Tel Aviv — It’s been more than a month since Israel’s second parliamentary election of 2019, and the country’s lawmakers remain far from forming the first electorally empowered government in nearly a year.
Former army chief Benny Gantz, the leader of the center-right Blue and White party, kicked off four weeks of talks to form a government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed over the course of the last month.
But Gantz’s path to a parliamentary majority appears equally as improbable as that of Netanyahu: neither Blue and White nor the prime minister’s Likud party have agreed on a compromise that would set up a national unity government.
Gantz, the first Israeli politician other than Netanyahu to receive a mandate to form a government in more than a decade, has three potential options, none of them particularly attractive.
He could try to negotiate a deal in line with President Reuven Rivlin’s compromise formula from September for a national unity government in which the two party leaders would each get two-year terms as prime minister. Netanyahu would serve first, but if his legal problems lead to a corruption indictment from state prosecutors (a final decision is expected in a few weeks), the prime minister would be forced to take a leave of absence and Gantz would become the acting premier.
The first round of talks with Netanyahu this week were not encouraging. Gantz complained that Likud and the religious parties would only negotiate as a 55-seat bloc, rather than as independent parties.
“We want to form a broad liberal national unity government,” he said. “Likud is still insisting on coming with a bloc of immunity. The best option is a unity government with Blue and White. The worst option: elections.”
Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American pollster, said that Gantz might have to make the concession of allowing Netanyahu to serve first as prime minister and then wait for an indictment to force Netanyahu to take a leave of absence while he fights his trial.
“His chance to become prime minister is going to include a soft exit for Netanyahu. I find it hard to believe he’s going to form a government without Likud,” Barak said. “[Gantz’s] supporters have to realize that the path to becoming prime minister goes through Netanyahu.”
That idea might be a tough sell to Gantz’s constituents. Even though Blue and White promised a “secular” national unity government during the recent campaign, many supporters rallied around Gantz based on the hope that he would be able to replace — not serve under — Netanyahu. Political observers said that Blue and White leaders such as Moshe Yaalon and Yair Lapid — former defense and finance ministers, respectively, who previously served in Netanyahu governments — would push back against Netanyahu going first in a rotating premiership.
A second option for Gantz is forming a center-left minority government with the support of the Israeli Arab Joint List party. Such a coalition could get simple majority confirmation vote as long as former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, doesn’t vote in opposition.
Politically, the optics of such a move are problematic. It would contradict the promise of a national unity government made by Gantz and Lieberman during the election. It would also undermine Blue and White’s image as a centrist party. For his part, Lieberman said immediately after the election he won’t sit in a government dependent on Arab — he referred to them as “enemy” — support.
Many Israeli Jews might concur with Leiberman: some 66 percent of Israelis said they oppose a government coalition supported by the Arab Joint List party, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. Netanyahu and Likud politicians have accused Blue and White of seeking to form a minority government based on Arab support —alleging that lawmakers in the Joint List oppose the very principle of a Jewish state.
“You can’t be a first-time prime minister with a minority government supported by Arabs,” said Barak. “Leaders including Netanyahu are still referring to them as supporters of terrorism. To many Israeli political leaders it is not legitimate to have a government supported by Arabs either inside or outside” the coalition.
For the Arab Israelis who voted for the Joint List in the hopes that it could win more government attention to issues affecting the country’s 20 percent minority, seeing the party involved in coalition politics is an achievement.
Spokespeople for Blue and White have said that “all options” are on the table for the coalition negotiations, a hint that a minority government could be in the cards. Gayil Talshir, a political science professor at Hebrew University, suggested that messaging was a tactic to pressure Likud to make concessions in coalition talks.
“It’s a realistic option — it might not be the most desirable,” said Yoram Ravitz, a former coalition negotiator for Ariel Sharon in an interview with Israel’s Kan public radio. “For Blue and White, any option is preferable to holding a third election.”
A third option is to wait for the final decision of Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt on a series of corruption cases against Netanyahu, one of which involves bribery.
“If he gets off for bribery, he has more elbow room,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “If he’s indicted for bribery as well as breach of trust and fraud, his political career will be over.”
The attorney general’s decision is expected in mid-November, at earliest — the last few days of Gantz’s mandate. Indeed, many observers believe that Gantz won’t succeed in putting together a government before his mandate expires.
That will take Israel’s political system to the final period coalition negotiations before triggering a third election: a three-week stretch in which any lawmaker in the 120 -member parliament can build a government if there are 61 votes. During that period both Gantz and Netanyahu can try for a coalition. Political analysts believe that once lawmakers come face to face with the brink of a new parliamentary vote, they’ll be more likely to break from the allegiances and promises that have deadlocked the negotiations so far. A decision by Mandelblitt during that period is very likely to upend the dynamic, added Rynhold.
“It’s like a game of poker with the attorney general holding the cards.”