Millennium Post

Fate of Knesset

Israel seems to be in political turmoil with Netanyahu’s future in doubt

The political turmoil in Israel after Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government, even after claiming victory in the national elections held in April, has not only cast a cloud over his future as prime minister but also on the prospects of the Trump administration's yet to be announced "deal of the century" to settle the Palestinian problem.

The 69-year-old populist right-wing leader had 42 days time till May 29 to form his government, but his dream of leading the country for the fourth consecutive term and a fifth overall collapsed as he could lockdown only 60 seats in the 120-member parliament or Knesset, exactly one short of a majority. Had he succeeded in forming the government he would have been the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history, surpassing its founder David Ben-Gurion.

To prevent the president from asking the Opposition to have a go, Netanyahu and his right-wing colleagues along with Arab parties agreed and voted to dissolve the Knesset with Netanyahu calling for fresh elections on September 17. The situation is unprecedented. Every other election since Israel's founding in 1948 has resulted in the formation of a government.

In a bid to salvage his fortunes, Netanyahu tried to get new coalition partners and potential defectors from Opposition parties. He even approached Labor, the Center-left only to be rebuffed. No single party has ever won a majority of 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, making coalition governments the norm.

Over the years, both right-wing nationalists and ultra-Orthodox parties have stood behind Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party. But this time the ostensible reason for the disagreement between the two factions was a legislation, drafted by the previous government, that would cut the exemption of religious students, ultra-Orthodox Jews also known as the Haredim, from compulsory military service.

Since the formation of the country, the ultra-Orthodox men have been exempted from being drafted into the armed forces and other forms of national service that are otherwise mandatory for Israelis. The ultra-Orthodox, who today constitute about 10 per cent of Israel's total population, devote their lives to studying religious texts without interruption. Non-participation of male ultra-Orthodox in the country's economy and the military is a cause of resentment among many Israelis.

This problem is likely to intensify because of high birth rates among them. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, as many as one-third of Israelis could be ultra-Orthodox by 2065. The issue has been festering for a long time. During elections, both nationalist and religious parties had put it aside to form the right-wing coalition.

However, this time it did not happen largely because Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Our Home party), whose five seats have made him a kingmaker, made his support to Netanyahu conditional to the passage of a bill to end the ultra-Orthodox exemption from national service.

By taking this stand Lieberman, who previously served as Netanyahu's defence minister for two and a half years, seems to be positioning himself for the day after Netanyahu. A renowned hawk known for extremist rhetoric, he had quit the ministry in November 2012 protesting a cabinet decision to accept a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza.

The charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust against Netanyahu in three corruption cases also appeared to have weakened his leverage in coalition negotiations for forming a government.

Netanyahu's failure to form a government also scuttled any immediate plans to advance legislation giving him immunity from prosecution and limit the Supreme Court's power to overturn the legislation. A pretrial hearing has been fixed in early October.

He has been accused of taking gifts from wealthy benefactors in return for favours and offering help with regulatory matters to publishers in exchange for positive coverage. He has denied any wrongdoing. The allegations did not seem to have influenced the voters against him in the last elections. Even if he wins the September elections he may have time and perhaps a majority to have a desired legislation before the pretrial hearing.

The development is also likely to overshadow and perhaps delay the Trump administration's peace efforts. The US had scheduled an economic development conference for the Palestinian territories later this month in Bahrain, described as the first step in the economic portion of a long-delayed Israel-Palestinian peace plan.

The plan seems to be on the ice. No one in the region is calling for it. Netanyahu did not want it before the April elections and perhaps won't want it before September polls.

In the absence of an elected government in Israel at least until the fall, by which US president Donald Trump is likely to get involved with his own re-election campaign, the prospects of advancing the peace plan, already rejected outright by the Palestinians, appears to have dimmed even further.

As far as the September election is concerned, it may lead to alliances being redrawn while new parties may enter the race. However, Netanyahu, long nicknamed "the magician" for the political wizardry, is the most formidable politician in Israel and unless there is essentially a patricide within the Likud he is most likely to form the government after the September elections.

(The author is a former Editor of PTI and served as West Asia correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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