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With failure to form political coalition, has Israel’s Netanyahu lost his ‘magic’?

Israel’s legislature, the Knesset, has voted to dissolve itself barely a month after forming due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to establish a coalition government within the given timeframe. An unprecedented second election will occur in September -- shortly after Netanyahu faces a hearing related to corruption charges. John Yang talks to The Washington Institute’s David Makovsky.

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  • William Brangham:

    Just six weeks after apparently winning another term as Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was back to square one as of midnight last night.

    His bid to form a new coalition government failed, and, with it, Israel is plunged into a summer of political uncertainty.

    As John Yang tells us, this first-of-its-kind impasse will trigger new elections in four months.

  •  John Yang:

    Second by second the clock ran out last night on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's efforts to form a coalition government.

    So, the legislature, called the Knesset, voted to dissolve itself barely a month after it was sworn in, sending the country into an unprecedented redo election.

    Afterward, the prime minister sounded confident.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu (through translator):

    We will run a sharp, clear election campaign which will bring us victory. We will win, we will win, and the public will win.

  •  John Yang:

    But, on the streets, frustration.

  • Arnold Epstein:

    In my view, it is a very sad day for Israel. We have become like a Third World country, when people are worried about their personalities, instead of about the country's politics.

  • Erez Goldman:

    As every other citizen of Israel, I was very surprised, even shocked, from what happened last night.

  •  John Yang:

    Just last month, Netanyahu and his right wing Likud Party celebrated victory.

    But his efforts to form a coalition crumbled over disagreements about military draft exemptions for Ultra-Orthodox Jews.

    Avigdor Lieberman, head of a small ultra-nationalist and secular party, insisted on ending the exemptions. When Ultra-Orthodox parties siding with Netanyahu balked, Lieberman refused to join, thus denying the prime minister a working majority in the Knesset.

  • Avigdor Lieberman (through translator):

    The fact that the state of Israel is heading toward another election is only because of the Likud. They did not reach a coalition agreement with any party until yesterday.

  •  John Yang:

    Looming over all this, pending corruption charges against Netanyahu. He faces a pre-indictment hearing just two weeks before Israelis go to the polls again in mid-September.

    The political upheaval also threatens U.S. plans to roll out an Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal shepherded by President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. He met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem today.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu:

    Even though we had a little event last night, that's not going to stop us. We're going to continue working together.

    Thank you, Jared.

  •  John Yang:

    For now, any talk of peace is likely to be pushed off once again, as the prime minister fights to keep his job.

    The Trump administration had already agreed to release that plan after last month's Israeli elections, so it would not become an issue.

    Joining us now is David Makovsky. He is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute and director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations.

    David, thanks so much for coming back.

  • David Makovsky:

    Glad to be with you.

  •  John Yang:

    After the election last month, analysts said this was going to be easy for Netanyahu to build a coalition to form a government. What happened?

  • David Makovsky:

    What happened is, the person who's kind of known as the magician in Israel seemed to have lost his magic.

    He's a very formidable political campaigner, but his — part of his success is, after the results, it's cobbling together the requisite government. You need 61 out of 120 seats in the Parliament.

    Part of his success in the past is his ability to reach across the aisle and bring in parties when he has recalcitrants from the other side within his own ranks.

    With the indictments, as you pointed to in the setup piece, correctly, what it's done is, it's polarized the system in Israel, that the center parties that normally would have been more open to what they call a unity government, a big tent, they said, we will not talk to this guy, so long as he's under a legal cloud. That legal cloud has to be lifted.

    So his room to maneuver shrunk dramatically, and he became more beholden to the parties of the right. Lieberman identified where there's schism within the right. And he had nowhere to go. So it was like a straitjacket, politically.

  •  John Yang:

    And why is Lieberman doing this? He has five seats in the Knesset, relatively small party.

  • David Makovsky:

    Right.

  •  John Yang:

    What's his motivations here?

  • David Makovsky:

    Look, there's a long love-hate relationship between these two guys.

    Since he was his chief of — Lieberman was Netanyahu's chief of staff when he was prime minister in the '90s, Lieberman coming from Moldova was like a bridge, had a link for Netanyahu to a million-plus immigrants that came to Israel after the Cold War from the former Soviet Union.

    But that became contentious. He started his own immigrants party. But now it's almost 30 years after the end of the Cold War. And these immigrants have kids, and they feel like they're Israelis, not Russians.

    So he's trying to rebrand his party as being the secular right, as you pointed out in the setup piece, to be a guardian for Israel's secular virtues. And that means ending the exemptions for the Ultra-Orthodox. And he said, I'm sticking to it.

    And he did. But, of course, Netanyahu said, it's a vendetta, this is just a pretext, it's not principle.

  •  John Yang:

    How big of a hit has Netanyahu's image taken? And how will that affect him in the September election?

  • David Makovsky:

    Well, part of his success, frankly, is that he has said, I have dominated Israeli politics for a decade. I just won my fifth term. His appeal is, I have brought prosperity.

    Of course, there's a high-tech boom going on in Israel. And I brought relatively stability in a region that has got a lot of choppy waters. That is — and I have done a lot of outreach to a lot of countries around the world, and I'm one of the only people that could talk both to Trump and to Putin. And the Israeli public likes that they have a leader playing on the world stage that way.

    So, in a certain way, he's looking very good, even though he or — nor the Palestinians have moved an inch, frankly, in years on their — on that issue.

    But, at the same time, since the election on April 9, he's done a couple moves that is going to help his rivals in the center called the Blue and White Party, named after Israel's flag. And when he wants to change his personal immunity in the Knesset, in the Parliament, and to end the Supreme Court's judicial review over the parliamentary measures to enshrine — to insulate themselves from legal proceedings, the Israeli public thinks, you have gone too far.

    And I predict that his rivals, the Blue and White Party, they're going to run and saying, we're safeguarding Israeli democracy in 2020 — in 2019.

    So I think they will run on that. And he will run on trying to reach out to the Russian immigrants. I wouldn't be surprised even if he invites Vladimir Putin to Israel, because the Russian immigrants find Putin someone who, in their view, has been better towards Israel. And he could siphon off some of those voters that Lieberman always had a monopoly on.

  •  John Yang:

    David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, thanks so much for joining us.

  • David Makovsky:

    Delighted.

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