Israel Headed For New Elections As Netanyahu Fails To Form Government

Despite appearing to have emerged from April's election as the winner, Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a government. This means that Israel will have to hold new elections in September.

It was just under two months ago that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party-led coalition appeared to have easily won Israel’s parliamentary elections. In the time since then, as is typical for Israeli politics, Netanyahu has been in negotiations with the smaller parties in the Knesset in an effort to form the coalition he needs to govern. In the past, this has been a task that Netanyahu has been able to complete even though it has often taken as long as six weeks to do so. This time around, though, Netanyahu was unable to form a government, meaning that Israel is headed for another round of elections in September:

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a stunning defeat on Thursday after he failed to meet a midnight deadline to form a new government, casting a cloud over his future as prime minister and thrusting Israel into the chaos of a new election.

Just seven weeks ago, when Mr. Netanyahu basked in a postelection “night of tremendous victory,” he seemed invincible, confident that he would serve a fourth consecutive term and a fifth overall. Despite a looming indictment on corruption charges, he appeared set to surpass the nation’s founding leader, David Ben Gurion, as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

But after weeks of negotiations, his plans ran aground on a power struggle between two blocs of his potential right-wing coalition — the secular ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox factions — who refused to compromise on proposed legislation on military service.

The dream collapsed in a breathtaking display of political maneuvering in recent days, as Mr. Netanyahu, long nicknamed “the magician” for the political wizardry that has kept him in office continuously for the past decade, desperately tried to salvage his fortunes.

With his conservative Likud party claiming it had locked down 60 seats, just one shy of a majority, he sought out new coalition partners and potential defectors from opposition parties. He even approached Labor, the center-left stalwart, which rebuffed his advance.

At the same time, his party advanced a fallback bill to dissolve Parliament and go to new elections.

That bill passed shortly after midnight on Thursday, with Parliament voting to disperse itself just a month after it was sworn in, with 74 votes in favor and 45 against. One member was absent.

Israelis will return to the ballot box in elections tentatively set for Sept. 17, the first time in the country’s history that it has been forced to hold a new national election because of the failure to form a government after the previous election.

Immediately after the parliamentary vote, Mr. Netanyahu angrily blamed Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the ultranationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, for thwarting a right-wing coalition.

Mr. Lieberman, whose five seats made him a kingmaker, said he supported Mr. Netanyahu but had refused to compromise with religious parties on a law that would end the wholesale exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from the military draft.

Mr. Netanyahu said that position was a ruse.

“Lieberman never intended to reach an agreement,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

“He clearly wanted to shoot down this government and he is doing so because he reckons he will receive a few more votes.”

“He won’t succeed,” Mr. Netanyahu added, before hurling the ultimate insult: “Avigdor Lieberman is now part of the left.”

Mr. Lieberman, for his part, accused Mr. Netanyahu of “capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox.” Repeating a mantra of recent days, he added, “We are natural partners for a right-wing government but not for a government based on Jewish law.”

Because of Israel’s multi-party system, it isn’t unusual for it to take weeks for the head of the party deemed to have won the weeks to form a government. In 2015, for example, Netanyahu and his party appeared to have won the election that took place in mid-March, but the process of forming a government proved to be as difficult then as it was this time around. As the deadline approached, there were some concerns that he would be unable to do so. In the end, though, he was able to get the agreement he needed to proceed forward. A similar process took place in 2013 Netanyahu’s Likud Party appeared to win the election in January, but it took until March for the Prime Minister cobble together the Knesset majority he needed to form a government. In 2009, it also took roughly six weeks for Netanyahu roughly six weeks from the date of the election to form a government.

So, why wasn’t Netanyahu able to form a government this time, especially since he emerged from the April election with a larger share of seats for his Likud Party than he had seen in the past? Shmuel Rosner in The New York Times offers one explanation:

To really understand it, you have to go back many decades.

In Israel, all citizens are supposed to serve in the military or perform another type of national service. But one group has been relieved of this duty since the state was established: the ultra-Orthodox, known here as Haredim, who make up about 10 percent of the population. Thanks to their high birthrate, the Haredim double in number every 10 to 15 years. When deferment began in 1948 there were about 400 Haredim eligible for it. Today there are more than 50,000. According to Israel’s bureau of statistics, as much as a third of Israel’s population will be Haredi by 2065.

Young Haredi men study the Torah instead of wearing a uniform.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a vast majority of Israelis believe this is unfair.

The Supreme Court doesn’t like the arrangement either. In 2017, the court declared it unconstitutional and demanded new legislation that could withstand judicial review. Since then, the court agreed to grant the government a few postponements, but now the deadline is near. The new government, when formed, must pass a new law to continue the Haredim’s national service exemption. If it fails to do so, the court could decide that the arrangement is void, and prompt a political and social crisis by in essence ordering the state to draft many thousands of reluctant, disobedient, Haredim.

And here’s the problem. The political parties representing the ultra-Orthodox in the Knesset (currently, with 16 seats) have a lot of clout because they have been crucial in propping up coalitions like Mr. Netanyahu’s. In return for their support, the governments — in recent decades most of them have been right-wing — have put aside the issue of Haredi military service. That was the plan, once again, for the next Knesset.

Then one person decided to ruin the plan. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, represents mostly voters of Russian and Eastern European origin. His voters, like him, are on the right. They are also secular and don’t have much love for the ultra-Orthodox parties and their political power to institute religiously coercive policies.

The issues that many Israelis have regarding the seemingly preferential treatment that the Haredim receive in Israel. One of the most prominent is the fact that they are, essentially, the only segment of Israeli society that is exempt from the mandatory military service that Israeli young men and women must serve once they reach adulthood. Instead, they spend their time studying the Torah and, thanks to the protection of the ultra-orthodox parties in the Knesset and the outsized influence they have due to the fact that they are often crucial to the formation of a stable Knesset majority. In addition to the military service exemption, this group also receives various subsidies from the government since, for the most part, the men do not work and the women are not allowed to work.

As Israel has become more and more secular, the resentment against the preferences the Haredim receive has grown, with the military service exemption becoming the focus of the resentment. Additionally, as noted, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that the exemption is unconstitutional, but the Knesset has yet to act on a mandate from that Court to change the existing law.

This time around, one of Netanyahu’s chief political rivals, Avigdor Lieberman has latched on to the issue of Haredi military service as a political wedge. Lieberman is a political conservative like Netanyahu who represents a party made up primarily Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe who have emigrated to Israel over the years. These groups tend to be more secular in their religious attitudes and are apparently among the loudest group to express objections to the special treatment that Haredi receive.

Rosen explains why Lieberman has chosen to make this a political issue:

The Israeli left is defeated and marginalized. The public long ago moved rightward. The last election was predominantly fought between Likud and an upstart center-center-right party called Blue and White. The old parties of the left collectively took only 10 seats. Yes, “smolani” is still hurled as an insult at potential rivals, but with less passion. The right dislikes leftists — but there is not much left to dislike.

Maybe this is why Mr. Lieberman has decided to shift gears and go after the Haredi parties.

In fact, the Haredim are even more disliked than leftists: According to polling from the Jewish People Policy Institute, where I work, just 20 percent of Jewish Israelis say that they make a “very positive contribution” to Israel, while almost half say their contribution to Israel is “negative.”

Haredim are disliked not only because they don’t serve in the military and because their politicians hold the government coalition hostage, but also because their participation in the work force is low and they pay less in taxes than other communities. And, of course, because they are different. They wear black hats and live in segregated neighborhoods, and seem radical, outdated and sometimes just plain weird.

(…)

By sabotaging a right-Haredi coalition and prompting a new election, Mr. Lieberman is presenting voters on the right with a question: Whom do they dislike more, the smolanim or the Haredim? Mr. Netanyahu’s bet is on the old fight, against the left; Mr. Lieberman decided to bet on a political fight against the ultra-Orthodox.

He might be on to something. There’s no reason for Israelis to worry about the left anymore. But there is good reason to be concerned about how the ultra-Orthodox can misuse their power. The time has come for someone with political clout to make that point and to try to rein in the ultra-Orthodox pull on Israeli public life and politics. It remains to be seen if it’s a winning political strategy.

I’m no expert on Israeli politics, of course, but this explanation makes sense. As I said, the Haredi have come under criticism in Israeli society generally because of their special status over the past several years. Because of the crucial role that the small parties that represent them have played in multiple Israeli governments led by both Likud and Labor has protected them from political and social backlash, but that is clearly changing. It was seemingly inevitable that this issue would come to a head at some point, and Lieberman seems to believe that bringing that moment about by using it to force the nation to go back to the polls due to a hung Knesset for the first time in its history is something he obviously thinks he can use to enhance his interests and the interests of his party. Whether that will succeed is something we’ll have to wait to find out.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    “For the most part, the men do not work”? Are they independently wealthy? Does Israel have a UBI? How does that work?

  2. Kylopod says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Doug is incorrect that the women are not permitted to work. In fact the women are often the breadwinners in their household, in an otherwise very patriarchal and antifeminist culture. (They generally aren’t permitted to go to college, which is a different story.) They also to some extent live off government handouts and sometimes outright begging.

    I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything like it, in any other religion or even in Judaism before a few decades ago. It is not economically sustainable, and I’m surprised it’s lasted as long as it has.

  3. Slugger says:

    @Jay L Gischer: My relatives in Israel believe that this cult is a leech on the welfare system (Israel was founded by real socialistic socialists) as well as draft-dodgers. I haven’t personally checked out these allegations. Many in Israel think these guys are free-riders in their society.