For the first time in more than a decade, someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu will get a chance to form the next Israeli government.
Netanyahu, the man once dubbed the “king of Israel,” announced on Monday that after four weeks of discussions with political partners and opponents, he failed to cobble together a governing coalition.
That opens the door for Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief rival and head of the Blue and White party, to try his hand at achieving a coalition government.
“Blue and White’s time has come,” Gantz triumphantly tweeted after the news came down.
But he shouldn't celebrate just yet. Much like his rival, Gantz faces a paralyzed political system with a narrow pathway to form a stable coalition in the next month before his deadline is up.
“We’re no closer to a government. It’s just stuck,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political analyst. “The parties don’t want to cooperate with one another with the level of compromise you need to have in a democratic system.”
Instead, Israelis could end up returning to the polls in early 2020 for the third time in less than a year. But while the leader of Israel’s next government remains undetermined, one thing is abundantly clear: the days of Bibi as Israel’s indispensable leader are over.
“No matter what happens from this point forward, both Netanyahu's unchallenged reign and a public perception of his necessity have been undermined,” said Brent Sasley, a University of Texas professor who studies Israeli politics.
Now it’s Gantz turn. But he’ll also struggle to get to 61 seats, and has refused to partner with Netanyahu. Both leaders are short on political partners, who are either too religious, in the case of Gantz, or too far to the left, in the case of Netanyahu. Both Gantz and Netanyahu also have problems joining together with the Joint List, a majority-Palestinian coalition whose views on Zionism and Israel’s occupation are anathema to the two security hawks.
But the major obstacle for a grand coalition is Netanyahu’s looming indictments for alleged crimes of bribery and breach of trust. Gantz has repeatedly pledged not to sit with a prime minister facing a criminal trial, and he rejected a plan from the Israeli president to alternate with Netanyahu in the prime minister’s seat. Gantz also bristled at Netanyahu’s insistence that he negotiate with a fully-formed right-wing political alliance, rather than just with Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Facing such obstacles, Gantz will likely need a major shift in Israeli politics, like Likud jettisoning Netanyahu, to realize his goals. That might happen if Netanyahu is hit with criminal charges.
“If Netanyahu is indicted for bribery, then Blue and White hopes they can rally public opinion, including Netanyahu’s voters, to force a change of leadership in Likud,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
But there’s no certainty as to when, and if, Netanyahu will be indicted.
There is another option. Gantz could form a minority government, a coalition that doesn’t have 61 seats but does garner enough votes to block a future no-confidence motion to bring down his government. To do that, he would need to make concessions to get the support of the Joint List, the majority-Palestinian coalition that won 13 Knesset seats in the last election. The Joint List wants more investment in Palestinian cities within Israel and a commitment to equality.
“Eventually someone will have to break a promise”
Gantz, however, has shown no interest in those concessions, and, in any case, he’d need another party in addition to the Joint List to form a minority coalition. The most likely prospect would be Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Is Our Home party, which won eight seats. But Lieberman is a far-right secular nationalist who loathes the Joint List, making it difficult for that coalition to coalesce.
Finally, there’s the option of Gantz’s party joining with an ultra-Orthodox party. But he’s derided these parties in the past as people who “extort” Israel’s political class to get money for their communities in exchange for political backing.
“Eventually someone will have to break a promise,” said Scheindlin.
If the political deadlock remains after 28 days, members of the Knesset would get a shot at choosing an alternative candidate for prime minister who could win 61 votes, or if that also fails, risk returning Israelis to the polls for yet another election early next year.
“That would be very bad news for stability, for governance, for managing the affairs of the state,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former Knesset member and president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “And it’s likely to produce an outcome similar to the current outcome.”
Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties issues.
Cover: Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) speaks during Likud party faction meeting, ahead of the swearing-in of the 22nd Israel's parliament (Knesset). Photo by: Ilia Yefimovich/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images