Netanyahu trapped between Trump, allies

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs his far-right coalition against his impending indictment even more than his friendship with US President Donald Trump.

al-monitor A man walks past a Likud campaign billboard depicting US President Donald Trump shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, Feb. 4, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ammar Awad.

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coalition government, likud, israeli elections, israeli government, peace plan, israeli politics, donald trump, benjamin netanyahu

Apr 22, 2019

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can breathe a sigh of relief at the results of the Israeli elections, even if the outcome hardly shows that the right is getting stronger. On the contrary, the disappearance of the furthest-right party in the last Knesset and the diminished performance of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu indicate that the trend could be moving in the opposite direction. The right-wing bloc in the current Knesset is smaller than it was in the previous one. The parties that got stronger were the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox factions.

The referendum on Netanyahu did not end with his victory. The Likud won just 35 seats and will have to make do with 34, as Eli Dahan of the United Right was involved in an unusual maneuver that gave him the 27th spot on the Likud list. Netanyahu encouraged the unification of HaBayit HaYehudi with far-right Israel Power. To boost this union, the Likud agreed to include Dahan in its list. After the swearing in, Dahan will quit the Likud faction and re-join his United Right party. Meanwhile, Blue and White also won 35 seats, even though it seemed to come out of nowhere at the last minute.

In Netanyahu’s future coalition, made up of right-wing parties and the ultra-Orthodox, it looks like almost any potential partner can challenge Netanyahu’s narrow majority and limit his room to maneuver. Ostensibly, there is not a single party in the liberal wing of the Knesset that Netanyahu might convince to support him. The situation is very different from that enjoyed by previous governments, and certainly from Netanyahu’s last term, when the Zionist Camp was interested in forming a national unity government but was never invited.

As if that were not enough, Netanyahu’s rather transparent hope that he can thwart President Donald Trump’s peace plan by tossing out a few positive words about it and then waiting for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reject it, is more problematic than the prime minister had likely thought. The United Right would not have passed the voter threshold without a massive dose of help from Netanyahu. Nevertheless, it has already announced that even if Trump offers nothing more than autonomy to the Palestinians, it will not sit in any government that adopts such a position.

Netanyahu had not anticipated the hurdle. For him, a political entity that extends over the territory of a sovereign State of Israel and the West Bank in which Palestinians enjoy autonomy in the spirit of late Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s vision is the best possible solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and also the furthest-right solution. But those who would not be satisfied with rejecting the idea of a Palestinian state and would demand the rejection of autonomy as well would deny Netanyahu the opportunity to pay lip service to the Trump plan.

When US Secretary of State George Schultz proposed his diplomatic solution for the Middle East in 1988 and tried unsuccessfully to convince Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and the Arab leadership to accept it, he took pride in the fact that at least no one rejected it outright. Similarly, Trump is also likely to consider reluctance to reject his plan as a considerable success. Obviously, he is convinced that it will not be Netanyahu who rejects it. The prime minister cannot allow himself to get caught between Trump and Bezalel Smotrich, the most prominent member of the United Right. That is because this energetic young politician is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of impeding the legal process facing Netanyahu, if only because it fits in nicely with his larger efforts to attack the Israeli judiciary.

Netanyahu’s greatest success in the last election was ensuring that he would have over 60 Knesset members to support the legal manipulations proposed by his lawyers to spare him a trial (such as “the French law,” which would postpone any indictment until after his time in office is over, using the Knesset immunity law or another solution in that vein.) Traditionally, the ultra-Orthodox parties have supported every attack on the Supreme Court, with their rabbis warning again and again against bringing cases before that body and calling on their followers to address only Jewish courts. The right has intensified its attacks on the courts mainly because it sees them as impeding their efforts to lift restrictions on military activities in the West Bank and more importantly, from preventing the West Bank’s ultimate annexation. Even if some on the right have not adopted the ridiculous 2015 statement by Knesset member Moti Yogev that the Supreme Court should be bulldozed, that approach is gaining momentum. There is a reason outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked was told that if she ran to head the Likud, she would win. Shaked had in fact championed the right-wing war against the Supreme Court and the legal system.

On the other hand, centrist-right Kulanu barely passed the voter threshold and its head, Kahlon, has already announced that he will not continue in his position of “guardian of the court,” which he took upon himself in his last term. Similarly, Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu would be happy to attack the judicial system at every opportunity, because according to his understanding of democracy, it has gotten too powerful.

Netanyahu will make every effort to preserve his coalition opposed to the Supreme Court, whether he succeeds in bringing in Kahlon and Liberman or not. To do this successfully, he would be best served by delaying the release of the US peace plan for as long as possible, while doing whatever he can to hamper the legal process that he faces. He needs to get his immunity in place before the release of Trump’s plan. He certainly does not want a political clash between him and his coalition partners to cause them to vote against him on his own legal issues. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the release of the Trump peace plan now is a threat and not an opportunity to annex territory with the excuse that Israel has no partner for peace.

Trump has announced that he will release his peace plan in two to four months. It was later announced that the plan would be submitted immediately after the April 9 election and before a new coalition is formed, so that it can play a role in forming the kind of coalition that would accept it. The word now is that it will come after a new government is formed and after Ramadan. If that’s the case, then it will be released in early June.

Until now, there was no real difference between the positions adopted by Trump and Netanyahu. But obviously once the peace plan is published, they will have a conflict of interest. Trump will want his plan to succeed, while Netanyahu will want it to fail so that his coalition does not disintegrate. Even if Netanyahu is able to ensure that he will not be brought to trial, he will still want to preserve his coalition. So if the Blue and White party won’t join him to implement the Trump plan, Netanyahu will have a hard time avoiding a clash with Trump, who believes that only he can resolve the most difficult conflict in the world.

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