While the parties of the ruling coalition are fighting between them, the one who might take advantage of the situation is Bibi.
As the Netanyahu judiciary saga unfolds, with ever more details and ever more protagonists emerging every week, another drama is developing in Israel these days: the infighting within the coalition that has been governing the country since 2015.
The rift in the ruling coalition has seemingly reached the point of no-return this past week, but its roots go back before the coalition even existed. It all began in 2014, when the then Knesset voted in favor of penalties to be imposed again yeshiva students who evade military conscription. In response, in 2015, an amendment to the conscription law removed all criminal consequences for yeshiva students evading their military duties. In the latest episode of this never-ending contestation, last September the Supreme Court struck down the 2015 amendment, arguing that it deprived the Defense Minister of his right to decide the quota of ultra-Orthodox youths who must be enlisted in the army every year. The Court deliberated that the Knesset had 365 days to pass an alternative law.
After the deadline for the new conscription law to be drafted and adopted was set by the Court for September 2018, the issue waned in the public debate. Or at least it did until now, when it is making the headlines once again. In fact, as Netanyahu’s power becomes less steady and the option of a future government in which ultra-orthodox forces are excluded or marginalized becomes less improbable, Shas and the other religious parties have been pushing for the adoption of a law that would exempt religious students from being called to the arms. Their proposed bill, though, has been opposed staunchly by the party Ysrael Beitenu and by its leader Avigdor Lieberman, who has argued that as Defense Minister he will never compromise on the duty for all Israeli citizens to serve in the army. In response, religious parties have threatened to block the 2019 budget, which Finance Minister Kahlon and his Kulanu party want to be approved by the end of the current Knesset session on the 18th of March. If that deadline expires without the budget having been approved, a non-confidence vote against the government will be cast.
On the background of this infighting among the various parties of the ruling coalition, two scenarios are possible. In the first scenario, the rift sparked by the debate on the conscription law cannot be solved and early elections are called. If this was the case, Netanyahu would likely benefit from it because running in early elections would delay the legal proceedings against him. Furthermore, if elections were anticipated, Netanyahu would be the likely winner. In fact, the most recent polls – conducted at a time when the involvement of the Prime Minister in Cases 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000 is becoming clearer – show a small but steady increase in public support for Netanyahu and his Likud party. Apparently, Netanyahu’s strategy of responding to the allegations by labelling his opponents “anti-Israel operatives” and by denouncing the accusations as a “witch-hunt” has been successful in convincing many Israelis that he is not the culprit but the victim of a political persecution. To make Netanyahu’s popularity even more relevant in view of early elections, then, is the deep unpopularity of the Left: over the past years, left-wing parties have failed to advance political programs capable of rallying mass support and their main leaders – Gabbay and Lapid – lack Netanyahu’s charisma and political acumen. Finally, polls reveal that the other coalition parties in the Right camp do not enjoy the sway necessary to subtract voters to the Likud, which would thus be the party winning most seats. Such a victory on part of Netanyahu would not make the accusations filed against him disappear, but it would nonetheless send a strong signal that the Israeli people are with him – something that would make Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s work more difficult to be brought on as smoothly, rapidly and undisturbed as it should.
It is in light of these considerations that many have pointed to the possibility that the current coalition crisis is actually being masterminded by Netanyahu himself, who is seeking a subtle way to call early elections without being accused of manipulating the electoral process to make his interest and save his skin.
In the second scenario, the rift currently experienced by the ruling coalition is solved by Netanyahu before the closure of the parliamentary session on March 18th. If this happened – an outcome that an experienced politician such as Netanyahu could presumably reach with an adequate scheme of compensations for each of his quarrelling partners – Netanyahu would not reap the benefits that an early election could bring, but he would succeed in presenting himself in the eyes of the Israeli public as the leader that the country needs to solve stalemates and balance its different political forces. To this, it is then to add the success with which Netanyahu is using his current five-days visit to the United States where he addressed the AIPAC on the Iranian threat, his friendship with Trump and Friedman, and the American decisions to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem and cut aid to the Palestinians to present himself to his domestic constituency as the sole leader who can influence the United States and secure Israel’s interests. The cunning way in which Netanyahu is boosting his image as the irreplaceable leader without whom Israel cannot survive its inner contradictions nor have a say on the international arena is likely to counterbalance the negative effect of the judicial investigations and to pay off when elections will be held in 2019.
Be it actual or premeditated, end it with elections or with reconciliation, the current rift within the ruling coalition is nothing but positive for its leader. A further confirmation that Bibi is not leaving anytime soon.