Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may have won the largest bloc in last week’s Israeli Knesset election, but he does not yet appear to have a governing coalition. He faces problems from his potential coalition partners, from the likely opposition, from the Courts, and the coronavirus. All of these factors suggest that Netanyahu is not nearly as close to gaining the 60 +1 votes he will need to govern. While he is conducting the affairs of state as if everything is decided, these unresolved issues are hardly small obstacles.
Netanyahu has indeed demonstrated assertive and impressive leadership in guiding Israel’s response to the coronavirus. He has chosen to be proactive in how he has addressed the problem; restricting flights, intensifying home-incubation, restricting movement of foreign arrivals, imposing quarantines, and elevating the levels of examinations. At the same time however, Netanyahu once again appears to need to grovel to Donald Trump. He is unable, even on a matter of domestic leadership, to address the global pandemic without clearing his (Israel’s) response with Washington.
Given the abysmal lack of leadership that President Trump has demonstrated in fighting the global medical crisis, Israelis should be appalled at Bibi’s continued unwillingness to separate himself from Trump. Presumably, Netanyahu believes that such independence could come back to bite Bibi later. It is indeed remarkable that Netanyahu—who is a far stronger and impressive leader—continues to appear to be intimidated by President Trump.
Netanyahu is seeking to quickly cobble together a governing coalition. He has found, however, that his right-wing group of parties is still short two votes. Bibi assumes that to secure another term, he might need to bring in the more moderate Blue and White Party (Kahul Lavan) faction which could alienate some members in his right-wing cohort. Alternatively, bringing Avigdor Liebermann’s Jewish Home Party (Yisrael Beitenu) will drive out the ultra-Orthodox parties in Bibi’s projected coalition. While Netanyahu again may be looking for help from his American supporters, at the end of the day this is strictly a domestic political crisis.
Netanyahu also knows that Benny Gantz, the leader of the Kahal Lavan Party may also have a path to leadership. Gantz could join with Liebermann and the parties on the left—without the religious parties but with the Joint Arab List–to form a Government. If this were to occur, the politics could jell but the settler movement and the right-wing parties could precipitate a civil war. (On this, only the IDF and the Mossad know for sure if it could work.) Ironically, the Joint Arab List might be persuaded to enter the Government, but agree to recuse themselves from security discussions within the Cabinet for an initial period of time. After trial a period all parties could determine whether the engagement of the Israeli Arabs would be constructive to Israel’s security or not.
Netanyahu also has a date in court on March 17 for the criminal corruption charges which he continually has succeeded to defer but looks like this time they are firm dates. Barring a Knesset vote to exempt the Prime Minister from prosecution, it is unclear if Netanyahu will be able to escape again from the Court’s order. More than any other issue—despite Bibi’s bravado—this question may dictate the resolution of the Israeli political stalemate.