Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks after the first elections exit polls.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
In 2008, Tzipi Livni won the elections over Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima got one seat more than Likud at the Knesset.
Yet, then-president Shimon Peres gave the mandate of government formation to Netanyahu, because smaller parties expressed their wish to side with him. The rest of the story is known, Netanyahu formed a government and Livni’s rising star began to fade. She gradually fell in political oblivion, not competing at all in the latest elections. The Benny Gantz Blue and White narrative is a Livni 2.0 case slightly moderated. This time, the coalition of the generals did not manage to surpass Likud either in mandates or number of votes. It is logical and utterly democratic that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is given the mandate to form the next coalition. Ultimately, Gantz’s star will fade away. It is doubtful whether Blue and White will be there to run for the next elections.
Yet, the equal number of mandates and the almost identical number of votes Gantz received compared to Netanyahu denote the large number of people who did wish for a change and the turning of a page. This would have been more the case if the law in Israel ordained the president to entrust the leaders of the biggest parties in order of electoral power to enter in direct negotiations with the smaller parties without the latter first voicing their opinion on their preferable candidate. If this had been done back in 2008, Livni would have got the first chance to form a government and history might have been different.
As things currently stand, the fact that parties inform the president in advance which prime ministerial candidate they would like to favor enables the creation of rightwing or left-wing blocs, and does not leave room for political maneuvering and negotiations. In absence of direct negotiations between the party heads and the prime ministerial candidates through official channels, parties have no incentive to further explore the possibility of a candidate who might not directly fit their ideological agenda. The game is a priori loss for the second contestant when it should not be so. It is logical for smaller parties to first throw their alliance with the biggest party with which they feel more secure, and only then open into negotiations for the details of any coalition agreements.
TAKE, FOR EXAMPLE, these elections. The Likud and Blue and White start from the same starting point – 35 Knesset seats each. Yisrael Beytenu and the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP), which stated that they would never sit in a Gantz government, have 10 seats in total. On the other hand, the Labor Party and Meretz, which stated they would never sit in a Netanyahu government, also equal 10 seats together. The difference to the question of which of the two leaders – Netanyahu or Gantz – would be able to form the coalition would be in which of the two could lure the other remaining parties. HadashTa’al with 6 seats could be a partner for Gantz, provided that he made an opening to the Israeli-Arab party. And Kulanu, a Centrist party with a welfare agenda, could also join a Gantz government and add another 4 seats. That would leave the ultra-Orthodox parties totaling 16 seats as the kingmakers. Naturally inclining to the Right, these parties stand as Netanyahu’s allies. But, they could easily sit in a Gantz government if they were given economic incentives and some institutional guarantees that the rights of their constituents would not be affected. In fact, given the disputes between Shas leader Arye Deri and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in the past, the participation of Shas in a government where Yisrael Beytenu would not be a partner might be easier for the party.
However, as a result of the need to declare preferences in advance, Kulanu did not examine at all the possibility of joining a Gantz government; in fact, its leader Moshe Kahlon said he would most likely merge the party with the Likud. The ultra-Orthodox parties have equally turned their attention to a Netanyahu-led government only.
Things might have been different if these parties were tempted from the beginning to hear what Gantz has to offer them, and then make their decisions.
Government formation is a dynamic process – not only in the various demands smaller parties have from the bigger ones, but also in the first place in the choice of which bigger party smaller ones should follow. Not by accident, for example, in the United Kingdom in 2010, in the absence of absolute majority, the Liberal Democrats held talks both with the Conservative Party as well as the Labour Party before they decided to form a government with the former. And in Spain, after the 2015 general election, the King did not try to solve the difficulty in government formation by asking parties which candidate they would prefer, but by entrusting the government formation mandate first to the leader of the biggest party and then to the Socialists which had come second. Israel should well consider revising its current prime ministerial appointment policy. It may be already too late for Gantz, but maybe it is not too late for a shift of power in the next elections.
Formerly a member of the Knesset Legal Department on international and constitutional issues, the author is currently at King’s College Dickson Poon School of Law.
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