In four deadlocked elections over the past two years, Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to retain one of the crucial assets of a political master: the look of an inevitable victory.
But with two days before the end of the time allotted for his attempt to put together a coalition after a stalled March ballot, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister suddenly appears cornered.
His right-wing alliance is two seats short of a 61-seat majority in the Knesset and three weeks of public cajoling, behind-the-scenes negotiations and parliamentary machinations have failed to produce a single defection from the five-fold. times prime minister.
If he fails, the president will appoint after May 4 an opposition leader – most likely Yair Lapid, former TV presenter and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party – to attempt to form a coalition. Split opposition, united only by desire to topple Netanyahu, appears to be rallying to concoct a minority government, provisionally backed by an Islamist party modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Liberal Israeli media are already talking about the political demise of the most influential leader the Jewish state has seen since the founding of President David Ben-Gurion. “Have you ever seen vultures in Jerusalem?” an insider from the Likud central committee joked in a text message to the FT. They surround the Prime Minister’s residence, “Balfour House Right Now”.
But as Netanyahu’s options narrowed, he remains a master strategist, said Dahlia Scheindlin, a seasoned pollster. “Part of the reason he always comes out victorious, [is] because he leads every battle, before the election and after the election, as if it were a battle for life or death, ”she said. “As a chess player he always thought he was a few steps ahead of everyone else, but now the other players are catching up with him.”
In a sign of what some see as his desperation, Netanyahu’s camp has disclosed options such as a Putin presidency, where he would eclipse a temporary loyalist in a rotating prime ministerial post, while remaining in the official residence. (“The Medvedev Solution” reported The Times of Israel, referring to the former Russian prime minister). One candidate is Benny Gantz, whom Netanyahu persuaded last year to join a coalition government but went to the polls before Gantz had his turn as prime minister. Gantz reportedly refused.
But while Netanyahu appears to have stagnated, it remains unclear whether the opposition’s aversion to the prime minister is enough to overcome their differences.
In the marathon talks, they have so far disagreed on almost every issue – the size of the cabinet, which of them would have the first start in a rotating prime minister’s post, how to attract ultra-Orthodox allies from Netanyahu from the Likud camp and even which of them would officially receive the mandate to form a coalition after May 4.
Perhaps the biggest problem they face is who has already defeated Netanyahu. Ready at the center of Israel’s electoral stalemate is Ra’am, a dissident faction of five Arab parliamentarians who ended decades of tradition by signaling that it will consider supporting a Zionist government.
In exchange, Chief Ra’am Mansour Abbas has established two simple ground rules – his party will be treated with respect and the government he supports will provide more funding for schools, hospitals and police in Arab-dominated northern Israel. “Whoever gives me recognition and legitimacy, join me and ask me what I want for Arab society – I will go with him,” he said last week.
Netanyahu’s right-wing camp includes openly anti-Arab religious Zionists. They were reluctant to cooperate with Ra’am to keep Netanyahu in power, branding Abbas voters as supporters of terrorism.
Lapid and Naftali Bennett, former chief of staff to Netanyahu, current prospect for the prime minister and leader of Yamina, a far-right pro-settlement party, have not yet quarreled with Abbas. But while they met with him to discuss options for a minority government, right-wing members of their parties have yet to be convinced.
“Netanyahu is in the weakest position of his career, but that doesn’t mean he is unable to somehow come to an acceptable deal that works for him,” he said. said Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. . “People are ready to try all kinds of alternatives because the prospect of the fifth election is so grim.”
Netanyahu’s corruption trial hangs over the drama, which will take months to reach a verdict and years before appeals run out. Netanyahu calls the trial a witch hunt, but Daily Hearings add details to claims he accepted expensive gifts from wealthy friends and sought to reward a newspaper editor for positive coverage with regulatory favors. He denied all the allegations.
In a sign of the scale of the stakes, Netanyahu briefly last week ordered the attorney general to lobby for the appointment of a loyalist to the post of justice minister in the interim government he currently heads. He did an about-face after the High Court upheld the attorney general’s opinion.
The incident underscored the stress that the continuous elections and the battle to retain power have placed on Israeli institutions, President Reuven Rivlin said. “For some time now we’ve been living with the illusion of constitutional functionality between one election campaign and the next, but it seems that. . . another fence collapsed, ”Rivlin said.