Written by Isabel Kershner
With just two days left before the deadline for forming a government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was struggling Monday to sign up coalition partners, thrusting the country into a political crisis and raising the possibility that it could be forced to hold a new election.
The drama stemmed from a battle of wills between two political forces that Netanyahu needs to form a right-wing coalition: the ultra-Orthodox religious parties that won 16 parliamentary seats in the April 9 election, and Avigdor Lieberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, which won five seats and whose constituents are mostly secular, Russian-speaking Israelis.
Having long sparred over issues of religion and state, the sides are now wrestling over legislation to replace a military draft law that exempted ultra-Orthodox men. Lieberman supports a law that sets modest quotas for enlisting them, which the religious parties oppose.
A new law must be passed by late July, according to a deadline imposed by Israel’s Supreme Court.
Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, which won 35 seats, needs the ultra-Orthodox parties, Yisrael Beiteinu and two other parties to assemble a 61-seat majority.
Analysts said it was entirely possible that the parties could resolve their differences, allowing Netanyahu to announce a new government by midnight Wednesday, which would not be the first time Israeli coalition negotiations have gone to the wire.
But the alternative threatened to catapult Israel into uncharted political terrain: Israel has never had to hold a new national ballot because of a failure to form a government after an election.
“Right now it looks as if we are at a deadlock because everybody has climbed to the top of a tree and nobody’s ready to get down, especially not Lieberman,” said Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Putting the chances of a new election at 50-50, he added, “Definitely there is a possibility that we will have early elections even before the government was formed.”
On Sunday, Likud submitted a motion to disperse the newly sworn-in Parliament, paving the way for new elections. While questions arose over the legality of an interim government taking such action, the move seemed like a canny negotiating tactic in a game of political chicken.
By Monday, one newspaper, Maariv, had already published a poll asking, “If elections were held today, who would you vote for?”
On Monday evening, the motion passed a preliminary vote in Parliament; possible dates were being bandied about for a new election in about three months.
Even as his party moved toward a new election, Netanyahu insisted he did not want one.
“It is still possible to come to our senses,” he said in a televised address Monday evening. “I promise that I will continue to work in every possible way during the time that is still left in order to form the government. I call upon Avigdor Lieberman to reconsider.”
Netanyahu also quoted a tweet posted Monday by President Donald Trump endorsing Netanyahu’s efforts, which many critics described as an improper intervention in Israel’s domestic politics. Trump, calling Netanyahu by his nickname, Bibi, wrote: “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.”
Calling a new election would pre-empt another possibility, distasteful to Netanyahu, that Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, could offer someone else the chance to form a government.
The opposition is led by Blue and White, a new centrist party whose main appeal was that it was not led by Netanyahu, who has already served 13 years as prime minister and is facing indictment on corruption charges.
Netanyahu, who is on track to become Israel’s longest serving prime minister this summer, is also the first to face possible criminal charges while in office. In February, the attorney general announced plans to indict him in three cases for bribery fraud, breach of trust.
The attorney general has set a hearing for October where Netanyahu’s lawyers can plead his case before a final decision is made.
The Likud nevertheless won five more seats than last time, which Netanyahu took as a vote of confidence, and together with the right-wing and religious parties that made up his last coalition, seemed poised to form a government with a majority of 65 seats.
He also appeared set to take on another challenge — promoting legislation that would guarantee him immunity from prosecution while in office. Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday night in a protest against such a move.
Instead, Netanyahu has found himself at the mercy of smaller parties engaged in a power struggle over the military draft law, which critics said was in any case a mild compromise unlikely to significantly change the status quo.