s electoral deadlock is Ra’am, a breakaway faction of five Arab members of parliament that has ended decades of tradition by signalling it will consider backing a Zionist government.
In exchange, Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas has laid down two simple ground rules — his party will be treated with respect and the government it backs will provide more funding for schools, hospitals and police in Arab-dominated northern Israel. “Anyone who gives me recognition and legitimacy, joins hands with me and asks me what I want for Arab society — I will go with him,” he said last week.
Netanyahu’s rightwing camp includes the openly anti-Arab Religious Zionists. They have balked at the prospect of co-operating with Ra’am to keep Netanyahu in power, calling Abbas’ voters supporters of terrorism.
Lapid and Naftali Bennett, one-time Netanyahu chief of staff, current prime ministerial hopeful and the leader of Yamina, a hard-right, pro-settlements party, have not fallen out with Abbas yet. But while they have met him to discuss options for a minority government, the rightwing members of their parties have yet to be convinced.
“Netanyahu is in the weakest position in his career, but it doesn’t mean that he isn’t able to somehow reach an acceptable agreement that works for him,” said Abraham Diskin, a professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “People are willing to try out all sorts of alternatives, because the prospect of fifth elections are so gloomy.”
Hanging over the drama is Netanyahu’s trial for corruption, which will take months to reach a verdict and years before any appeals are exhausted. Netanyahu calls the trial a witch-hunt, but daily hearings add details to allegations that he accepted expensive gifts from wealthy friends and sought to reward a newspaper publisher for positive coverage with regulatory favours. He has denied all allegations.
In a sign of how high the stakes are, Netanyahu last week briefly over-ruled the attorney general to push through the appointment of a loyalist as justice minister in the interim government he currently heads. He performed an about-turn after the high court upheld the attorney general’s opinion.
The incident underscored the stress continuous elections and the battle to hold on to power have placed on Israeli institutions, said President Reuven Rivlin. “For some time now, we have been living with the illusion of constitutional functionality between one election campaign and the next, but it appears that . . . another fence collapsed,” said Rivlin.