The Craziest Night in Israel's Election History Could Fall on Netanyahu's Head | Opinion

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the press following a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset on May 29 at the Knesset in Jerusalem. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

The Israeli Knesset has voted to dissolve itself and call for new elections—less than two months after Israelis went to the polls and one month after the new Knesset was sworn in. Knesset members were forced to vote themselves out of a job, even before the newly elected members had a chance to receive their state-funded cars.

The vote came together in slow motion, over the past few days. No one believed it could happen. Yet, it did happen…before the eyes of the country…on live television.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged from the last election about 50 days ago with a clear majority to form a government. Sixty-five out of 120 members of the Knesset recommended to the president that Netanyahu be given the mandate to form the government. However, Netanyahu's potential coalition partners did not rush to agree to join his new coalition. In the previous election, everyone had seen that the last party to sign on received the best deal, by far.

During the most recent campaign, Netanyahu promised he would not seek immunity after the election from prosecution in the three cases in which the attorney general stated Netanyahu would be indicted, pending a hearing.

However, as soon as the negotiations began, it became clear that a critical element in the coalition talks revolved around cementing an agreement between all of the coalition partners to support legislation that would effectively grant Netanyahu immunity. That same legislation would limit severely the power of the Supreme Court.

Once Netanyahu's primary goal was clear, his potential coalition partners had even less incentive to hurry to reach an agreement. Party leaders knew they were the only people standing between the prime minister and a potential prison sentence. Coalition negotiations began slowly. In the past, Netanyahu has always been able to sign an agreement with at least one or two of the smaller parties early in the process.

This time, Netanyahu's hand was especially weak, since the both the Blue and White party and the Labor Party made it clear they would consider joining a coalition government with Netanyahu's Likud party, but only after Netanyahu was no longer its head. The remaining parties understood Netanyahu had no choice but to agree to their terms.

During the past week, although it was expected negotiations would come down to the wire, and that Netanyahu would be forced to give away the proverbial store, most observers—and nearly all the politicians—believed that in the end, there would be a government, headed by Netanyahu.

All this did not take into account the ideological positions and will of the Yisrael Beiteinu party head, former Defense and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman, whose base of support (the first generation of Russian immigrants) is slowly disappearing, showed he was unwilling to compromise on a bill he helped negotiate that provided the ultra-Orthodox with an almost complete exemption from military service. The elderly leader of the ultra-Orthodox Gur Hassidim insisted an even more complete exemption.

Yisrael Beiteinu, whose supporters are overwhelmingly secular and vehemently oppose many of the restrictions the ultra-Orthodox attempt to impose on the country, considered any attempt to modify the exceedingly generous army exemption law as bridge too far. Lieberman made it clear that his condition for joining the government was the passage of the original bill, unchanged—a demand Lieberman consistently repeated from the beginning of the campaign.

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, no one believed that Lieberman. Everyone was certain he would compromise in the end (as he had in previous elections).

Without Lieberman's support, Netanyahu did not have the 61 votes he needed to form a government. Although Yisrael Beiteinu had received only five seats, Lieberman understood he held the cards. Moreover, he has a long history with Netanyahu, much of it negative. We will never know how much of Lieberman's decision to refuse any compromise was a function of his personal animus to Netanyahu, or how much Lieberman believed this was his last chance to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox, in the name of his constituents.

Ultimately, the one thing Netanyahu could not allow was for the usual electoral process to play itself out. Under Israeli election law, if Netanyahu was unable to form a government by midnight Wednesday, he would have to return the mandate to do so to Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, who could then hand the mandate to anyone but Netanyahu to try. Instead of taking the chance that someone else might successfully form the government, Netanyahu took advantage of a provision of the Israeli law that allows the Knesset to dissolve itself at any time. Once the Knesset has been dissolved, new elections are mandated.

So a new election is now scheduled for September 17. By the time a new government is finally sworn in, Israel will have gone almost a full year with a transitional government, which has limited authority to act. Will the election results in September be any different? Most observers think that is unlikely. However, there are too many factors at work to accurately predict the outcome.

However, a few things are apparent. Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to claim he will not seek some immunity, after trying to secure immunity after this last election. In any case, by the time a new government is formed—assuming it's a right-wing government led by Netanyahu—there will be very little time to pass the requisite bills that would provide him with immunity from prosecution.

Another factor is what might happen with Gaza in the meantime. The Netanyahu government had clearly negotiated a set of agreements with Hamas in Gaza, agreements it was likely waiting to fulfill until after the government was formed. It will be nearly impossible for Netanyahu to implement those understandings before the election, for fear of being considered "weak on terror." At the same time, it's unlikely Hamas will be willing to remain patient for another six months.

One final thought: Israelis love winners. It is clear Netanyahu lost this last round. For the first time in history, an Israeli government failed to be formed after an election. Will enough Israelis blame Netanyahu for this failure to change the outcome of next election? While it is unlikely, we will have to wait nearly four months to find out.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​