Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was floating a trial balloon or really meant to hold primaries for the leadership of his Likud party, the scenario of a third round of Israeli elections appears inevitable. Netanyahu refuses to concede that he is unable to form a government and will not allow any other Likud lawmaker to try his hand, as the law allows. The reason is clear: On Oct. 2, the attorney general started hearing Netanyahu’s legal team arguing against his indictment on three corruption charges; if he has any chance of avoiding criminal prosecution, he must hold tight to his seat. As prime minister, he could push forward legislation that would offer him immunity.
On Oct. 3, word was leaked to reporters that the Likud central committee would convene next week to approve snap primaries for the party’s leadership and prime ministerial candidate. Shortly after, Netanyahu’s main party rival, Gideon Saar, tweeted, “I’m ready” — meaning prepared to challenge Netanyahu, who is under a cloud of suspicion. Hours later, senior Likud members claimed it was all an evasive tactic designed to expose Saar’s true face as a subversive.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu continues to tighten his hold over the right-wing bloc of parties that have committed their full support for him to form the country’s next government. By locking in the support of the 55 elected lawmakers of the Likud, the right-wing Yamina alliance and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Yahadut HaTorah parties, Netanyahu seeks to prevent his rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, from obtaining sufficient Knesset support to form the next government. With this tactic, Netanyahu is essentially leading his bloc and the citizens of Israel to a third election within less than a year.
How another election would serve Israelis and break the political deadlock is unclear. However, Netanyahu’s conduct since learning the results of the September elections makes it abundantly clear that with his bag of survival tricks, Israel’s political magician has managed to weaken and perhaps even dismantle his own conservative camp. This camp paved Netanyahu’s way to the prime minister’s office through successive elections since 2009, but he had no qualms about poaching his partners’ voters in the latest election campaign and imposing on them various partnerships only to subsequently dismantle and crush them.
These tricks, which gained Netanyahu and his Likud a reputation of political brilliance over the years, could turn out to be a fatal mistake if new elections are held in the coming months.
Ahead of the April 2019 elections, right-wing leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked split off from the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party they headed to form the New Right party. A horrified Netanyahu, fearing the split would result in a loss of votes for the right, forced HaBayit HaYehudi to include the followers of racist, uber-rightist Rabbi Meir Kahane on its list of candidates for the 21st Knesset. With his unusual move as a party leader pressuring another party to integrate radical forces that taint its reputation, Netanyahu gave a stamp of approval to a pariah grouping (Otzma Yehudit) in hopes that its supporters would shore up the power of the right. He promised HaBayit HaYehudi untold riches in return, including the inclusion of one of its people — Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan — on the Likud’s list of Knesset candidates.
Ahead of the September elections, Netanyahu recalibrated his course on the advice of President Donald Trump’s strategic consultant and pollster John McLaughlin, calling on right-wing voters not to support the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, which had decided to run on a separate ticket and not as part of HaBayit HaYehudi. Netanyahu giveth and immediately taketh, in one fell swoop. Kahane’s followers garnered a mere 1.88% of the vote, far from the 3.25% threshold its candidates needed to be elected to the Knesset, and they are unlikely to reach that goal in the next election.
At the same time, apparently under pressure from his wife Sara whose hostility toward former Justice Minister Shaked is well known, Netanyahu refused to open the doors of the Likud to the popular politician. Eventually, Shaked was appointed to head an alliance of right-wing parties, Yamina, but failed to deliver the goods, garnering only seven Knesset seats for the grouping. Once the results were in, reports emerged that Yamina was splintering into separate factions.
Throughout the latest election campaign, Netanyahu toyed with Yamina, humiliating its leaders, imposing on them various partnerships and splits. Strangely, they went along with all his demands and moves, even at the cost of their independence and political power. After the Sept. 17 election, it turned out that even residents of the village of Naveh, the home of HaBayit HaYehudi leader and Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz who had ceded his leadership of the right-wing bloc in Shaked’s favor, had not voted for him. Whereas 89% of the voters in Naveh voted for Peretz’s right-wing bloc in April, in September, his Yamina list only got 36% of the votes. Naveh’s religiously observant voters apparently did not find Shaked, a secular resident of Tel Aviv, a suitable Knesset representative. Most of their votes went to ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah.
In all, these machinations resulted in a weaker right-wing bloc, which is unable to form a government. Netanyahu got nothing out of these maneuvers and poaching. The pro-settlement parties have never appeared more weak, insipid and lackluster, and who knows how they will fare in the third round awaiting Israelis around the corner. The various right-wing factions are split, weak, and lacking consensual leadership and clear direction. The imposed partnership forced in the last election on Rafi Peretz, Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett and Bezalel Smotrich was clearly a bad match.
With the chair of the small Zehut party, Moshe Feiglin, Netanyahu took a simple, effortless tack. He promised the libertarian candidate a position in his future government and persuaded him to bow out of the race. Feiglin did not seem to have drawn votes for the Likud that might have otherwise gone to his party, and he is unlikely to run on a separate ticket in the future. In return for the promise of a ministerial appointment, he abandoned his cause and was left with nothing in hand. He is unlikely to be made a minister, and his claim to fame as the standard-bearer of cannabis legalization was also tarnished when he disappointed his fans.
Thus, one after the other, Netanyahu has enfeebled the components of the right that provided him with the power to rule for over a decade. In the April elections, the combined right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties received the equivalent of 60 Knesset seats out of 120. In September, they dropped to 55. This bloc includes parties that are not strictly right wing by definition (the ultra-Orthodox), but they hooked up with Netanyahu for only one reason. Netanyahu promises to meet all their demands including generous budgets, religious coercion laws, exemption from military service for yeshiva students whose numbers are constantly growing and more.
Netanyahu, the magician who lets nothing stand in his way, seems to have performed one political trick too many. He succeeded in weakening the camp that stood by him so far but is unlikely to bring him the victory he craves in the next round.