The quest for a new Israeli governing coalition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the President's Residence in Jerusalem after being tasked by President Reuven Rivlin (not in frame) with forming a new government, on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Update from AIJAC

09/19 #03

Yesterday, after Israel’s election committee published its final results from the election last Tuesday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu the first mandate to try and form a new governing coalition. This follows an intense but unsuccessful effort by Rivlin to broker a national unity government between Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz. But the decision to give Netanyahu a mandate to try and form government actually provides little clarity about what might emerge from coalition talks – as this Update explores.

We lead with a Times of Israel analysis of why Netanyahu would have likely been less than ecstatic to be asked to try to form government. It looks at why Rivlin chose Netanyahu first, why few in Israel expect him to succeed, and what happens next if he fails. It also canvasses the various proposals being put forward by Rivlin and others for a unity government and why they have not met with success so far. For this essential analysis of the state of the Israeli coalition negotiations, CLICK HERE. Plus, columnist Mati Tuchfield comments on the bizarre reality that  “neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Blue and White leader Benny Gantz wanted to be granted the opportunity” to form government first.

Exploring in more detail the obstacles to the unity government most pundits expect will have to eventually come about if new elections are to be avoided is Lahav Harkov of the Jerusalem Post. She notes that there are more important barriers to a unity government than the question of who will be prime minister first and other normal disagreements about portfolios and cabinet numbers. On the one hand, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party has promised consistently and repeatedly not to join a government with Netanyahu as long as he remains under possible indictment for corruption charges, while Netanyahu has now promised to negotiate unity only together with several smaller right-wing and religious parties that Blue and White has also promised not to sit in government with. For Harkov’s fuller explanation of why unity requires someone to break their promises,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, one of the success stories of this election was the role of Israeli Arab voters. Academic Eyal Zisser notes that not only did Israeli Arabs turn out to vote in much higher numbers that in April, but the predominantly Arab Joint List party is both taking part in the coalition negotiations and suggesting a willingness to use its numbers to gain government services rather than engage in ideological posturing in a historically unprecedented way. He calls on the Zionist parties to step up to the challenge of meeting the Arab thirst for integration which has been demonstrated by this election and its aftermath. For his thoughts in full, CLICK HERE.

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Mission impossible? Why Netanyahu, asked to form a coalition, isn’t smiling

As the president again asks the PM to build a government, 5 months after the last such effort failed, ToI answers 5 key questions on Israel’s increasingly complex political reality

Times of Israel staff

Times of Israel, Sept. 23, 2019

President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday night invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to build a majority government following the September 17 elections. And Netanyahu accepted the mission.

But neither man seemed to believe that Netanyahu would succeed. And the prime minister’s rival, Benny Gantz, was apparently untroubled that he had not been given the task.

Here’s an effort to make sense of Israel’s increasingly complicated post-election reality.

1. Why did Rivlin choose Netanyahu over Gantz?

The president selected the incumbent prime minister because, in consultations on Sunday and Monday, 55 members of Knesset recommended Netanyahu as prime minister, compared to 54 who endorsed Gantz. Moreover, Rivlin noted, 10 of those who recommended Gantz, from the 13-strong Arab parties’ Joint List, made clear that they would not actually sit in a coalition with the Blue and White leader. Hence, concluded the president, Netanyahu’s chances of mustering a majority in the 120-seat Knesset were better than Gantz’s, even though Gantz’s party won 33 seats in the elections, compared to Likud’s 32.

2. Does Rivlin believe that Netanyahu will succeed?

The president indicated that he has little faith in Netanyahu’s prospects of success. “There are no 61 necessary votes for building a government,” the president said, “not for outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and not for MK and ex-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.” Five months ago, Rivlin gave the same coalition-building mission to Netanyahu, and the prime minister failed to win a majority, crucially because Avigdor Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu party refused to join forces with Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Liberman’s party again holds the balance of power between the two rival blocs, and is again refusing to sit in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox. “The act” of giving Netanyahu the task of building a government, the president said, “is not the solution.”

Said Rivlin bleakly: “It doesn’t matter who I task first with building a government, or who, if necessary and appropriate, I task second. Unless the ruling out and boycotting of entire segments of Israeli society comes to an end, as long as there is no motivation to create new alliances between parties big and small, until there is a genuine will to reach agreements and to compromise, there will be no government.”

3. How is Rivlin trying to break the deadlock?

The president has called repeatedly for a unity government, in which Likud and Blue and White would be the core partners. He repeated that perceived imperative on Wednesday night. With each of the rival candidates unwilling to cede to the other, he said he had proposed a “paritetic” government, under which all government authority would be equally distributed.

In such a partnership, with the premiership presumably being shared between the two leaders on a rotation basis, Rivlin also proposed giving more power to the role of “interim prime minister”. Should the serving PM be incapable of fulfilling his role, for whatever reason, the interim prime minister would step in with all of the prime minister’s powers. This initiative appeared designed to overcome Gantz’s refusal to partner in a coalition with Likud so long as Netanyahu, facing potential criminal indictment, is its leader. A further suggestion from Rivlin was that a prime minister could take a leave of absence for longer than the maximum 100 days currently mandated — an idea apparently intended to assuage Netanyahu’s fears that if he steps out of the Prime Minister’s Office to battle his legal difficulties, he will not easily return.

Gantz’s party promptly restated its refusal to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu, apparently dooming the president’s initiative.

4. What happens next if Netanyahu fails?

Rivlin specified that both Likud and Blue and White had promised to “return the mandate” to him if their leader was selected to form a coalition and failed to do so — in contrast to April-May, when Netanyahu moved to dissolve the Knesset rather than let Gantz try to build a majority. Rivlin indicated that if Netanyahu does indeed fail, he would be prepared to let Gantz have a try. Blue and White may want to believe that, as the weeks pass, and the prospect of a third election inside a year looms larger, Likud Knesset members might break away from Netanyahu or seek to oust him, rather than risk losing their seats under a leader deeply embroiled in legal complications. To date, all Likud MKs have pledged and shown complete loyalty to Netanyahu, however.

5. Does Netanyahu think he’ll succeed this time?

Netanyahu said he’d “accept the mission” but without exuding much confidence. He said he shared Rivlin’s desire for unity, and recognized the imperative for national reconciliation after a divisive election campaign. He said Israel needed a “broad unity government” — indicating his ongoing commitment to his ultra-Orthodox and religious-nationalist allies, with whom Gantz has refused to negotiate. He also argued that Israel needs a government soon — to grapple with the Iranian threat, to meet Israel’s economic challenges, and to deal appropriately with the opportunities and challenges of the imminent Trump administration peace plan. Still, he indicated that he would not take all the time the law allows to try to build a majority; if it was clear within the next few days that there was no chance of success, he’d return the mandate to Rivlin.

Plainly, Netanyahu would like to depict Gantz as the holdout against a viable government — both to try to win over Liberman, however unlikely that may seem, and to win over public opinion if Israel is to be doomed to Elections: Part 3.


What is Standing in the way of a Netanyahu and Gantz Rotation Agreement?

Rivlin has been pushing them toward a unity coalition, which would likely involve a rotation agreement for the premiership.

BY LAHAV HARKOV

Jerusalem Post, September 24, 2019

From R to L: President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut, and Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The Likud and Blue and White negotiating teams are set to meet on Tuesday, before their respective party leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz return to President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday for another meeting, following the one on Monday night.

That meeting ended without white smoke rising from the President’s Residence chimney, so to speak, but it seems like the only way out of the current electoral mess is a unity government with a rotation for prime minister

Both candidates have reasonable arguments as to why they should be prime minister. Gantz’s Blue and White received the most seats in the Knesset, with 33, but while Likud only has 31 seats, Netanyahu has more recommendations, with 55 to Gantz’s 54.

Notably, neither has a majority behind him, which means neither has a clear path to a coalition.

Hence, Rivlin has been pushing them towards a unity coalition, which would likely involve a rotation agreement for the premiership.

But there are many obstacles in the way and issues to work out before they reach Rivlin’s goal – if they manage to reach it at all.

No to Netanyahu

Blue and White’s biggest promise, and its most consistent one throughout both election campaigns this year, was that it will not be in a government with Netanyahu as long as he is under an actual or recommended indictment.

Netanyahu’s hearing with Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit is next week, and just about every legal reporter in the country, including at The Jerusalem Post, says Mandelblit has a strong case and is likely to indict – which means that Blue and White doesn’t have an easy excuse for sitting with Netanyahu.

One Blue and White source told the Post’s sister Hebrew newspaper Ma’ariv that they will not give up on this: “If the Likud doesn’t send [Netanyahu] home, we will go to another election.”

If Blue and White swallows its pride – and its promise – and sits with Netanyahu, there is little to no chance that they would agree to pass a law that would grant MKs automatic immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu has publicly denied backing such a law, but in May it was pushed by some of the lawmakers closest to him.

Who’s on first?

Gantz is talking to Netanyahu and the parties’ negotiating teams met. There would be nothing to talk about if Blue and White was really ruling Netanyahu out. It’s not too far-fetched to guess Blue and White will break their promise to disqualify Netanyahu, and go for a rotation agreement. Then the question will be, who will be prime minister first?

It’s important to note that if Netanyahu is indicted, he can be prime minister, but legally, all other ministers must resign if indicted. Therefore, while under indictment, Netanyahu would not be able to be a minister in prime minister Gantz’s cabinet.

One solution to this conundrum, proposed by Likud MK David Bitan, is that Netanyahu be premier for the government’s first year, then Gantz for two years, and then a year of whoever will be the Likud’s leader, depending on Netanyahu’s legal status. Another is that Netanyahu be first, but that Gantz have more than two years in the top spot.

Bloc party

Immediately after Netanyahu’s meeting with Gantz and Rivlin, the prime minister called the leaders of Bayit Yehudi, New Right, Shas and United Torah Judaism, the members of his 55-seat negotiating bloc. The parties agreed last week that they would negotiate together, and Netanyahu told them that even though he was talking to Gantz, he had not abandoned them.

If Netanyahu does stick to the bloc, it has the potential to be very disruptive to the coalition-building process. Gantz promised a “secular unity government,” without haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and without “extremists,” referring to Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich. Blue and White promised to pass a bill to conscript more haredim into the military; require haredim to study the core curriculum, including math and English; institute civil marriages; expand shops open on Saturdays; and many other things that the haredim would refuse to do. A government with haredim would go against Blue and White’s raison d’être – or at the very least that of its constituent party Yesh Atid.

In addition, Blue and White would be unlikely to support West Bank annexation or judicial reforms pushed by Bayit Yehudi, New Right and some of Likud, which Netanyahu promised to enact over this year’s two elections.

The bloc could also prevent Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman from joining the coalition, because he also campaigned on a platform of haredi-free government and secularist policies.

One response to the bloc issue that Blue and White is considering is a demand that the coalition also include a party that is closer to their views, such as Yisrael Beytenu or Labor-Gesher.

Third time’s a charm?

The number three comes into play in two ways in this negotiation.

First, there’s the argument that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz thinks he can succeed on the first try to build a coalition. Therefore, sources say Gantz does not want to be the first to be given a chance, because he thinks he can succeed as the second candidate.

Netanyahu, however, takes things even further, having told the Likud faction on Monday that he thinks both the first and the second attempts at coalition-building will fail, and therefore he wants to be third, at which points he thinks he would succeed. But, he added, he will still make a real effort on the first try.

The other important number three is a third election. Some of Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of wanting a third election, and say that he is trying to frame Gantz as the reason for the eventual failure of coalition talks.

Netanyahu himself, along with his surrogates in Likud, says he does not want a third election, and that a unity government is the only way to move forward.

But the question remains, how can it move forward with all of these obstacles in the way?

Only one thing seems to be certain: Whether it’s Blue and White refusing to sit with Netanyahu or the haredim, or Netanyahu promising to keep his right-wing bloc intact, someone will have to go back on his word for anything but a third election to happen.

It’s lucky that politicians are not known for keeping their promises.


Arab voters feel more Israeli than Palestinian

When Arab voters went to the polls last week, they sent a message to the Israeli public: We want to integrate. Now the Zionist parties must step up to the plate.

by  Prof. Eyal Zisser

 Israel Hayom, Published on  2019-09-23

An Israeli Arab voter – one of the many such voters which led to a large turnout at Israel’s election last Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Arab voters flocked to the polls, defying expectations of a low turnout.

Arab turnout skyrocketed compared to the April 9 election, reaching 59% on Tuesday, almost as high as the Jewish turnout.

This could suggest that the Israeli Arabs are no longer trying to distance themselves from the state’s institutions.

Although Arab voters voted for the Joint Arab List, the only Arab list on the ballot, their high turnout sent a message to the Jewish public. The Arab voters essentially said that they viewed themselves as Israelis and want to take part in the Israeli experience.

Likewise, during the campaign Arab candidates put aside their solidarity with the Palestinian Authority in its struggle against Israel, and scaled back their rhetoric on changing Israel’s Jewish character.

Instead, the Arab politicians campaigned on better education, employment, housing, education and so forth, highlighting the need to address the festering problems in the Arab sector.

Arab candidates had realized that their attempt to drive a wedge between Arabs and Jews and their refusal to accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jews were turning off voters. Consequently, they figured they could only win back the Arab street if they changed the discourse and promised a course correction.

This reboot is what allowed Joint Arab List Chairman Ayman Odeh to break from the past: He told President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday that his list was endorsing Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for prime minister.

Considering that Arab parties have almost never endorsed a Zionist MK for prime minister, this move was designed to show his constituents that the Arab parties were not going to engage in the same politics of division as before.

(L to R) Members of the Joint List Osama Saadi, Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas arrive for a consulting meeting with the Israeli president, to decide who to task with trying to form a new government, in Jerusalem, on September 22, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Arabs are hungry for full integration regardless of what transpires in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is why they decided to make their voice heard at the polling booth.

In fact, the spike in Arab participation was noticeable a year ago during the municipal elections, when Arab voters sided with candidates who focused on bread-and-butter issues, not on those who focused on anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Arab MKs will now have to use their political capital wisely. This means they must stop their infighting and abandon the anti-Israeli agenda they have promoted in past Knessets.

Perhaps this transformation will only take place once a new generation of Arab politicians emerges, or only when a new Arab movement comes forward and asks for equality in every aspect – not just in civil rights, but also in civic duties.

But the Jewish public and its leaders have an even greater challenge by stepping up to the plate. The state is now duty-bound to seize this golden opportunity and tap into this Arab thirst for integration.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.