Israel’s frustrated president threatens new elections – in a bid to avoid them

Gantz’s mandate ends Monday with no unity deal in sight, but Rivlin believes it’s Netanyahu who is holding up an agreement, and is moving to force his hand

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem during the Knesset elections on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin casts his ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem during the Knesset elections on March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin is running out of patience.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s 28-day mandate from the president to form the next government expires on Monday at midnight. On Saturday night, he wrote the president asking for a 14-day extension.

Rivlin’s response — or at least the statement the President’s Office released to the press Sunday describing his response — threw the political system into a spin.

The president informed Gantz “that in the present circumstances it will not be possible to extend the period for forming the government,” the statement explained. “The president made the decision after also speaking with Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not confirm [Gantz’s claim] that the two were close to signing an agreement that would lead to a unity government.”

The initial headlines were emphatic: Rivlin denies Gantz an extension. With talks between Likud and Blue and White stuck after Likud broke off negotiations last Monday, Gantz’s long flirtation with the prime minister’s chair appeared to have come to a decisive end.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz in his car at the party headquarters, in Tel Aviv, September 2019. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Likud supporters celebrated enthusiastically on social media. Some of Gantz’s former supporters in Yesh Atid were also not above a bit of schadenfreude.

Then the political system seemed to collectively read the rest of the statement: “And if the two don’t sign an agreement by tomorrow [Monday] at midnight, and the numbers of recommendations [for each candidate] don’t change, the mandate will revert to the Knesset, and the 21-day period will begin in which the members of Knesset must finalize a majority of recommendations for an agreed-upon candidate. That agreed-upon candidate will have 14 days to assemble a government.”

In other words, if neither Netanyahu nor Gantz obtained a Knesset majority or formed a unity government by the end of Monday, Rivlin would skip over Netanyahu and go straight to the 21-day final lap in which any Knesset member who can assemble a majority can become PM. By law, those 21 days must end in either a government or the dissolution of the Knesset and new elections.

It was an astonishing move for Rivlin. It seemed that after three inconclusive election cycles and endless claims by the two leading candidates that they were committed to a unity government — especially recently amid the economic and social whirlwind of the virus crisis — the president had had enough.

In effect, he informed the 23rd Knesset to either unite within 22 days — finally forming the country’s first full-fledged government in 18 months — or head to a fourth election in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, 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)

Immediate impact

Rivlin’s decision to skip over Netanyahu has one immediate and dramatic repercussion: If Netanyahu can’t find at least two more MKs to join his 59-seat rightist bloc, he loses any hope of regaining control of the Knesset Arrangements Committee.

Why does that matter? Because the Arrangements Committee controls the legislative schedule. It is the committee that will prepare any bill barring indicted MKs from becoming prime minister — indicted MKs like Benjamin Netanyahu, that is. Those bills are already written up and ready to go.

Since the committee must be chaired by the party of the current PM-designate, if the mandate had gone to Netanyahu, its chairmanship would have switched hands from Blue and White’s MK Avi Nissenkorn to a Likud MK, effectively burying any chance of advancing anti-Netanyahu legislation.

Thus Rivlin shortened the time left for the current crop of elected lawmakers to form a government from about 50 days to just 22 — and all but ensured (barring possible last-minute defections on Monday) that Gantz would retain the leverage of anti-Netanyahu legislation for the duration of that period.

More plainly, Rivlin made it painfully clear to Netanyahu that he believes it is Netanyahu, not Gantz, who is holding up the unity government, and decided to help Gantz increase his leverage over Netanyahu to force the Likud leader to seal a deal.

Then-Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein (R) and President Reuven Rivlin at the swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset, March 16, 2020. (Mark Heyman and and Haim Zach/GPO)

This isn’t quite a pro-Gantz move, to be sure. Gantz didn’t get the extension he sought. The shortened deadline also raises the stakes for lawmakers who worry they may not get reelected if the two leaders can’t finalize a deal by the May 4 deadline. Chief among these lawmakers: the two-member splinter Derech Eretz faction.

Ironically, in upping the pressure on Netanyahu to compromise, Rivlin may end up delivering to Netanyahu his 61-seat salvation.

Rivlin, at least, has tried to avoid that outcome. Derech Eretz’s MK Yoaz Hendel reportedly spoke with President’s Residence director Harel Tuvi on Sunday morning and told him his faction would not join a Netanyahu government sans Gantz. Rivlin’s statement only went out after that conversation.

Netanyahu’s election considerations

But is Netanyahu really trapped?

After all, with the original Blue and White alliance demolished, perhaps another election is the wiser path out of his current predicament — namely his generous promises to Gantz that convinced the Blue and White leader to bolt his alliance and try for unity, promises that have now destabilized Netanyahu’s support from his right-wing allies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Recent polls suggest the splintering of Blue and White has boosted Likud, and that a fourth election may finally deliver Netanyahu’s loyal rightist bloc the coveted 61-plus seats it narrowly failed to win in the previous three rounds. It would be dishonest, true. It would confirm once more Netanyahu’s reputation as a gifted but untrustworthy politician. But it would also give the right its majority and end the seemingly endless stalemate.

There are dangers, however, on that path. One unhappy wrinkle for the prime minister: the same polls that show Likud winning also show steadily rising frustration with Netanyahu over his coalition haggling amid the virus crisis.

Channel 12 reported on Sunday on two polls about Netanyahu’s performance, one conducted on March 14 and the other on April 13. They showed a sharp rise over that month in the number of Israelis who are starting to believe Netanyahu may be playing politics with the virus crisis. On March 14, 73.4 percent of Israelis said they believed Netanyahu was “managing the crisis responsibly and substantively.” Just over four weeks later, that figure had dropped to 55.8%. Those saying he was making decisions about the country’s coronavirus crisis “out of political calculations and interests” rose from 21.1% on March 14 to 41.8% on Sunday.

And then there are those pesky pieces of proposed legislation. To race to another election raises the unlikely but nevertheless possible reunion of the old anti-Netanyahu alliance — if not for the race itself, then at least for the legislation to remove Netanyahu from the equation.

Netanyahu has no obvious path to a majority in the 23rd Knesset without Gantz — nor any real way of unseating Gantz from the Knesset speaker’s chair even if he did have such a majority. As an oppositionist speaker, Gantz will be able to torpedo much of the next government’s legislative agenda. And a new election, while tempting, is nevertheless fraught with real dangers for Netanyahu, including the steadily declining public assessment of his performance.

Benny Gantz delivers his maiden speech as Knesset speaker, March 26, 2020. (Knesset)

Gantz’s threat

Astonishingly, Gantz is now being helped by the very anti-Netanyahu coalition he so dramatically abandoned last month. Yesh Atid and Meretz both called on him to actually present the anti-Netanyahu bills in the Knesset so they could be voted on. That is, Gantz has won backing (couched as criticism, to be sure) from his former partners for the anti-Netanyahu legislation, even though all parties understand he plans to use those bills as leverage not to oust Netanyahu, but to join him, and thereby to relegate those same ex-partners to the opposition.

If he concludes that the legislation threat is a bluff, Netanyahu may yet choose an election over unity. But Gantz has effectively positioned himself to take full advantage of the public pressure against another election by making himself, with a little help from Rivlin, the only viable alternative.

And Gantz is already taking full advantage of that help. His office announced on Sunday that the Knesset would function through the Passover break. His aides informed reporters that legislation against Netanyahu would begin moving forward by Thursday if no deal was signed by then. The Knesset plenum and committees stood ready “in this medical, economic and social emergency” to deal with any urgent legislative needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as “any other vital and urgent issue,” the speaker’s office said.

The statement included a thinly veiled threat: “The Knesset plenum shall convene to pass bills related to the coronavirus, and, if they arise, other urgent matters in coordination and with the approval of the Arrangements Committee at the request of the Knesset speaker.”

Arrangements Committee chairman Nissenkorn has already ordered a meeting of the committee on Thursday morning.

Right wing activists rally outside the Supreme Court in support of Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Finally, some focus

Likud is stunned and upset, with some activists already readying a campaign of vilification against Rivlin. Not because anyone really believes the president can be moved by such a campaign — there are no elections left for him to contest, and he feels little loyalty to the army of angry supporters Netanyahu has on occasion unleashed against opponents — but because it doesn’t hurt to give the base a narrative of victimhood if the country is headed into yet another election.

Rivlin has forced a decision on a famously indecisive prime minister. Netanyahu may try to draw lone defectors from other parties on Monday, promising plum ministerial posts and policy influence. But even if he succeeds, the government he would be able to construct would be untenable — perpetually at risk of failing to convince all its fractured bits to vote on each bill and cabinet decision, and unable to control something as simple and vital to the act of governance as the legislative calendar. Gantz holds just enough leverage — the Knesset speakership, the Arrangements Committee, the continuing support of Derech Eretz — to deny Netanyahu the kind of win Netanyahu actually wants over the next three weeks.

The infinitely complex and seemingly never-ending political whirlwind that began when the 20th Knesset dissolved itself on December 26, 2018, has now come down to the simplest and clearest of forks in the road: Netanyahu must choose between a politically costly unity government with Gantz that may anger his rightist bloc, or a fourth election.

On Sunday night, after all the calculations were concluded, a remarkable one-line message arrived in reporters’ inboxes from both parties simultaneously.

“In order to advance the negotiations to establish an emergency national unity government, both parties have decided to freeze all interviews.”

Radio silence means a freeze on posturing and maneuvering. Rivlin’s threat has focused the political system as even the coronavirus could not.

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