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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voting at the elections.(Photo by: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Think About It: What is the nature of Israel’s political crisis?
By SUSAN HATTIS ROLEF
10/06/2019
The question is whether there are any changes one could introduce into the Israeli political system that would have prevented the current situation.
On the surface Israel appears to be experiencing a constitutional crisis.

What is meant by the term “constitutional crisis” is a problematic political situation that the constitution (or constitutional laws) and other political laws and regulations are unable to resolve, usually because the situation was not foreseen when these various documents were formulated, and because there are no relevant compensating judicial rulings.

The current crisis in Israel manifests itself in the fact that after two rounds of general elections, no one appears to be able to form a government supported by a Knesset majority, and a third round of elections seems to be inevitable.

But are the reasons for this constitutional? One could argue that if Israel had a presidential system such as that in the United States, the current situation could not have emerged, since the president is elected apart from Congress, and he serves a full term of office even if, throughout his term, he does not have the support of Congress. However, a presidential system is no guarantee against constitutional crises, but, rather, only against the particular crisis now being experienced in Israel.

The question is whether there are any changes one could introduce into the Israeli political system that would have prevented the current situation from occurring.

Some argue that if the law would have prohibited calling an election before the full prescribed process for forming a government after an election is completed, following the April election the president of the state would have assigned the task of trying to form a government, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he had failed in the task, to the leader of Blue and White, Benny Gantz, and thus the whole mess could have been avoided. However, it is far from certain that Gantz would have succeeded in the task, and another election would probably have been called in any case.

Others argue that if there were a law or court ruling to the effect that a prime minister suspected of criminal charges must be suspended from office, and/or if he is actually indicted he must be removed, the current situation would never have emerged. This is so because the core reason for the current deadlock is that Netanyahu’s main goal is to create a government that will prevent his being tried, even if the attorney-general decides to indict him. This he can achieve only if he can depend on his own party to support him without exception (which explains his current moves within the Likud central committee – see below); has by his side his “natural partners,” who at least for the time being are willing to stand by him, through thick and thin; and can hold on to the premiership, because in any other government position he will have to resign immediately from the government if and when he is indicted.

In order to prevent the latter scenario, President Reuven Rivlin, in a desperate effort to bring about the establishment of a national-unity government between the Likud and Blue and White, proposed a rather contorted constitutional amendment to the effect that in such a government, in the event of Netanyahu being temporarily unable to serve as prime minister because of the legal proceedings being carried out against him, he would be granted a position equivalent in status to that of the prime minister, even if someone else would serve as acting prime minister.

Of course, one might say that it is not Netanyahu who is responsible for the stalemate but, rather, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who could have agreed to join a government formed by Netanyahu following the April elections, and could still decide to do so today, at an exorbitant price in terms of government positions and effective influence on policy. But Liberman does not trust Netanyahu, and is apparently serious about refusing to sit in a government with the haredim and the “messianics,” and about his willingness to sit in a government with the Likud and Blue and White, but without the religious parties, the Democratic Union and the Arabs.

Netanyahu, on his part, claims that it is Blue and White that is responsible for the stalemate, because even after Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid declared that he would forgo his agreement with Gantz regarding rotation in the leadership of Blue and White should a national-unity government be established, Blue and White continues to declare that it will not sit in a government with Netanyahu should a decision be taken to indict him; insists on Netanyahu coming to negotiations on the establishment of a national-unity government as leader of the Likud only and not as leader of a bloc of 55; and insists on policy guidelines for the government being negotiated before the coalition makeup.

Blue and White is responsible for the stalemate, Netanyahu claims, also because it insists on Gantz being the first to head the national-unity government since Blue and White has more seats than the Likud.

Finally, one might blame the religious parties for being unconditionally committed to Netanyahu, despite his complicated legal situation, and totally unwilling to consider any alternative to a government with him – with or without Blue and White. In the case of Yamina, this is explicable on ideological grounds. In the case of the haredim, the main reason appears to be that they can get much more from the Likud than they can from the Center-Left, though their position might start to shift if Netanyahu fails to form a government, and if after his hearing is over the attorney-general will decide to indict him.

WHAT HAPPENS after the hearing could affect the situation in other ways, especially if Mandelblit decides to dismiss all the charges against Netanyahu. This would increase the Likud’s incentive to go for a third round of elections since, with the cloud of indictment gone, it could certainly regain at least part of the votes it lost. However, even without new elections, Netanyahu’s chances of forming a national-unity government would grow, especially since Blue and White would lose most, if not all, of its excuses for not entering a government with him.

What happens if, after the hearing, Mandelblit still decides to indict? We are left with the options of a third round of elections, Liberman deciding to join a right-religious government under Netanyahu, and the Likud and Blue and White reaching some sort of temporary modus vivendi.

The option of the Likud deciding to remove Netanyahu – which would unravel the Gordian knot in no time – seems now more distant than ever, after Netanyahu proposed and then rejected holding immediate leadership primaries in the Likud, and then decided to convene the Likud central committee next Thursday to decide that only he will be the Likud’s candidate for prime minister throughout the term of the 22nd Knesset, and that the Likud will only be part of a government that is headed by Netanyahu, whether throughout its term, or for part of it in the event of a rotation agreement.

Nobody in the Likud has protested out loud about Netanyahu’s underhanded move, at least not yet, even though when Netanyahu mentioned primaries, Gideon Sa’ar immediately responded that he is ready.
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