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Netanyahu success story nears final chapter

Peter Philipp Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Peter Philipp
May 30, 2019

Israel is preparing for another election. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is blaming his political rival Avigdor Liebermann, but Peter Philipp says that what he’s really doing is protecting his own interests.

Copies of ballots papers and campaign posters for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party lie on the ground
Image: AFP/Getty Images/J. Guez

There's nothing left of the exultation the Israeli premier displayed in his victory speech after the April general election. Less than six weeks later, Benjamin Netanyahu has been forced to admit, at least indirectly, that he has been unable to form a viable coalition.

However, instead of handing the task of forming a government back to President Reuven Rivlin, the resourceful "Bibi" has already devised a strategy to survive this crisis as well. A majority of Knesset members have voted in an expedited proceeding to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections on September 17.

Read more: Opinion: Don't hold out hope for change in Israel

Immediately switching back into campaign mode, Netanyahu complained that this second election in the space of six months would be a massive waste of money. He had already identified the guilty party. Netanyahu claims that Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the party "Yisrael Beytenu" ("Israel Our Home"), whose members are predominantly immigrants from Russia, was determined to prevent the formation of a government.  

Military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews?

The object of Netanyahu's ire, along with his five delegates, was the "kingmaker” Bibi needed in order to obtain the necessary majority – a minimum of 61 mandates. Lieberman, of course, was aware of this, and acted accordingly. He stuck to his central demand: That ultra-Orthodox Jews must also do military service. They have been exempt from it ever since the state of Israel was founded. Had Netanyahu agreed, he would have upset his Orthodox coalition partners and forced them to withdraw their support — which he needs for a majority, just as does Lieberman.

The subject of Orthodox Jews and the military is a recurring bone of contention in Israel. The secular parties have always shied away from making any clear, far-reaching decisions, because with an election threshold of just 3.25%, the religious and Orthodox parties always get into parliament and have so far been part of every governing coalition.

Fresh elections to protect him

Now, instead of telling it like it is, Netanyahu is demonizing Lieberman as a "leftist” who has no place in his government. Quite apart from the fact that this is false, it's also intended to disguise the fact that Netanyahu himself is putting his own interests first. He had hoped to use the coalition, which he has failed to build, to pass a law that would give serving prime ministers — like himself — immunity from prosecution. There are long-running investigations against him for corruption and other, similar crimes. Shortly before the last election, Israel's chief prosecutor said it was possible that legal proceedings might indeed be instigated. He said that this would depend on the outcome of a hearing, to which Netanyahu will now be summoned at the beginning of October.

Read more: Opinion: As Israel's right wing triumphs, Palestine loses

Had Netanyahu succeeded in forming a government, he would have used the next few months to erect a legal firewall to protect himself from judicial proceedings. This is probably also the reason for his haste in pushing through the decision to hold fresh elections, instead of handing the task of forming a government over to the president. Netanyahu now heads an interim government from which no one can resign and no one can be sacked. A government of this kind is unlikely, however, to be in a position to push through the legal protection against prosecution that its leader is hoping for.

With this in mind, it's no surprise that Bibi isn't really able to enjoy the strategic and tactical success of recent days. He too must sense that the "Netanyahu model of success" is reaching the end of its shelf-life and cannot last much longer.

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