Why an unprecedented second election may be a bridge too far for Benjamin Netanyahu

It was just six weeks ago that Benjamin Netanyahu strode onto the stage in Tel Aviv and declared victory in Israel’s last election.

The political maestro had done it again. He had secured a fifth term in office, seen off a reinvigorated opposition, and looked on course to use his new majority to change the law and shield himself from prosecution on criminal corruption charges. 

That vision all fell apart in a few chaotic hours on Wednesday. Unable to form a majority coalition government, Mr Netanyahu instead forced a new election which neither he nor Israeli voters wanted. 

The Israeli prime minister’s air of invincibility has now been shattered. The rules of political gravity, it seems, apply to him as well as to other mere mortals. His biographer described it as his “worst night in 13 years”.

Mr Netanyahu’s most immediate concern is the criminal prosecution on allegations that he illegally accepted luxury gifts and changed public regulations in return for favourable coverage from a media tycoon. (He denies wrongdoing). 

His plan had been to use the coming months to alter the rules so that he would have immunity as long as he was in office. Political insiders described himself as almost singularly obsessed with the issue. 

Now those plans will have to wait until after the election or may be scrapped altogether. He got a reminder of his circling legal woes earlier on Wednesday, when his wife agreed to pay to £12,000 to settle her own fraud case. 

It is still entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Mr Netanyahu will win the next election. No gambler ever got wealthy by betting against him. But he faces a number of potential head winds.  

Voters tend to punish the ruling party for dysfunction in government and Israelis who are frustrated at being dragged to the polls a second time may take it out on Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party. 

Because he did not expect to face voters again for several years, Mr Netanyahu has also been less than subtle about his ambitions to secure immunity for himself. That may mean the opposition’s allegation that he is vandalising Israeli democracy will stick in the coming election in a way they did not last time.  

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Finally, there is a danger for Mr Netanyahu that Israelis have simply had enough of his drama. They may turn to a boring but dependable figure – like the centrist opposition leader Benny Gantz – as long as he can give them a quiet life. 

The unexpected new election probably also means that the White House’s much-delayed and much-maligned peace plan will be permanently shelved.

The first rule of the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian policy has always been: do no harm to Mr Netanyahu’s political prospects. 

They deliberately waited until after his election victory in April to start rolling out their plan. And before that they gave the prime minister a massive pre-election gift by recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.  

The US may still forge ahead with the less controversial economic half of the plan at a summit in Bahrain next month. But they are likely to indefinitely delay the more complex political component that was due later this year.

By the time Israel’s election is over the 2020 US presidential election will be in full swing. It is unlikely Donald Trump or his team will have much interest in the Middle East when they will be fully focused on the American Midwest.   

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