Netanyahu reportedly trying to undo Israel’s election redo

Less than three months after narrowly winning his fifth term as Israel’s prime minister and a month after calling an unprecedented second election, Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly trying to undo the redo.

Emerging victorious from the April 9 election, Netanyahu was given 28 days, plus an extension, to form Israel’s next government. But after failing to garner a majority of support in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, his Likud party took the unusual step of dissolving the legislature and setting another election for Sept. 17.

On Tuesday, however, the long-serving leader, who faces indictment pending a hearing on a series of criminal charges, said he is now considering an initiative put forward by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, the No. 2 in Likud, to call off the second election. 

Legally and politically, it is still unclear whether such a move is even possible, but on Wednesday it was justified by Edelstein. He said a growing number of parliamentarians from various political factions have approached him saying the decision to hold a second election on the heels of the first was a “foolish move” and that many were looking for a way out of the political turmoil.

“The majority of the public do not want this election, and we need to find a way within the current Knesset to form the widest coalition,” Edelstein told Israel’s Army Radio. He said he might have found a solution and was working, with Netanyahu’s backing, to cancel the September election. 

Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, speaks at an election campaign event in Ashkelon, Israel, April 3, 2019. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

The attempted U-turn, however, was treated with skepticism by Netanyahu’s rivals, who termed it political spin and another way for the formidable leader to postpone his day of judgment in an Israeli court.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit turned down a request from Netanyahu’s lawyers to delay an indictment hearing in three cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust set for Oct. 2.

“This is another spin meant to make the public forget that Netanyahu failed to form a government, that he prioritizes his personal well-being and that he, with his own two hands, dragged an entire country into needless elections,” read a statement from Blue and White, the country’s newest political party headed by Netanyahu’s main political challenger, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz. 

“Netanyahu realizes that he is about to lose the elections and is now looking for magic solutions. We are going to hold elections, and Benny Gantz will be Israel’s next prime minister,” the statement said.

Blue and White Knesset member Yoaz Hendel said his party would not “cooperate with the spin.”

Only if Netanyahu steps down as prime minister, he said, would the party consider agreeing to call off the election redo and possibly enter a government with Likud. Both parties hold 35 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, and together they could create a broad and stable government. 

“From day one, we have said it is impossible for a prime minister with legal accusations against him to stay in office,” said Hendel, a former adviser to Netanyahu.

“We also said that Israel should not have a leader who focuses only on himself, and nothing has changed,” he said. “The only thing that has changed is that we can now clearly see that Netanyahu, who had problems creating the next government, only cares about his personal needs and not our national needs.” 

After failing to secure the 61-seat majority needed to create a governing coalition last month, Netanyahu diverged from Israeli’s political custom of handing the responsibility to form a government to another Knesset member. Instead, he pushed his party to pass legislation to dissolve the Knesset and schedule a second round of elections. 

“Most puzzling decisions or statements made by Netanyahu are usually related to his attempt to postpone his day of judgment in Israeli court,” said Dan Avnon, chairman of the political science department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “He feels he needs to be in the office of the prime minister, and anything that will enable that outcome in his eyes is a possibility, even if it sounds far-fetched or impossible.”

As to whether undoing the redo is even possible, Abraham Diskin, a senior fellow at Kohelet Policy Forum, a right-wing think tank, said the chances were “very, very, very slim, both because of legal difficulties and also politically.” 

“I don’t believe it’s going to happen, but Israel is a country of surprises,” he said.