Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister on Friday, and he is favored to win the next elections in September. But the outcome is still uncertain.
On Sunday, the President tweeted: “Congratulations to Bibi @Netanyahu on becoming the longest serving PM in the history of Israel. Under your leadership, Israel has become a technology powerhouse and a world class economy….”
He continued: “….Most importantly you have led Israel with a commitment to the values of democracy, freedom, and equal opportunity that both our nations cherish and share!”
Netanyahu quickly thanked Trump for his support, tweeting, “Thank you, President Trump, for your warm words, outstanding support & incredible friendship. I’m honored to have the opportunity to work with you. Under your leadership, we’ve made the alliance between our two remarkable countries stronger than ever. I know there’s more to come.”
The exchange between the two leaders is a testament to the strength of their relationship, perhaps the strongest relationship a U.S. president has ever had with an Israeli leader. The strength of their ties has played a key role in the rapid expansion of the U.S.-Israel alliance during Trump’s tenure.
To get a sense of how intimate the relations have become, consider the reports in the Arab media regarding last Thursday’s mysterious airstrike against an Iranian missile base in Nineveh province in Iraq. According to the Arab media, Israeli bombers carried out the bombing after taking off from a U.S. airbase along the tri-border between Israel, Jordan and Syria.
The allegations themselves show that the Arabs and the Iranians view U.S.-Israel ties to be deeper and far more operational than ever before.
In light of the unprecedented growth of U.S.-Israel ties under Trump and Netanyahu, it makes sense that Trump is frustrated that Netanyahu is now standing for election for the second time in a year.
Trump administration officials have reportedly expressed concerns to their Israeli interlocutors about Netanyahu’s political future and his possible successors in the event he is defeated in the September 17 elections.
To recall, Israel held general elections on April 9. Netanyahu and his Likud Party won a commanding mandate to form a governing coalition. Likud garnered 35 seats in Israel’s 120-member Knesset. Blue and White, the center-left party that competed against Likud, also won 35 seats, with slightly fewer votes. But overall, the center-right and right-wing parties won 55 percent of the vote, to the center-left and left’s 36 percent. The remainder of the vote went to Arab parties that traditionally have refused to join any governing coalition.
Despite the right/center-right’s commanding electoral victory, two obstacles blocked Netanyahu from forming a coalition government and compelled him to call for new elections.
First, Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu’s former defense minister and the head of the small Israel Beitenu party, refused to join the coalition. Liberman’s party won five seats in April and so gave Netanyahu’s coalition a potential majority of 65 seats out of 120. By refusing to join the coalition, Liberman prevented Netanyahu from forming a governing majority.
The second reason Netanyahu was unable to form a government was the fragmentation of the ideological right wing. Just as elections were being called in December 2018, then-education minister Naftali Bennett and then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked announcedthat they were bolting their party and forming a new, more socially liberal party called the New Right. (Full disclosure: the author ran as a candidate on the New Right list.) Also running was a former Likud lawmaker named Moshe Feiglin, whose Zehut party shared similar positions on social and economic issues the New Right.
That splintered the ideological right. Israel’s electoral law requires parties to win a minimum of 3.25 percent of the overall vote, which translates into four Knesset seats, to cross the electoral threshold. Cumulatively, the New Right and Zehut won 6 percent of the vote, the equivalent of seven Knesset seats. But neither of them crossed the threshold. The right lost seven seats it would otherwise have run, and Netanyahu lost the ability to form a government without Liberman.
Liberman insisted that his refusal to join Netanyahu’s government owed to his opposition to the ultra-Orthodox parties that form the core of the Likud’s natural coalition partners. But neither the general public nor the Israeli commentariat believed his claims. The two men have a thirty-year relationship that has known its ups and downs. Most Israelis believe that Liberman was motivated by hatred of Netanyahu. Once it was clear that the election results gave Liberman the power to block Netanyahu from forming a government, Liberman was in a position to dictate his terms for joining the coalition. Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties were willing to accept his demands. The fact that Liberman still refused to make a deal demonstrated that his desire to destroy Netanyahu politically outweighed rational political calculations.
The polling data taken since the election in April indicates that there has been no movement along the right-left political spectrum. Fifty-five percent of Israelis still identify with the right and center-right. And Netanyahu remains the leader that the public wishes to see in standing at the helm of the next government.
At the same time, the repeat elections that Liberman was able to instigate due to the fragmentation of the ideological right revolve around one issue: Netanyahu.
On the left, parties are being formed and organized around this issue. Former Israeli premier Ehud Barak reentered the political fray as the head of a new party – the Israel Democratic Party – with the sole agenda of unseating Netanyahu. Blue and White also insists it will not join a coalition government with Netanyahu.
The main dispute that seems to be animating and fragmenting the left in fact is whether any of the parties in the bloc will be willing to join a coalition led by Netanyahu. Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, a former union leader and avowed socialist, forged a coalition with another socialist party last week. Both he and his new partner, Gesher Party leader Orly Levy, have hinted that they will be willing to break ranks and join a Netanyahu-led coalition. If they follow through after the elections, they will neutralize Liberman’s power to make or break the next government.
On the right, three issues will determine whether the 55 percent of Israelis who favor right-wing or center-right parties will see the formation of a center-right government under Netanyahu’s leadership.
The first issue is whether the bloc without Liberman will have the requisite 61 Knesset seats to form a government . Current polling still gives Liberman the kingmaker role. But it is hard to credit polls so early on in the race.
The second question is what will happen on the ideological right. A week remains before the parties finalize their lists and submit them to the Central Elections Commission. Currently, negotiations are ongoing between Shaked and Bennett’s New Right party and the Jewish Home party they abandoned. The parties hope to unify and bring in another right-wing splinter party. If these negotiations succeed, the prospect of April’s vote dump repeating itself will diminish significantly. Netanyahu’s prospects of forming a government without Liberman will rise in turn.
The final issue that will determine whether or not Netanyahu forms the next government is whether and how many other politicians on the right will join Liberman in working to overthrow Netanyahu, even at the price of allowing the formation of a leftist government.
Within Likud, senior politicians have told Breitbart News that they will not permit a third election. “If Netanyahu can’t form a government this time around, he will be unseated,” one senior party official said. Several others agree.
They have also said clearly that they will prefer to form a government with Blue and White without Netanyahu than to hold a third election.
In short, while the Israeli public shares the Trump administration’s view that Netanyahu is the best man to lead Israel today, a handful of Israeli politicians in key positions would be willing if not happy to see him go.
The clarity of his expected mandate will determine whether these politicians – motivated by ambition and envy — succeed or fail.