Gantz gets his chance

Over to you: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (right) gives Benny Gantz a mandate to form a government

 

It is now over a month since Israel held an unprecedented second round of inconclusive national elections, and the standoff continues. On October 23, President Reuven Rivlin asked Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz to form a government – the first time since 2006 that someone other than Binyamin Netanyahu has been asked to do so. 

This is the second time this year that the incumbent prime minister has failed to assemble a coalition with a sufficient number of parliamentary seats to govern. Netanyahu had been working at that task since the election, but gave up on Oct. 21. 

Whether Gantz will succeed in his coalition bid is unclear, but current circumstances suggest that Netanyahu’s decade of dominating Israeli politics is likely coming to an end.

COALITION CALCULATIONS

As things stand, Gantz will not be able to put together a majority coalition of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset unless he reaches some sort of accommodation with the Likud – the alliance of Arab parties that won 13 seats is staunchly opposed to a right-wing government but also refuses to join a Blue and White-led government, or any coalition government for that matter. Yet Gantz still has the upper hand, given Netanyahu’s two consecutive failures.

After winning the first election in April, Netanyahu could not gather more than 60 seats, leading him to disband the Knesset rather than give Rivlin the option of letting a rival try to form government. In the September redo election, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc diminished to 55 seats, while Blue and White edged Likud head-to-head 33 seats to 32. Accordingly, Gantz knew Netanyahu would be unable to put a government together when Rivlin gave him the first crack at it.

Former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman remains the kingmaker. He has stated that he wants Blue and White and Likud to join forces with his Yisrael Beitenu Party (which won 8 seats) and lockout smaller factions on the left and right. 

In recent years, ultra-Orthodox and settler parties have wielded disproportionate influence, and Lieberman gained three more seats in the September election by appealing to voter resentment against those parties. He and Blue and White are now demanding that Likud separate from its right-wing allies (which won 23 seats) as a prerequisite for entering a national unity government. Netanyahu adamantly refuses, seeing this as a form of political disarmament.

Another obstacle is Blue and White’s insistence that Likud find a new leader, since Netanyahu remains under a legal cloud amid widespread indications he will be indicted on three corruption allegations, possibly by the end of November. Under Israeli law, a prime minister can remain in office if indicted, but any other cabinet minister in that situation must step down. Therefore, if Likud and Blue-White form a national unity government with a rotating premiership, Netanyahu will insist that he take the first rotation – not only to stay in office if indictments come through, but perhaps also to increase his leverage for a plea bargain. 

Whatever the case, his public statements make clear that he will not step aside for a Likud colleague at this juncture, and all of the party’s senior officials have lined up behind him. In light of these factors, three scenarios seem most likely as Gantz takes the mandate.

SCENARIO 1: THE RIVLIN COMPROMISE

Amid continued brinkmanship between the parties, Gantz may lean toward what has become known as the “Rivlin compromise” plan, which seeks to address the impasse surrounding Netanyahu’s role. The plan involves amending the law whereby power is transferred to the prime minister’s deputy for 100 days if he is incapacitated, as was the case when then PM Ariel Sharon had a massive stroke in 2006. The law would be changed to extend beyond 100 days, and to cover situations where the prime minister is indicted.

If the parties agree to that compromise and form a unity government, Rivlin would give the first rotation to Netanyahu. As soon as he is indicted, however, authority would be transferred to his deputy, in this case Gantz. Netanyahu would retain the title of prime minister as permitted by the amended law, but Gantz would function as acting premier for the remaining portion of Netanyahu’s rotation unless the courts fully clear him during that time. Gantz would then assume the office formally during the second two years of the unity government, potentially giving him control of the government for nearly four years in total.

Yet Blue and White’s distrust of Netanyahu is so deep that party officials do not believe he would actually cede power if indicted. As evidence, they point to the fact that he approved the idea so quickly behind closed doors. Would he allow Blue and White to place iron-clad enforcement mechanisms onto the deal? Or will the expected indictments coincide with these deal-making efforts, making a unity government without Netanyahu more likely?

SCENARIO 2: SHORT-TERM MINORITY GOVERNMENT

If Gantz does his best to form a coalition with Likud but fails, he may ask Lieberman to abstain so that a minority Blue and White government can be established. This would be very difficult politically, since it would essentially be based on 44 seats (as mentioned previously, the Arab parties will not join a Blue and White government; at best, their 13 seats will provide a safety net against no-confidence motions). 

Although such a small minority government is unprecedented, Gantz would presumably explain to Lieberman that it is a short-term measure based on the hope that public pressure will force Netanyahu to step aside for another Likud candidate once indictments are issued. 

Netanyahu’s aides are already trying to stave off this possibility by making entreaties to the right flank of Blue and White, led by former defence minister Moshe Yaalon.

One low-probability scenario is that Gantz will recruit Lieberman and one of the ultra-Orthodox parties to form a government with 61 seats. Yet this would violate Lieberman’s pledge not to sit with ultra-Orthodox parties, not to mention the ultra-Orthodox pledge to avoid a government that Netanyahu does not head.

SCENARIO 3: THIRD ROUND OF ELECTIONS

As he inaugurated the Knesset’s autumn session, Rivlin publicly chided parliamentarians for the ongoing impasse and warned them not to inflict the country with another redo election. Yet as Gantz and Netanyahu battle to convince Israelis who is responsible for what the nightly news calls “the political quagmire,” the possibility of going back to the polls cannot be ruled out.

Going forward, Gantz will likely emphasise that Netanyahu is being unreasonable by insisting on leading a government when he is under a legal cloud, for demanding to go first in a rotating premiership, and for refusing to let Likud join a government without its right-wing allies. In contrast, Gantz has said he would form a unity government with Likud instantly once Netanyahu steps aside. And if Netanyahu or his allies call for another round of voting, Gantz would likely dismiss the threat as a hollow one given the Prime Minister’s loss of support between rounds one and two. 

For his part, Netanyahu will likely argue that Gantz is being unreasonable by not allowing him to go first in the rotation.

Although it is too soon to say which of the above scenarios will emerge, all of them share one trait in common: Netanyahu would no longer dominate the political landscape the way he has over the past decade. 

After returning the mandate to Rivlin, Netanyahu’s realistic options are largely limited to blocking Gantz, rather than retaining full authority for himself. These scenarios also hint at Israel’s broader transition away from a personality-centralised power structure and toward some sort of power-sharing model.

Whatever the case, it is difficult to imagine the existing caretaker government taking any major initiatives before the new government is formed, apart from possible tactical military strikes in response to potential Gaza rocket attacks. 

Likewise, the Trump Administration seems to be waiting for Israel’s political landscape to settle before deciding whether to undertake its long-awaited peace initiative, or perhaps recast it as a less-ambitious “vision statement” to be used as a reference point for future peace efforts. For now, there is no indication that US President Trump and Netanyahu have spoken with each other since the September election, and when senior adviser Jared Kushner visits the region at the end of the month, he will meet with Gantz for the first time, not just with Netanyahu.

David Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and coauthor with Dennis Ross of the book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. © Washington Institute (washingtoninstitute.org), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.