Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political survival became an almost impossible mission this past week. It is worth remembering that Netanyahu is the Tom Cruise of Israeli politics, specializing in cracking the uncrackable. Nonetheless, he has never faced this kind of challenge. His failure to form a government after his Likud party’s sweeping victory in the April 9 elections and his ensuing decision to call new elections is a precedent that could send him sliding down a slippery slope.
For Netanyahu to form a right-wing government following the newly set Sept. 17 elections, the second in less than six months, his Likud party will have to win enough votes to equal 40 Knesset seats, five seats more than it garnered in April. At the same time, the deadline is looming for his pre-indictment hearing by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, and there are no indications the clock will stop ticking. Mandelblit is highly unlikely to agree to yet another delay of the Oct. 2 hearing — originally planned for July 10 — designed to allow Netanyahu to defend himself against the attorney general’s declared intention to indict him on charges of corruption. This means that two weeks after the fall elections, Netanyahu will face his crucial hearing, to be followed by Mandelblit's final decision. This all looks like the beginning of the end for him.
The one bright spot for Netanyahu is his success in making 74 Knesset members just elected in April commit mass political suicide on live television May 29 when they voted, at his bidding, to dissolve the Knesset a month after being sworn in. They agreed to give up what might have been their life’s dream, which they may not be able to fulfill again in September, only to enable Netanyahu to flee from justice. In other words, while Netanyahu has not lost his magic touch, the fear he inspires in all the politicians on the Israeli right remains paralyzing. Seasoned, popular politicians such as Knesset members Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan, Gideon Saar and Speaker Yuli Edelstein all understand the absurd situation into which Netanyahu has cast the Likud, yet are unable to bring themselves to oppose him.
Netanyahu’s survival plan has three stages, each particularly hard. He has to lead the Likud to a 40-seat election victory. He then has to form a 61-seat majority coalition government, without Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman, his former political ally-turned enemy No. 1 since he doomed the prospects of Netanyahu’s attempts to form his fifth government this week. Finally, he must put together a government at record speed and convince his new, fragile coalition to immediately adopt two highly controversial laws that would protect him from criminal prosecution. One law would guarantee him immunity; the other would curb the powers of the Supreme Court to intervene in Knesset legislation. Bookies would give Netanyahu’s success of pulling off these feats a thousand-to-one odds. On the other hand, after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu’s odds of winning the elections were even worse — yet he did.
Netanyahu plans to allocate at least 15 million Israeli shekels ($4 million) of the Likud’s abundant resources to destroy Liberman by storming and winning over his largely Russian-speaking constituency of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. For now, this seems a tough task. The public perception of Liberman as a principled politician who stood up to the ultra-Orthodox parties and refused to back down from his insistence that their followers serve in the army won him a surge in the polls on May 30 that almost doubled the current five Knesset seats of his Yisrael Beitenu party to nine. Netanyahu is in a bind: If he crushes Liberman, his only potential government partners after Sept. 17 will be the ultra-Orthodox, right-wing and radical right parties. He must ensure that the ultra-Orthodox maintain their current 16-seat strength and even expand it, and he needs the United Right party to garner the equivalent of at least five Knesset seats — the same number as now. Together this would provide him a slim majority of 61 of 120 Knesset seats with which to form the government he needs for his political survival.
Even if this all pans out, Netanyahu would be wrong in thinking he is home free. His hearing will take place Oct. 2. Mandelblit has already rejected any further delays and said he would make his final decision on whether to indict relatively fast. There will be no more foot-dragging over months and years. Mandelblit knows every scintilla of evidence in the three voluminous Netanyahu corruption cases. He will have to decide whether Netanyahu’s legal team had presented him with any legal aspects or angles on Oct. 2 that he had not considered before. He will try hard to form his final decision before State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan, who has been closely shepherding the Netanyahu files, finishes his term in mid-December. Mandelblit’s chances of making this deadline appear good.
The elections will thus signal the start of a dramatic obstacle race between Mandelblit’s offices in East Jerusalem and Netanyahu's office in the city’s west. Netanyahu will have to form a coalition at lightning speed while preparing for his Oct. 2 hearing, get it sworn in by the end of October or early November at the latest, and launch a panicked legislation blitz in order to disarm the country’s top court and bring Israel’s legal system crashing down, imploding on itself.
There is no guarantee Netanyahu can mobilize the Knesset support required for such legislation. Right-wing politicians such as former Minister Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who appear set for a comeback in September after losing the vote in April, are unlikely to support such draconian initiatives. More than one Likud lawmaker swore up and down this past week that they would never vote in favor. Assuming Netanyahu’s coalition rests on a very slim majority of 61 or 62 legislators, even one deserter could doom this fragile sand castle. These scenarios do not take into account the widespread public protest that has already started to emerge in light of Netanyahu’s clear intentions.
As an aside, it is hard to ignore an anecdote regarding Netanyahu’s contacts with what remains of the Labor party, whose April election showing brought it down from 24 to an all-time low of six seats. Desperate to mobilize sufficient Knesset support to form his coalition government prior to the May 29 deadline set by law, Netanyahu tried to tempt Labor Chair Avi Gabbay to join him. Among other enticements, he reportedly promised Gabbay to halt his planned legislation reining in the Supreme Court, which would also undermine his immunity legislation. The move eventually failed, but the question of what Netanyahu had planned to do if Gabbay had accepted his proposal remains unanswered. How would he have extricated himself from his legal woes without protective legislation and with a Supreme Court that could overrule any immunity granted him by his Knesset supporters? For now, the question will remain unanswered.