Political Affairs: Are we headed to a third election?

What can be done to minimize the chance and can a compromise be reached

By
September 20, 2019 13:55
Political Affairs: Are we headed to a third election?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at a memorial service honoring Shimon Peres. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

It took less than a minute from when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu started addressing the Likud faction’s first post-election meeting on Wednesday until the press was told to leave.

But keen observers in the Likud faction noticed that one camera remained for the duration of the two-hour meeting at Jerusalem’s Orient Hotel basement, filming the MKs as they spoke.

The footage has not been leaked to the press and will not be until the time is right.

“Likud TV never really died,” one MK quipped, referring to the mock interviews conducted with Netanyahu ahead of the April election.

The purpose of the camera was to document the loyalty of the Likud faction to Netanyahu ahead of the tense weeks coming up. This was better than the loyalty oaths submitted by WhatsApp two months ago; Netanyahu got his MKs on video committing to a strategy aimed at keeping him in power.

Some of the MKs did not notice that a camera was being used against them by the man who made them come to the Knesset a week earlier for a hopeless effort to pass a bill allowing the party to film in polling stations. But potential future candidates for Likud leader noticed the camera and either spoke carefully or found a reason to leave early.

Netanyahu’s efforts to unite the 56 MKs in his bloc and prevent Blue and White leader Benny Gantz from forming a government received all the attention, but it was only a secondary goal for Netanyahu the day after the election. The primary goal was preventing a Likud rebellion against him, or at least postponing it.

With both of those goals accomplished, Netanyahu started Thursday by calling for a unity government with Benny Gantz and even hinted at a possible rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office, putting Gantz in a corner before he even spoke about his own plans.

Gantz fell into this trap, because he took Wednesday off for rest and consultations with his advisers about how to move forward. Unlike Netanyahu, Gantz is not politically seasoned enough to act instinctively, and he is still traumatized by his ill-fated victory speech after the April 9 election that was mocked incessantly.

He paid a price for letting Netanyahu dominate the political discourse. They are now entering the post-election fray on equal footing and not with Gantz as the winner and Netanyahu as the loser.

The irony that Netanyahu won the April election and did not form a government and lost this one but could end up building a coalition has not been lost.

NETANYAHU PAINTED himself as a unifier, even as he took steps to unify the Right that have made building a unity government much harder. The Likud also released a statement Wednesday night saying that reports that Netanyahu warned the faction of a third election were “the press once again parroting the political spin of Blue and White.”

The truth is that Blue and White did not say anything on or off record on Wednesday, while Netanyahu spoke over and over about the possibility of a third election in the closed-door meeting and in a meeting with right-wing faction heads two hours earlier.

The spin came from Netanyahu, but shifting it to Blue and White made them look like the bad guys at a time when the public is very confused about what will happen next. This spin will repeat itself over the next two months: Whenever a politician will want to blacken a political rival, he will call him a “third election supporter.”

That has become the ultimate epithet. At a time when slurs like Hitler and Erdogan have become too commonplace in political discourse to shock desensitized voters, “third election supporter” will be the new way to demonize politicians.

No politician, no matter how cynical, could be evil enough to make the people of Israel suffer through a third race, so don’t believe the slurs. But after watching party heads climb increasingly tall trees since the votes were counted, it can be understood if weary voters think we are all doomed for that fate.

Before speaking about how that fate can be avoided, it must be repeated: It cannot happen. The people of Israel won’t let it happen.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has recounted how the second election happened only because the MKs voting for it thought it was all a game until after it was too late to stop it. The reason that this time is different and another election cannot be initiated is that the MKs now know that it could actually happen.

The way to avoid an election is for someone to simply give in on what they have been saying for months in their campaigns. Don’t expect this to happen immediately, because people in Israel rarely compromise until just before a deadline, but it is inevitable.

Among the possible promises that can be broken to facilitate the formation of a government, only one has to happen.

It could be Blue and White’s promises not to sit with Netanyahu and not to break up. It could be Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s vows to not join any coalition that does not include both Blue and White and the Likud and ruling out a coalition with haredi (ultra-Orthodox) MKs and the National Union and Bayit Yehudi MKs who ran in Yamina.

It could be Shas and United Torah Judaism ruling out Liberman and Blue and White’s Yair Lapid. The Likud and Yamina already started compromising by calling for a unity coalition that could result in them serving under Gantz.

But the ultimate compromise is the one that no one in the Likud will yet speak about publicly: deposing Netanyahu and finding a new leader for the ruling party.

TO UNDERSTAND when this could happen, it is important to look at how the upcoming political and legal calendars intersect.

Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing will take place on Wednesday, October 2, and Thursday, October 3, the two days after Rosh Hashanah. The new Knesset will be sworn in on the third.

October 2 is also the final day for President Reuven Rivlin to entrust a candidate with four weeks to form a government. He would prefer to already bestow the mandate a week before, on September 25, which is the first day he could by law.

Sources close to Rivlin said September 25 is his goal, but he realizes that the current situation is messy and it might make sense to have mercy on the candidate to form a government by giving him the mandate only after the two days of Rosh Hashanah’s “dead” time have passed.

Starting the stopwatch on October 2 means the four-week deadline is October 30. Because there are still other holidays in the way, extending the mandate for two more weeks until November 13 is possible, but it will only be granted if real progress has been made toward building a coalition.

The second mandate for another candidate to form a government after the first candidate fails is only four weeks, with no possible extension, so the deadline would be December 11.

Netanyahu has received opposite advice about whether it would be better to receive the mandate first or second. Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin has told him it is better to go second, after Gantz has failed, because then he would have a better chance of breaking up Blue and White.

MK David Bitan has told Netanyahu that going second is not an option, because of the prime minister’s legal problems.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit will need a month to decide whether to indict Netanyahu after his hearings, which could extend beyond October 3 and continue for a few weeks until the beginning of November at the latest.

If Netanyahu gets indicted, it is expected to be before State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan retires on December 15. Depending on when the hearings end, the timetable for Mandelblit’s decision will overlap with the second mandate to form a government.

That is why Gantz has been advised that getting the second mandate after Netanyahu fails to form a coalition would work in his interest. If Gantz went first and Netanyahu fails afterward, that is when the Likudniks would demand the prime minister’s departure, especially if he also gets indicted at that time.

As reported on this page two weeks ago, the Likud could then hold a snap primary, like the one in the British Conservative Party that elected Boris Johnson. The winner of that race could form a government very easily in the two weeks that would be granted in such a scenario in December.

But don’t expect Netanyahu to go down without a fight. That is why he deployed that camera at the faction meeting.

The election might be over, but the real political battle has just begun.•


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