Interview'Netanyahu should waive getting a mandate from Rivlin'

58 is not enough: A Likud minister makes peace with life in opposition

Senior politician, seen as close to Netanyahu, says Gantz-led government would crumble within a year under internal discord and constant attack, positioning Likud for a comeback

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

A laborer sorts election posters bearing the portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. -(Jack GUEZ / AFP)
A laborer sorts election posters bearing the portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. -(Jack GUEZ / AFP)

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu cannot form a new government, and his Likud-led right-religious bloc may be headed for the opposition, according to a minister close to the premier.

Despite rallying Likud to 36 seats, the most it has gotten in recent years, Netanyahu’s bloc of Likud, Yamina, Shas and UTJ mustered only 58 seats in Monday’s elections, three shy of a majority, and efforts to sway a party or individual lawmakers to desert the opposing camp and join him appear to have hit a dead end.

At the same time, his main rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party, appears potentially poised to cobble together a technocratic government for the purpose of passing a law that would forbid a prime minister from keeping office while on trial. Netanyahu’s trial in three corruption cases is set to begin later this month.

Such a government requires bringing together bitter foes Yisrael Beytenu and the Arab-led Joint List. On Thursday Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman reportedly signaled that he would be willing to back such a government, essentially ending any hopes Netanyahu might have had for swaying the hawkish secularist to his side. For the first time in over a decade, senior Likud members are talking about ending up in the opposition.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the heads of the right-wing parties on March 4, 2020. Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

“Netanyahu cannot become prime minister again,” said the senior Likud minister, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is contradicting the official line the party is presenting to the public.

“We hoped to get a result of 60 MKs in the right-wing bloc on election day. We knew 61 was not realistic, but with 60 we had something to work with; we could have had an auction to see who would jump ship first. Eventually one MK would have crossed the lines. Today, though, we have 58 MKs. So there’s nothing we can do. We’re going to be in the opposition.”

The minister said rather than dig in his heels and delay the inevitable, Netanyahu should waive any talk of getting a mandate from President Reuven Rivlin to form a government.

“I’d tell the president, ‘I don’t have the necessary majority, I don’t have a government. Move on,’” he said.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi voting in his hometown Taibe on March 2, 2020. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Officially the party continues to maintain that it’s trying to get defectors to its side. It has also portrayed the bid to pass a law against Netanyahu as illegitimate. On Wednesday, Netanyahu told a press conference that Gantz had less support than him when considering the “Jewish majority,” a term regarded as racist that discounts votes for the Joint List, which won 15 seats on Monday. The minister also used the term repeatedly.

Gantz and others in his party had spoken about the idea as well in the final weeks of his campaign, but he eventually apologized for it. The Joint List has officially maintained that Gantz would “need to make changes,” for its support.

“Gantz has 62 seats if the Arab MKs are willing to forget what he said prior to the elections about gunning for a ‘Jewish majority,’” the minister said.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks after exit polls for the Knesset elections at party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 3, 2020. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

“The problem is, the Arabs have too many MKs. It’s not like the five MKs that assisted Yitzhak Rabin in forming a coalition in 1992. Today there are 15 of them, and they decide everything. But we understand by now that there’s nothing we can do against that,” he added, referencing a 1992 government supported from the opposition by the Arab-led Hadash and Arab Democratic parties.

The minister, considered close to Netanyahu, did not sound or look disappointed at the prospects of being demoted to an opposition member of Knesset.

“So we’re going to the opposition, and the head of the opposition will be Benjamin Netanyahu,” the minister declared. “I don’t believe we will be able to topple their government with a vote of no confidence. You need 61 MKs to support that, as well as to present an alternative candidate for the premiership.”

But he said the Likud would use its time in the opposition to hammer away at a center-left-Arab coalition, predicting it would easily crumble.

“You can be sure that this coalition will self-disintegrate,” he said.

The minister claimed that the opposition would “embarrass” the government daily with bills extending sovereignty to the West Bank, as well as the already-annexed East Jerusalem and Golan Heights.

“And they won’t last long because of their policy over Gaza. And just imagine what will happen if they abolish the Kaminitz law – Liberman will go crazy,” he said, referring to a Liberman-proposed law levying harsh punishments on those who build illegal structures, vehemently opposed by the Arab community which claims it targets them.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman speaks at the Maariv conference in Herzliya on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“In a year’s time, there will be another election,” the minister said. “Netanyahu will lead the Likud and the right-wing bloc. He’s not going anywhere. Blue and White will reach these elections after they’ve formed a government without a Jewish majority, relying on the Arab’s Joint List, and after a failure that is as expected as the heat wave in mid-August.”

“They are going to form a coalition of opposites and face a dire budgetary crisis, and the coronavirus that is killing the markets. They’ll have a coalition, but they’ll also have national chaos, and eventually we’ll retake government big time. It’s a done deal.”

When asked about the possibility of right-wing partners peeling off to join Gantz, or a long-rumored internal Likud mutiny, the minister dismissed both possibilities out of hand.

“Netanyahu is the head of Likud. He was elected for four years. His achievement in the last election is astounding. He got us 36 seats while being under indictment, with three state witnesses, against three former IDF chiefs of staff and other generals, and with Liberman taking chunks of the right-wing votes. So who is going to stand up against him in the Likud? Who’s going to be suicidal? Look at [failed challenger] Gideon Sa’ar. He’s finished with us. Why did he even run to begin with?”

In fact, he said, going to the opposition would reset any possible succession battle for whenever the day after Netanyahu eventually does come.

“Many among us are actually happy to go to the opposition if only because it puts us all on one level: no senior minister and junior minister,” he said. “We’ll all be standing on the starting line in the race to inherit after Netanyahu. Whatever advantages some ministers may have had, will be erased. It will be a whole new ball game.”

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