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What the Hell Just Happened to Israel's Government?

“Netanyahu is not only fighting for his political life, but he’s also fighting to stay out of court, out of jail."

by David Gilbert
May 30 2019, 12:13pm

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A visibly angry Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved Israel’s parliament on Wednesday night, an unprecedented move experts say could be the beginning of the end for the long-serving prime minister, both politically and personally.

Lawmakers voted 74 to 45 to dissolve the Knesset after weeks of tense talks to form a coalition in the Knesset broke down. Netanyahu failed to unite the secular and religious sides of his proposed right-wing coalition.

Netanyahu lashed out following the dissolution vote.

“These are unnecessary and wasteful elections that no one needs and no one wants,” Netanyahu said. “The people [already] had their say.”

Coalition talks broke down after Netanyahu clashed with former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, over a military conscription bill related to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Israel now faces new elections in September, but with corruption charges pending and chances of passing legislation to limit his exposure to prosecution all but evaporated, there’s more than Netanyahu’s political future on the line.

“Netanyahu is not only fighting for his political life, but he’s also fighting to stay out of court, out of jail,” Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University, London, told VICE News.

What happened?

No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat Knesset, but parties have always managed to form a coalition — until now.

Following closely-fought elections in April, Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged with 35 seats, tied as the biggest party with Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party.

Netanyahu was invited by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government, but after weeks of negotiations, Netanyahu could not secure the 61-seat majority coalition threshold necessary to form a stable government.

Worried that Rivlin would ask another member of parliament to form a government, Netanyahu sought to dissolve the parliament.

In order to get the motion passed, the prime minister agreed to a deal with the center-right Kulanu party that will see the two parties run together in the next elections.

Why did this happen?

Coalition negotiations stalled over a piece of draft legislation submitted by Lieberman last month requiring yeshiva students, who are currently exempt from Israel's otherwise mandatory conscription, to be drafted into the military.

This caused friction with the Hassidic faction of the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, which was also set to join Netanyahu’s coalition. The prime minister was unable to bridge the divide.

With time running out, Netanyahu launched a flurry of last-minute negotiations with members of Gantz’s Blue and White party in a bid to get to the 61 seats needed to form a coalition. But the threat of prosecution hanging over his head “ruled out the possibility of reaching a grand coalition,” Mekelberg said.

“Netanyahu's embrace of the religious far right and the secular far right has proved to be a double-edged sword,” Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, told VICE News. “Yes, it has allowed him to remain at the helm longer than any other prime minister, but it could also bring about the beginning of the end of Netanyahu.”

Netanyahu’s "sleepless night"

Netanyahu is facing three damning corruption indictments related to bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The prime minister is alleged to have accepted gifts from wealthy businessmen and handed out favors in order to receive better press coverage. Just like his ally in Washington, Netanyahu has labeled the allegations against him a “witch hunt.”

Netanyahu planned to convince his new coalition partners to pass legislation that would grant prime ministers immunity from prosecution while in office. Without a majority in parliament, the prime minister cannot push forward with that plan.

“I have no doubts it was a sleepless night [for Netanyahu] not because he might not win the next elections in September, but he won't be able to really find ways and means to pass legislation to grant himself partial immunity,” Gerges said. “And that's why I think this might be the end of the road for Netanyahu, personally and politically.”

Now what?

Netanyahu will remain in power until the election, meaning that in July he will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion.

Israelis will return to the polls on September 17, two weeks before Netanyahu's pre-indictment hearing on October 2 and 3.

"We'll run a sharp, clear election campaign which will bring us victory. We'll win, we'll win and the public will win,” he said on Thursday morning.

But Defense Minister Lieberman was laying all the blame on calling fresh elections on Netanyahu. “Likud failed to form a coalition and to form a government and together with the surrender to the ultraorthodox they hold all of the responsibility that the state of Israel is returning again to elections,” Lieberman told the Wall Street Journal.

The political instability in Israel could have wider implications for the region, including a delay for the long-awaited U.S. Middle East peace plan.

A conference scheduled for next month in Bahrain to discuss about the economic aspects of the plan is set to go ahead as planned, but the political aspects of the plan may have to be put on hold.

Jared Kushner, who President Trump has tasked with overseeing the Middle East peace process, arrived in Jerusalem shortly before the parliament was dissolved on Wednesday evening, and is due to meet Netanyahu on Thursday.

Cover: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before voting in the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)