Unlike the “first past the post” method used in the United States, Britain and most other democracies, Israel’s proportional election system often fails to yield a clear-cut winner. Victory depends not only on voter preferences but also on post-election maneuvering by the leaders of the various parties. It is achieved only if and when the candidate appointed by the president succeeds in cobbling together a coalition that provides an incoming government with a majority in the Knesset.
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Avigdor Lieberman’s defection from Netanyahu’s natural bloc — which includes his Likud, parties to its right and religious parties — sabotaged the prime minister’s efforts to set up a right-wing government after the April 9 election. Rather than adhere to established constitutional norms, which would have entailed handing over the mantle to another candidate, Netanyahu coerced the Knesset to disperse itself and to set a new election for September 17.
The success or failure of Netanyahu’s gambit depends on whether the new ballot will yield more favorable results: A shift of four to five Knesset seats one way or another could make all the difference. The permutations are numerous, but they boil down to one simple question: Will Netanyahu’s bloc garner more than 61 seats, allowing him to bypass Lieberman and snub his potential partners to the left?
>> Read more: Israel’s shining political superstar is a prime minister unto himself ■ How Ayelet Shaked became the most powerful woman in Israeli politics ■ Lieberman, the left's new messiah | Opinion
If it doesn’t — and on the unfounded assumption that Lieberman will stick to his guns and refuse to endorse such a government — Netanyahu will, at best, be forced into a broad-based coalition with Kahol Lavan or Labor from the left, or, at worst, be tossed aside to end his political career in deflating defeat. In both scenarios Netanyahu would most likely face criminal indictments within a short few months.
If Netanyahu and his allies do cross the 60-seat threshold, however — or if Lieberman decides to rejoin his natural habitat for a steep price, as many suspect he will — Netanyahu will score his greatest triumph. The stage will be set for his ultimate deal with the devil. His new coalition is likely to grant him immunity from prosecution, but that would be the least of its havoc.
Netanyahu, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, would be willing to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, curtail any right, defy any convention, dismantle any democratic institution and annex any disputed territory in order to assure the survival and success of liberty — as long as it’s his own.
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Netanyahu’s potential aiders and abettors on the religious right know that his back is against the wall. They can feel his fear and smell his desperation. They will recognize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that voters dumped in their laps and will demand an exorbitant ransom for setting Netanyahu free. If you thought Netanyahu’s previous four years in office placed Israel on a slippery slope toward an authoritarian, ethnocentric theocracy, prepare yourself: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Granting Netanyahu retroactive immunity from prosecution would not only distort democracy and violate the rule of law — it would open the floodgates for a deluge of disastrous decisions, policies and laws that would change Israel forever. Stricter Orthodox hegemony, restrictions on free expression and dissent, subjugation of the legal system and civil service as well as an all-out push for annexation of the West Bank would top the agenda. But given that with food comes an appetite, other yet-unknown evils would soon join them.
Such a nightmarish scenario would crush Israel’s shrinking liberal Jewish minority, further alienate its minorities, escalate international condemnation and invigorate the boycott movement. And while Netanyahu might be able to maintain Israel’s strategic relationship with the United States, and even enhance it further if Donald Trump is reelected, a narrow right-wing government could very well deliver a final coup de grâce to the troubled relationship between Israel and the majority of American Jews.
The ties that bind the two largest Jewish communities in the world are already frayed, almost beyond repair. Inherent and unavoidable tensions with the largely liberal American Jewish community over issues such as peace and pluralism were exacerbated over the past four years in the wake of Netanyahu’s defiant confrontation with Barack Obama and his amorous cohabitation with Trump. In between, Netanyahu’s obedient ministers and slavish parliamentarians supplied a steady stream of provocative statements and policy decisions that poured even more fuel on a fire that was already threatening to rage out of control.
Four more years with an invigorated clerical-right Netanyahu government would turn the blazes into an all-consuming inferno. Netanyahu, who feels indebted to and dependent on Trump’s goodwill, would do his best to ensure that his good friend in the White House is reelected, tradition of non-intervention in internal U.S. affairs be damned. Given the fever pitch of their current antipathy toward the U.S. president, this would be reason enough for many American Jews to distance themselves permanently from the Jewish state.
The anticipated spate of archconservative and ultra-nationalistic policies and actions of such a government would alienate the rest. A Netanyahu government beholden to Ayelet Shaked’s Hayamin Hehadash party would strive to annex the West Bank, piecemeal or in one fell swoop; kill any lingering hopes for a two-state solution; and institute a regime that anyone but its apologists will view as apartheid. Ultra-Orthodox parties would curtail LGBTQ rights, try to reverse women’s equality and squash any hope for recognition of Reform and Conservative Jewry. And Netanyahu’s own Likud zealots would gut the judicial system, politicize its civil service, clamp down on dissenting media and try to put Israeli Arabs back in their rightful place as a barely tolerated minority of individuals who should be grateful for what they’re given.
This will be all too much to bear for the roughly three-quarters of American Jews who voted against Trump and for Democrats in both the 2016 and 2018 elections — especially if Trump himself is reelected, and doubly so if Netanyahu is seen to help. Abandoning hope that Israel will come to its senses, liberal American Jews will identify Netanyahu’s Israel with what they view as the utter viciousness and vileness of Trump and his administration. Given the escalating political polarization in the United States, the contamination could prove incurable.
It would certainly thwart the efforts and initiatives of well-meaning institutions such as the Diaspora Museum, the Jewish Agency, the Ruderman Foundation and others, which have been spurred into action in recent years by the specter of deteriorating ties between Israel and American Jews. The fledgling dams that these do-gooders are trying to construct with platforms for open dialogue and greater understanding would most likely be swept away by the expected tsunami of arrogant and retrograde moves emanating from Netanyahu’s government and its unabashed Jewish-supremacist worldview.
The flip side, of course, is that any result on September 17 other than a clear-cut right-wing majority for Netanyahu would be a godsend for future ties between the two communities, a last-minute reprieve that would allow them to step back from the abyss. Even if Netanyahu remains in power, albeit at the head of a broad-based government, his policies would necessarily moderate and create less friction and tensions with American Jewry. Such a government would necessarily include politicians who have a more favorable view of Israel’s relationship with American Jews and a greater sense of urgency to fix them.
The current prognosis of most pollsters and forecasters is that this is the most likely outcome of the September 17 ballot. But it doesn’t take much for it to change in Netanyahu’s favor. If Labor under Amir Peretz dips below the electoral threshold or if Arabs and disaffected leftists turn out in the same lowly numbers as they did on April 9, Netanyahu could easily scale the 61-seat barrier that stands between him and his dreams.
In his moment of undeniable triumph, as he brandishes his get-out-of-jail-free card, takes aim at his tormentors and critics and allows his coalition partners to carry out their coup d’état against Israel’s liberal democracy, American Jews will be the least of his concerns. A once-cherished alliance based on affection, kinship and mutual dependence would soon be thrown into the dustbin of history.