By Seth J. Frantzman, JPost—
In power for ten years, the Israeli Prime Minister appeared to stumble on Wednesday when he drove the Knesset to dissolve itself and call new elections. Ostensibly this was because Netanyahu had failed to form a coalition government. But how could the master politician who has dominated Israeli politics for a decade and has thirty years of experience in the Knesset’s coalition politics end up in a situation like this? What if it is actually the best of both worlds for him? He continues on as Prime Minister with polls showing that he will likely do well in September, and his rivals have to fight over the scraps.
Netanyahu secured 74 votes to dissolve the Knesset. He got more support for new elections than he got for his coalition. If the smaller parties had been smarter, they might have refused to disperse the Knesset and forced the mandate back to President Reuven Rivlin. However, Netanyahu outplayed them, as he has outplayed rivals in the past. He got Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon to join Likud just before the last-minute Knesset discussion, ensuring that Kahlon couldn’t oppose new elections. This may have been cynical, but it worked.
Netanyahu has successfully pushed a narrative since calling elections in late December 2018. Let’s recall that defense minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned in November over the Gaza crisis. At the time, Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked also appeared likely to resign and trigger elections. But no. Netanyahu convinced them of the importance of staying on. In early December, Israel announced Operation: Northern Shield. Netanyahu could say that he had postponed any major operation in Gaza because of the threats in the North. Shaked and Bennett looked responsible for not bolting. Liberman looked doomed. But things changed in the first months of 2019. Liberman’s hopes rose and Bennett and Shaked fumbled the campaign for their new party, The New Right. They fell short of the threshold. Netanyahu, as usual, needed those right-wing votes that might have bled over to The New Right, and he gobbled up enough of them on election night to keep Bennett and Shaked out of the Knesset. But Lieberman made it in with five seats and 4% of the vote. Math seemed to favor Netanyahu. So did Israel’s voters, who have become more right-wing and religious over the years. Several parties openly ran under various banners of being either the “new Right” or the real and authentic Right. Arye Deri’s Shas campaigned under the idea that Netanyahu needs a “strong Arye.” Indeed, he got 6% of the vote and eight seats.