Israelis – like Americans – are truly living in historic times, politically.
On Oct. 23, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin tasked Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz with the herculean job of cobbling together a coalition government. This occurred after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned the mandate to Rivlin after failing, again, to convince enough parties comprised of a majority of Knesset members to join him in a government.
Netanyahu was initially asked by the president to attempt to assemble a government, despite the fact that his party, Likud, won one fewer seat in the Knesset in the Sept. 17 election than Gantz’s party, and despite the fact that Netanyahu had failed to put together a government after the April election as well.
As October drew to a close, Gantz was feverishly meeting with the heads of many of the parties, including Netanyahu, to try to find common ground and compose a unity government. He has until Nov. 20, when he must return the mandate to Rivlin if he either is unable to assemble a majority government or decides to risk working with a minority government. In the latter case, any legislation in the Knesset would need to receive backing from parties not in the coalition government – including, most likely, the Arab parties – in order to pass.
No one knows if or when Israel will again have a working government, but already history is being made. “Gantz being tasked to form the government is the first time that someone other than Bibi [Netanyahu] has been given the mandate since then President Shimon Peres tasked Tzipi Livni in September 2008,” noted Richard S. Walter, vice president of curriculum and outreach at the Center for Israel Education in Atlanta.
“The key difference is that in 2008, the coalition negotiations did not take place after an election, let alone two of them. Livni had been elected as the new chair of the Kadima party following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation amidst charges of corruption and financial improprieties – charges for which he was eventually convicted. With less than two years to go until the next scheduled elections, the coalition partners used the opportunity to try and extract more concessions from the new potential leader.
“Livni held firm on several issues, including – in a reminder to how different things were 11 years ago – a request from Shas that she promise to exclude Jerusalem from any future negotiations with the Palestinians.”
As Walter points out, in October that year, “Livni announced that she had been unable to form a coalition and new elections were called for February 2009. In that election, just as happened in September this year with Blue and White, Netanyahu and Likud won one fewer seats than Livni and Kadima. However, because Netanyahu received the endorsement of more Knesset members, he was given the first chance at creating the coalition.”
According to Walter, “while there are some parallels to 2008/2009, there was nothing like the current deadlock. For example, at that time, the religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism would still sit in either a right-leaning or left-leaning government, and often played both sides to try and get the best deal for their constituents. I don’t know if that can happen now, especially given the agreement that the right-wing bloc signed with Netanyahu.” That agreement requires Likud and the right-wing parties to only discuss going into a coalition as a bloc of 55 members.
That right-wing agreement is one of the stumbling blocks to putting together a coalition government because Gantz has stated that he wants to negotiate with Likud separately from its right-wing partners.
If Gantz is unable to assemble a coalition government, Rivlin would ask the Knesset to vote, as individual members, on a prime minister. The Knesset would have 21 days in which to gather the votes for one person to lead the next government. Presumably, it would be Gantz or Netanyahu. If a majority of Knesset members fails to support one candidate, the legislature would automatically disperse and a third election would be called for the last Tuesday, 90 days later. That would be early March.
“A third election will depend on whether or not Gantz can break up the right-wing bloc while not alienating his natural partners and/or Lieberman,” Walter said. He was referring to Yisrael Beiteinu party head Avigdor Lieberman, whose eight Knesset members are seen as key to any coalition government. “This will not be easy for someone who is a political newcomer,” as is Gantz, Walter said. A former army chief of staff, Gantz only entered the political arena a year ago.
Walter suggested the other options of a minority government or some or all of the Arab parties joining a coalition but said that “the former would be politically unstable and the latter could be political suicide for Gantz and the Arab MKs,” members of Knesset.
One other factor hovering over the coalition negotiations is the expectation that Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will announce, possibly this month, whether or not he will indict Netanyahu on several corruption charges, including fraud, breach of trust and possibly bribery. Earlier this year, Mandelblit announced his intention to indict the prime minister, but by law met with Netanyahu’s attorneys in several hearings in early October to listen to their response to the charges.
Unlike his predecessor, Olmert, Netanyahu is not expected to resign to focus on fighting any charges that might be filed against him.