Reminiscent of a scene from Noah’s Ark – although in groups of three instead of two –members of Israel’s parliament who were elected two weeks earlier, were sworn into office Monday, March 16. It took 40 shifts to swear-in the 120-member Knesset. Such is the new world of a coronavirus pandemic which, in Israel, means up to 10 people can meet in a room together.
The same day, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tasked Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with trying to put together a government to replace the caretaker government that has been only partially functioning since late 2018. Meanwhile, three elections have been held without resulting in a clear conclusion. Gantz gets the first shot at cobbling together a government because a majority of new Knesset members agreed they want to remove Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office.
That may be the only thing the 61 Knesset members agree on, however. The group included parties from the right-wing, anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu party to the Joint List that included four Arab parties, which captured an unprecedented 15 Knesset seats.
So, while most of the world is just focused on containing the coronavirus and the
resulting shaky economies, Israel’s attention is split between that crisis and the continuing chaos in the country’s complicated political environment.
Like the struggle against coronavirus, no one knows when or how the puzzle to put together a credible government will be achieved.
“It certainly seems that a fourth election is very much in play,” said Richard S. Walter, vice president of curriculum and outreach at the Center for Israel Education in Atlanta. “A lot depends on whether or not Gantz can be successful in setting up a minority government, which I see as doubtful.”
According to the Israel Democracy Institute, there is no precedent in Israeli history for forming a minority government immediately after an election. A minority government, the IDI explained, is one that relies on the “external support” of one or more parties. In this case, it would be the Joint List of Arab parties since they have never been part of a coalition government. The governing coalition would depend on the support of the Joint List to guarantee a parliamentary majority on critical votes.
Although most parliamentary democracies are majority governments, 10 countries are minority governments, including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Norway, Spain and Sweden.
Gantz has 28 days from March 16 in which to try to consolidate a working government. If necessary, he can get an extension of 14 days. After that, either Netanyahu can be given the opportunity to try to forge a government, or new
elections could be called, probably for September.
In the meantime, now that there is a sitting Knesset, Gantz’s Blue and White party wants to achieve several feats in the parliament. Initially, it wants to replace the current Knesset Speaker, Yuli Edelstein, who is from Netanyahu’s Likud party, with someone from its own party. Edelstein is reportedly blocking the Knesset from voting.
While Walter notes that “the speaker has pretty broad powers in terms of setting the agenda and votes,” IDI’s Dr. Amir Fuchs reportedly stated that Edelstein doesn’t have the authority to prevent a vote on his replacement. This issue may go all the way to Israel’s Supreme Court.
In addition, the Blue and White party hopes to establish the framework necessary to initiate significant pieces of legislation with the potential for historic consequences. One of these bills would prevent anyone indicted with crimes from serving as prime minister. Currently, government officials serving in all other ministerial positions must resign upon indictment.
Netanyahu is under indictment on three different cases, on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. His trial was to begin March 17. However, at the last minute,
his justice minister closed down Israeli courts, citing the coronavirus threat. If this bill should pass and another election called, Netanyahu couldn’t get the mandate to put together a government.
For now, one of the questions is how to even convene the 120 Knesset members to vote while there are restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people.