‘Israel’s all messed up with their election’

Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset for a vote on the dissolution bill last week. Photo: EPA/Abir Sultan

IT may be costing Israel $200 million – but billposters are happy. They don’t need to bother taking down remaining billboards for the last election, because we’re already preparing for another one. 

Israelis are incredulous that they will vote again on September 17 – after taking part in elections on April 9. Even in a country of such political turbulence, this is a first. 

People watching the drama from around the world are also take aback. US President Donald Trump called the situation “ridiculous”. 

Trump said on Sunday: “Israel is all messed up with their election. I mean, that came out of the blue three days ago. So that’s all messed up. They ought to get their act together.

“Bibi got elected. Now, all of a sudden, they’re going to have to go through the process again, until September? That’s ridiculous. So we’re not happy about that.”

Want to understand what just happened? It was all about Charedim – but not really about Charedim at all.

Benjamin Netanyahu failed to build a government before his time ran out. He couldn’t get the majority he wanted – 61 Knesset seats and a few more for comfort – and even considered trying to form a minority government, but ultimately failed. 

After an election campaign spent attacking the “left”, he tried in the final moments to make a pact with Labour. He is said to have offered the party more than it could have ever dreamed – some dovish policies and government ministries formed especially to fit the interests of Labour leaders, who would fill them.

The PM is said to have tried to cherrypick politicians from the Blue and White party. Ram Ben-Barak, a Blue and White politician who used to be deputy head of Mossad, said that he was offered the posts of Defence Minister and Chief Negotiator with the Palestinians in return for joining the coalition. 

The recruitment efforts gave one opposition politician a heart-wrenching dilemma. Did Pnina Tamano-Shata, a politician of Ethiopian heritage, want to join Netanyahu’s Likud and become a minister? The incentive was that the Falash Mura, an Ethiopian community that claims descent from Jews, would be brought to Israel. The fate of thousands was hinged on her political decision. She declined – and given that Falash Mura aliyah has been presented as a bureaucratic minefield that the government can’t easily resolve, Ethiopian activists are furious, saying that their brethren were turned into a bargaining chip. 

Netanyahu got so desperate that the Arab politician Ayman Odeh poked fun, standing at the Knesset podium and saying, seemingly tongue-in-cheek, that Netanyahu tried to win his support offering to withdraw from the West Bank, cancel the controversial Nation State Law, and “recognise the nakba”. 

The whole debacle was a shock turn of events. Netanyahu seemed to have won the April election, and was expected to easily form a government. But he couldn’t. His perennial frenemy Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Israel Beytenu party, said he would only join the government if a law was passed to get more Charedim serving in the army. 

Unsurprisingly, two Charedi parties that Netanyahu needed to build a coalition were resolutely against such a draft law. Lieberman dug his heels in, and said if there aren’t to be more Charedi soldiers, he won’t join the government. 

Lieberman is staunchly right-wing and staunchly secularist. He is a former Netanyahu aide who, 20 years ago, set up his own party, the rightist Israel Beytenu, which he still heads. 

By default, once Netanyahu failed to build a coalition the ball would have gone back to President Reuven Rivlin, who could have given the Blue and White party a shot at assembling a coalition. But before that could happen, Netanyahu’s Likud carried out a mass political suicide in Knesset. 

They tabled a parliamentary motion to get rid of their jobs that they had just campaigned so hard to win, by dissolving the Knesset – and, along with other right-wing politicians, voted for it. This stopped Rivlin from giving Blue and White a chance to build a government. Likud was sure as hell that nobody else was going to get a chance to build the coalition that it failed to assemble.

Lieberman could have easily put up with Netanyahu’s lack of commitment to getting more Charedim conscripted. The law Lieberman is so desperate to pass wouldn’t provide anything near full Charedi conscription anyway. But he was determined to flex his muscles and show Israelis that Bibi isn’t quite so bulletproof as he used to be. Lieberman wanted to assert his own strength, while questioning Bibi’s.

Lieberman does genuinely believe that Charedim should serve in the army, but it was political ambition that caused him to become resolute – he sees himself as a figure who can lead the Israeli right. The political crisis we just witnessed had little to do with real determination to see more Charedim in uniform, and everything to do with a struggle for prominence on the Israeli right.

NATHAN JEFFAY