There is little use in making precise predictions in Israeli politics. The incredible volatility, combined with the sheer number of stakeholders, presents a potent challenge for even the most skilled and politically connected prognosticators and journalists in the country, let alone overseas analysts. To offer an exact forecast means taking an enormous risk with one’s credibility.

Therefore, I won’t make a prediction but a blunt statement: Benjamin Netanyahu is inept if he doesn’t orchestrate the collapse of his coalition this week and take the country to new elections. If the last month represented a perfect storm of political catastrophes for the embattled premier, the timetable on which a new election campaign would play out likely represents his last hope of securing a popular mandate before he is formally indicted on charges of bribery.

Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon both expressed stern opposition to MK Yaakov Litzman’s demand that a new Basic Law to exempt ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service be approved before the 2019 budget. If the threat had been made by a conventional political party, perhaps a compromise would be forthcoming and easy to imagine. Indeed, Education Minister Naftali Bennett has suggested the prime minister can find a solution “in ten minutes.” However, UTJ is no ordinary party. Unlike other factions, whose lists are regulated by party conventions or primary elections, the two subsets of UTJ are controlled directly by religious leaders and rabbinic councils. United Torah Judaism’s list is a combination of the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and Degel HaTorah, which split off from Agudat in the 1980s and represents the Lithuanian wing of ultra-Orthodox Rabbis. The factions have run together in most elections since, mainly appealing to ultra-Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazi heritage.

Thus, we are not dealing with mere grandstanding here. Litzman, as if to apologize to his colleagues for his stance, has said that he is following the direct orders of Agudat Yisrael’s Council of Torah Sages, which controls 4 of the 6 mandates UTJ won in the 2015 election (the other two are controlled by Degel HaTorah’s Council of Sages).

As Anshel Pfeffer noted in Ha’aretz, this leaves little room for negotiations. The chair of the Council of Torah Sages is the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, who refuses to meet with politicians who don’t keep the Sabbath, let alone cut deals with them that contradict what he believes to be the sacred word of God. To be acceptable, a face-saving measure will have to come nigh close to total capitulation.

So if there is to be a compromise, it will likely involve concessions from Kahlon, which is not exactly unthinkable. Recall that he compromised quickly last year when Netanyahu threatened to call early elections over the launch of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation; and in late 2016, Kahlon ultimately dropped his opposition to the deeply controversial law retroactively legalizing certain settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land. According to polls, Kahlon doesn’t have much to gain with new elections. His best-case scenario is essentially the status quo. Unless he has a good number of ex-generals and exiled Likudniks ready to join the Kualnu list the instant elections are called, Kahlon should not be in favor of a snap vote.

Netanyahu can save his coalition if he puts in significant effort, perhaps by forging an agreement to immediately vote on a Basic Law after the budget receives final approval. But should he? It’s been almost three years since the last election, a relatively stable tenure for an Israeli government in the modern era of fractious coalition politics. Even if the prime minister was not being dogged by three (potentially four or even five, when we consider Cases 3000 and 1270) serious corruption investigations, now would be the time to start pondering the benefits of an early vote. With those investigations in mind, especially the news of Nir Hafetz becoming the third Netanyahu confidant to turn state’s witness, the decision to call a snap election should be an easy one.

The news leaking from the various law enforcement agencies and units involved in the investigations is likely going to get worse as we continue the journey to either indictments or escape-by-technicality, as at this point it’s abundantly clear that Netanyahu has long occupied himself unethically with the internal affairs of the media. Aluf Benn put it most succinctly last month when he wrote that “the argument isn’t about facts but how to interpret them.” Netanyahu cannot plausibly deny that he had a corrupt conversation with Arnon Mozes about the coverage in the latter’s newspaper and the competitiveness of the news industry since the Prime Minister’s friend injected a free paper into the market; he can only deny, rather implausibly, that he had no corrupt intentions.

That, after all, is the nature of a recording: it introduces incontestable content into the drama. Pat Buchanan was likely acting in the President’s best political interests when he told Richard Nixon to destroy the Oval Office tapes. If Netanyahu had ownership of the tapes, this may well have happened years ago. Unfortunately for him, state’s witnesses Ari Harow and Nir Hafetz had ownership of them and now the state’s prosecutors have them as well. The investigations give the Prime Minister no incentive to wait and many to seek a new mandate as soon as possible.

In addition to news getting worse, Netanyahu is also unlikely to again see a political climate as advantageous to him as the next three to four months. Not only is Israel reaching its seventieth birthday in a time of economic growth and expanding diplomatic relations, the former chimera known as a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem will have its initial opening ceremony during the election campaign. What better opportunity to show Israeli voters that the investigations are a mere sideshow to his extraordinary success in lessening the world’s attention to the occupation of the West Bank, thus allowing Israel to advance unperturbed?

The opposition is also split between two major parties that are unlikely to combine forces overnight, and the nature of the government’s collapse makes it even more improbable: the political overindulgences of the ultra-Orthodox parties will force Yair Lapid to take a tough position on them, as his core voters expect, which should close the deal for UTJ and Shas to quietly commit to the Likud’s coalition bloc before the election.

Though the case for new elections is strong, Netanyahu has a reputation for extreme cautiousness, and there is indeed one major risk involved: if the benefit of a new mandate is holding the prestige of the Prime Minister’s Office throughout all the proceedings and become Israel’s longest-serving head of government, the risk of seeking it now is that he could be ousted prior to being indicted. While it’s difficult to see a path to victory for the opposition in the next three months, one can easily imagine the dilemma contributing to sleepless nights on Balfour Street.

Matzav-R copy
We respect your privacy.