Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before delivering a speech to his supporters after the announcement of the exit polls of the Israeli parliamentary elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, on April 10, 2019. (Oliver Weiken/DPA/Abaca Press/TNS)

Israel’s new elections thrust Netanyahu’s future into turmoil

Reports of Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory last month turned out to be premature as he failed to form a government and engineered new elections instead.

JERUSALEM _ Reports of Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory last month turned out to be premature as he failed to form a government and engineered new elections instead, thrusting both his future and the Trump administration’s peace plan into question.

Netanyahu glided past tangled corruption scandals to win what appeared to be a fifth term as prime minister in the April 9 vote. But the man famous for outmaneuvering rivals and allies was tripped up by one-time partners who couldn’t reach a compromise on drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army.

The Israeli leader couldn’t cobble together a coalition government within the allotted six weeks, which expired Wednesday night. To block rivals from getting a shot at his job, he pushed through legislation late Wednesday to dissolve the month-old parliament and go back to the ballot box. Elections were set for Sept. 17.

That gambit could backfire, even though public opinion polls this week suggested a similar breakdown of Knesset seats.

“Elections are like wars,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “You know how you go in, but you never know how it ends.”

In February, Israel’s attorney general notified the prime minister that he plans to charge him with bribery and fraud, pending an October hearing where Netanyahu will plead his case and try to avert indictment.

In the course of coalition negotiations, Netanyahu had been talking with prospective partners about legislation to shield him from prosecution as long as he’s in office. If the Knesset is disbanded, he won’t be able to push that legislation through until a new parliament is seated _ and by then an indictment may already be filed.

“Netanyahu invested no time in building a government, he spent all his time trying to get an immunity law,” said Mitchell Barak, head of Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications. Netanyahu “is known as ‘The Magician,’ and a magician is all about sleight-of-hand and illusions, but this time his illusion didn’t work so well. He could go out with a really colossal failure.”

The presentation of the long-awaited U.S. peace plan also could face obstacles. Its initial component is a late-June conference in Bahrain that’s meant to galvanize support for investments in the Palestinian economy.

The administration’s Middle East envoys, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, are scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Thursday. An administration official, who asked not to be identified, said the Bahrain conference will go ahead as scheduled and the U.S. will release the peace plan when the time is right.

It was the first time in Israel’s history that a prime minister-designate wasn’t able to form a coalition. The six-week deadline expired at midnight Wednesday having failed to resolve the nominal reason for the political turmoil, a long-standing squabble over drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the army.

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman _ whose secular Yisrael Beitenu party holds five of parliament’s 120 seats _ insisted that devout men must serve as their secular counterparts do, and denied that he was motivated by a vendetta against Netanyahu, an on-again, off-again ally. A bloc of ultra-Orthodox parties, which controls eight parliamentary seats, refused to back down on its demand to exempt the community from Israel’s compulsory draft.

The issue will continue to bedevil Netanyahu even if he wins new elections, as opinions harden on both sides of the divide, pollster Barak said.

“This is the opening round of Israel’s civil war,” Barak said. “It’s not about right and left here anymore, it’s about religious versus secular, or Jew versus Israeli. How do you want the State of Israel to be?”

Without Liberman’s support, Netanyahu couldn’t form a majority government. It was Liberman’s resignation as defense minister in November that set in motion the previous coalition’s collapse. At the time, he said he couldn’t remain in a government he considered too soft on Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Past negotiations often have taken the full six weeks, and many Israelis initially regarded the deadlock as typical political horse trading. But things turned serious Monday when a proposal to disperse the Knesset passed initial votes in parliament and the prime minister delivered an appeal for compromise on prime-time TV.

“There’s no reason to drag the nation into unnecessary elections,” Netanyahu said. “If there’s a will and readiness, we can resolve everything in two minutes.”

Somewhere, that will was lacking.

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