Will the election no-one wanted prove third time lucky?

Israel faces yet another election after both Netanyahu and Gantz fail to form a government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a ceremony to inaugurate a dozen factories in Ashkelon on December 2, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a ceremony to inaugurate a dozen factories in Ashkelon on December 2, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As the December 11 deadline approached for the Knesset to come up with a candidate to form a government with the backing of 61 MKs, it appeared that a fresh election early next year was almost inevitable.
The election that no one wanted, Israel’s third in a year, will likely take place on March 2.
President Reuven Rivlin granted the Knesset 21 days to come up with a consensus candidate after both Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz had failed to cobble together a working coalition, after being granted the mandate following the deadlocked election in September.
But the Knesset failed to find such a candidate. Likud and Blue and White failed to bridge the gaps over the terms of a unity government, and attempts to establish a narrow right-wing coalition led by the Likud or a centrist-left coalition led by Blue and White also failed to gain traction.
Netanyahu refused to abandon his right-wing and religious coalition partners, and Gantz refused to allow Netanyahu to serve as prime minister in a unity government unless he clears his name after being charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate graft cases.
On the weekend before the December 11 deadline, Likud sources said that Netanyahu was standing behind his proposal to serve as prime minister in the first six months of a unity government, and the remaining 18 months of his term would be completed after Benny Gantz’s 18-month term.
The prime minister told journalists accompanying him on a trip to Portugal that he would continue to attempt to avert a third election, but that this was not up to him. He stressed that his willingness to initially serve six months as prime minister was a major concession on his part in order to avert another election.
“I don’t want to serve half a year, I want to serve two years,” Netanyahu said. “I will now make a supreme effort, despite Blue and White’s opposition, to avert this unnecessary election, but there are two people who have the answer: Benny Gantz, if he overcomes Lapid, and Avigdor Liberman, if he gets over himself.”
Netanyahu explained that it was important to him to serve for the first six months for the sake of continuity, and for the opportunity at this juncture to promote a defense pact with the US and the possibility to apply sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.
“These things can only be achieved by the prime minister, not by others,” he said. “I have a unique relationship with the US president and with the public in the US.”
In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, the key figure behind efforts to form a unity government, dispelled the fog for the first time and announced that despite his previous declarations, he did not intend to join a narrow government, on either the right or the left.
“A narrow government is a complete failure,” said Liberman. “Netanyahu and Gantz were playing a blame game. I tried to apply real pressure on them, but unfortunately both of them have made a strategic decision not to go to unity, so both parties bear responsibility for another election.”
The die for a new election was cast, it appears, at a meeting on the night of December 3 between Netanyahu and Gantz, eight days before the deadline. The 45-minute meeting failed to break the deadlock. Gantz accused Netanyahu of being focused on his own legal problems and his desire to secure parliamentary immunity from prosecution; Netanyahu accused Gantz of succumbing to pressure by his fellow party member, Yair Lapid, who opposes sitting in a government with Netanyahu.
Prior to the meeting, the leadership of Blue and White, Lapid and Gantz, and the two other former IDF chiefs of staff, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – collectively known as “the Cockpit” – had been split. Whereas Gantz had been willing to explore a possible rotation agreement with Netanyahu, Lapid and Ya’alon, who have both served in governments under Netanyahu, argued that he cannot be trusted, and whenever it suited him he would find an excuse to break up the unity government before Gantz could assume the premiership.
Gabi Ashkenazi reportedly fell somewhere in the middle, suspicious of Netanyahu but willing to examine his proposals for avoiding another election.
But the meeting on December 3 convinced Gantz that Netanyahu was not serious.
Days ahead of the deadline, Netanyahu called for a direct election of the prime minister as a way of averting another election.
“There is one more thing that can be done to avert an unnecessary election – to hold a direct election for prime minister between Benny Gantz and me,” said Netanyahu. “Blue and White says that it knows what the people want, so I am in favor of the people deciding and no one else – including the media.”
However, Blue and White dismissed the proposal as another spin from the prime minister.
“Changing the election system in a snap proceeding is liable to put us back in the exact same place that we are today, and this is therefore a hollow proposal whose only goal is to divert the fire from Netanyahu, the defendant in three major corruption cases, who is the only person responsible for dragging Israel to an election for a third time,” Blue and White responded.
With an election looming, the internal battle in the Likud heated up with Netanyahu loyalists turning on the challenger, former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, who was labeled a “traitor” for demanding a primary to elect the Likud leader.
“If Netanyahu continues to lead the Likud, either the country will remain stuck and nobody will be able to form a government, or we will hand over power to our political rivals,” Sa’ar warned. “The incitement against me, to an extent never seen before in the country, comes directly from the prime minister.”
Several Knesset members and others were reportedly examining the possibility of securing clemency for Netanyahu in exchange for his consent to leave politics – a development that if it fell before the December 11 deadline would allow a unity government to be formed and would avert another election.
It is entirely possible that the election next year will also result in a political stalemate. The decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict the prime minister failed to produce a dramatic shift in voting intentions, according to the polls. The Likud is down slightly and Blue and White is up, but if the right-wing and religious bloc remains firm, it still appears that Benny Gantz will have an uphill task to form a stable coalition.
Netanyahu believes that all is not lost, and the Likud, along with the New Right led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and Bayit Yehudi, led by Rabbi Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, running separately, will be able to ensure that no potential right-wing votes go to waste.
However, an increasing number of Likud members fear that a third election is liable to jeopardize the right wing’s hold on power, even though the only person who has dared to go public has been Gideon Sa’ar.
“Beware the Ides of March,” said Julius Caesar’s soothsayers – a warning the Likud may also want to take on board.