Ambition revealed, ambition stalled, but still no path to new Israeli coalition

Netanyahu faces a rival challenge, Lapid puts aside his prime ministerial hopes, but a great deal still hinges on another would-be PM: Avigdor Liberman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, on October 3, 2019. Next to him is Justice Minister Amir Ohana with one of his children. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset, on October 3, 2019. Next to him is Justice Minister Amir Ohana with one of his children. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The 22nd Knesset was sworn in Thursday on a day that was expected to be big on ceremony and short on drama.

After all, the 21st Knesset was sworn in just five months ago, amid political deadlock, and did nothing except vote for its own dissolution and new elections, which have brought a repeat political deadlock.

Now as then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no clear path to a majority. Now as then, neither does his rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

Nonetheless, Thursday’s gathering of this largely familiar group of bickering politicians turned out to produce a series of surprises. One top politician made plain his leadership ambition. A second put his leadership ambition aside. Do these and other shifts amount to a remaking of Israeli politics, and a path away from a descent into yet a third round of elections? We don’t know just yet; we’ll find out fairly soon.

Here’s an explainer on how the day has been playing out so far:

1. Netanyahu meets Liberman: The day began with talks between Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman, the Yisrael Beytenu leader who is largely responsible for Israel’s government paralysis. He refused to join a Netanyahu government that includes ultra-Orthodox parties after April’s elections. He’s refused to do so since September’s elections. And after talks that lasted barely an hour on Thursday, he’s still refusing to do so, and his eight seats, needed for a Netanyahu majority, are thus unavailable.

Their meeting was apparently their first one-on-one since a furious Netanyahu castigated Liberman as “a leftist” who had cheated the right by thwarting his government in the April-May negotiations. Thursday’s talks produced no breakthrough, but also no declaration from either side that their contacts were now over.

2. Netanyahu mulls a Likud leadership race: In the Justice Ministry in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s lawyers were making their second day of arguments to state prosecutors, bidding to persuade Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to rethink his draft charge sheet, issued in February, that sets out a proposed indictment of the prime minister for fraud and breach of trust in three cases, and bribery in one of them.

Possibly to distract attention from those sessions, at which his personal and political future are at stake, Netanyahu let it be known that he was considering holding a snap election for the Likud party leadership he holds. There is no political imperative for him to do so, but the prime minister later reportedly told his Likud Knesset faction, behind closed doors, that it would be the best way to underline to Benny Gantz’s opposition Blue and White party that Likud cannot be split apart. Gantz hopes to be given the chance to try to form a government after Netanyahu fails to do so in the coming days, and could forge a majority if only a section of the Likud would abandon its leader.

3. A challenger rises: No sooner had Likud announced the possible leadership primary, however, than Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar tweeted a curt “I’m ready.”

Netanyahu earlier this year accused Sa’ar of plotting a coup against him — a claim Sa’ar derided as baseless and “fake news.” Did Netanyahu expect that Sa’ar would stick his neck out on Thursday? Who knows, though unsourced TV reports on Thursday afternoon claimed he did not. Does Netanyahu truly intend to put his Likud leadership crown up for grabs for the first time in five years? Maybe. “You’ll hear my decision very soon,” he said Thursday afternoon. When could this election be held? At this writing, that was still being discussed.

Could Sa’ar actually beat him? It seems improbable. But could Sa’ar lead some kind of rebellion in Likud, breaking away from Netanyahu in the coming weeks, and partnering Blue and White in a coalition if only to prevent Israel’s third election inside a year? That also seems improbable at present. Might this change as the prospect of a third election nears? Possibly.

Much could depend on the stances taken by other would-be Netanyahu-succeeding Likud veterans such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

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)

Edelstein, in his speech to the Knesset’s swearing-in on Thursday, insisted that “it is still possible” to achieve a Likud-Blue and White unity government. If anything, the very talk of a challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership, talk prompted by his own mulling of a leadership race, could place more pressure on Netanyahu to agree to terms for a deal with Gantz, under which the Blue and White leader would serve for the first two years as prime minister, and Netanyahu would take over… provided he has extricated himself from his legal embroilments by then.

4. Lapid forgoes rotation: Even as the Likud leadership battle was taking shape out of nowhere, another political play was developing. Gantz’s No. 2 Yair Lapid, at his party’s Knesset faction meeting, announced that he was abrogating his deal with Gantz under which they would share the premiership — a deal that was made when Lapid merged his robust Yesh Atid party with Gantz’s nascent Israel Resilience Party to form Blue and White ahead of April’s elections. Three prime ministers in one term is just “not serious,” Lapid declared.

The prospect of a prime minister Lapid has been something of a coalition complication, in that the two ultra-Orthodox parties, who regard Lapid with particular hostility for his efforts to raise the quota of young ultra-Orthodox males conscripted to the IDF, have said they will not partner with him in government. At the same time, however, Gantz and Lapid have evinced no enthusiasm for partnering in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avidgor Liberman (L) talks with Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid in the cafeteria of the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

5. Which brings us back to Liberman: The other secular leader reviled by the ultra-Orthodox, Liberman, who had earlier been pictured talking earnestly with Lapid in the Knesset cafeteria, rushed to praise him for his “noble” and “important” move in giving up his shot at the top spot.

Does this signify that Liberman — who himself has never denied having a certain prime ministerial ambition, and who has said he will issue his own unity “offer” in a few days if the deadlock continues — is now leaning toward backing Gantz for the premier’s job at Netanyahu’s expense? Does it presage Liberman urging Netanyahu to moderate his stance on the terms for a Likud-Blue and White-Yisrael Beytenu coalition?

As with so much that was still playing out Thursday, maybe. For all the day’s drama, no would-be prime minister yet has a clear path to a majority. But the political battlefield is certainly livening up.

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