Dispatch

New Vote in Israel Puts Trump’s Deal of the Century on Ice

Parliament votes to dissolves itself after Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Jared Kushner in Jerusalem on June 21, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Jared Kushner in Jerusalem on June 21, 2017. Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israel’s decision to hold another parliamentary election this year, just months after voters went to the polls in April, is likely to bury U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace initiative for the foreseeable future, if not for good, according to analysts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won the April vote, failed during weeks of haggling to cobble together a majority coalition. Minutes after his deadline passed on midnight Wednesday, Israel’s newly inaugurated parliament voted 74-45 to disband itself without ever confirming a government—an unprecedented development even for the country’s infamously volatile political system.

The lawmakers set Sept. 17 as the date for the new election. In the interim, Netanyahu will want to distance himself from any hint of potential concessions to the Palestinians while he courts his hard-right base—in what amounts to a significant setback for Trump’s peace team.

“I think that they have to put the plan on ice for the foreseeable future. Nobody in the region was really enthusiastic about receiving this plan,” said Daniel Shapiro, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Barack Obama.

The administration has been working on a peace initiative since assuming office in 2017 but delayed the rollout after Netanyahu first called the April election and through the weeks of coalition negotiations in order to avoid political difficulty for the prime minister. (This week, Trump even tried in a tweet to prod the coalition negotiations to success.)

“There’s no real scope to present a plan during an Israeli election campaign. So now, you basically have to start the clock over again. And the earliest you have a government in place here is November. By then you’re getting into Trump’s election-year politics, and that becomes a factor. So there’s at least a chance that they’re never going to release this plan,” Shapiro said.

Trump has described the initiative as the “deal of the century.” But hours after the vote to call new elections, the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared it irrelevant. “Now it is the deal of the next century,” he said in an interview with Israel Radio.

Netanyahu could not resolve a spat between ultra-religious parties and his former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of a party whose base is secular Russian immigrants, leaving the prime minister short of a 61-seat majority necessary for confirmation. Rather than allow Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to give another parliament member (from the opposition Blue and White party or Netanyahu’s own Likud) the opportunity to form a coalition, Netanyahu and his allies preferred to gamble on a new vote.

The roll call was a mind-bending scene: Members of the presumptively victorious right-wing bloc voted to negate their achievement, while legislators from the defeated center-left bloc motioned to preserve the parliament. At the same time, deputies from the Arab-dominated parties Netanyahu has delegitimized joined with the prime minister’s allies to aid in his gambit.

In an awkward coincidence, the debacle played out just as Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, and Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt arrived in Israel to discuss the rollout of the unspecified peace deal. Netanyahu met with Kushner and Greenblatt on Thursday in Jerusalem but released no details of their talks.

The pair is currently swinging through the Middle East to prepare the groundwork for a regional conference in Bahrain next month that will focus on economic development for the Palestinians. That conference, which is supposed to be a prequel to the unveiling of a peace deal, was already being boycotted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. With the follow-up political plan in doubt, the parley’s importance will only diminish even though the U.S. State Department reconfirmed plans to go ahead, Shapiro said.

Netanyahu emerged from the April 9 vote with a substantial popular mandate—his Likud party expanded its parliamentary representation by five seats, and there was a majority of right-wing and religious deputies in the 120-seat Knesset.

But when Netanyahu got down to forming a coalition, his room for maneuver in negotiations was clipped by Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s plan to charge him with corruption subject to a hearing.

In a sign of the prime minister’s focus on his legal interests, Likud members sought to secure commitments from coalition partners to pass a law that would grant him retroactive immunity from prosecution and a law to enable the parliament to override rulings by the Supreme Court. The proposals, seen as an attempt to insulate Netanyahu from trial, further highlighted his vulnerability to political extortion by like-minded coalition partners among right-wing and religious parties.

“This is the paradox of Netanyahu’s position: On the one hand, he won this massive victory and was riding very high two months ago. On the other hand, his personal and legal problems put him in a very weak position when negotiating the coalition agreements with others,” said Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“His own personal freedom perhaps depends on his ability to form a government and change the law. He becomes very vulnerable and susceptible to the coalition partners.”

Unlike previous junctures over the course of more than a decade in office, Netanyahu was unable to tempt parties to his left to join the coalition—further eroding his leverage.

Ultimately, the prime minister found himself trapped by competing demands from potential coalition partners. Lieberman, a longtime political frenemy, demanded passage of a law that would roll back exemptions on military conscription enjoyed by ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. The ultra-religious parties have long considered enlistment a threat to their way of life.

After the decision to hold new elections, Netanyahu angrily accused Lieberman, known for his ultra-nationalist rhetoric, of forcing a new vote and of joining forces on the Israeli left.

Lieberman, in turn, accused Netanyahu of “surrender” to the ultra-Orthodox. “We are a natural partner to a right-wing government. We aren’t a partner to a government of halakha,” he said, referring to Jewish religious law.

“The bloc of the right-wing and religious is not as homogenous as one would have imagined,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“What we’re seeing is that there is a strong, significant group of secular Israelis who self-identify themselves as right-wing. They want a right-wing government, but they do not want a government that allows the ultra-Orthodox to call the shots in the entire realm of a religion and state and the domestic agenda.”

His failure to form a government amounts to one of the worst political defeats of Netanyahu’s career. Most polls over the last election showed a consistent majority for favoring a right-wing coalition government.

Still, the fresh start allows for the possibility of new alliances among political parties and new candidates to enter the fray, potentially affecting the final outcome. Because Israel has never held two consecutive elections so quickly, it is hard to predict how the do-over will affect turnout.

The Arab-dominated parties will be looking to reconstruct a united list of candidates that fell apart this year, in hopes of reenergizing constituents after the lowest participation rate ever among Arab Israelis. Political groups on the Israeli right may also seek to merge, avoiding the waste of votes worth at least four seats that went to parties that failed to clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold in the April vote.

But even if Netanyahu emerges with a sixth election victory in September, he won’t be out of trouble: Just weeks after the vote, he is set to face a legal hearing with state prosecutors and then a final decision from Israel’s attorney general on whether to go ahead with a plan to indict the prime minister. At that point, it will be too late for Netanyahu to advance laws to shield him from prosecution.

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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