Netanyahu Caught Between Rock of Risky Election and Hard Place of Criminal Trial

Israel is struggling to contain an alarming resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic. Its economy is contracting, with close to 20 percent unemployment. The anti-government protest movement is picking up steam. Political polarization is deepening. Confidence in government is eroding. The threat of political violence and bloodshed hangs heavy in the air.

The very last thing the country needs right now is a new election. An election campaign would paralyze medical and financial relief efforts, wreak political havoc and inflame internal divisions. Given that Israelis went out to the polls less than six months ago to vote for the third time within a year and that the ballot produced a theoretically strong and stable broad-based government, it’s no surprise that the overwhelming majority of Israelis of all political stripes view a snap election as destructive and even deranged.

– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 91

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The one crucial exception is Benjamin Netanyahu. In recent days, the prime minister has dispelled any lingering doubts about his ultimate intentions. Over the weekend, Netanyahu initiated a coalition crisis with Benny Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party by blatantly reneging on a central clause in the coalition agreement they signed in May, concerning the state budget. No one in Israel believes that the sketchy economic arguments Netanyahu makes in favor of a stop-gap short-term budget and against the two-year budget he pledged to enact have anything to do with his true motivation for forcing Israel into an election it does not want or need.

But no one is surprised either. Veteran observers of the prime minister have been forecasting his decision to plunge the country into yet another election campaign from the moment the results of the previous March 2 ballot were announced. Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest party, but his overall right-wing bloc failed to gain the 61-seat majority he needs in order to legislate his way out of his upcoming criminal trial. For Netanyahu, they assumed correctly, nothing else matters.

Netanyahu’s original plan was to go through the motions of trying to set up a new coalition, declaring failure and setting a date for a fourth election. He was sidetracked by the sudden realization that Gantz could be coaxed into an illusory power-sharing agreement, thus precipitating the break-up of Netanyahu’s center-left opposition while delegitimizing his partner’s leadership role at the same time. Gantz was forewarned that Netanyahu was laying a trap for him, but decided, naively and disastrously, to walk straight into it.

Gantz tried to guard against Netanyahu’s machinations by demanding and receiving ironclad commitments, enacted into law, which would compel Netanyahu to hand over power in November 2021, as agreed. The contract between the two included a stipulation that if Netanyahu would nonetheless try to bring down his own government, he would have to step down and Gantz would serve in as interim prime minister until an election is held.

The agreement left only one narrow escape hatch: The budget. Israeli law stipulates that a government that fails to pass a budget falls automatically and a new election is called. If the government approves a two-year budget, as originally agreed, Netanyahu would be forced to hand over power one way or another – either on the originally agreed date of November 2021 or earlier, if Netanyahu precipitates a coalition crisis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz at a Knesset meeting in Jerusalem, June 28, 2020.Olivier Fitoussi

This is why the prime minister decided to push for a short-term budget until the end of the year, insisting, contrary to most economic experts, that its passage is critical to Israel’s economic wellbeing. Netanyahu's true reason, however, is that a short-term budget would allow him to bring down the government without handing over power by early next year.