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Can doing nothing bring down Netanyahu?

With the days allotted by law for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government soon to expire, some of his potential partners have adopted a tactic that could mean his political end..
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office May 12, 2019.  Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS - RC1CF7A3A580

What appeared to be a simple and quick process of forming a new Israeli government is proving to be a bit more complicated.

After the election for the 21st Knesset on April 9, it looked like the formation of a government would be a non-issue and that the new government would constitute a continuation, in one form or another, of the outgoing government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, every party that participated in the outgoing coalition recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that he charge Netanyahu with forming the next government, and none of the opposition parties expressed an interest in joining Netanyahu’s right-wing camp. The Likud didn’t even invite the latter for talks for the sake of appearance, as occurred many times in the past. It seemed that no one had the time; a new government had to be formed quickly and get to work. Despite Netanyahu’s suspicion that Rivlin would find a way to charge someone else in the Likud with forming the government, the president didn’t hesitate and gave the experienced prime minister the job for the fifth time.

Netanyahu exhausted the 28 days the law grants him for the task and is now in the midst of the two additional weeks he was granted. If at the end of the 42 days in total Netanyahu has not managed to form a governing coalition, he will be prevented by law from forming the government. Even if he finds a majority on the 43rd day, the president would have to give the task to someone else.

The current delay is not because of ideological divisions, although naturally there are various shades and certain differences between the potential partners. For example, Yisrael Beitenu is the most assertive about not enlisting the ultra-Orthodox into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and in demanding an iron fist toward Hamas in Gaza. The United Right wants to change the legal system more than the Likud does, and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu is concerned about budgetary promiscuity. Yet, they are all right wing and prefer the diplomatic status quo to talks with the PLO on a peace deal. They all would also be glad to restrain the High Court with the populist view that Knesset members are elected by the people while the justices are appointed by a small committee, and thus in disputes between the branches of government, the last word should not be that of the legal branch.

The desire to restrict the High Court is most important to Netanyahu, for whom avoiding a corruption trial sits atop his priorities, as he is expected to be indicted soon, pending a hearing. In this it seems that Netanyahu has the support of all his future partners, including for legislation that would curtail law enforcement and free him from the unpleasant requirement of appearing in court before judges. After all, in his view, the public did not elect them to judge him.

If it were so simple, however, a new Netanyahu government would already have been formed. It could well be that this is indeed happening at this very hour, but the fact is that the situation is more complicated and different from any other effort to form a government in Israel in the past 71 years.

Netanyahu is an excellent campaigner. The Likud needed him to avoid losing the election to Blue and White, led by three former IDF chiefs of staff who arrived for battle fresh, practical and promising. The religious and right-wing parties knew well that their voters wanted Netanyahu to be the next prime minister, so they promised, even before the election, that they would only join a government headed by him. Aryeh Deri, interior minister and Shas leader who spent several years in jail on bribery charges, even ran an election ad with his photo alongside Netanyahu’s to indicate that support for Shas would not detract from Netanyahu’s chances of serving as prime minister. Yet, the moment the election concluded, the picture changed. Netanyahu went from being an asset to a liability.

Netanyahu will either drag his friends along in the Likud and other parties to pass very problematic personal and retroactive legislation to spare him from trial, staining them with cooperation in an antidemocratic effort, or he will forgo such maneuvering and stand trial like any other Israeli citizen. It’s clear that all of his thoughts will be dedicated to one thing only: self-preservation.

There is more. A trial could last a long time, and in the process, Netanyahu could decide to resign. His fifth government would thus be short-lived and could burn anyone who had rushed to support it.

At this stage, with Netanyahu's 42 days to form a government nearing their end, several of his potential partners are toying with a simple move that could mean his political end: doing nothing. That is, by failing to move forward in the coalition negotiations with Netanyahu's representatives or halting them — as Avigdor Liberman has done in presenting five demands to the Likud and announcing that he does not intend to participate in any negotiations until the demands are met — they would lead Rivlin to charge someone else with forming the government in a few days. 

Not for nothing does Netanyahu fear Gideon Saar, the senior Likud member lying in wait for him around the corner. Netanyahu had feared that Rivlin might prefer Saar for the first round at government formation, but this was not really expected to happen and indeed it did not. If Netanyahu fails, it could well be that for the second round after consultations with Knesset members, Rivlin might conclude that Blue and White — which did not reject joining the Likud in a government led by someone other than Netanyahu, would agree to join a government headed by Saar — and those right-wing parties that rejected joining Netanyahu in forming a narrow government would also participate in such a unity government.

Saar raised the torch of rebellion on May 16, when he strongly objected to a change to the law on immunity for Knesset members. On foreign diplomacy and the Palestinians, Saar has until now outflanked Netanyahu to the right, but he might discover that things look different from the vantage point of being prime minister. 

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