Benjamin Netanyahu may face a political crisis and second election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling to form a coalition and may face a second election

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 27, 2019 3:30PM (EDT)

Benjamin Netanyahu (AP/Ronen Zvulun)
Benjamin Netanyahu (AP/Ronen Zvulun)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a political crisis less than two months after he prevailed in a series of elections that had seemed to cement his control of the Israeli government for the foreseeable future.

The newly-elected Knesset (Israel's parliament) began drafting a bill on Monday to dissolve itself, one that if passed would nullify Netanyahu's attempts to form a governing coalition and force a snap election within the new few months, according to the Associated Press. The root cause is that former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is pushing for a law that would force young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to serve in the Israeli military, which most other Jewish men in the country are forced to do. This puts Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party at odds with the ultra-Orthodox elements of Netanyahu's political coalition, which is staunchly opposed to removing the exemption.

This is a big deal for Netanyahu because he needs a coalition with a majority of the 120-seat Knesset in order to be elected to a new term as prime minister. After the April elections, it was estimated that parties supporting Netanyahu had 65 votes in the Knesset, while those supporting his opponent Benny Gantz only had 55 votes. This would have been more than enough to guarantee Netanyahu an unprecedented fifth term as Israeli prime minister — but the Yisrael Beiteinu party has five members, enough to just barely deny Netanyahu his governing coalition if they don't budget on the issue of ultra-Orthodox military service.

"The draft law has become a symbol and we will not capitulate on our symbols," Lieberman told reporters at a press conference, saying that he would call for new elections if his demands aren't met. Although Lieberman has generally sided with Netanyahu when it comes to issues involving Israeli nationalism, he and his base of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union consider themselves to be more secular than many of Netanyahu's other supporters.

"I will not be a partner to a Halachic state," Lieberman has said.

President Donald Trump has weighed in on the controversy, tweeting on Monday that he was "hoping things will work out with Israel's coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever. A lot more to do!"

If Netanyahu's governing coalition dissolves, the prime minister could face serious legal risk. Prior to his election, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he was planning on indicting the prime minister on charges of breach of trust, bribery and fraud. The scandal managed to eventually bring up the names of the head of Israel's largest telecommunications conglomerate, Israeli newspaper publishers and even a Hollywood movie producer. Netanyahu and his supporters hoped that, if reelected, Netanyahu would be able to convince the Knesset to pass legislation that would protect him from legal accountability in return for delivering on policy promises. If his governing coalition dissolves, Netanyahu may still pursue that strategy, but his legal as well as political security will once again be up in the air.

Madelblit himself has spoken out against the proposed immunity bill, saying that "no pressure influenced us. We serve no one other than the public interest and the rule of law. All the decisions in the prime minister’s cases were made in a professional and practical manner. In light of that, the claim that adjustment to the immunity law is needed to protect the prime minister…is baseless," according to the Times of Israel.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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