Israel faces another election as Benjamin Netanyahu's deadline draws near

Prime minister is in a race against time to give himself immunity before corruption charges are filed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office May 12, 2019. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS
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Less than two months after Israelis voted Benjamin Netanyahu into his fifth term as prime minister, Israel may be heading back to the polls.

Mr Netanyahu has said he will be forced to call early elections if two sparring factions within his coalition cannot compromise and join his government by the Wednesday deadline.

The stakes are incredibly high for Mr Netanyahu, who ran in part on the platform that no one but him could successfully govern Israel. The prime minister faces a looming indictment on several corruption charges. He has reportedly been pushing for a change in the law or court system to provide him immunity from prosecution while in office – but needs to retain a strong coalition and his seat of power to do so.

Mr Netanyahu, however, has a history of pulling off political wins at the last minute.

“It’s unprecedented in Israeli history that we’re at this moment,” said Neri Zilber, an Israeli analyst and journalist. “It’s never been the case that a prime minister who so clearly won the election couldn’t form a government.”

In a preliminary vote on Monday, parliament decided to dissolve itself. In order to disperse and set an election date, legislators would still have to hold a final vote, likely to take place on Wednesday. Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party said they were continuing to push for a solution.

The source of the crisis is Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party. Mr Lieberman supports Mr Netanyahu but is refusing to formally join his government unless he can ensure the passage of a law drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis into the military. The ultra-Orthodox parties, who also form a key part of Mr Netanyahu’s base, say they will reject any such legislation.

As the political game of chicken continues, Mr Lieberman said in a Facebook post that his party would not support anyone other than Mr Netanyahu for prime minister but it would also rather face new elections than not pass some form of an ultra-Orthodox conscription bill.

Without Yisrael Beitenu, Mr Netanyahu has just 60 seats in his coalition – one short of the 61 needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

In theory, Mr Netanyahu could swear in a government based on a coalition of 60 seats; however, he must first pass a vote of confidence in parliament, which is an unprecedented way of ruling, according to Israel's Haaretz newspaper.

Mr Netanyahu already asked the president to extend his deadline to form a government last month, so he cannot do so again if he fails to cobble together a ruling coalition by Wednesday. One option open to him would be to inform the president he cannot meet the deadline. At that point, the president, who by law is tasked with assigning a party to form the government after elections, would then give another party the mandate to try. However, the Likud leader has signalled that he would call for new elections rather than give up his mandate.

Mr Zilber said that, for now, the future of Israeli politics depends on Mr Lieberman’s interests.

“It really hinges on Lieberman because it’s unclear whether it's a genuine principled battle over the conscription bill or whether he has deeper and longer-term motivations to try and hurry along the end of Netanyahu’s reign.”

If it is the first reason, Mr Netanyahu could pull through at the end by pushing the ultra-Orthodox parties to compromise, he said. But if it is the second, Mr Lieberman aim could be to prevent Mr Netanyahu from forming a government in time to pass legislation giving him immunity before the corruption charges are filed.

For now, Israelis of all stripes are holding their breath.