By Joshua Mitnick
Benjamin Netanyahu is widely known at home as the “magician” for his skill at winning national votes even when he seems politically vulnerable. He’s likely to do it again this time when Israelis go to the polls on Sept. 17.
But the four-term prime minister could face a bigger hurdle after the ballot, when complicated horse-trading, a looming indictment, and the conspiring of rivals all weigh against him.
While most polls predict his right-wing Likud party will draw the most votes in the election, the second in six months, political analysts point to at least three scenarios in which Netanyahu could find himself winning the vote but losing the premiership.
These scenarios are outliers in the conventions of Israeli politics. But in many ways, Israelis are in uncharted waters since the last election in April, when Netanyahu appeared to win a majority with his religious and right-wing allies but then failed to gain the support of a key faction, Yisrael Beiteinu, during six weeks of grueling negotiations.
Netanyahu preferred to dissolve parliament and force new elections rather than allow the rival Blue and White party, led by the former military chief Benny Gantz, an opportunity to form a coalition.
The inconclusive result was a reminder that in parliamentary systems like Israel’s, the election results aren’t the final word on who will become prime minister. The actual finish line of the race is when the parliament confirms a new governing coalition in a vote of confidence.
“The big game only starts after the election,’’ said Tal Shalev, a political correspondent for Walla News.
While the negotiating is underway, Netanyahu will have to contend with a politically awkward distraction: a pre-indictment hearing with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit over charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of public trust in three separate corruption cases.
There remains, of course, the possibility that Netanyahu and his allies would win 61 or more seats outright in the 120-member parliament, allowing him to form a narrow coalition and hold on to power.
But with polls pointing to more post-election uncertainty, here are three ways it could go badly for the Israeli leader.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin could decide to give Gantz or another parliament member the first crack at building a coalition.
Israel’s presidency is a largely a symbolic and ceremonial role devoid of executive and legislative authority. One of the few political tasks they do have is to bestow a four-to-six-week mandate on a member of parliament to form a coalition government following an election.
Usually, the president taps the lawmaker who heads the largest party. But if that lawmaker’s chances of forming a majority coalition are in doubt, the president has the discretion to opt for a different parliament member.
The rub for Netanyahu is that Rivlin, known widely by the nickname “Ruby,” is his bitter rival. Both are members of the Likud party, but Netanyahu lobbied against the appointment of Rivlin as president. Analysts say Rivlin has neither forgotten nor forgiven.
In a dig at the prime minister, Rivlin said earlier this month that he was surprised when Netanyahu in May forced a second election rather than stepping aside to allow another parliament member a chance to form a coalition, according to the Jerusalem Post. He said that he would do everything in his power to avoid a third election.
“The key is Rivlin. He’s going to play a monumental role,’’ said Mitchell Barak, an independent pollster who used to advise Netanyahu. “He can literally decide to give the mandate to anyone—not necessarily the head of the largest party.”
Before making the decision, Rivlin is supposed to confer with all of the parliamentary factions.
“The consulting process is going to be much more crucial, much more careful, and less transparent,’’ said Tal Schneider, the political correspondent for Israel’s Globes newspaper. “Last time it was on Facebook Live. These will be behind closed doors.”
Putsch of the Likud Upstarts
If Netanyahu’s victory is not decisive, he could face a rebellion from Likud upstarts who want their own crack at the party leadership—Netanyahu has already served as prime minister for more than 13 years cumulatively.
The politicians who consider themselves would-be heirs are mostly current and former cabinet ministers with little star power, including Gideon Saar, Gilad Erdan, and Israel Katz. Some have fractious relations with Netanyahu, and none has been willing to risk mounting a challenge so far.
That might change after the vote. Even if Rivlin gives Netanyahu the first crack at forming a coalition, there’s a good chance he could fail again. That would give the potential rebels an opening.
“Several senior Likud members have every reason to want to see Bibi gone, but they face the potential wrath of their party rank and file. To successfully remove him and replace him with another Likud leader they would need political cover,’’ said Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“Perhaps if Netanyahu receives the mandate to form a coalition but fails, making it very hard, legally, for him to become prime minister, they could tell their own people that it’s either a Likud prime minister other than Netanyahu, a non-Likud prime minister, or a third election. The first option would then appear as the clear favorite.”
The Nixon Option
Some analysts suggest there might be a more graceful exit strategy for Netanyahu—a resignation-for-clemency deal.
The analysts point to U.S. President Richard Nixon’s departure as the model. Nixon resigned in August 1974 under pressure from the Watergate scandal. His successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned him a month later, triggering allegations of a secret deal.
Several political observers have written that Netanyahu, backed into a political corner by Likud allies and with the looming criminal charges, might try to negotiate a deal of his own with Mandelblit.
An inglorious departure to be sure, but the ultimate get-out-of-jail card.