JERUSALEM — It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been forced to play a dangerous game of chicken with his allies as he struggles to cobble together a governing coalition. If Israel’s squabbling conservative parties can’t cut a deal — and soon — the country will go to elections for a second time this year.
That, in turn, represents a major gamble for Mr. Netanyahu, who finds himself on shaky ground just as the country is confronting rising Iranian threats and seeking to accommodate President Trump’s Middle East peace “deal of the century.”
The uncertainty is all the more striking because just a month ago, Mr. Netanyahu looked secure in office and ready to extend his unprecedented decade-long rule in Jerusalem.
Despite corruption investigations and looming indictments the Israeli leader was confident. Press analyses explored how he had outplayed his rivals once again and how quickly it would take him to form a right-wing government with allies who had served in his previous governments.
Now, despite an encouraging tweet from President Trump, Mr. Netanyahu finds himself in full damage-control mode, unable to finesse a bitter dispute between two smaller parties to his planned Knesset majority.
“In recent days, I have made efforts to fulfill the will of the people,” the Likud party leader said Monday, before dropping a bombshell: The country might be heading back to elections. “There is no reason to paralyze the country for another year and a half and squander billions,” he said.
Facing a Wednesday deadline to form a government or step aside to let his center-left rivals give it a try, the man dubbed “King Bibi” looks set to plunge the country into uncertainty in a bid to hold onto power and force his own allies to agree to his terms.
While a last-minute accord is still possible, the Knesset early Tuesday passed the first of three Netanyahu-backed motions required to dissolve parliament with a 66-44 majority, with a tentative election date set for Sept. 17.
Left-wing parties are already protesting what would be the first time in Israel’s history that two general elections were held in the same year. They say they should be given a chance to succeed where Mr. Netanyahu failed — without the expense, delay and confusion of a new vote.
Labor Party Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich, who recently stepped down as opposition leader, complained that Mr. Netanyahu’s snap election ploy was “an unprecedented event in Israel’s history, subjecting the country to chaos and massive expenses while paralyzing its institutions.”
In Israel’s divided political landscape, Mr. Netanyahu needs 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to earn another term in power. The April 9 elections produced a strong showing for Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud as he increased his share to 35 seats, but tied with the new Blue and White party that is led by former Chief of Staff of the IDF Benny Gantz.
The early betting was that Mr. Netanyahu, whose supporters celebrated wildly as the results came in, had a clear path to enlist Israel’s right-wing and religious parties as part of a stable governing majority.
Problems political and personal
But Mr. Netanyahu has faced two problems since the April elections, one personal and one political.
First, he sought to avoid indictment from a mounting corruption investigation that loomed in the background of April’s vote. But when Likud MP Miki Zohar introduced an immunity bill in the Knesset on May 21, some 100,000 people turned out to protest four days later.
Drawing parallels with other Middle Eastern authoritarian leaders, Benny Gantz, the ex-general who headed the new, centrist Blue and White coalition, condemned the “one-man” rule of Mr. Netanyahu.
“We will not allow Israel to become the private property of a royal family or sultanate,” the energized opposition leader declared.
Even more problematic for Mr. Netanyahu has been the infighting among his putative allies on the right.
The Yisrael Beytenu party, which won five seats in the Knesset, is led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Mr. Lieberman’s party ran with Likud in 2013 and historically, he’s been close with Mr. Netanyahu. But Mr. Lieberman has been adamant on one hot-button issue — the longstanding practice of military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men, championing the secular right-wing voters who serve in Israel’s armed forces.
“The only motivation of Yisrael Beiteinu is to stand by our principles and our commitments,” the tough-talking Mr. Lieberman said in a Facebook post Tuesday. “We are not looking to topple Netanyahu and are not looking for an alternative candidate, but we will not compromise.”
Mr. Netanyahu has been unable to reconcile Mr. Lieberman’s demands with the demands of the Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, which combined control 18 seats. Failure to get a deal could lead to an unclear and politically risky rerun of April’s election, and extend the period of uncertainty in Jerusalem at a diplomatically delicate time.
“I am now making my last effort to form a right-wing government and to prevent unnecessary elections,” Mr. Netanyahu said on Sunday.
Mr. Netanyahu prefers new elections to the alternative of letting his political adversaries take over the job.
Following traditional procedures, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, designates the leader of one party to try to form a government. After consultations with the parties he gave Mr. Netanyahu that task last month, with 28 days to complete it. As coalition talks bogged down, Mr. Netanyahu got a 14-day extension that is permitted under the law.
Under Israeli law, should Mr. Netanyahu fail, Mr. Rivlin would select another party — almost certainly Mr. Gantz and his allies — to try and form a government. The problem is that it is not clear if the Blue and White party, despite also having 35 seats like Likud, can find enough dance partners to take power.
The uncertainty is already putting a dent in Mr. Netanyahu’s reputation as a decisive leader.
Opposition parties argue that the scandal-weakened prime minister is putting his personal interests before the country’s security. Mr. Trump tweeted on Monday his good wishes to Mr. Netanyahu, writing he hoped to work with together “to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever.”
Tuesday’s maneuvering exposed the stakes the main players are dealing with. Mr. Netanyahu excoriated Mr. Lieberman for balking at a deal, amid widespread speculation Mr. Lieberman’s small party may lose all its seats if a new vote is held.
Mr. Netanyahu also has reached out to Kulanu, a center-right party that could be a candidate to join a Blue and White government, to say that Kulanu and Likud will run together in the next elections, if they happen in September.
Despite the setbacks of the past month, few here are willing to bet against the prime minister.
Mr. Netanyahu has outplayed his rivals again and again for 10 years, but he has now gambled everything to stay in power, either through new elections or forcing his allies to accept his decisions.
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