Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to go for new elections rather than give his rival a shot at forming the coalition government he failed to cobble together.
He’s gambling that a more favorable outcome in the September vote will help break the impasse. Political maneuvering is already in progress, but three and a half months is a long time in politics and there could be unexpected developments for the veteran right-wing leader known in Israel as “The Magician”.
Here are six wildcards that could decide whether Netanyahu’s bet pays off:
Polls conducted before Netanyahu failed to form his fifth government on Wednesday suggest there will be no tectonic shifts in voting patterns come Sept. 17. If anything, they gave the nationalist-right bloc he’s led for much of the past decade a few more parliamentary seats than in the April 9 vote. With a similar election outcome, Bibi, as Netanyahu is known, will likely have to turn to many of the same politicians to build a coalition and that might mean more deadlock, while the countdown is underway to a potential indictment for corruption.
“Not enough time has passed for people to change their minds,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute research center.
Even before the Knesset voted to disband Wednesday night, right-wing parties were already talking to each other about new alliances, so there are likely to be fewer factions to split the vote, and fewer lost votes for parties that don’t pass the threshold to enter the legislature. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu has already teamed up with Netanyahu’s Likud, and the prime minister’s party is already talking about trying to bring popular Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in as a vote-getter.
That could yet be a game-changer in the next election, but is balanced against the possibility that Netanyahu has alienated some moderate right-wing voters with his efforts to legislate immunity for himself and block President Reuven Rivlin from anointing another person to try to form a government.
“I think it is a very big problem the way that Netanyahu manipulates Israeli laws,” said Gayil Talshir, a senior political science lecturer at Hebrew University. “I think it might be the first time he pays a price in the next elections.”
Netanyahu had counted on a strong governing coalition to pass legislation that would shield him from prosecution on corruption charges as long as he’s in office. New elections will make it tough for him to get those protections in place before Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit decides whether to go through with his plan to indict the prime minister for bribery and fraud.
Netanyahu has a court hearing in October to try to persuade Mandelblit to drop the case, though with new elections called he may ask for another deferral. It’s possible some lawmakers would balk at sitting with him in a government if he’s indicted, meaning the next coalition talks could be be even more complicated if he again gets the nod to form a government.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s pool of possible coalition partners is shrinking. Because of his legal predicament, the center-left has said it won’t consider a partnership. And then there’s Avigdor Liberman, the man whose insistence on raising the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers sent coalition talks crashing.
On the face of it, the nationalist Liberman would seem a natural Netanyahu ally, and he has been in the past. But there’s bad blood between the two men, and many in Netanyahu’s Likud see his uncompromising position on the draft as cover for a personal vendetta. Though not impossible, Netanyahu would be hard-pressed to team up with Liberman after personally holding “the ambitions of one man” responsible for his coalition fail.
Will the military draft bill, which was the nominal reason for Netanyahu’s humiliating defeat, be a wedge issue next time too? Secular and religious Zionist circles resent the benefits given to ultra-Orthodox parties in exchange for joining coalitions: widespread exemptions to military service and ample budgets for men who shun work in favor of religious study. The debate has has been going on for years and the rancor isn’t going away. If anything, it’s now at the top of the political agenda.
Polls show them slightly losing strength rather than gaining steam. For retired general Benny Gantz or another challenger to put together a cabinet, the public would have to swallow the notion of a minority government relying on the support of Arab parties that aren’t officially part of the coalition. That only happened once in Israel’s history, and that was over the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians. It isn’t likely to happen this time.