When is 61 not a majority of the Knesset? Blue and White leader Benny Gantz may be about to find out.
The Joint List, including the long-reticent Balad Party, and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman put an end to speculation about their next moves when they met with President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday and recommended Gantz to form the next government.
This means Gantz received the recommendations of 61 out of 120 MKs, making him the candidate with the first shot at forming a coalition. Without the rest of the details, that seems like relatively smooth sailing for the prime ministerial hopeful.
But Gantz’s majority is an illusion. There may be 61 MKs committed to getting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of office, but there are not 61 MKs to form a coalition with agreed-upon guidelines.
At most, those 61 MKs – and maybe a 62nd if you count Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abecassis – agree to pass a law that would make it illegal for someone who’s been indicted, like Netanyahu, to be prime minister.
But there are major obstacles on the way to forming an actual government.
If Gantz is aiming for a “coronavirus emergency government,” then the big questions are about Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has demanded that he be prime minister first, to continue managing the current crisis. Gantz, of course, has the first chance to form a coalition, which means that he would have to be prime minister first, but that is just a procedural matter they can easily overcome.
The real issue here is whether Gantz and the rest of Blue and White’s leadership decides that the coronavirus crisis is a reason to break its biggest promise to its voters – to replace Netanyahu and not sit in a government under a prime minister indicted on several corruption charges.
Should Gantz join a coalition with Netanyahu, it could tear Blue and White apart. The Yair Lapid-led Yesh Atid Party, which makes up about half of Blue and White, would probably not agree to it – unless they decide that coronavirus trumps all else, which so far looks unlikely.
At this point, Blue and White seems to think that this is a trick on Netanyahu’s part, which is why Gantz refused to meet with him for the four days after the prime minister called for a unity government. The two only met together with Rivlin at the President’s Residence Sunday night.
If Gantz is seeking a center-left government, the main obstacle is the Joint List and how people react to it.
The Joint List – the 15-seat bloc of several mostly-Arab parties – made history in September when all the parties but Balad recommended Gantz, making it the first time they recommended a candidate since Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s. They followed that up by having all the parties in the bloc recommend Gantz on Sunday.
But the Joint List and its components have never been part of a coalition, and they don’t intend to be part of Gantz’s, either, as a matter of principle. These are parties that do not think Israel should be the Jewish state. They think that any Israeli presence in the West Bank or anywhere beyond pre-1967 lines – including the Western Wall – is illegitimate. They oppose Israeli strikes on Gaza, no matter how many rockets Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad shoot at Israeli civilians. And that’s before their MKs’ Facebook posts praising terrorists who attack Israelis.
The gaps are too big. The most they’d be willing to do is vote in favor of the formation of a minority government, and even that would be conditional. Prominent Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said in a pre-election interview that the Joint List couldn’t support a government that strikes Gaza – support, not join. That means that even their votes for a minority coalition are a big if, since that coalition would be led by a party that has repeatedly criticized Netanyahu for not being tough enough on Hamas.
And then there’s the fact that at least two of the 61 recommendations for Gantz have declared that they will vote against a minority government: Blue and White MKs Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser. Their opposition is not because the Joint List are Arabs, as many of their critics claim. It has to do with the Joint List’s positions opposing Israel as a Jewish state and its right to defend itself.
There are other silent opponents of a minority government supported by the Joint List. MK Gabi Ashkenazi, part of Blue and White’s quadripartite leadership, has been working against it behind the scenes. MK Chili Tropper, who is close to Gantz, reportedly is against it, as well.
That means that, even if Gantz convinces the entire Joint List to support his minority government, he will be down to 59 – which beats the pro-Netanyahu side’s 58 – or 57 – which doesn’t. And if Balad doesn’t support his government, then there’s nothing to talk about here.
As coalition talks begin in earnest in the coming days, Gantz will quickly find that 61 doesn’t always mean 61.