Tel Aviv — “Elections or no elections, that is the question.”
That’s how an Israel Radio host described the confusing state of Israeli politics at the beginning of the week when the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition seemed to change with every passing hour.
After finishing a successful visit to the U.S. with highlights at the White House and the annual AIPAC policy conference, Netanyahu returned to Israel to grapple with a coalition government coming apart at the seams amid a trio of corruption investigations against him.
Netanyahu and his Likud Party found themselves caught between ultra-Orthodox parties and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s secular ultra-nationalist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, over a new law to exempt thousands of yeshiva students from Israel’s compulsory military draft, with each side seemingly playing political chicken regarding the law and future of the coalition.
On Tuesday, after a day of high political drama and a threat by Netanyahu to dissolve the coalition and head to a vote, the Likud and the coalition partners pulled back from the edge of an election campaign to preserve the government.
However, the row over the draft legislation — a bone of contention stretching back decades — appears to be a derivative of Israel’s true political crisis: three corruption probes against the prime minister that got a major boost from an agreement last week by longtime Netanyahu confidante Nir Hefetz to cross the lines and serve as a state’s witness.
With indictments expected in at least one of the cases, Netanyahu has become more vulnerable to pressure from coalition partners that may use his weakened political standing to extract concessions in return for continued support.
At the same time, politicians and analysts argue that it was actually the prime minister who wanted to dissolve his own government and hold snap elections by the end of June. That’s because his support in public opinion polls appeared unscathed by the scandals. Such a move would catch potential rivals — both in the opposition and the coalition — unprepared.
A flurry of polls by Israeli news television channels at the beginning of the week showed Netanyahu’s ruling Likud holding its current level of 30 of the parliament’s 120 seats, or even adding one more. The polls suggest that the bloc of right-wing and religious parties would still hold a majority of seats.
A fresh mandate from the voters would have given Netanyahu added political backing to remain in office if Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt decides to indict him.
Ultimately, however, the prime minister chose the safer route and avoided going to the voters for a new mandate. Israeli election campaigns have historically bucked the trends predicted by the initial polling.
Netanyahu found himself both on the winning and losing side of election surprises, and knows all too well the Israeli political cliché oft repeated this week: “Elections: You know how you enter them, but you never know how you’ll emerge.”
“Just because the numbers looked good, doesn’t mean anything,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American public opinion expert. “Maybe people would have said, ‘Enough is enough.’ This might have given the anti-Netanyahu forces enough to coalesce and oppose him. It’s a big gamble. He didn’t want to roll the dice.”
Earlier in the week, when it seemed that elections were imminent, another analyst explained the prime minister’s rationale for an early election.
“He wants elections earlier than an indictment against him is handed down by the state’s attorney general,” said Stephan Miller, an Israeli-American pollster and political consultant. “His goal is to run as someone being attacked for corruption, rather than someone indicted for corruption.”
Miller said that the cliffhanger crisis helped distract Israel’s attention from the trickle of sensational turns and twists from the corruption investigations against the prime minister. At the same time, the possibility of an early election served as a trial balloon for Netanyahu to test the reaction of other political parties.
Speaking to the parliament on Monday evening, Netanyahu dropped another hint he was preparing for an early vote. He said that even though he prefers for the government to last its entire term [through November 2019], the coalition won’t be able to function with a bare majority of 61 seats should Lieberman vote against the draft bill.
“If there are [early] elections, we will compete and win,” Netanyahu said.
But Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party and a right-wing rival to Netanyahu, aimed some not-so-subtle criticism at the prime minister, calling the controversy a “fake crisis” and complaining about “fake leadership.” In a tweet, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also from Jewish Home, accused Netanyahu and Likud of toppling a right-wing government “over nothing” and warned that such a move would be an “historic mistake.”
After the crisis was over, Bennett declared that “common sense won” and the “national interest prevailed.”
Speaking to Israel Radio on Monday, Tzachi Hanegbi, the regional cooperation minister, insisted that the prime minister hadn’t wanted an early election, and that he prefers to resolve disputes with coalition partners. Hanegbi said that Netanyahu could continue to function effectively as prime minister even if he is indicted.
Last month the police recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on several counts of bribe-taking for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars of cigars and champagne from Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. The police also recommended he be indicted for offering to push regulatory legislation in return for positive coverage in Israel’s biggest newspaper, Yediot Achronot. In addition, he is suspected of pushing regulatory gifts for Israel’s phone monopoly Bezeq in return for sympathetic coverage by the Walla! News site, which is owned by Bezeq’s controlling shareholder.
“From Netanyahu’s perspective, he likes to be in this position where everyone is against him,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American pollster. New elections would have bought “[Netanyahu] time because there could be an indictment handed down at any time.” Barak speculated that a new election would block the attorney general from announcing indictments during the campaign.
A decision to hold early elections in June would have caught the opposition Labor Party at a weak point. Avi Gabbay, the party chairman elected last summer, is struggling with sagging polling numbers.
Talk of a new vote put Labor and other opposition parties in an awkward position: On the one hand, they don’t want to help Netanyahu hold an election at a time that benefits him, but they also don’t want to be seen as helping prolong the lifespan of a government they oppose.
“We aren’t afraid of elections. We aren’t afraid of the verdict of the voter,” wrote parliamentary opposition leader Isaac Herzog of Labor. “We are afraid of how you [Netanyahu] are abusing our society and country.”
Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, which polls say is poised to become the second largest party in the parliament, said in a tweet that “it is time that [Netanyahu] step down from the stage. It’s time to thank you for all that you have done.”
Early elections would have imperiled Defense Minister Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu Party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, both of which might have failed to garner the minimum percentage of voters required for a spot in the Knesset, according to public opinion surveys.
And even though the same polls show that Bennett’s Jewish Home would have maintained its support, an election that becomes dominated by a referendum on Netanyahu could have enabled Likud to steal away right-wing voters who feared that only he could block the creation of a center-left government.
“If polls were held tomorrow, the main question would be: Are you with Netanyahu or against him? It’s obvious that people on the right wing who support other parties also support Netanyahu,” said Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University.
“Netanyahu was ready to take the gamble. But he wasn’t interested in elections now. He said he wants the vote at the end of the term,” Diskin said.
However, political calculations could change as Israel’s legal authorities make decisions about the investigations and new revelations come to light, he said. Elections, Diskin noted, have been held in Israel at an average once every three and a half years. “It’s still possible to have early elections,” he said, “but not too soon.”