It was stunning theatre. On Wednesday night, quite literally at the eleventh hour, television reporters set up makeshift studios in the Knesset halls, marking their turf with whatever was available, grabbing roving MKs for the cameras to speculate on whether “it” was really going to happen.
“It,” of course, was the imminent vote on the dissolution of the 21st Knesset, sworn in on April 30 and elected on April 9. Radiating fury, surrounded by his usual security posse, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu passed the swarms of cameras and journalists, unblinking, heading for the Knesset chamber and the unprecedented vote shortly before midnight on Wednesday.
Netanyahu had only declared victory less than two months ago, with unbridled jubilation. With 35 mandates out of 120, his party was smashingly victorious and forming the next government was a slam dunk.
Or so it seemed.
Once a storied political genius, Netanyahu now seems more mortal.
For much of the six weeks that are allotted after election day to negotiate and formalize a coalition government, Netanyahu seemed to be busy with almost anything but that. There is always a flurry of activity at the end of such periods, but they are typified by a sort of fatalist faith that in the end, somehow, it will all come together.
This time, it did not.
The villains are several, depending on who one believes. On the surface, it was the refusal of Avigdor Lieberman to accede on Netanyahu’s terms that brought down the house. Then again, others pin the blame on the ultra-Orthodox parties for refusing to bend. And virtually all agree that Netanyahu gravely miscalculated his leverage.
Commanding five mandates for his Yisrael Beitenu party, Lieberman was steadfast in his refusal to support a government that did not commit, without caveat, to pass the military “Draft Law,” negotiated painstakingly with the ultra-Orthodox and other parties in the previous Knesset. Targeting ultra-Orthodox youth, the Draft Law set very modest quotas for Haredi enlistment in the IDF in coming years.
The law is more symbolic than anything, doing little to address the festering resentment among secular and modern Orthodox Israelis on the one hand and their ultra-Orthodox compatriots on the other. What it did do, in Lieberman’s view (and, according to polls, many Israelis agree with him on this point), is to make clear to the ultra-Orthodox that the economic entitlements they enjoy without assuming an appropriate share of state burdens must end.
Virtually all ultra-Orthodox males refuse to do military service, opting instead to study religious texts full-time, taking advantage of an ill-advised compromise forged in the early years of the state between the government and Haredi leaders. They believe they do God’s work. Those Israelis who serve compulsorily in the army see things differently. And that makes for one heck of an intractable impasse.
Enter Lieberman. As with all politicians, he has engaged with the ultra-Orthodox, which has become increasingly imperative in recent decades, as their population and electoral influence ballooned. He has also been consistent in his strident and uncompromising secularism. In recent weeks, his mantra has been: “We support a Jewish state, but not one based on religious law.”
Most Israelis agree with him on that point. In addition to refusing to serve in the military, the ultra-Orthodox are, in economic terms, net takers, not contributors. More than 50 percent of their population lives below the poverty line. The average birth rate in their community is 7.8 children per family, and they are employed at significantly lower rates than the non-Haredi population. When they do work, they typically hold more menial jobs.
In recent years and, particularly in the last election cycle, Netanyahu has been seen to pander to ultra-Orthodox political demands in order to retain his hold on power.
And then there was this twist. It is well known that Netanyahu is very focused on postponing, indefinitely, his imminent pre-indictment hearing followed by criminal charges on various counts of corruption-related offenses. That, it seems, has become the sole focus of his current political strategy.
Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu affirmed, repeatedly, that he would not support an “Immunity law,” which would effectively immunize him from prosecution while sitting as prime minister by making it illegal to prosecute a sitting minister. The rationale, of course, is that his full attention would be required to lead the state and not be distracted by personal criminal matters. Fair enough. But such undermining of the justice system from a place of privilege is not what many would associate with a healthy democracy. The offensiveness of this effort is compounded by the fact that two other sitting ministers are under investigation for alleged corruption.
When polls made clear that 70 percent of the Israeli public was against such brazenly undemocratic conduct, the Likud camp shifted strategies, promoting instead the option of legislating a parliamentary prerogative to override any Supreme Court decision. Such an effort would render the most important check on power in any democracy–an independent judiciary—utterly irrelevant.
That did it. Something blew open. There was a wave of disgust across partisan lines. Even Likudniks were against such open subversion of fundamental democratic institutions and processes.
It was clear that Netanyahu was confident that he would pull the rabbit out of his hat, as he has done so many times in the past. As did so many pundits, Netanyahu likely expected Liberman’s power drive to overtake any grandstanding or principle.
And they were all wrong.
In a final contemptuous gesture, Likud brought a motion to dissolve parliament to the Knesset, forcing new elections. While technically legal, the procedural move was offensive in the extreme. As has happened in the past, the more noble approach would have been to advise president Rivlin that Likud had failed to negotiate a coalition in the time allocated, and the president would have the prerogative to either call elections or invite another party to attempt to do so.
Whatever one’s political views, this tendency displayed by Netanyahu and his allies to circumvent the democratic process is, perhaps, the most worrisome of all.