Who can (and will) break Israel’s political stalemate?

September 22, 2019 by Dov Lipman - JNS
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Will Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz be able to form a government, or will Israel have to go to the polls for a third election in the course of a year? That’s the question being asked throughout Israel in the wake of Tuesday’s election results, which again ended in a dead heat.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and MK Benny Gantz at the three memorial for former President Shimon Peres 2019-09-19

There are 55 mandates supporting Netanyahu for prime minister, 57 against Netanyahu for prime minister, with 44 supporting Gantz for sure. It remains unclear if the Joint Arab List, which doesn’t want to see Netanyahu in the top job once again, will support Gantz for prime minister or not. The 57-55 represents a stalemate. But eight more Knesset seats belong to Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, so in theory, he can crown the next prime minister.

Lieberman, it seems, holds the key to breaking this stalemate. But he has said that he will only support a candidate who will commit to forming a government of Likud, Blue and White, and his Yisrael Beiteinu. Blue and White have refused to sit in a government led by Likud leader Netanyahu, so they’re not gaining Lieberman’s support. Likud is insisting that the ultra-Orthodox parties be part of their coalition, so they’re not gaining Lieberman’s support.

Thus, the stalemate and talk of a third election.

But former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon, who used to be a member of Yisrael Beiteinu, told JNS that “Lieberman is a chameleon and changes his colours whenever it suits him best. The possibility of him reinventing himself yet again is always a possibility.” In Ayalon’s opinion, if given the right opportunity based on the unsettled political landscape, Lieberman could easily change his mind and join with Netanyahu or Gantz to pave the way for a government majority.

Netanyahu is not waiting around for the man to change his mind. He publicly called Gantz to meet with him to discuss partnering together in a national unity government. Just their two parties alone would form a majority of 64 seats. Then they can call other parties to come and strengthen the coalition on the terms that the two largest parties determine, instead of smaller parties serving as kingmakers and having their demands met.

After meeting with the party leaders from his right-wing/religious bloc that equals 55 seats and securing their support for him, Netanyahu turned to Gantz made his a public call for unity. “I suggest we meet as soon as possible, without preconditions.”

He continued, asking Gantz “to work together to establish a broad unity government representing all who believe in a Jewish, democratic Israel.” Netanyahu went even further than that at a Sept. 19 memorial service for former Israeli President Shimon Peres, which was also attended by Gantz, talking about the national unity government formed by Yitzchak Shamir and Peres, saying that “Shimon sided with the need to unite the people.”

Gantz was quick to reply that he and his party are open to a unity government, but only if the leader of Likud is someone other than Netanyahu. Blue and White refuse to sit with Netanyahu, given the fact that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has recommended that the prime minister be indicted on several counts of corruption charges. Former Likud Defense Minister and current Blue and White Knesset member Moshe Ya’alon told JNS, “I am calling on my friends in the Likud and in the religious parties to tell Netanyahu, ‘Enough. You are causing us damage.” His aim is to replace him as the head of Likud. That, Ya’alon explained, would pave the way for a national unity government.

Netanyahu seems to be pushing all the buttons necessary to pressure Gantz into joining his government. One obstacle in welcoming Gantz into the 55-seat bloc, which he already established, was the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties had said that they would never sit in a government with Knesset member Yair Lapid, who is No. 2 on the Blue and White list. The ultra-Orthodox feel that Lapid caused terrible damage to their institutions and way of life when he was finance minister from 2013-15, including preventing them from joining the coalition. However, one of these religious parties, Shas, has now announced that they forgive Lapid and are willing to have him join a Netanyahu-led government; the second religious party involved, United Torah Judaism, is strongly considering doing the same.

If Netanyahu is not successful in bringing Blue and White to help him form a coalition, then another option would be convincing the Labor Party with its six mandates to enter into his coalition. Some suggest that despite Labor leader Amir Peretz promising not to join a Netanyahu-led government (he even shaved his famous moustache so that people can read his lips when he says this promise), he might be enticed by the prospect of a ministry position, such as finance, health and welfare—any of which fits his socially-minded platform.

Former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Labor Party secretary Chilik Bar told JNS that “there is zero chance that the Labor Party led by Amir Peretz will join with Netanyahu to establish a government because of our pre-election promise that we wouldn’t do so, and because of Netanyahu’s corruption scandals, and the massive ideological gap between us and him.”

Ayalon is convinced that Israel won’t go to a third election. He told JNS that “someone will cave and join with Netanyahu’s government—either Lieberman, Gantz or Labor.”

The thing certain right now is that Israelis now face weeks of rumours and posturing before anything of significance changes to create a breakthrough from the current stalemate.

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