Time is running out for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he struggles to form a governing coalition by midnight on Wednesday, or risk plunging Israel into another election.
It’s been less than two months since Netanyahu was re-elected for an unprecedented fifth term following a tumultuous election cycle.
In the weeks since, he has failed to gain support from two crucial groups — the ultra-orthodox parties and the widely secular, ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party of former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
With only 35 seats won on April 9th, Netanyahu’s Likud party needs the parties in order to assemble a 61-seat majority conservative coalition to rule.
The opposing sides are sparring over legislation that seeks to replace a longstanding military draft law exempting ultra-Orthodox men from Israel’s mandatory conscription. It’s the same legislation that caused for a shortened previous government, and Netanyahu’s calls for a snap election earlier this year.
Lieberman, whose party holds five seats crucial to forming Netanyahu’s government, is pushing for a new law that would require young ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the army.
But the ultra-Orthodox parties are standing by their long held, controversial belief, that military service would lead to “immersion in secularism.”
While its not out of the question that the parties could come to a last-minute resolution, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed a first motion on Monday to dissolve itself, cranking up the heat even further.
With a few hours left until the Knesset holds a final vote on the same motion at midnight on Wednesday, Netanyahu is scrambling to come up with a solution to save his premiership.
Lieberman: the thorn in Netanyahu’s side
According to Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox allies, the current crisis can all be blamed on one man: Avigdor Lieberman.
Famous for bold statements and hardline stances against the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states, Lieberman is the champion of his mostly secular, russian immigrant “Israel is our home” party.
He has had an “on-again-off-again” relationship with Netanyahu for years — serving as both his staunchest supporter and adversary.
While Netanyahu and his allies claim Lieberman is manufacturing a crisis motivated by his own personal biases against Netanyahu, Lieberman has insisted that his fight for mandatory ultra-Orthodox conscription is a matter of ideology, not personal politics.
“The draft law has become a symbol and we will not capitulate on our symbols,” Lieberman said, adding that he refused to be ruled by “religious law.”
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu met with Lieberman on Monday night hoping to reach a compromise, but to no avail.
In an effort to put more pressure on Lieberman, Netanyahu appeared on live television to address the minister, demanding he put “the good of the nation above every other interest.”
Does Netanyahu want another election?
In short, yes and no.
While the ideal scenario for the Prime Minister, who is still embattled with charges of corruption and bribery, would be for Lieberman to miraculously drop his fight and agree to forming a coalition before midnight on Wednesday — that might not be possible.
And while Netanyahu is blaming Lieberman for potentially throwing the country into “expensive” and “wasteful” elections, it was lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party who prepared the dissolution bill on Monday.
Netanyahu has said himself that he will push for new elections if no agreement to form a coalition can be reached by the deadline.
During Monday’s Knesset vote, it was actually the same right-wing lawmakers who celebrated Netanyahu’s victory last month that widely voted for fresh elections.
Meanwhile, it was the opposition lawmakers and Netanyahu’s staunchest opponents who voted to keep the parliament intact. But why?
If Netanyahu fails to form a coalition in time, the opposition Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz, which controls an equal number of seats as Likud, could, with the approval of President Reuven Rivlin, be given the chance to form their own governing coalition.
But a Knesset vote for dissolution would automatically trigger new elections, taking that rare chance away from the opposition, and give Netanyahu another opportunity at maintaining his premiership.
Trump weighs in
US President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Monday to throw his support behind Netanyahu, in a move being criticized by some Israeli pundits as an international interference in their electoral matters.
“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!,” Trump tweeted.
Hoping things will work out with Israel's coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2019
“Trump is right – we still have a lot of work to do,” Netanyahu said during his televised address Monday, referencing the President’s Tweet.
The current crisis couldn’t come at a worse time for Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who plan on revealing their controversial peace plan in the coming weeks.
The American plan is already being met with severe pushback from Palestinian officials and other world and regional leaders, who say the plan is doomed to fail.
An Israeli government without Netanyahu at its forefront could derail Kushner’s plans for the region.
Despite this, Haaretz reported that Kushner will be visiting Israel in the coming days, and that its “business as usual” for his team.
“Whether or not Netanyahu manages to cobble together a coalition, the Bahrain conference will still happen – and leaders in the region are getting ready for the publication of the plan’s economic chapter. That’s how Kushner’s arrival was interpreted in media reports on Tuesday,” Haaretz reported.