If voters won’t get rid of Netanyahu, will the elites do it for them?

The same political system that Netanyahu thinks he has mastered could now bring about his demise.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an event at the President's residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an event at the President’s residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

If it was up to the Israeli public alone, Benjamin Netanyahu might well continue as prime minister when the vote on Sept. 17 is over. Polls so far show almost no change in voting patterns for the ideological party blocs from April, when the right wing parties won a majority of seats, as they have for the last decade. The opposition parties of the center, left and Arab parties continue to hold a minority.

But an outright win for Netanyahu looks increasingly unlikely. A handful of political elites, and Israel’s complex coalition-bargaining culture, might finally bring about Netanyahu’s exit.

One such leader is Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Liberman, who has been a shoe-in for Netanyahu’s coalitions in the past, and has held top ministries under his leadership. Liberman is now saying that he will recommend a unity government, rather than Likud under Netanyahu, to form the next coalition. Since none of the ideological blocs of parties have 61 seats (out of 120) to form a coalition without his party, Liberman’s demands could carry even more weight than in April, when he won five seats. Polls consistently predict he could get roughly double the seats now.

A unity government refers to the idea that Likud and Blue and White would form a coalition, possibly without the ultra-Orthodox parties, who have joined nearly all Israeli governments, with just a few exception, over Israeli history. Polls indicate that these two large parties could win a near or outright majority of seats between them. To many Jewish Israelis, unity sounds like a good idea.

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The latest Peace Index from Tel Aviv University shows that 30 percent in total would prefer a unity government, broken down into those who prefer their party to lead – either Likud or Blue and White. Combined, these options top the list of options in the poll. Together with Liberman, a unity coalition could have a large, stable and secular government.

However, Blue and White, headed by Benny Gantz, has stated that it will not join a coalition led by Netanyahu. Over 1.2 million voters supported Blue and White in April in their desperation to oust Netanyahu. By all accounts, that was the main reason. Blue and White stated that a coalition with Likud is a natural option, but not under Bibi. If Gantz does enter a coalition with Netanyahu at the helm, his voters will feel profoundly abandoned and betrayed. The party might split.

Likud members have famously insisted that Netanyahu must continue to lead. Netanyahu even had them swear a strange, Charlie Brown sort of oath that the party commits to keeping him as their choice for prime minister. Agreeing to recuse him would be an enormous broken promise to Likud voters (and anyone else who cares about the integrity of political promises).

These are zero-sum starting points. The only obvious compromise involves a rotation between Gantz and Netanyahu for the top job. Gantz could insist that he start, thus maintaining the image of keeping his promise. Netanyahu could save face, theoretically, by continuing to lead Likud and remaining the designated prime minister. It’s hard to imagine a universe in which Netanyahu agrees to take second place, though.

Another potential compromise is that Netanyahu agrees to step down or suspend himself if indicted. Once again, it seems unlikely – but not impossible.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara address their supporters as the results of the Israeli general elections are announced, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 09, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara address their supporters as the results of the Israeli general elections are announced, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 09, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Beyond a unity government, the other likely scenario is another outright Likud-Netanyahu victory. Polls so far do not show the right winning a majority of seats without Liberman. If that finding bears out, and assuming Netanyahu can convene the regular right wing and religious parties, he will still have to negotiate with other partners.

In that case, despite the vast animosity between Liberman and Netanyahu at present, Liberman is the most obvious candidate. However, he brings a shipload of problems. First, he has developed elaborate coalition guidelines linked to policy, not only political demands. The policies relate to the draft law and other religion-state issues, as well as a litany of security demands that he has always promoted, including death penalty for terrorists, stripping citizenship of East Jerusalem Palestinians if they are convicted of terror, and reviving assassination policies.

Netanyahu won’t be able to accept some of the demands regarding religion and state, which will enrage the ultra-Orthodox parties. Therefore, to lure Liberman back, the negotiation will get political.

Netanyahu is expected to demand support for immunity laws from everyone, and in return, Liberman has leverage. He might demand a fabulous ministerial post. He has already served as the defense and foreign minister, so he may want a promotion — perhaps even insist on a rotation for prime minister as well. That sounds like chutzpah for a medium-small party, but Israelis have long resigned themselves to small parties that have too much power.

Without Liberman or Blue and White, Likud doesn’t have many other partners beyond those that have already committed to the right. Labor might be an option, but Labor leader Amir Peretz shaved his moustache to great fanfare last week, to prove his sincerity about boycotting Netanyahu.

Peretz has not nixed Likud, however. When asked about joining a coalition with the party, he was quoted in July saying, “If they replace Netanyahu, it’s a completely different story.”

All current polling shows that a Blue and White-led center-left government is nearly impossible. Even a Blue and White-led government without a firm ideological character is far-fetched. The party would have to defy current polls and beat Likud by a substantial margin. Even then, for Gantz to form a government, a strong lead would have to be combined with a rebellion on the right against Netanyahu, to find potential coalition partners. But the relevant parties could potentially boycott one another.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party has insisted it will not join a government with Blue and White. Liberman and Labor alone won’t provide sufficient seats. If the far-right Yemina party is asked, would it go in with Labor? If Yemina joins, the left-wing Democratic Union is probably not an option. There may still not be enough seats to reach 61, depending on the results.

Joint List leader Aymah Odeh, representing Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, made shockwaves last week declaring that he would consider joining a center-left coalition. Blue and White’s response was anything but visionary. Given that several members couldn’t even share a stage with Joint List leader Ayman Odeh at a demonstration this summer, a historic coalition with the Arab party would be a miracle – the kind that could cost Blue and White defections and a smaller, less stable coalition.

Israelis are used to politicians breaking their political (coalition-building) promises. Those promises come in many forms – they can relate to policy, positions and personalities – but now the noisiest among them relate to Netanyahu himself. Either he agrees to some compromise with Blue and White – a rotation, first or second place; suspension if indicted, or outright removal.

The other option is to face outsized, almost blackmail-like demands from Liberman to form a right-wing coalition. One of those demands might spell the end for Netanyahu, too.

For a decade, Netanyahu has been king of Israel’s political system. Now, that same strange, fragmented and flawed Israeli system that he thought he had mastered could bring him down — even if the voters don’t.

Full disclosure: Dahlia Scheindlin conducted polling and advising for Meretz/Democratic Union at an early stage of the current campaign.