Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s announcement that his party, “Blue and White – the New Hope” (BWNH), will not join a government of any form with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu means that if the election were held today, no one would be able to form a government, and Israel would head to a sixth election.
In a round of interviews that were broadcast Monday night on KAN News, Channel 13, Channel 14, Walla and the haredi news outlet Kikar Hashabbat, Gantz ruled out joining any government under Netanyahu – including a rotation government where Gantz goes first. The defense minister said he would be able to form a government without Netanyahu, since no one – including the haredi parties – have ruled out joining one with him.
On Tuesday, Gantz elaborated by posting an excerpt from his interview on Channel 13 and the words, “We will form a government, without him [Netanyahu].”
With the current situation in the polls, however, it is hard to see how Gantz intends to execute his plan.
Gantz said in the interviews he would not sit in a coalition with the Joint List or the Religious Zionist Party, but he will sit with Ra’am (United Arab List) only if it is not the deciding vote. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, chairman of Yisrael Beytenu, also has consistently said he would not sit in a coalition with the haredi parties.
Putting together the puzzle, this leaves the following scenario: Based on an average of the polls taken so far and compiled by Hamadad (meaning “the index”) – a website that collects and analyzes data on Israeli politics – BWNH will win 13 seats, Yesh Atid 23, Labor five and Meretz four, for a total of 45 seats. Even if Gantz manages to bring aboard seven seats from United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and eight from Shas, he will still be stuck at 60. Ra’am will then be the deciding vote, and Gantz explicitly said he opposes this.
In any case, this scenario is highly unlikely. UTJ is comprised of two factions, the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah and the hassidic Agudat Yisrael. While Degel chairman MK Moshe Gafni has hinted he would consider joining Gantz, Agudat Yisrael has not. Shas has also indicated it would not break with Netanyahu.
In the interviews, Gantz said Netanyahu had already chosen to break with the haredi parties when he formed a government with Naftali Bennett and Lapid in 2013 and left them in the opposition. The link between the haredi parties and the Likud is not unbreakable, and Gantz will presumably repeat this argument in his campaign in an attempt to drive a wedge between UTJ and Shas on one hand and the Likud on the other.
However, that was nine years ago, which is an eternity in Israeli politics. The alliance between Netanyahu and the haredim is far stronger than it was then, and it will not be easy to pry either party away from the Likud. Gantz will probably have to make significant concessions, and it is difficult to imagine secular parties such as Meretz and Labor agreeing to them.
The one thing Gantz can use as leverage is that if the election cycle continues, Lapid would remain prime minister, something anathema to the haredi parties. But once again, even if Gantz manages to get the haredim on board without losing any left-wing parties, Ra’am still remains the deciding vote, which Gantz said was unacceptable.
In response to the question of how the numbers add up, Gantz said in the interview he believes he can convince members of the Likud to join him as well, based on the argument that Netanyahu failed to secure a majority five times and that it is time to move on. This, however, is what Gantz and others said before the past elections as well, and they were repeatedly proven wrong.
Finally, whether Yamina passes the electoral threshold will change the picture, but not necessarily in Gantz’s favor. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, Yamina’s chairwoman, is said to be close to an agreement with Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel and his political ally MK Zvi Hauser. Adding them to her party and Yamina’s official campaign launch in the coming days may raise her party back over the electoral threshold, which is 3.25% of the total votes.
Shaked, however, has never ruled out sitting under Netanyahu. While her votes may come at the expense of both camps, for Gantz, she is not a sure bet, and she may choose to go with Netanyahu.
Lapid’s ability to form a coalition is even more far-fetched, since he also ruled out the Joint List, and it is highly unlikely that the haredi parties – especially Shas – would join with him, given the strong anti-haredi policies and comments he has made.
The remaining scenario, which now may be the most probable, is a sixth election.
But no matter the political makeup of the next coalition, the larger Gantz’s party is, the more leverage and political clout he will have to convince the smaller parties to join with him.
At times in the interviews, Gantz seemed to be appealing to right-wing voters. For example, when asked by Walla about his differences with New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gantz answered by using the term “tzimtzum hasichsuch” (shrinking the conflict), which is an oft-repeated right-wing policy, as opposed to “pitron hasichsuch” (solving the conflict), or “disengaging from the Palestinians,” terms used more on the Left.
However, at other instances in the interviews, he insisted that Blue and White could be a home for left-wing voters as well. He defined the party as a “merkaz mamlachti” (statesmanlike Center), which is noticeably different from how he defined it on the night he announced the merger with New Hope – “statesmanlike Right, Center on security.”
The appeals to both Right and Left made a somewhat fuddled impression. BWNH will need to sharpen its identity and message to win over the small percentage of Israeli voters who are deliberating between parties that belong to opposing blocs.