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When he called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to congratulate on his re-election with a landslide victory, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not hide his jealousy. According to an official clip released by his office, Netanyahu lamented: “Well, thank you for your congratulations on my victory, but there’s one difference: You don’t need a coalition, I do, and there’s a big difference.”

This difference became evident on May 29, ironically hours before Prime Minister Modi being sworn in, when Netanyahu endorsed a motion in the Knesset to dissolve itself and pave the way for new election due to his inability to form a government.

On April 9 as the exit polls were hinting at a tight race between the governing Likud and Blue and White led by former general Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Netanyahu rushed to proclaim 'victory' and forged pre-coalition deals with the religious parties. When the results were announced, both parties won an identical number of seats, 35 each with the Likud securing 0.33 percent or less than 15,000 votes more than the other. The support of the religious parties gave the impression that a Netanyahu led right-wing coalition was more comfortably placed with 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset. With only 45 seats, the centrist Blue and White decided not to venture into an arduous journey. The remaining ten seats were held by Arab parties, whose inclusion into a ruling coalition would have transformed Israel into a true democracy but they would have to wait for another time.

Despite his legendary skills of deal making, Netanyahu—who on July 16, would become the longest-serving prime minister, overtaking David Ben-Gurion— was unable to convince his former aide and present head of the Yisrael Beitenu Avigdor Liberman to join the coalition. Catering primarily to secular and Russian voters, the former aide of Netanyahu was in no mood to abandon his prime demand of compulsory military draft for the Haredi population.

Unable to reconcile the two incompatible demands of his potential partners, Netanyahu had no choice but to dissolve the house and as required by law a motion to this effect was endorsed by 74 to 45 votes, with Arab parties supporting the move. And fresh elections will be held on 17 September.

What does the new drama tell us?

One, in its seven-decade history which witnessed 21 elections, this was the first time when the Israeli parliament is being dissolved because a government could not be formed after elections. On two earlier occasions, 1984 and 1988, the impasse was overcome when Likud and the opposition Labour Party joined hands to form a National Unity Government. This time, neither the Blue and White nor the Labour Party (which had six seats) were prepared to bail the Likud leader out. Such a course would have been suicidal especially in the light of the impending indictment of Netanyahu over corruption charges.

Two, originally the April elections were not due until November this year, but due to coalition crises, Netanyahu dissolved the house and advanced it by seven months. He was hoping to cash on the growing economy, political support from Washington and greater Israeli acceptance in the Middle East. The dissolution of the parliament last December only marginally increased the number of seats won by the Likud but it was still far short of the magic number of 61. As a result, Israel would be having a second election within the same year.

Three, in the broader context of peace, the year will be a washout as no meaningful progress or engagement is possible before a new government is in place in Israel. Given the pattern of Israeli electorates and multiplicity of parties, this will not happen before late October or early November. If media reports in Israel are an indication, there would be greater clarity by then over the timeline for Netanyahu's indictment. Hence, the much talked about deal-of-the century touted by the Trump Administration will not happen this year.

Predicting the unpredictable is always a challenge in the Middle East and the dissolution of the Knesset is just the latest reminder.

Note: The article was originally published as IDSA West Asia Watch, Volume 2 Issue 2 March- April 2019 and is published with the permission of the author. Web link