The promises politicians need to break to prevent a third election

The problem in the coalition talks can be succinctly summarized as follows: Everyone is keeping their promises.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his watch before delivering a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks at his watch before delivering a statement at the Knesset, Israel's parliament,
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With 18 days left until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must return the mandate to form a government to President Reuven Rivlin, coalition negotiations are at an impasse. No meetings have been held since Netanyahu met with Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman on Thursday for less than an hour, and their spokespeople said there were no breakthroughs in the talks.
The problem in the coalition talks can be succinctly summarized as follows: everyone is keeping their promises. And the solution is just as simple: once someone breaks a promise, the bottleneck will clear up.
Or, at least, it sounds like a simple solution. After all, politicians are known for breaking their campaign promises. But this time, of course, everyone is holding out, thinking that they will get the best outcome and force the other to fold.
Blue and White made two clear commitments to its voters: the first is that they would not sit in a government led by Netanyahu as long as he is under a recommended or an actual indictment. The second is that they would form a “secular unity government” – meaning one without haredim and without Yamina.
Both are matters of principle for Blue and White, and they say their issues are not about the specific people involved. They do not think a prime minister can serve his country while under indictment, and they want to pass liberal policies that they would not be able to promote in a coalition with religious parties.
But Likud reasonably argues that Blue and White has no right to decide who the leader of another party should be – and Netanyahu has called a vote in the Likud central committee this week to show that the party’s members would choose him again. And nearly everyone on the Right, as well as Rivlin, has spoken out against ruling out entire swaths of the population as possible political partners.
Either way, keeping both of those promises have kept coalition talks at a standstill. If they were flexible on one of them, like sitting with Netanyahu, then we could already have a government.
Netanyahu didn’t quite say that he would never sit in a coalition with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, but he did sling massive amounts of mud in his direction, and repeatedly called Gantz weak and unfit for the premiership.
Nevertheless, the prime minister recognizes the reality that a unity government is the most likely way to avoid a third election with a year, and has shown enough flexibility to at least say he’ll sit with Gantz and even agree to a rotation for the position of prime minister.
As Blue and White MK Assaf Zamir put it in a tweet last week: “Netanyahu in September: [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khaminei and [President Hassan] Rouhani want Gantz [to win]. Netanyahu in October: Iran is threatening us, Gantz, join [the government].”
But Netanyahu has come up with another promise that is preventing the quick formation of a new government. While he has long talked about his “natural partners” in a coalition, Netanyahu formalized that partnership by convincing the leaders of Shas, UTJ and Yamina to commit to a 55-seat bloc that will only sit in a government that he forms – even if both he and Gantz fail to build a coalition and the decision is thrown to the Knesset.
Blue and White, of course, doesn’t want to sit with anyone in the bloc other than Likud, and they have preconditions for that as well.
Then there’s Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman of UTJ, who has said that under no circumstances will he be in a coalition with Blue and White No. 2, MK Yair Lapid, because of his secularist policies.
KAN’s Yoav Krakovsky said on Saturday that the Council of Torah Sages for Agudat Yisrael – the hassidic party within UTJ – may allow the faction to be in a coalition with Lapid, but that Litzman may refuse to be a deputy minister.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has been calling for a secular-liberal unity government, which he envisions as including his party, Likud and Blue and White. Of course, Likud and Blue and White are a majority of the Knesset without him, and Liberman has acknowledged that he may be left out.
Theoretically, Netanyahu could try to entice Liberman to join the right-wing bloc, which would be enough for there to be a government without Blue and White.
But Liberman has a long list of reforms he promised to enact that the haredim adamantly oppose, including a law increasing their enlistment in the IDF, and a law allowing municipalities to decide individually whether to have supermarkets open and public transportation running on Saturdays.
Liberman says he will only join a government that commits to those policies.
However, while Liberman has long advocated secularist policies, his insistence on them is quite new.
One of the more creative campaign materials in the last election was a photo album Shas prepared of Liberman embracing various haredi rabbis and politicians, making the point that he is not consistent in his anti-haredi position. It was only a year ago when Liberman partnered with haredi politicians to put his ally Moshe Lion into the Jerusalem mayor’s office.
There’s one more promise that few are talking about, but, if broken, would allow Netanyahu to form a government without Blue and White. It is perhaps the most theatrical one of all: Labor-Gesher leader Amir Peretz’s vow not to join a Netanyahu government, which was accompanied by the shaving of his trademark mustache so that people could read his lips. But as Histadrut Labor Union chairman Arnon Bar-David said recently, Peretz can always grow back his mustache.
Politicians throw around promises freely when campaigning. When it’s time to negotiate, they have to back down somewhat, because coalitions are built on compromise.
It’s not clear how these talks will end, but one thing seems certain: at least one of these promises will be broken.