Unchartered chaos

“We are looking for the way to prevent Netanyahu from being prime minister, and that is what most of the public wants,” party leader Ayman Odeh told Rivlin. “

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Communications Minister David Amsalem at a Likud meeting after the election (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Communications Minister David Amsalem at a Likud meeting after the election
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As President Reuven Rivlin consulted with the heads of the parties elected to the 22nd Knesset in the week following the September 17 election, it was still unclear how Israel would find a way out of the ongoing political deadlock.
With turnout up to almost 70%, unofficial results showed that Blue and White ended up the biggest party with 33 seats, compared to the Likud, which won 31, giving the right-wing/religious bloc 55 seats and the center-left bloc 57, if we include the 13 seats won by the predominantly Arab Joint List.
Neither Blue and White leader Benny Gantz nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, received the support of a majority of 61 Knesset members to form a coalition, plunging Israel into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
Rivlin told Blue and White MKs that the people of Israel were “disgusted” by the prospect of a third election. “The people of Israel want a government that will be stable,” Rivlin said. “A stable government cannot be a government without both of the two largest parties.”
Blue and White MKs told the president they wanted a unity government but ruled out Netanyahu because of his pending criminal charges, prompting Rivlin to remind them that Netanyahu has not yet been indicted.
Ten members of the predominantly Arab Joint List recommended Gantz for prime minister in its meeting with Rivlin, without the three members from the Balad faction.
“We are looking for the way to prevent Netanyahu from being prime minister, and that is what most of the public wants,” party leader Ayman Odeh told Rivlin. “Therefore, our recommendation is for Gantz to form the next government.”
This marked the first time an Arab party had recommended a candidate for prime minister since 1992, when both Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party endorsed Yitzhak Rabin, without joining the coalition. The Joint List decision was seen as a watershed moment, possibly heralding the beginning of an era of greater integration and coexistence by Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up more than 20 percent of the population.
Netanyahu said the Joint List recommendation was exactly what the Likud had warned about.
“There are two possibilities now: either a minority government will be formed that relies on those who reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and glorify terrorists that murder our soldiers and citizens. Or a broad national government will be formed,” he said. “I know what the answer is and so do you, and therefore I’ll do whatever I can to form a broad national unity government. There is no other solution.”
Yisrael Beytenu was one of the big winners in the election after increasing their number of seats from 5 to 8, to emerge as the coalition kingmakers. They decided not to recommend anyone for prime minister. Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz was prepared, at least in the early stages of coalition contacts, to publicly endorse party leader Avigdor Liberman’s proposal for a unity coalition comprising only three parties – Likud, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.
“A national unity government, a broad liberal government. We will not join any other option. From our point of view no other option exists,” Liberman made clear. He also criticized the Joint List’s backing for Gantz.
“The Joint List are our enemies,” he said. “Wherever they are, we will be on the other side.”
A precedent for a unity government exists. In 1984 both the Alignment, led by Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud won 40 seats but neither party could form a coalition. The result was an Alignment-Likud national unity government, together with a number of smaller parties, with a rotating premiership that saw Shamir replacing Peres as prime minister after 2 years.
Even under normal circumstances, coalition-building in Israel is an arduous task and after the April elections Netanyahu’s potential partners failed to agree on a bill for drafting the Haredim, prompting Netanyahu to call a snap September election in order to avoid the possibility of President Rivlin tasking Benny Gantz with forming an alternative coalition.
Despite the electoral blow in September, Netanyahu is refusing to admit defeat and is keeping all his options open. The day after the election, he convened the leaders of the right-wing and religious parties to shore up support for a new coalition, while simultaneously endorsing a unity coalition.
Blue and White was quick to dismiss Netanyahu’s call for unity as another political spin.
“This is a cynical political stunt,” a senior party member stated. “Netanyahu wants to portray himself as someone who proposed unity and we caused it to fail. Since when does a person who loses an election invite the winner to be a partner in his government?”
The fact that Netanyahu is facing a pre-trial hearing in early October on three separate corruption charges involving gifts from businessmen and quid pro quo agreements for favorable media coverage complicates the picture.
He wanted to attend the meeting with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit with a fresh mandate from the people – a message that they agree with him that the allegations are part of a left-wing witch hunt aimed at toppling him from power. He will now attend the meeting as a weakened politician with a huge question mark over his future. His reported plans to fast-track legislation granting him immunity from prosecution now seem like a distant dream.
Gantz said it was clear that Blue and White should head the new government. “After being forced into new elections, the citizens of Israel made a clear decision,” he said. “The people chose unity. The people chose Israel before everything. Blue and White under my leadership won, and is the largest party. Netanyahu failed to achieve the political blocking majority he sought – 61 MKs – the blocking majority for which he sent us all for the elections.”
Commentators were already speculating over the wording of a possible rotation deal as part of a unity agreement if that indeed is the outcome.
In the event that Netanyahu continues as prime minister during the first half of a unity government, an agreement will likely state that if an indictment is served against the prime minister, the alternating premiership arrangement will be moved forward – Gantz will move into the Prime Minister’s Office and Netanyahu will receive an alternative, non-ministerial senior role. If Netanyahu is acquitted, as he believes he will be, he will return to the Prime Minister’s Office after two years.
If Gantz serves first as prime minister the situation would be easier, granting a window for Netanyahu to devote his time and efforts to clearing his name in court, and if he is indicted he will not return for a fifth term as prime minister.
It was still unclear which leader would be tasked by President Rivlin with having the first crack at forming a coalition, but many commentators speculated that whoever it was would fail to do so in the allotted 28 days, and therefore it may be preferable to be the second candidate tasked by the president.
The fact that Gantz and Yair Lapid have their own rotation agreement, assuming Gantz becomes prime minister, adds yet another complication to an already muddy situation.
There is another way out of the imbroglio: a plea deal. Netanyahu could exit stage right in return for presidential clemency in connection with the corruption cases.
Three days after his election defeat, Netanyahu denied a Channel 13 news report that he had sent an envoy to the president to discuss such a deal.
“This is a transparent and false spin whose only purpose is to harm the right-wing coalition,” Netanyahu said.
A Blue and White-Likud unity government without Yisrael Beytenu would have 64 seats but bringing in Yisrael Beytenu would make it more palatable for both Gantz and Netanyahu.
Another big winner from the September election was the Joint List, which, due to a significant increase in Arab voter turnout (up from 49 % to 59%), emerged as the third largest party, winning 13 seats.
Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen said the high turnout “demonstrates that the Arab Palestinian public in Israel prefers a united political list and, accordingly, values unity and cooperation from their national leaders.” It is also clear that the anti-Arab rhetoric from Netanyahu (which continued after the vote) backfired and contributed to the higher Arab turnout, playing a key role in Netanyahu’s defeat.
In endorsing Gantz for prime minister the Joint List listed a number of conditions, including a moratorium on demolishing illegal construction in Arab villages, a cabinet resolution about fighting violence in the sector, abolishing the nation-state law and beginning a peace process.
If a unity government is formed, the head of the list, Knesset Member Ayman Odeh, looks set to become the first Arab head of the Opposition, entitling him to regular meetings with the prime minister, meetings with visiting heads of state and monthly briefings from the Mossad.
When Netanyahu addressed the Likud faithful on election night the activists chanted “We don’t want unity,” but it looks like the only realistic choice may be a unity coalition or a third election.