Analysis: Gantz gets his chance

Israel’s opposition leader, Benny Gantz, will this evening be formally invited to form a government by President Reuven Rivlin.

The president made the move after Benjamin Netanyahu failed to assemble a coalition in the required 28 days. Netanyahu did not request a 14-day extension.

It is the second time this year that the prime minister – who has dominated Israeli politics for the past decade – has been unable to form a government. It is also the first time since 2006 that an individual other than Netanyahu has been invited to do so.

Israel has held two inconclusive general elections this year – in April and September – and a third may follow next spring unless Gantz defies expectations and forms his promised “liberal unity government”.

In the wake of September’s election, Netanyahu was given the first shot at cobbling together a government after he won the backing of parties representing 55 members of the Knesset. Gantz – whose Blue and White party narrowly led Netanyahu’s Likud party by 32-31 seats in the election – won the endorsement of 54 MKs.

Crucially, as he did after April’s elections, former defence minister Avigdor Liberman refused to join a Netanyahu government. His Yisraeli Beitenu party, a right-wing nationalist party backed by many Russian Israelis, had previously served in Netanyahu’s coalitions. However, a row this spring between Liberman and the pro-Netanyahu ultra-Orthodox parties over the conscription of young Haredi men into the Israeli party opened into a massive breach, scuppering Likud’s hopes of an unprecedented fifth consecutive term in power.

As Gantz begins his efforts, he already has the support of the Israeli Labor party and the left-wing Democratic Camp in the bag. Although they will not join any government, most MKs representing the Arab Israeli Joint List also backed Gantz’s bid to become prime minister after the September elections. That marked the first time since they supported Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 that the Arab Israeli parties have been willing to give a recommendation to the president.

However, as he bids to win the backing of 61MKs in the 120-seat Knesset, Gantz now faces three major interlocking – and potentially insurmountable – obstacles.

First, Liberman continues to insist that the only government his party will join is one that partners with both Likud and Blue and White. He also says he won’t join any coalition involving the ultra-Orthodox parties or the Democratic Camp.

Second, Gantz has repeatedly pledged that he won’t enter into any coalition with Likud while Netanyahu remains under the threat of indictment. The prime minister’s lawyers attempted to persuade the attorney general not to charge Netanyahu with on multiple counts of corruption at a pre-indictment hearing earlier this month. Netanyahu denies all the charges – claiming the case against him is a political witch hunt – and a final decision is expected next month.

But a move to indict the prime minister would not necessarily unscramble this part of the political equation for Gantz. Unlike ministers, a prime minister can remain in office even when indicted and doesn’t have to resign until all appeals have been exhausted.

Third, Netanyahu and his religious and right-wing allies have thus far proved solidly loyal to one another. The prime minister refused to accede to demands from Liberman and Gantz that he ditch them when entering coalition talks. The right-wing and religious parties are also now signalling that they’ll remain united behind Netanyahu and won’t allow Gantz to attempt to peel some of them away.

Thus while both Netanyahu and Gantz have spoken of unity governments, their formulations – a “broad national unity government” in the case of the former and a “liberal unity government” in the case of the latter – aren’t mere semantics. Instead, they point to substantive differences on which parties should comprise the coalition and thus in what direction it would lead Israel over the next four years.

Netanyahu was unable to square this circle and Gantz – a far less skilled and experienced political operator – has 28 days in which to do so.

So how might things play out? David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has sketched three potential scenarios.

First, Rivlin has been pushing a potential compromise which might allow Blue and White and Likud to form a unity government while still honouring Gantz’s pledge with regard to Netanyahu.

As Labor and Likud did in the 1980s, it would involve the Netanyahu rotating the premiership after two years. Netanyahu would be granted his wish to serve first. However, current laws which allows a prime minister’s power to be transferred to his or her deputy for 100 days – which were previously used when Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke in 2006 – would be amended. The period would be extended beyond 100 days and would cover a prime minister being indicted, not just incapacitated. Thus if Netanyahu were indicted, Gantz would become acting premier until he’s fully cleared by the courts. Although Gantz would formally only take over as prime minister mid way through the government’s term, he would likely hold the rein for four years if the attorney general indicts Netanyahu next month.

However, Blue and White are said to be suspicious of this potentially clever fix, worrying that Netanyahu – who apparently agreed to it rather speedily when Rivlin mooted it – would double-cross them and refuse to cede power if indicted. Some believe that Netanyahu wishes to remain prime minister so he could potentially trade his resignation as part of a plea bargain.

Second, Rivlin could attempt to form a minority government for a short time. Its base would consist of only 44 seats – Blue and White, Labor and the Democratic Camp – and it would require Liberman to agree not to block it taking office. The government would probably also require the votes of the Joint List to stave off any no confidence motion. It is an arrangement that Liberman is likely to be highly wary of, but Gantz might try and persuade him on the basis that it would be only temporary. If Netanyahu is indicted, Likud might come under public pressure to remove him, thus opening the way to broader-based government.

Third, if Gantz cannot assemble a coalition, Israelis might be forced into new elections. After his 28 days expires, a majority of MKs could try to endorse any Knesset member — including Netanyahu and Gantz — as prime minister. However, a prime minister has never before been elected in that manner and Israelis are thus most likely to be going back to the polls.

That election won’t take place in a vacuum, however and it is already clear that both Gantz and Netanyahu are attempting to place the blame on one another for what would be the third election within a year; a totally unprecedented occurrence in Israel’s 70-year history.

Netanyahu said this week that he had “made every effort to bring Benny Gantz to the negotiating table … Unfortunately, time after time, he declined. He simply refused.” Gantz no doubt will suggest that Netanyahu’s insistence that, despite the threat of indictment he serve first as prime minister under any rotation agreement, as well as his demand that his entire right-wing bloc enter the government, were to blame. By a margin of 37 percent to 21 percent, voters appear to think Netanyahu is more at fault than Gantz, although 30 percent blame both men equally.

Polls indicate that a rerun election could produce the same stalemate Israel has been in throughout this year, with the two main blocs winning 56 seats a piece and Liberman retaining his role as kingmaker.

But, as Makovsky argues, none of this should detract from an important shift this week with Netanyahu “no longer [dominating] the political landscape the way he has over the past decade”.

The baton has now passed to Gantz. As he prepared to receive the mandate from Rivlin, the former IDF chief declared: “We are always optimistic”. Given the daunting maths he faces, he will need to be.