I confess I’m stunned. I’ve told you again and again that the iron law of 21st century Israeli politics is that Netanyahu always wins. The election he’s finally going to lose, the coalition he’s never going to hold together – fuggedaboutit, he always figures it out; he always threads the needle. Yet, only a couple hours ago, he finally didn’t. Netanyahu managed what seemed like a come from behind election victory on April 9th of this year. But he turned out not to be able to assemble a government. He got together 60 Knesset members. But he needed 61. He held out dissolving the Knesset and holding new elections as a doomsday cudgel to get everyone in line. But it didn’t work. Now the country will return to the second election in only a few months. It is the first time in Israeli history that an election has failed to produce a government.
Let me explain what happened.
On its face, Netanyahu was unable to bring two competing coalition partners into the same government. Two religious parties with a total of 16 seats wanted protection and expansion of their the privileges and exemptions of their communities (a perennial issue in Israeli politics). Avigdor Liberman, who leads a rightist but secularist party focused on Russian immigrants wouldn’t agree to serve in a government that acceded to those demands. (He said several times he wanted a Jewish state but not an halachic state, a reference to Jewish religious law.) These are the kinds of deep issues of principle that pretty much always find a way to get resolved. But in this case it didn’t get resolved. Netanyahu has pilloried Liberman for torpedoing a rightwing government, being driven by revenge (the two have a history), anger, spite, ambition, etc.
But I suspect the deeper issue here is that players on both sides sensed the stench of political death about Netanyahu and because of that weren’t willing to make big or uncomfortable concessions to get on what seemed like a sinking ship. Netanyahu’s impending indictment hung over all of this, as it did over the final weeks of the Spring election.
Particularly in the final days of the coalition negotiations it became clear that the one policy that was absolutely foundational for his next government was a law shielding him from prosecution. Netanyahu only needed one more seat to form his government. In the final day he made various desperate plays to bring in one or more Labor party members with promises of a major ministry and, apparently, big concessions to undo various laws that have pulled the country even further to the right in recent years. Even Labor party leader Avi Gabbay, now thoroughly discredited and very likely to be pushed aside, refused him.
One issue in the background that could play an important role in the next months. Benny Gantz, head of Blue and White, the one-off party formed around him and a group of other centrist ex-generals (three former heads of the IDF) and the Yesh Atid party, has made clear that he would be open to leading a national unity government with Likud – but not with Netanyahu, certainly not before he faces the charges against him. I think he even said he’d consider joining a national unity government led by Likud, just as long as Netanyahu isn’t part of it. This isn’t a matter of Likud being replaced by Labor. There’s no big push for a two-state solution in offing. It’s not hard to imagine at least many Likud MKs being able to serve happily enough in the kind of unity government Gantz would run. This could make the indispensable Netanyahu suddenly seem rather more dispensable.
Strength and weakness both build on themselves. The question now is what sort of catalytic or disruptive effect this debacle will have on the upcoming election. It’s entirely possible that everyone runs again, the final distribution of seats makes a coalition easier for Netanyahu to cobble together and that’s that. It doesn’t even require some major shift in the mood of the country. There’s so much strategic voting in these elections that any number of rethinks about why this election failed could lead to a significantly different distribution of seats. Let’s not set aside the iron law: Netanyahu always wins. He really hasn’t been defeated yet. Humiliated at some level, yes and a very damaging defeat. But we could easily end up with another Netanyahu government by the fall.
But Netanyahu’s unbeatability, his ability to wrangle coalitions, win elections, evade indictments is half his brand. It’s hard for me to see how this dramatic setback doesn’t shake that hold on the factions he’s been able to lead over the last decade. This is especially so since, as I said, that sense of Netanyahu’s growing weakness and vulnerability was the real driver behind his failure to put this coalition together. At the end of the day, in the final desperate hours he was ready to toss almost everything aside for the one thing he really wanted: immunity from prosecution. This feels like the kind of fragmenting weakness that builds on itself.