Political Affairs: A sweet new election year?

Netanyahu faces major challenges in trying to form a government, with chances growing of a third election in 5780.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN gestures to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the President’s Residence on Wednesday. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN gestures to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the President’s Residence on Wednesday.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There were three major elections in Israel in the Hebrew year 5779: municipal elections in most of the country and two Knesset elections.
As Rosh Hashanah approaches, many Israelis are certainly wondering if 5780 will also be an election year – and no one really knows the answer.
What’s clear is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing one of the greatest challenges of his political life.
After a relative failure in the elections – the Likud ended up with fewer seats in the Knesset than in April, even after merging with Kulanu and receiving Zehut’s endorsement – the “wizard,” as Likudniks like to call him, still had some tricks up his sleeve. He swiftly formed the 55-seat right-wing bloc, and was lucky enough that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz got only 54, thanks to a split in the Joint List. On Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin entrusted Netanyahu with forming the next government.
It sounds like Netanyahu won, but in reality, victory is still out of his reach. There are many possible political permutations and outcomes, and the current intransigence on all sides makes a third election look like the most likely possibility, unless someone comes to his senses and shows some flexibility.
Some dispute that Netanyahu will make a genuine effort to form a coalition now, saying he wants either to form a coalition on the third try, when everyone will be more desperate to join, or that he wants another election, as some in Blue and White argued.
Netanyahu told the Likud in a faction meeting that, despite the reports about no one wanting the first shot at building a coalition, because it will likely not work, he will try to take this chance and do his best with it, a sentiment he repeated in his comments at the President’s Residence Wednesday night.
“We can establish this government very quickly if we want.... There is no reason to waste the country’s time and stretch out futile months.... If I can’t form a government in the coming days, I will probably have to wait until the last assignment, maybe for the last 21 days,” he said, referring to a third round of forming a coalition.
Netanyahu’s chances this time around are slim, and he has publicly pinned his hopes on a unity government. This, again, could be a tactic to paint Gantz as the villain ahead of another election; but assuming honesty on Netanyahu’s part, he has agreed to two very serious proposals by Rivlin that the president brought up during their meetings this week.
The proposals are meant to resolve two sticking points between the Likud and Blue and White. First is that the Likud is negotiating in the name of a 55-seat bloc with Shas, UTJ, Bayit Yehudi and New Right, while Blue and White has promised a “secular unity government.” Blue and White refuses to negotiate with the bloc and wants to talk to the Likud representing itself without other partners.
The second is that Blue and White promised not to be in a coalition with Netanyahu if he is under a recommended indictment or an actual indictment on corruption charges, while the Likud maintains the right to choose its own party leader – namely, Netanyahu.
Rivlin suggested a “parity government,” and Netanyahu repeated the term in his remarks. Likud negotiator Tourism Minister Yariv Levin detailed on KAN Bet Thursday morning that this means that the government portfolios would be split evenly between the right-wing bloc and Blue and White. This way, despite the Right having 55 seats, Blue and White would have equal power and wouldn’t just be an extraneous appendage to the coalition.
The president also came up with a creative solution to the issue of Netanyahu’s possible indictment. The law currently allows for a minister to take the prime minister’s place if he is incapacitated, for up to 100 days. Rivlin suggested it be amended to create an official position of deputy prime minister, add indictment to a possible reason for the deputy to take over, and to extend the replacement period to be far longer. Netanyahu nodded when Rivlin described this proposal, and Levin said, “We understand that if we go to a unity government, then Netanyahu won’t be prime minister for the whole term.”
So far, Gantz and Blue and White are standing firmly behind their election promises, making the unity government a dead end for now. Netanyahu’s other options at the moment would also require politicians to break their promises.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, for example, was considered part of the right-wing bloc until the end of May, and some in the Likud are hopeful that he could be enticed to return, perhaps if the haredim compromise on one of the issues Liberman raised in his campaign, so he can present that as an achievement.
However, Liberman told the Russian-language news program on KAN Reka that “if there is an official request, Yisrael Beytenu will negotiate with the Likud only, and not with the halachic bloc that Netanyahu brings with him. There will be no change in the party’s stance that we will not sit with the haredim or the messianists” – a reference to Bayit Yehudi – “and we will not give up on our demands in the areas of religion and state, security, immigration and absorption, and [we will join a coalition] only in the framework of a liberal national-unity government.”
Labor-Gesher leader Amir Peretz shaved his mustache as an election gimmick, telling people to read his lips: he will not join a Netanyahu government. Yet Likud negotiators called Peretz immediately after Netanyahu was tasked with forming a coalition, and Histadrut labor federation chairman Arnon Bar-David told Army Radio on Thursday that he thinks Peretz should negotiate with the Likud: “He can grow back the mustache.”
Yet Peretz reiterated: “We promised and we will fulfill [our promise]. We will not sit with Netanyahu and will not negotiate with him.”
The final option on this front is to try to get seven MKs to break off from their parties, be it Yisrael Beytenu, the more right-wing members of Blue and White or Orly Levy-Abecassis, aka the Gesher in Labor-Gesher.
RIVLIN GAVE Netanyahu 28 days to form a government, as the law says he should. Netanyahu said nine times in his speech on Wednesday night that he wants to move fast, and he specifically said that the coalition will be formed “in the coming days” or not at all in this round. Therefore, we could find Netanyahu returning his mandate to Rivlin – as he promised he would if he is unsuccessful – as early as next week.
The president has two choices at that point. There is the obvious, more expected one, that he would give Gantz a chance to form a coalition. But Gantz has even less of a chance of forming a coalition, because he has only 44 recommendations from people who will actually sit in his coalition. And Gantz runs into the exact same problems with a unity government that he has when Netanyahu leads the negotiations.
Therefore, there is a good chance that, at that point, Rivlin would opt to skip over Gantz, as he mentioned in his speech on Wednesday.
“The law gives you, sir, 28 days, starting from tomorrow, to form a government,” Rivlin said to Netanyahu. “If there will be a clear justification for it, the law allows the president to give an extension of up to 14 days to the chosen candidate, and if he fails, to give the mandate to form the government to a different candidate. According to the law, the president can also, after only 28 days, notify the Knesset speaker that a government cannot be formed. In such a case, the mandate will go to the Knesset, which, if it wants, can gather 61 supporters for an agreed-upon candidate.”
Some in the Likud had been eyeing that third chance as their opportunity to take over the party and become prime minister, after Netanyahu’s star falls due to his indictment and failure to form a coalition.
But if Rivlin skips over Gantz, there is a good chance that the mandate to form a government will go to the Knesset before a final decision is made on Netanyahu’s indictment.
And Netanyahu’s talk in the Likud faction was meant to be a warning to MKs that he plans to take that third try for himself if need be, and they shouldn’t dare consider it to be an opportunity to rebel.
The race to be Netanyahu’s heir is tight, with several serious candidates, such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and MK Gideon Sa’ar. But up until now, no one in the Likud has dared challenge the prime minister in recent years, fearing that pouncing too early could cause them more harm than good. Netanyahu’s remarks in the Likud faction meeting were a signal to them to continue that strategy.
In any case, the Knesset has up to 21 days to find a prime minister, or we will go to a third election in less than a year.
With Rosh Hashanah on Sunday night, Israeli Jews have already begun wishing each other a sweet new year. But will it be an election year? We’ll find out in 5780.