Editor's Notes: Everyone is waiting for Mandelblit

Neither side – Likud or Blue and White – have shown flexibility or interest in budging from their current positions.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL Avichai Mandelblit faces a decision that not only will determine his career, but also the trajectory of the state. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ATTORNEY-GENERAL Avichai Mandelblit faces a decision that not only will determine his career, but also the trajectory of the state.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Unless there is some dramatic change, on Thursday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will drive over to the President’s Residence and inform Reuven Rivlin that he has failed to form a government. While this will be the second time Netanyahu has failed to complete the task, it will be his first time admitting so publicly. Last round, in late May, he led the Knesset to disperse itself instead of admitting failure.
With the nation still deep in holiday mode, the political news has moved to the back burner. Next week, that comes to an end. Kids return to school and parents go back to work. The newly elected members of Knesset will start making noise again, justifying their positions, remaining powerless as long as there is no government.
Going into the weekend, predictions are that nothing substantial will happen. Neither side – Likud or Blue and White – have shown flexibility or interest in budging from their current positions: Likud sticking to the infamous bloc – Yamina and the ultra-Orthodox parties – and Blue and White sticking to its refusal to enter a government led by Netanyahu.
The reason no one is in a rush is because everyone is waiting for Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and his final decision on Netanyahu’s indictment.
WHEN NETANYAHU first received the mandate from Rivlin on September 25, the prime minister originally intended to return it within a few days, before Rosh Hashanah, which started on the evening of the 29th. He quickly changed his mind, though, after realizing that there is a chance the hearings his attorneys held with Mandelblit immediately after the holiday succeeded in convincing the attorney-general to drop the most severe charge being leveled against him – bribery.
If that happens, Netanyahu will hail it as a victory. He will cling to the decision like a precious life jacket and will tell the public that, just as he succeeded in getting rid of the bribery charge at the hearing, he will get all the charges thrown away at his trial. People will believe him and take to the streets in support. Gantz will find himself under immense pressure to cave and join a Likud-led government.
While in this scenario there will still be an indictment (and having a sitting prime minister under indictment is not something any democracy should accept), Netanyahu is banking on the ambiguity that comes with the charges of fraud and breach of trust. Bribery is easy to explain and understand – the politician gave something and then got something in return. Breach of trust, though, is too vague: What is it? What does it mean? And why is it wrong?
On the other side, Blue and White is also in no rush, for a similar reason. Gantz and the other members of the party’s so-called cockpit want to wait and see if the final indictment includes the bribery charge since, if so, they believe that is what Likud members need to finally rise up and cut off their head, i.e., Netanyahu.
An indictment of fraud or breach of trust will not be enough to spark a Likud rebellion. Only a bribery charge can get the party to rid itself of Netanyahu and appoint Gideon Sa’ar, Yuli Edelstein or Israel Katz in his place.
“With any one of those we would have unity a government within five minutes,” one senior member of Blue and White explained.
It’s tough not to feel a bit for Mandelblit. No matter which way he goes, he is in something of a lose-lose situation. If he drops the bribery charge, he will be providing ammo to Netanyahu to cry foul and attack the attorney-general, the police and the media. If he indicts Netanyahu for bribery, but the prime minister then gets acquitted in court, Mandelblit will be remembered as the attorney-general who illegitimately tried to bring down a popular and powerful sitting prime minister. The only win is a win that goes all the way – from indictment to conviction.
IN THE MEANTIME, talks between Likud and Blue and White are pretty much nonexistent. Minister Yariv Levin, head of the Likud negotiating team, has barely spoken with Yoram Turbowicz or Shalom Shlomo, Blue and White’s lead negotiators. Speaking of Shlomo, he is the person Netanyahu most suspects as working against him.
Netanyahu would know. Shlomo was his political adviser back in 2008 and was the person who thwarted Tzipi Livni’s efforts to form a coalition. He is a shrewd political operator and the person whom Netanyahu suspects is the architect behind the minority government option, according to which Blue and White will form a government with support from the Arab MKs but without having them join the coalition. If Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu stays out of the Knesset for the vote, Gantz would have a majority to confirm such a government.
As a party, Blue and White is divided about what to do. If it were up to Gantz alone, he would have agreed weeks ago to sit with Netanyahu based on Rivlin’s proposal, according to which Netanyahu would be prime minister first, take a leave of absence after he is indicted, be replaced for two years by Gantz and then – if acquitted – return to his former post.
The problem is that Yair Lapid, his co-leader, as well as Gabi Ashkenazi, No. 4 on the list and his former IDF commander, are adamantly opposed. They both believe that the party cannot enter into a government with Netanyahu under any circumstances. Netanyahu, they claim, cannot be trusted and will not abide by a deal even if signed and notarized.
Some parts of Yesh Atid are pushing for the minority government option, even though it means receiving outside support from the Arab parties – a move that Moshe Ya’alon, for example, believes is a strategic mistake. Members of his Telem faction within Blue and White think it makes more sense to sit with Netanyahu than to establish a minority government with outside Arab support.
The tension that has taken hold of the party is something that Likud is trying to take advantage of, although so far with limited success. Ultimately, Netanyahu hopes that Gantz will succumb to pressure, dislodge himself from the grasps of Yesh Atid and Lapid, and come into a government led by Likud. Gantz might want to do that, but he knows that if he goes in and Lapid stays out, it will probably be the end of his political career. The 1.15 million people who voted for Gantz didn’t vote for him: They voted against Netanyahu. And if he goes into a government and Lapid stays in the opposition, he will be setting himself up to be attacked constantly by a politician (Lapid) who knows how to go on the attack.
The meeting Gantz asked for with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi this week could be the beginning of the creation of an excuse for why he needs to join a government with Netanyahu, despite the pending indictments.
While the content of the meeting was not revealed, it’s not difficult to imagine what Kochavi said there. IDF procurement plans are stuck, since there isn’t a functioning government or a new state budget. The military needs to be able to start developing and purchasing new missile defense systems that would be needed to defend against attacks from Iranian cruise missiles and drones – like those that hit a Saudi oil refinery last month. No state budget means no IDF multi-year plan, and no IDF multi-year plan means no new missile defense systems.
The visit to Israel by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo adds to this sense of urgency. With Turkey’s invasion of Syria underway and the US pullout almost complete, the Middle East faces a new era that has the potential to be dangerous for Israel, and any other country aligned against the Iranians.
For the moment, the challenge to Israel splits between the tactical and the strategic. Tactically, Israel could be hit by an Iranian cruise missile or drone. It could come without a provocation or in retaliation to a future Israeli airstrike in Syria. Israel would likely then retaliate, but in a way that would minimize the chances of a larger-scale conflict.
Strategically, though, Israel needs to quickly adapt to the new Middle East that is being created before our eyes. This is a Middle East in which the US is a minor player, something of a second fiddle to the Russians, the Iranians and the Turks. This does not immediately translate into a strategic threat to Israel, but it definitely has the potential to become one.
That is why it won’t be surprising if we hear Gantz say at some point in the coming weeks that he has decided – for the good of the country – to enter into a government with Netanyahu. Will it really be for the good of the country? Time will tell.