Political Affairs: Is avoiding a third election still possible?

Behind the scenes from the first week of Blue and White’s coalition talks

BENNY GANTZ had a good meeting with Jared Kushner this week, but how did his coalition talks go?  (photo credit: JERIES MANSOUR/U.S. EMBASSY JERUSALEM)
BENNY GANTZ had a good meeting with Jared Kushner this week, but how did his coalition talks go?
The cameo appearance of Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid at Thursday morning’s coalition talks with the Likud at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Maccabiah hotel was planned well in advance.
Radio reports that they came to the talks only because they “just happened to be in the area, so they stopped by” were false.
Sources in the party even suggested that journalists writing political columns for Friday’s newspapers wait to start writing only after the meeting, because they wanted the cameo’s messages to get across to the public and be internalized over the weekend.
The first message is that Gantz is a leader, shepherding the coalition talks through to success. For decades, key meetings in the White House with advisers to the president have been rewarded by a supplementary cameo by the president himself.
Such presidential cameos were never truly candid and were always scripted well in advance. Yet they always had the necessary impact of creating a positive atmosphere.
The second message was that Gantz and Lapid are on the same page and fully coordinated in the negotiations. That message was intended to undermine the political spin of the Likud that Gantz wants to form a government, but the three other Blue and White leaders in the party’s leadership “cockpit” are holding him back.
The Likud ironically used the Hebrew word for “kosher supervisor” and not babysitter when describing Lapid accompanying Gantz to the meeting, claiming that Lapid came to prevent a unity government from being formed. The truth, according to Blue and White, is the opposite.
The third message is that the coalition talks are actually serious and can really result in a Gantz-led unity government, against all odds.
It has not been easy for Gantz to get that message across to an extremely skeptical public that has been made weary by 10 months of nonstop intense politics. Gantz wrote a personal message to the public with that message on Facebook on Wednesday in the early evening.
“I cannot deeply detail what has happened in my meetings with the heads of the parties, including those in the [Likud’s] bloc of 55 [MKs],” Gantz wrote. “I can only say that the picture displayed in the press is not necessarily accurate. There are a variety of channels of dialogue that were created in order to ensure that we make progress.”
The message was intended to preempt reports shortly afterward on the prime-time nightly news broadcasts presenting the coalition talks as stuck and doomed to failure.
The revelation of secret channels in the post was intended to give hope that there is more going on than meets the eye. So was the mention of talks with leaders of the parties on the Right, who had publicly promised to refuse a meeting with Gantz.
That mention of talks with the Likud’s allies was also a dig at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who drafted the 55 MKs into a cohesive group working only under his leadership immediately after the election, in a strategy decided well before the vote.
It is no wonder that when Likud MK David Bitan, who has an image of being Netanyahu’s ambassador to TV talk shows, said the bloc could break up in the final three weeks to form a government, the Likud banned him and the rest of the Likud faction from interviewing.
Likud negotiators Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin were unimpressed and even insulted by the cameo because it wasn’t coordinated with them and they saw it as a PR move to put down Netanyahu.
The final message of both the cameo and Gantz’s Facebook post was that he wants the public to compare his behavior to that of Netanyahu. For instance, their posts on social media cannot be more different.
Gantz’s Facebook posts presented positivity. Netanyahu repeatedly shared articles and posted complaints against the state prosecution, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and the legal establishment.
Between those posts and Justice Minister Amir Ohana’s hastily called press conference attacking the State’s Attorney’s Office, it is hard for Blue and White to justify to its constituency sitting in a government with Netanyahu for even a single day.
AND THE Likud is asking for a lot more than one day. Netanyahu’s party has been gradually upgrading its demands on how to implement President Reuven Rivlin’s compromise that is the key to forming a coalition.
According to the compromise, which the Likud supports openly and Blue and White has purposely not openly endorsed yet, Netanyahu would be prime minister first and then take an extended break while fighting corruption charges. According to the plan, Gantz would take Netanyahu’s place as prime minister when Netanyahu is incapacitated, after initially serving as vice prime minister.
The main question since Rivlin announced the compromise plan five weeks ago has been what “incapacitated” means.
Initial leaks were that the intention was that Netanyahu would start out as prime minister for a year, followed by two for Gantz, and then there would be another year for Netanyahu if he emerges unscathed from his trial or for his successor.
Then the Likud leaked that Netanyahu should be allowed to remain prime minister for longer. They said there is no reason he cannot continue leading the country until his trial starts.
Then the Likud spoke about how the Netanyahu trial could even begin while he is prime minister, and then he could leave only when his active role in that trial begins.
The slippery slope continued on Wednesday morning, when KAN reported that the Likud told Blue and White in coalition talks that Netanyahu would need to leave office only if he were convicted.
Within minutes of that report, Blue and White officials close to Gantz were contacting the country’s top political analysts to make sure that they noticed it.
The very basis of Rivlin’s compromise was undermined by the Likud’s new demand, the Blue and White officials said. They portrayed the Likud’s new demand as the single most important political development since the election.
The reason it is such a big deal, they said, is that while Blue and White – and according to an Israel Democracy Institute poll nearly two-thirds of the public – want Netanyahu’s political career to end upon indictment, the Likud is now talking about him staying until a conviction.
A source close to Mandelblit said he could push a trial to start only two months after the indictment. But the source said Mandelblit could also become more passive after his role in issuing the indictment is done and the courts take over.
With the slow way the legal system works, the difference between the Likud and Blue and White on Netanyahu’s incapacitation could be an entire term in office.
That contrast is what Blue and White officials want the public to see, as talk of a third election intensifies, because their constituents would understand going to another election in order to prevent Netanyahu from forming another government and running the country while he is on trial.
They know that according to the current law, that third election would be held on Purim, because it would be the final Tuesday within 90 days after the Knesset is automatically dispersed after two candidates for prime minister fail to form a government. That would send the message that Netanyahu is perpetuating a political farce by continuing to dress up as a leader and not a defendant.
The Likud has already begun its own pre-Purim messaging, of course. It is trying to dress Gantz in the costume of the ultimate leftist, knowing that by meeting with Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi, Gantz is falling into their trap. This could be very effective for the Likud if a third election is indeed held.
Blue and White officials counter that if what they were interested in was a minority government with a parliamentary safety net from the Joint List, they could already form one now.
The official negotiations with Yisrael Beytenu, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union went very well, they said, as did other talks with them behind the scenes. They were impressed with Yisrael Beytenu for meeting with Finance Ministry budget department head Shaul Meridor to determine whether their coalition demands are reasonable.
Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu agree on 80% of their demands, which is a good place to start, Blue and White officials said. Obviously, the gap between Yisrael Beytenu and the Democratic Union is much wider, but apparently not unbridgeable.
Gantz indicated this week that he would prefer a minority government to a third election. Privately, officials close to him admit that without the support of relative hawks in his party and the extreme Balad in the Joint list, the minority government option does not really exist.
That reality could indeed doom Israel to another election, if a unity government cannot be formed.
But Blue and White already accomplished more in one week with Gantz’s mandate to form a government than the Likud did in Netanyahu’s four.
Sources in the party promise more gimmicks in the final three weeks and more serious surprises. The road to another election still has plenty of obstacles in the way.•