Will Gantz be able to break up Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc?

Political Affairs: When will the ‘bloc party’ end?

Right wing bloc leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday   (photo credit: LIKUD)
Right wing bloc leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday
(photo credit: LIKUD)
When Blue and White leader Benny Gantz called the leaders of every party in the Knesset except Balad on Wednesday night, right after President Reuven Rivlin entrusted him with forming the next government, he received an almost uniform answer from those on the Right.
Reading Blue and White’s statements to the press, one would think the answer was that they would all be happy to meet with Gantz next week, after the Blue and White and Likud negotiating teams’ talks on Sunday. It would seem like Gantz is on his way to holding productive coalition talks with a wide range of political parties.
But then came statements from the New Right, Bayit Yehudi, UTJ and Shas, and they all said something that Blue and White preferred to ignore. They will negotiate only in conjunction with the 55-seat religious-right bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Some of the politicians included a longer message, basically telling Gantz that it’s nothing personal and they actually would like to be in a coalition with him and all the other right-wing parties.
“It’s essential... to promote a broad, unity Netanyahu-Gantz government,” New Right co-chairman Naftali Bennett said. “Come to negotiations with an open heart and do not rule out Netanyahu, the haredim [ultra-Orthodox] or settlers.”
Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the National Union Party within Bayit Yehudi, said a national-unity government “won’t be able to focus on controversial matters, but will focus on the many challenges Israel faces, and can reach a broad consensus on them... The right-wing parties are coming to negotiations with clean hands and an intention to successfully form a national, Zionist unity government.”
In short, they’re all still working as a team, without even a hint at rebellion against Netanyahu. Even if Gantz is the one trying to form a coalition at the moment, he won’t get a majority with the bloc intact, so Netanyahu doesn’t look like he’ll have to start packing up his belongings in the Prime Minister’s Residence just yet.
BUT THERE’S another thing the whole right-wing bloc says, along with just about everyone else in the political field, which is that no one wants a third election. But if the bloc doesn’t break up, we’re almost guaranteed to have a third election – if not immediately, then very soon, because a minority government is not built to last.
Something has to give. It could be that Blue and White will back down, whether on its insistence that it will not sit with Netanyahu while his legal troubles still loom, or on its call for a “secular unity government.” Thus far, it has shown a bit of flexibility on the first issue behind the scenes, leaning toward the “Rivlin compromise,” which would allow Netanyahu to step down when on trial and return if acquitted. With the second, Blue and White has started saying a “liberal unity government” instead of a secular one, a possible indication of greater willingness to work with religious parties.
Currently, though, Blue and White is at an advantage. Gantz is the one building a coalition, not Netanyahu, which gives the centrist faction less of an incentive to compromise and more motivation to try to break up the “bloc party.”
We don’t know who will crack first, but everyone has a weakness. The question is whether Blue and White will be able to take advantage of those cracks in the façade of total unity. Here are the parties in the right-wing bloc – from least likely to most likely – to jump ship:
United Torah Judaism is probably the strongest bloc member of them all, because it is the least likely to find a reason to partner with Blue and White. About half of Blue and White’s seats belong to Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, the haredi parties’ archenemy. UTJ – especially Ya’acov Litzman, leader of the hassidic Agudat Yisrael Party – its MKs, campaign messaging and its affiliated media have called Lapid an antisemite and have compared him to Cossacks and Nazis over the years because of his secularist positions – such as allowing public transportation on Saturdays – and his calls to conscript haredim into the IDF like other Israeli Jews. Agudat Yisrael has held the hardest line on matters of religion and state, and the non-hassidic Degel Hatorah has followed suit in its voting patterns, even if its MKs would be more willing to compromise. And the same has happened with Shas in recent years, to some extent.
Shas, however, has a history of being more flexible and joining coalitions without UTJ. More of its voters serve in the IDF, and the Sephardi haredi rabbis are more likely to permit their followers to do so. Plus, Shas has sat in governments not led by the Right in the relatively recent past. Still, in an interview on KAN Bet Thursday morning, Shas leader Arye Deri repeated over and over again that his voters want Netanyahu to be prime minister, and that is why he is loyal to the bloc.
Bayit Yehudi seems like an unlikely candidate to join any government that is not solidly right-wing, seeing as it would be unwilling to concede an inch of Israel’s sovereignty to the Palestinians, something that Blue and White is far more likely to do than the Likud. Plus, Gantz repeatedly used Smotrich, No. 2 in the party, as an example of an extremist during his campaign.
However, based on the statements sent by both sides, it seems that they had a surprisingly friendly and positive talk on Wednesday night. Plus, the real key to Gantz breaking Bayit Yehudi off from the bloc would be party leader Rafi Peretz, who was the IDF’s chief rabbi of while Gantz was chief of staff. The two are personal friends. Even when Blue and White’s other leaders slammed Peretz this summer, Gantz was careful not to sling personal insults. The two have talked recently, and according to some reports, Gantz told Peretz he would welcome Bayit Yehudi into his coalition without the National Union. Peretz reportedly responded that he and Smotrich are a package deal.
New Right and Netanyahu have a very spotty past, and if anyone should be expected to turn away from the prime minister, it’s party leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. They were Netanyahu’s top advisers over a decade ago, but left his staff on poor terms – and the bad blood still remains. So much so that Netanyahu planted negative stories about Bennett’s wife in the media, and tried to do the same about his deceased father. So much so that, despite her popularity within the Likud, Netanyahu made it clear earlier this year that he would block Shaked from rejoining the party.
They have repeatedly said in various speeches over the past year that Netanyahu takes them for granted and sets up political obstacles for them at every turn. And when Netanyahu sent a document around to the religious-right bloc party leaders last week, they didn’t sign it, with Shaked saying that it’s absurd to have to sign loyalty oaths all the time.
Still, the duo swear fealty to Netanyahu whenever they’re asked about it. And sources close to Bennett have said that he’s had some very positive meetings with the prime minister lately – though they deny rumors that New Right wants to merge with the Likud. In addition, on Saturday night, Bennett published an uncharacteristically obsequious post about Netanyahu, arguing that the three cases against him are a conspiracy against the prime minister in the judiciary.
The Likud is the most likely to break away from the bloc, because in the end it has the most to lose from it. The party has only two paths to remaining in power. One is to convince Yisrael Beytenu to join the right-wing bloc – something party leader Avigdor Liberman refused to do in May as well as this month, so it probably won’t happen. The other is to join a unity government with Blue and White, which would involve a rotation for the premiership. At the moment, there are two matters on which Blue and White and the Likud disagree, which have made all negotiations a nonstarter: the bloc and Netanyahu being prime minister first. Considering his legal schedule, with likely indictments coming next month, being prime minister second entails too much of a risk that he won’t be prime minister again.
On the other hand, without keeping the bloc together, Gantz is more likely to be able to form a coalition without the Likud at all – and therefore, Netanyahu can’t give up on the other parties until the very last minute, in mid-December, when there will be a forced election if there’s no government.