Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, shown here in Tel Aviv in early 2019 while vying for the premiership, visited Washington recently, around the same time as Iran doubled its military budget. Photo: AFP / Gili Yaari / NurPhoto

Israel’s former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz became – on Wednesday – the first person not named Benjamin Netanyahu tasked with forming an Israeli government in over a decade.

This is a political revolution of sorts, relegating “King Bibi” to the status of outgoing prime minister. It places Gantz in the driver’s seat and allows him 28 days to form a coalition. Since the Knesset has 120 seats, a coalition consisting of at least 61 seats is required to form a functioning government.

Should Gantz fail to form a government during the allotted period, the Knesset will have 21 days to give the support of the majority of the body to a member as the future prime minister. 

If that process fails, a third election will have to be called.

Aside from Netanyahu, very few members of the Knesset wish for third elections. There is deep-seated fatigue among the Israeli public in the face of the continued dysfunction, and the consequences of failure to pass a budget for 2020 could be severe. This puts pressure on most parties to compromise.

Since the beginning of the premiership battle, the former general preferred to be given the second chance to form a government rather than the first.

To this end, he asked one of the Arab factions to avoid recommending him for the premiership, allowing Bibi the first crack. The Blue and White party hoped that Netanyahu’s demonstrable failure (for a second time) to form a functioning coalition would make it easier to form a coalition for three reasons:

First, it negates Netanyahu’s image as an all-conquering political wizard and reduces the sense of inevitability surrounding his leadership. Second, Gantz is betting demands will be tempered as a third election beckons. Third, it runs the clock down until the ultimate decision by the attorney general of Israel on whether or not to indict Netanyahu.

Arab taboo

Gantz is now in his preferred position, and yet he is fighting the odds. While there are many potential puzzle pieces for a coalition, they do not fit together properly. The many schisms in Israeli society along the lines of left-right, secular-religious, and Arab vs. Jew seem to be conspiring against functioning governance.

Fifty-four members of Knesset recommended Gantz for the premiership, but he faces a serious challenge in using that support as the cornerstone of a potential coalition. Ten of his supporters (potentially 13 if the Palestinian hardline Balad faction support him as well) come from the Arab Joint List party.

There is a taboo in Israeli society regarding Arab party participation in a governing coalition — with Netanyahu openly referring to Israeli-Arab parties as “enemies of the state” during the last election season.

This limits Blue and White’s ability to rely on the Joint List. Therefore, Arab backing would likely take the form of external support during crucial votes, potentially allowing Gantz’s government to function as a minority government. Joint List leader Ayman Odeh and other members of the other Arab parties have expressed a willingness to participate in this manner. However, Gantz has been hesitant to do so due to the potential political costs of the move.

It is also highly unlikely that Blue and White would be able to attract any of the right-wing votes necessary to cross the 61-seat threshold with the Arab parties in tow. In particular, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party has in the past trumpeted a series of racist positions and seems an unlikely partner for a government supported by the Joint List.

Liberman is also a highly problematic actor in the sphere of secular-religious issues. His party is the most likely right-wing partner in a Gantz-led government, as it has consistently refused to serve in a narrow Netanyahu-led coalition following both recent elections. But Liberman has also taken an uncompromising stance against Jewish yeshiva students being granted exemptions from compulsory military service. As such, his Yisrael Beitenu party is unlikely to coexist with either of the ultra-orthodox lists, further curtailing Blue and White’s ability to form a functioning coalition.

Gantz could theoretically approach the religious parties and keep Liberman out of the coalition. However, all three religious parties (ultra-orthodox and national-religious) signed a document pledging to enter a coalition only as a single unit. Blue and White have also insisted on the operation of public transportation on Saturdays, as well as the promotion of surrogacy rights for the LGBT community, making a deal with the ultra-orthodox highly difficult to strike.

The only way Gantz can make a deal with the ultra-orthodox, therefore, is by reaching a deal with Netanyahu.

Indictment wild card

This brings us to the final option: a unity government with the Likud.

The right-wing party has been in power for over a decade and many in it long to be an integral part of a new coalition. However, Blue and White’s entire raison d’être was to unseat Netanyahu as prime minister due to his alleged corruption and unsuitability. A deal with Bibi at this point would be seen as an outrageous betrayal of the faith placed in Gantz by his voters.

The Blue and White party has indicated that it would be willing to sit with the Likud if they were led by an individual of the non-Netanyahu variety. However, the Likud’s central committee declared Bibi its sole candidate for prime minister and insisted the party will only sit in a government led by him.

The various ideological and political obstacles to forming a Gantz-led coalition currently seem insurmountable. However, the wild card is the timetable of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for determining whether or not to indict Netanyahu for alleged bribery. The outgoing prime minister’s hearings took place earlier this month and a decision is widely expected during the month of November. An indictment for claims of bribery and several lesser counts is expected to be handed down.

If this takes place during Gantz’s 28 days, it may facilitate the process of convincing the Likud and other right-wing parties to soften their demands and ditch the ailing King Bibi.

Netanyahu’s allies will then face an unenviable dilemma. If they stab the ailing Netanyahu in the back, his hardcore supporters will hold it against them in the struggle to inherit leadership of the right-wing. If they loyally support him, the public may blame the right-wing for a third election in a row and punish them severely in the polls.

An almost Shakespearean drama is set to unfold in the Israeli ruling party as every aspirant wants to benefit from Netanyahu’s political death without being blamed for plunging in the dagger.

Also read: Arab parties primed to tip Israel political scales

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