May was not the best month for President Donald Trump’s Middle East bestie, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, faced with irreconcilable demands from potential coalition partners, ordered a vote last Wednesday to dissolve parliament, which had just been elected in April.
The extraordinary maneuver to disband the Knesset sets the political stage for a whole new vote in September, the first time there will be two national elections in one year. Netanyahu is expected to go into these new elections in a much weakened position—not only did he fail to form a government, his corruption scandal is heading for a climax.
Washington interests are among those compromised by this unexpected turn of events. Trump had counted upon his good friend and political soulmate Netanyahu to prevail yet again over his political competition.
“It’s too bad what happened in Israel,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “It looked like a total win for Netanyahu, who is a great guy. And now they are back at the debate stage, and they are back at the election stage. That is too bad because they don’t need this. They got enough turmoil over there. It’s a tough place.”
Political deals among ostensibly irreconcilable party agendas have long been the predictable stuff of Israeli politics. Israel has never been able to form a single party government. In order to create a parliamentary majority, socialists sit with capitalists, peaceniks with settlers, the orthodox religious with militant secularists. This is Team Israel—the source of its vitality and dynamism and its ability over more than half a century to defy demands for an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
This time is just didn’t work—thanks in no small part to a dispute between former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman’s secular right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and ultra-Orthodox parties within Netanyahu’s prospective coalition. Much to Netanyahu’s consternation, Lieberman refused to compromise on a new conscription law that would require all Israeli men, including ultra-orthodox, to serve in the country’s military. Until now, the ultra-orthodox have been given deferments from service, a carve-out thatg Lieberman’s party strongly opposed.
The fracture between the two right-wing leaders has been a topic of great discussion. In the days since the Knesset was dissolved, Netanyahu has referred to his old friend as a “serial saboteur.”
On the other hand, Netanyahu has been busy trying to minimize his personal damage in the fallout. In a Thursday press conference, according to The New York Times, the embattled prime minister “sought to present himself as an indispensable world statesman, speaking of his special relations with the Trump administration.” He also whipped out a map, given to him by Trump’s son-in-law and foreign policy envoy Jared Kushner, that included the disputed Golan Heights as Israel territory with the word “nice” scribbled in, supposedly by Trump himself.
This of course, referred to the administration’s official recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, in March.
The Trump-Netanyahu tag team has been busy these past two years, each leader attempting to bolster the other’s political standing. They combined to torpedo the nuclear deal with Iran (the Joint Compressive Plan of Action), demonize the Palestinians, and promote the fiction that the road to peace between Israel and the Palestinians begins anywhere but Palestine. In Israel, one of the few countries where Trump is popular, the president can be expected to enlist in Bibi’s reelection campaign.
Bibi with the map signed by Trump. Check out what Trump wrote next to the Golan Heights pic.twitter.com/ik1Lenn8Zm
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) May 30, 2019
But the new political drama has once again exposed the shortcomings of America’s “peace team,” whose efforts to conjure Trump’s “deal of the century” for Middle East peace, continue to sputter.
Kushner, the brains behind Trump’s initiative, is not in Bibi’s league. He arrived in Jerusalem to sell his “economic peace” workshop, scheduled for the steamy capital of Bahrain in July, just as Netanyahu’s political crisis broke. The Bahraini confab was already in trouble before Netanyahu’s travails upended Kushner’s calculations. The Russians and Chinese aren’t coming, even if they are invited. Palestinian officials—whose institutions are expected to benefit from the bounty Kushner wants to raise—will not attend. Ditto for Lebanon. Jordan is as usual uncomfortably straddling the fence.
Kushner touched down in Israel just as Netanyahu’s world was imploding. It is a sure bet that no one on the envoy’s itinerary was in the mood to focus on the merits of his father-in-law’s still-secret plan. There is a good chance that the Manama meeting and further revelations about the American plan will be postponed until after Israel gets its political house in order—now delayed until after the the New Year, and the run up to American elections in November 2020.
Odds are that such a delay will kill the much-touted initiative altogether. Few tears will be shed if the American effort aborts, in Palestine or Israel, where Netanyahu is sure to remain at political center stage.
Netanyahu’s legal troubles—he is facing a bucket full of corruption charges—recall Nixon’s “cancer on the presidency.” These charges weigh heavily on his future—both political and personal—and they have disfigured the traditional calculations that have historically enabled political victors to form often uneasy coalition governments that include a range of disparate partners prepared to compromise in order to preserve a place in the Cabinet.
Friends and foe alike, however, smell blood—Netanyahu’s to be precise—in Israel’s unsettled political waters. In a couple of months Netanyahu will become Israel’s longest serving prime minister, a fearsome accomplishment almost unfathomable to the large minority of Israelis who cannot abide him. Netanyahu’s failure to form a government after his April victory, however, marks a reflection—alarming to some, tantalizing to others—of his waning clout, and of his growing political vulnerability.
There is no shortage of aspiring successors both within his Likud party and among political allies and competitors alike. As the deadline for forming a new government approached and Bibi’s options for forming a coalition narrowed, his greatest fear was that President Reuven Rivlin, no fan of the prime minister, would nominate one of the Likud pretenders to the top spot, a move that would have enabled the creation of a broad governing coalition including both the top scoring Likud and the runner up Blue White faction for whom “anybody but Bibi” is acceptable.
But Netanyahu, wounded as he is, remains the ringleader of Israel’s political circus. His order to Knesset colleagues to self-destruct, torpedoed the possibility of a government without him and preserved the option of a political resurrection in September.
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.