Marching to another election

Amid an unprecedented three-week period, can Israel avoid a third ballot

ATTORNEY-GENERAL Avichai Mandelblit has been one of the main players, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, in the current political stalemate. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ATTORNEY-GENERAL Avichai Mandelblit has been one of the main players, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, in the current political stalemate.
Israel entered uncharted territory on Wednesday evening, when Blue and White leader Benny Gantz admitted defeat, telling President Reuven Rivlin that he was unable to form a government.
This is the first time that two candidates have failed to form a coalition, so, naturally, many people don’t know how things are going to proceed.
On Thursday, Rivlin presented Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with the mandate handed back by Gantz, formally initiating a 21-day period in which any MK could obtain the support of a majority of the Knesset members and form a government. On the same day, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Here are the answers to some of the questions that are on the minds of many residents of the country, reeling at the prospects of yet another election in less than a year.
Is there going to be a third election?
Probably, but not definitely. The Knesset still has time to get out of this mess.
However, neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Gantz has shown willingness thus far to compromise so that there could be a unity government between their parties. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who had the potential to be kingmaker and choose to join Netanyahu in a narrow right-wing government, or Gantz in a minority government supported on the outside from the Joint List, decided this week that he would join only a unity government.
Unless a drastic change occurs, another election is the only option.
What happens now?
The Knesset had 21 days beginning on Thursday at 12 a.m. to find a new candidate for prime minister. That makes the deadline December 11 at midnight. MKs must gather 61 candidates in favor of a candidate who agrees to form the next government, and submit them to Rivlin before then. The candidate can be Netanyahu or Gantz, even though they failed before.
If at least 61 MKs tell Rivlin they agree on someone, the president then officially tasks that person with forming a government, and he or she has two weeks to do so.
If no one gets 61 signatures by the end of the 21 days, then the 22nd Knesset is automatically dissolved, and an election is called for 90 days later. That would be March 10, which is Purim, so the Knesset would likely vote to postpone it until March 17.
What can be done to avoid an election?
Not much, at this point. Gantz conceded on Wednesday night with a fiery speech and sharp criticism of Netanyahu, and the prime minister has not given any indication of giving in, either, even though both say they want a unity government.
There could be a dark horse candidate. Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar is often looked upon as an alternative, someone whom Blue and White could work with, if he leads his party.
Sa’ar called for a Likud leadership primary at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference on Thursday, but he said it should take place before an election: “It doesn’t make sense that Netanyahu will successfully form a government after a third election.... I think I will be able to form a government and unite the country.”
Rivlin could also use his position as president to try to put further pressure on MKs and party leaders to form a government. As he said on Thursday, “Political considerations cannot be the only compass. This is a dark time in our history.”
However, despite offering help, he has mostly refrained from jumping into the political negotiations thus far. The exception was presenting his idea of how a rotation for prime minister could work between Gantz and Netanyahu, which Blue and White has thus far rejected, but could still be enacted if one or both of the candidates get 61 signatures in the 21 days.
What about Netanyahu’s legal situation?
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit announced on Thursday evening that Netanyahu will be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The indictments have the potential to change things politically. For months, some in Blue and White – and in the Likud – have been hoping that an indictment, especially if there is one for bribery, could lead to a change of leadership in the Likud. However, most of the Likud has been extremely loyal to Netanyahu throughout this entire ordeal, and it’s hard to see Likudniks turning away from him now, even with this serious charge. But if there ever was an opening to challenge Netanyahu from within the Likud, this is it.
This brings us to the next question.
Who would benefit from a third election?
First of all, Netanyahu would. Regardless of an indictment, he could remain prime minister for another six months. Multiple reports have said his lawyers recommended he bring about another election, because it would help his legal situation.
In general, remaining prime minister could be helpful for Netanyahu if he were to be on trial; it would mean his case would be seen by a tribunal of judges instead of one, and it would begin with a district court instead of a magistrate’s court.
Other beneficiaries from a third election would be Gantz’s Blue and White cochairman Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, or at least a third election would be the least-bad option for them.
As long as Netanyahu and Gantz don’t form a unity government, Liberman’s options would be a right-wing government with Shas and UTJ, meaning he would be breaking his campaign promise of extensive reforms in the area of religion and state; a minority government with the Joint List, which Liberman has been calling a “fifth column” for years; or a third election. At least he would go to the election with his integrity and his voter base intact.
Lapid was the major stopgap preventing Gantz from joining a unity coalition with Netanyahu. He and MK Moshe Ya’alon, the head of the Telem Party in Blue and White, would not join any government, in any constellation, with Netanyahu. They don’t trust him, and, on principle, they don’t think someone in his legal situation should be prime minister.
Lapid would not have benefited that much from a minority government, either. The man who once nicknamed all the Arab MKs “Zoabis,” after the lawmaker who sailed on the Gaza blockade-breaking Mavi Marmara ship, is not attracting voters who particularly want to work with an anti-Zionist party.
Plus, Lapid gave up on his rotation agreement with Gantz for the premiership in order to not have Blue and White look like the obstacle to a government. In a third election, he could say that he stood his ground, and he will probably be a candidate for prime minister again.
Who would run in a third election?
Every election has its mergers and splits between parties.
There have been divisions between the parties that make up Blue and White and persistent talk about splitting up, but nothing seems imminent at the moment. If they were to break up, it would probably be in order for Gantz to form a unity government with Netanyahu and without Lapid, and not in an election taking place precisely because they refused to do that.
The New Right’s future is uncertain. The party led by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked did not make it past the electoral threshold in April, and didn’t seem to give Yamina too many extra seats when they ran in a bloc with Bayit Yehudi in September. Shaked refused to answer questions about the party’s plans for an election, when asked at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference.
One thing that is likely to change in the lineup of parties running is that fewer parties will run in total. A number of parties that were unlikely to pass the threshold dropped out between the two elections this year, and, considering the costliness of running a campaign, more will probably do so this time.
Will there be electoral reform?
Many politicians have talked about making changes, some short-term and some long-term. Liberman has said he favors the “Australian model” of mandatory elections, in that anyone who doesn’t vote would have to pay a fine.
Another proposal from Yisrael Beytenu was to cancel the vacation day on Election Day, in that only people who vote would get the day off. The idea behind that is to mitigate the losses to the market from having yet another day off this year.
Then there are the proposals to have direct elections for prime minister, something that Bennett, Shas leader Arye Deri and Likud faction chairman Miki Zohar have all advocated. It would be a temporary fix for the current political knot, not a return to the 1990s electoral reform that was reversed within a decade.
However, Liberman has said he does not want to change the rules in the middle of the game. So while he favors direct elections for prime minister in general, he would not support it at this time. As such, the plan is likely to get the votes it needs.
We now have 21 days when anything is possible. We might have an election, we might have a government, we might end up with a prime minister we didn’t think we’d have back in September. Let the games begin!