President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White wanted the second chance to form a government, betting that the PM would fail. So now Gantz has the opportunity he sought, but no evident path to a majority

Jacob Magid

TimesofIsrael


For the first time in 11 years, the lawmaker tasked with forming Israel’s next governing coalition is not Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Likud leader marked his 70th birthday Monday evening by informing Reuven Rivlin that, after 26 frustrating days, he was returning the mandate to build the next government that the president had given him after September’s elections.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, about to be given the same improbable mission, is now in the driver’s seat.

This is the exact scenario that Gantz, the IDF chief turned politician, has been awaiting since the results of September 17’s inconclusive election started to sink in.

After Rivlin’s late September consultations with the various parties where he heard their choices for prime minister, the Joint List alliance of majority-Arab parties claimed that Blue and White had asked its hardline Balad sub-faction to hold off on suggesting to Rivlin that Gantz be tasked with forming the government.

Gantz thus ended up with 54 recommendations: 33 from his own Blue and White party, 10 from the rest of the Joint List, six from Labor and five from the Democratic Camp. That was one crucial supporter fewer than the 55 endorsements Netanyahu received, with 32 from Likud, nine from Shas, seven from Yamina, and seven from United Torah Judaism.

As such, Rivlin on September 25 gave Netanyahu, the head of the bigger bloc, the first stab at cobbling together a coalition. Confident Netanyahu would be unable to do so since the Likud train of “natural coalition partners” was down a passenger — Avigdor Liberman’s eight-seat Yisrael Beytenu party did not recommend any candidate — Blue and White preferred to patiently wait its turn.

President Reuven Rivlin meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

 

The party’s strategy held that some lawmakers, who might have dug in their heels during the first round of coalition negotiations, might be more willing to ease up on their demands when a second leader came calling, with the prospect of the year’s third election drawing closer if the deadlock persisted.

Gantz now has 28 days to try to do what Netanyahu could not. If he fails, any MK will have 21 days to obtain the support of a Knesset majority to form a government. If no one succeeds, elections will be automatically initiated.

(Liberal vs. national) unity government

Blue and White may be in the position it had hoped for, and that dark shadow of yet another election is indeed looming, but that appears to be all that’s playing in Gantz’s favor as he prepares to formally receive the mandate from Rivlin.

Looking at the conditions for joining a government that the various parties have established, and so far stood by, Gantz’s path to a coalition is no better than Netanyahu’s.

Blue and White has called for a “liberal unity government.” Its leaders have said the coalition would be based on a partnership with a non-Netanyahu-led Likud, but could extend to the left to include Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp and to the right to include Yisrael Beytenu and New Right, a three-member party that has officially broken off from its more religious partners in the Yamina alliance.

This formula varies somewhat from the unity government that Netanyahu sought. The Likud leader wanted to form a “broad national unity government” with Blue and White, but insisted on including the religious parties (Yamina, UTJ and Shas), which joined Likud after the election to enter coalition negotiations as one bloc. Having campaigned on making structural changes to the status quo on matters of religion and state, Blue and White refused.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man near a billboard with pictures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas head Aryeh Deri, as part of the Shas election campaign, in Safed, March 10, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

What coup?

As he seeks to form the liberal unity government he has proposed, Gantz will over the next month test the cohesion of Netanyahu’s 55-member bloc. He has his work cut out. The right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties have vowed to stick together and stand behind Netanyahu. And Likud’s central committee has declared Netanyahu its sole candidate for prime minister in the current Knesset and said the party will only sit in a government that he heads, whether for the entire term or under a rotation agreement.

The passage of a vote to this effect 11 days ago may have been a formality, but it symbolized Likud’s ongoing determination to demonstrate that it is not going to abandon its long-time chairman, despite his two failures in five months to clearly win an election.

Both during and after the September election campaign, Blue and White leaders insisted that there is a growing tent of figures within Likud that is ready and willing to move on from Netanyahu and join a Gantz-led government. But none has signaled anything of the sort. And, with one exception, the closest any of them have come to jumping ship has been to throw a theoretical hat into the ring for the party leadership battle after Netanyahu has moved on.

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa’ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That one deviator is former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, long alleged by Netanyahu to have been plotting “a coup” against him. But even Sa’ar is only talking about contending against Netanyahu when the next leadership primary is called. Netanyahu had weighed holding such an internal election in the coming weeks, and Sa’ar promptly declared he was ready. But Netanyahu ultimately decided against it, and Sa’ar said he was perfectly content to bide his time.

Some Likud lawmakers are seen as more independent, or ambitious, than others — Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Foreign Minister Israel Katz and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat among them. But directly challenging Netanyahu’s grip on the party is regarded as potential political suicide.

Admittedly, Likud MKs have been asked to pledge their allegiance to Netanyahu while the prime minister’s legal record is still officially clean. Keeping them in line might be more of a challenge for Netanyahu if he is indicted in one of the three criminal cases against him.

Prosecution officials said last week that they hoped to reach a final decision on whether to indict the premier by the end of the year, and possibly by next month.