Benny Gantz .
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
With Israeli elections coming up yet again in September, the Israeli opposition Blue and White Party, led by Benny Gantz, will get a second chance to dethrone incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although Gantz still faces an uphill battle, Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition leaves the prime minister in a more vulnerable position than before.
The first way Gantz could become prime minister is through a unity government with Likud. This was Blue and White’s primary objective during the April elections, but it was unable to woo enough Likud swing voters onto their side. Blue and White would probably have needed at least four or five more seats than Likud to leverage its MKs to abandon Netanyahu and join Blue and White for a unity government, but they ended up receiving just as many seats as Likud. As a result of that strong showing, there was little chance any Likud MKs would defect.
However, Netanyahu’s ambitions since the conclusion of the first elections may have put Gantz in a better position to persuade more right-wing supporters to pick Blue and White. Netanyahu was clearly trying to form a coalition that would grant him immunity from indictment. Indeed, dissolving the Knesset was not Netanyahu’s only option legally, but it was his only choice politically if he wished to avoid another candidate becoming prime minister, exposing him to prosecution. Netanyahu was also willing to accede to many of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ demands over religion and state affairs, as well as to the Union of Right-Wing Parties’ agenda on annexation in order to win their support for immunity legislation. But this is something many Israeli voters may not approve of.
According to a Walla poll in May, 56% of Israelis said they are opposed to an immunity bill, and 51% of Israelis said they believe Netanyahu should step down if he is indicted, including a handful of likely Likud voters. The elections in April were primarily a referendum on Netanyahu’s legitimacy as prime minister, so Gantz may now have more substance to convince more right-wing voters to pick him over Netanyahu and thus give Blue and White enough seats to compel Likud MKs to join them in a unity government. For instance, he could point out how Netanyahu is jeopardizing the integrity of Israel’s democracy by trying to minimize the power of the Supreme Court, and that he is willing to give disproportionate power to members of the ultra-Orthodox parties.
A SECOND way Gantz could replace Netanyahu as prime minister is through persuading some of the smaller right-wing and religious parties to join Blue and White in a more centrist government. In the last election, Blue and White, Labor, and Meretz combined for 45 seats. If they receive the same amount in the upcoming elections in September, Gantz could get the other 16 seats he needs from parties like Shas and United Torah Judaism. Unlike the United Right list or New Right, Shas and UTJ are not primarily concerned with the West Bank and could likely go both ways on annexation. Their primary objective is to join a coalition and advocate favorable policies like subsidies for their yeshivas and a draft law that accommodates their needs.
Leading up to the elections in April, many would have been skeptical of either Shas or UTJ joining a Blue and White-led government because Yair Lapid was seen as their number-one enemy. However, their attention has shifted to Avigdor Liberman, who refused to compromise over a new draft bill, knowing Netanyahu would invoke new elections. Therefore, Shas and UTJ may now be more willing to help Gantz become prime minister if it means keeping someone as hard-line as Liberman out of the government and if Gantz is willing to accommodate to their needs.
A governing coalition with Shas and UTJ may also be acceptable to the left-leaning parties. Labor and Meretz have sat with small religious parties like Shas and UTJ before, such as during the Yitzhak Rabin years, and may be more willing now due to how long they have been sidelined from the government. For example, in an interview with Haaretz last year, Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg discussed how her party was shifting toward pragmatism.
She mentioned that she would be willing to sit in the same government as Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party, despite his racist rhetoric toward Israeli-Arabs, because it has not officially renounced the possibility of a two-state solution. Thus, if Meretz is willing to sit in the same government with Liberman, it would probably be willing to join a coalition with Shas and UTJ, which have no strong position on West Bank annexation, if it meant forming a more centrist government.
Netanyahu’s inability to form a government after the elections in April not only revealed his political limitations, but may also have left him the most vulnerable he has been in years. If Benny Gantz wants to seize the opportunity he will have to run his campaign properly. Rather than solely boast on his security credentials, Gantz will also have to foster relations with some of the smaller right-wing parties and focus on saving Israel’s democracy. If he does, he could pose the biggest challenge Netanyahu has faced in quite some time.
The author is a contributing writer for the Israel Policy Forum.
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