Netanyahu volleys the ball back into Gantz’s court

Avigdor Lieberman (l) and Benny Gantz.

Like a dizzying volley between two tennis pros at match point, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his challenger Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz have been trying to exploit the results of Israel’s March 2 elections to assemble a coalition and score a clear victory over each other.

While there are still weeks to go to form a government before an unprecedented fourth straight election is triggered, at the moment, it appears the advantage has shifted once again into Netanyahu’s court, where it began on the night of Israel’s elections, following exit polls that showed a Likud-led centre-right bloc holding 60 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.

Afterwards, when the actual vote showed that bloc held 58, Netanyahu’s challenger, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz tweeted,“Somebody here celebrated too soon.”

Gantz, with the surprise tacit support of Israel Beitenu’s leader Avigdor Lieberman, made the decision to try to corral the 62 mandates that didn’t support Netanyahu, in an effort to force Netanyahu out.

What made Gantz’s work so difficult is that the 62 mandates involved included parties, factions and MKs so far apart politically that it may be impossible for them to sit together, even temporarily.

In particular – in order to have the majority to force out Netanyahu – Gantz would have to rely on the 15 seats held by the Joint List – a mostly Arab grouping of parties that includes the strongly anti-Zionist Balad faction which has former and current members who have said and done things that some Zionist MKs find hard to overlook (for example, former Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman).

While some on the Israeli left have criticized opposition to the Joint List as untoward, even racist in nature, the fact remains that parts of the Joint List are deeply problematic – and Joint List leader Ayman Odeh has not helped matters by refusing to distance himself from the radicals in his group.

While Lieberman appears to be willing to set aside his past refusal to contemplate any deals with the Joint List in the interest of removing Netanyahu, three MKs have now come out against any government that relies on the Joint List: Right-leaning Blue and White MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser; and Gesher faction leader Orly Levy-Abecasis from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance.

It is hardly a mere coincidence that these MKs were the same ones tipped by some analysts to be ripe for possible defection to the Likud bloc when it initially appeared that the Likud was just one seat away from a majority.

While Hendel, Hauser and Levy-Abecasis have vehemently denied they are ready to support Netanyahu, each have now come out against a minority government supported by the Joint List.

The question that looms for Benny Gantz, and Labor-Gesher-Meretz leader Amir Peretz is how to deal with the rebellion.

Demands from within Blue and White for their rogue MKs to resign and surrender their seats to other party members who won’t stand in the way of a minority government have little chance of success.

There is some speculation that the rogue MKs could be persuaded to abstain, rather than vote against a minority government, or that they might agree to participate in a one-time vote with the Joint List to remove Netanyahu, with no further strings attached.

Otherwise, Gantz will be pressured to do what he has refused to do thus far – consider a national unity government with Netanyahu going first in rotation  – or risk another round of elections.

That said, there are a few other ways this could go. Ha’aretz’s political commentator Anshel Pfeffer has identified at least seven possible outcomes. One that I personally see as increasingly likely, in light of the deteriorating Coronavirus crisis that has led to Israel instituting a 14-day self-quarantine policy for all arrivals from overseas: a temporary, emergency unity government led by Netanyahu to deal with that unprecedented health challenge.

Such an outcome would naturally be anathema to Gantz and his party, who have promised repeatedly never to sit in a government led by Netanyahu while he is under criminal indictments. But, after a relatively disappointing third election, and especially likely to be exposed to political attack in the event of a fourth election after flip-flopping about trying to form a government with the help of the Joint List, Gantz might find some cover for accepting a Netanyahu-led unity government he was unprepared to agree to in September, at least for a relatively short time frame.