Israel has once again passed another milestone in corruption. For the first time, the president has tasked a party leader to form a government who is currently on trial facing criminal charges. Conviction would not only end his political career, but land him in prison. Yesterday, Pres. Rivlin faced the choice of awarding either Bibi Netanyahu or Yair Lapid with the task of forming a government. In prior consultation, the various parties offered 52 votes for Bibi to form the government and 45 for Lapid. A president usually offers the candidate with the most votes the mandate. But there is no rule saying he must do so.
Another milestone of sorts is that one of the parties the president consulted is led by leading figures in Jewish terrorist circles. One, Betzalel Smotrich, was accused by a Shin Bet chief of conspiracy to bomb a Palestinian target during the Gaza withdrawal. The other, Itamar Ben Gvir, threatened Yitzhak Rabin with assassination only three weeks before he was murdered. The key role played by this Kahanist party in a possible future government further normalizes the concept of Jewish terrorism and makes it a central factor in national politics. This isn’t far from the way in which the Nazi Party came to power in the years leading up to the 1933 election.
Many Israelis hoped Rivlin would break with tradition, since the country had never faced a situation in which the leading candidate was also under criminal indictment and in the middle of a corruption trial. There was some additional indication he might do so given that the president had long been a supporter of Netanyahu, who had betrayed him when he became a presidential candidate. Rivlin is known as one of the few Old Guard Likudnik leaders–independent, honest and principled. But in the end, he showed that he was above all a Party Man.
Though Netanyahu now has the first crack at forming a government, he will find it exceedingly difficult to do so. He needs 61 seats, but currently has only 52. To reach the magic number, he will need to persuade Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party to join him. That will only get to 59. There are few options from which to obtain those two remaining seats. The most obvious one would be inviting the Islamist Raam Party (four seats) to join (or at least support the ruling coalition from the outside).
To this end, Netanyahu arranged for its leader, Mansour Abbas, to address the nation earlier in the week. In his “historic” speech, Abbas, whose Party opposes Zionism and supports the Palestinian Right of Return, sounded like an obedient and faithful Arab lap-dog. He hit all the major talking points to reassure Israeli Jewish voters that he was a good and decent Arab. Not the bomb-throwing firebrands they’re used to hating like the members of the Joint List, from whom Abbas broke before the election.
It is the height of irony for Arab-hating parties like the Likud to now treat Abbas as the savior of Israeli democracy. Also, it’s ironic that Israel lambastes Iran for being a nation run by ayatollahs, when Raam, a party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, is aligned with Islamic fundamentalism. But what is not ironic is that the Islamic fundamentalism of Raam is a mirror image of the Judeo-extremism of Israel’s Orthodox parties. Their misogyny, homophobia, religious supremacy, and hatred of secular values are of a piece.
This little bit of Arabwashing didn’t mollify right-wing extremist elements of Netanyahu’s coalition, notably the Religious Zionism faction including two former Jewish terrorists, Itamar Ben Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich, who want nothing to do with the word “Arab.” While Netanyahu is counting how many seats he needs to get a majority, Ben Gvir and Smotrich are counting how many settler0 votes they’ll lose if they cohabit with “Arabs.”
Netanyahu has a few other possible tricks up his sleeve. He could try to pick off two members of right-wing parties (New Hope, Blue and White) outside his circle. He’s already tried that without success. But he will doubtless redouble his efforts. As they say, everyone has a price, and Bibi is an expert at finding that sweet spot that will entice someone to betray Party and principles, because he has none of his own.
If he fails in two weeks, the task falls to Yair Lapid, leader of the center-right Yesh Atid. He too has few options, but perhaps a bit more leeway than Netanyahu. He needs 16 votes for a majority. The two main parties he needs to entice are Yamina and New Hope, two rightist parties with 13 seats between them. He has a few options to pick up the remaining three: he can add the Palestinian Joint List; or Raam; or one of the religious parties (Shas, United Torah Judaism).
Pursuing either of these is fraught, each for different reasons: New Hope and Yamina are right-wing anti-Arab parties. They may refuse to participate in such a coalition with either Raam or Joint List. However, the lure of the prime ministership, which Lapid is dangling before Bennett, may persuade him to overcome his racism in return for grasping the golden scepter of power.
The problem with including a religious party is 1) they might refuse to join a coalition dominated by secular parties; 2) Avigdor Lieberman, an anti-religious figure, may balk at co-habiting with either of these religious parties.
If Lapid fails, then it almost ensures a fifth election. The only factor that will change in that case will be the corruption trial of the prime minister, which may have been concluded by then. A verdict against him will ensure his forced withdrawal from politics. A verdict in his favor is a wild card. No one can predict how it might impact the outcome of the next election.
There are, of course, other wild possibilities. This new Knesset could unite to pass a law declaring that a political leader on trial for a criminal offense is prohibited from holding the prime ministership. Another prospect Bibi has bruited is that he could become a candidate for president. As president, he would be immune from prosecution while in office (seven years). Alternatively, he could pardon himself, though this too has never happened before. It would also be an exceedingly unpopular decision.