In Israel’s New Election Campaign, Right Battles Right
By Isabel Kershner New York Times May 30, 2019
JERUSALEM — After the spectacular collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to build a coalition threw Israel into an unprecedented do-over election, Israeli public attention on Thursday was glued to two politicians.
One was Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister for the last 10 years, but the other was not Benny Gantz, his main challenger in the election last month.
Instead, the first day of the new election campaign was dominated by Mr. Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a small ultranationalist party and former coalition partner who has become anathema to Mr. Netanyahu.
It was Mr. Lieberman’s refusal to compromise on a new military draft law with Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners that thwarted Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government. Mr. Netanyahu needed both Mr. Lieberman’s party and the ultra-Orthodox faction to build his right-wing majority.
That divide, between the ultrareligious right and the secular right, has for the moment eclipsed the old left-right divide in Israel. It proved to be Mr. Netanyahu’s undoing on Wednesday, his deadline to form a governing coalition, and could be critical in the next election, scheduled for Sept. 17.
Having failed to meet the deadline, Mr. Netanyahu pushed the Parliament to dissolve itself early Thursday, and a politically fatigued Israel awoke to find itself in another bitter election cycle.
Positioning himself as the champion of the secular right, Mr. Lieberman had seized on an issue of festering resentment in Israeli society: the broad exemptions to military service currently granted to ultra-Orthodox seminary students. Mr. Lieberman supports a new law requiring minimal quotas for them to serve, which Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners vehemently oppose.
Mr. Lieberman, whose party scraped through the last election with just five seats, strode into a news conference on Thursday with the air of a winner, appearing relaxed and self-confident, having dented Mr. Netanyahu’s aura of invincibility.
A blunt and inscrutable politician who was Mr. Netanyahu’s former defense minister, Mr. Lieberman railed against what he called a “campaign of discreditation” after Mr. Netanyahu branded him a “leftist.”
After calling for more a measured and professional political discourse, Mr. Lieberman then accused the prime minister’s supporters of nurturing a “personality cult” and said that some of Mr. Netanyahu’s close associates required a “reputable and experienced psychiatrist.”
Mr. Netanyahu tried to make light of his setback at a meeting in Jerusalem on Thursday with Jared Kushner and Jason D. Greenblatt, architects of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan.
“You know, we had a little event last night,” he said. “That’s not going to stop us. We’re going to continue working together.”
Later Thursday, in a televised address, Mr. Netanyahu sought to present himself as an indispensable world statesman, speaking of his special relations with the Trump administration and Russia, and he also attacked Mr. Lieberman, blaming him for toppling a right-wing government on “a personal whim.”
Despite the political instincts that have kept him in office for the last decade, Mr. Netanyahu appeared to have been taken by surprise, outfoxed by an old nemesis and finding himself in a changing political landscape.
The right wing has won easy majorities in the last three elections, and in most elections over the last four decades, while the Israeli left has shrunk. Labor, once the main center-left challenger to the right, won only six seats in the last election. Mr. Netanyahu’s main challenger was Mr. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, whose main campaign issue was that Mr. Gantz was not Mr. Netanyahu.
Blue and White, which won 35 seats in April, would otherwise have been a natural alternative for a coalition with Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud. But Mr. Netanyahu is facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, and Blue and White refused to join a government with a prime minister facing indictment.
That narrowed Mr. Netanyahu’s options. Still, signing up the same right-wing and ultra-Orthodox allies that made up his previous government should have been a cinch. But he got caught in a battle of wills between Mr. Lieberman and the powerful ultra-Orthodox alliance.
Analysts said Mr. Lieberman’s principled stand on the military draft law was a vehicle for his more far-reaching political ambitions.
His gambit, said Orit Galili-Zucker, a former strategic communications adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and a political branding expert, was “the first stone to fall, a crack in the wall.”
In the longer term, she said, Mr. Lieberman’s goal is “to bring an end the Netanyahu era.”
Yariv Levin, a Likud minister who led the party’s coalition negotiations, said Mr. Lieberman had made excessive demands, including for three ministerial posts and had intended to torpedo the new government from the start out of personal ambition, setting conditions that he knew the ultra-Orthodox politicians could not meet.
“It’s as if he said: ‘I’m willing to join the government. I just have one demand: that the legislators from United Torah Judaism come eat lunch with me in a nonkosher restaurant,’” Mr. Levin told Ynet, a Hebrew website.
It is unclear this early in the election cycle whether Mr. Lieberman can capitalize on his success, though he may well pick up some votes, just as it is too early to write Mr. Netanyahu out. But many Israelis questioned how Mr. Netanyahu got played by Mr. Lieberman, whom he knows well.
Shmuel Sandler, a professor in the department of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, said he thought Mr. Netanyahu’s focus on his legal woes and personal survival caused him to “neglect his instincts and knowledge” of Mr. Lieberman.
The rivalry between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Lieberman, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova 40 years ago and rose through the ranks of Likud before forming his own party, goes back decades. Mr. Lieberman, who began his political career as an aide to Mr. Netanyahu, has prepared for eventually competing for the post of prime minister by serving as foreign minister and defense minister. But Mr. Sandler said that he felt that Mr. Netanyahu did not respect his opinion or keep promises to him.
At the same time, Yisrael Beiteinu’s traditional base of aging Russian-speakers is dwindling as the immigrants increasingly vote like Israelis across the political spectrum. So Mr. Lieberman had to reinvent himself politically.
“There’s a strong, significant group of secular Israelis who self-identify as right wing,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research center in Jerusalem. “They want a right-wing government but not a government that succumbs and gives in and allows the ultra-Orthodox to call the shots.”
Mr. Lieberman is a hard-liner even by some right-wing standards, pushing for the death penalty for people convicted of terrorist acts and a much tougher policy toward Gaza.
With coalition talks at an impasse, Mr. Netanyahu was left with few options.
He chose to drag the country into new elections rather than allow President Reuven Rivlin, an old foe, to give another lawmaker the chance to form a government.
But the new election is also a big risk for Mr. Netanyahu, aside from the fact that he may lose. The election date of Sept. 17 brings his legal and political timetables dangerously close together.
The attorney general has set a hearing for Mr. Netanyahu in early October and by winter is expected to make a final decision on filing charges. Mr. Netanyahu had hoped to advance legislation in the current Parliament giving him immunity from prosecution while in office.
Even if Mr. Netanyahu wins and forms a new government by November, he may not have time to make the legal changes to protect himself. If he is indicted, he is likely to face strong pressure to step down even if he has just won the election.
Now little is certain.
A new election could turn out the same as the last, leading to the same stalemate, or not. Voter turnout could be affected. New faces could join the race.
But one thing Mr. Lieberman may have taught Mr. Netanyahu is that nothing is forever.