Israel avoids snap polls but Netanyahu’s fate awaits

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a parliament session in Jerusalem on March 12, 2018 facing allegations from within his governing coalition that he is trying to force early elections

Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel’s governing coalition has reached a deal to avoid early elections after days of tense negotiations, but politicians are now bracing for a bombshell that may lie ahead: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s possible indictment.

The deal announced on Tuesday night put to rest for now talk of a high-stakes gamble for Netanyahu, who could be indicted for bribery in the months ahead.

Some members of his coalition had accused him of wanting early elections to shore up his political standing ahead of the attorney general’s decision.

Polls suggest he would remain prime minister if early elections were held, and some analysts say that would allow him to press his case that he is being hounded by the country’s elites and political enemies but supported by the public.

A range of Israeli media reports said Netanyahu decided to back down and search for a deal in part after it became clear he could not garner enough votes to dissolve parliament.

As for Netanyahu himself, he maintained throughout that he wants his coalition to last its entire term, which ends in November 2019.

After Tuesday’s deal, he stood before parliament and taunted opposition leaders, claiming they were afraid of early elections even though they had publicly pushed for them.

“I promised to do everything possible so that this government that has had magnificent success remain in place, and I kept my promise,” he said.

On Wednesday, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a loyal Netanyahu ally, said “an accurate description would be to say that the prime minister was indifferent to the outcome”.

“If there were elections, the polls were smiling at him… but on the other hand, who better than the prime minister knows that when you go into an election campaign, there’s no way to know what the outcome will be in a few months,” he told army radio.

– ‘Going to crack’? –

But whether Netanyahu won, lost or drew this round may matter little in the long term.

Four corruption investigations looking into his affairs have led to predictions of his eventual downfall after a total of 12 years as prime minister, first from 1996 to 1999, then again beginning in 2009.

Police recommended his indictment in two of those cases in February and the attorney general is considering how to proceed, a process expected to take several months.

But since Netanyahu is not legally required to resign if indicted, his fate may be far from sealed even if he is charged.

The 68-year-old with sharp political instincts has relentlessly criticised the police investigations against him as biased and driven by his enemies.

He has carried out his work as if it is business as usual and a recent trip to the United States allowed him to remind Israelis of what supporters view as his clout and leadership.

He will surely hold up as proof of his diplomatic accomplishments President Donald Trump’s plan to open a new US embassy in the disputed city of Jerusalem in May — a move that has provoked Palestinian outrage.

“Maybe he’s going to crack,” said Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus of political science at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“But if Netanyahu is the same Netanyahu that we followed in the last few days and in recent years, he’s not going to crack, and he’s going to continue even if he’s indicted.”

– ‘Bet against it’ –

Still, Israeli politics are unwieldy and members of his right-wing coalition made up of six parties could easily turn against him if an opportunity arises.

The coalition crisis in recent days was an example of the complications involved in keeping it intact.

It centred on legislation that may seem obscure from outside of Israel, but which holds deep importance — a bill to exempt young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from military conscription.

Ultra-Orthodox parties who form part of Netanyahu’s government demanded the bill be passed before they support the 2019 budget.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of the centrist Kulanu party, who has sought to build a reputation as a practical, no-nonsense manager, threatened to resign if the budget was not approved before parliament goes into recess later this week.

Further complicating the dispute was the opposition to the conscription bill of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who says he wants the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military like their secular counterparts.

In the end, a series of compromises allowed for a way out.

But early elections are the norm in Israel, with no government serving out its full term since 1988.

Diskin said he would not rule out Netanyahu’s current government making it to November 2019, “but I would bet against it if I had to risk money.”