The last two days have seen President Reuven Rivlin working around the clock in order to beat the odds and prove all the pundits wrong by getting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz, to agree to share the premiership and prevent a third election in Israel within a year.
When Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition after Rivlin tapped him following April’s elections, Israelis were sent back to the polls. The September 17 elections saw Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White parties almost evenly matched again, and, this time, neither bloc with a viable path to a majority.
If 61 or more of the 120 MKs had recommended one candidate, Rivlin would almost certainly have entrusted that person with the task of building a coalition, as he did when Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party backed Netanyahu in April. But with no one receiving 61 this time, there was no clear guideline for Rivlin to follow, and few legal limitations.
He chose to push a deal whereby Netanyahu and Gantz would rotate the premiership.
Embarking immediately on an effort to create a “unity government that represents the will of the electorate,” the 80-year-old Rivlin succeeded in hosting a meeting between Gantz and Netanyahu on Monday evening, which he called a “significant step forward,” and persuaded the two rival negotiating teams to meet. This they did on Tuesday. Rivlin then held a final meeting at his residence for Gantz and Netanyahu on Wednesday evening, before admitting failure.
While initial reports had suggested he might wait until next week’s Wednesday deadline to task Netanyahu or Gantz with forming the government, and keep trying to secure his much-sought-after unity deal, Rivlin by Wednesday night appeared to realize the futility of those attempts.
Even as he handed the mandate to form a government to Netanyahu, the president appealed to both the prime minister and Gantz, telling them that the public wants them to find a solution to the impasse. If they end up forcing new elections, he warned, they will directly damage the people who elected them.
“If there is no government, the public will pay the price and the price is heavier than any other,” Rivlin said, stressing that Netanyahu and Gantz should be prepared to pay a political price in order to avert elections.
In a stunning suggestion that the prime minister could be rejecting the unity bid due to fears over the impact of his own legal woes, Rivlin even made public a proposal he had privately put to the two that could allow Netanyahu to come back as prime minister after potentially being forced out over pending indictments.
Gantz has ruled out sitting with Netanyahu due to the latter’s pending indictment on graft charges, which will likely be filed after the prime minister’s hearing with the attorney general next week. After his Monday meeting with Netanyahu, the Blue and White chair assured his party members that he would keep his promise to the voters not to let Netanyahu remain prime minister. Blue and White reiterated that stance late Wednesday night, too.
Netanyahu has strenuously denied the allegations against him, and has claimed the investigations are the result of a witch hunt by political rivals, the media, police and state prosecutors to force him from office.
It is widely believed that had Netanyahu won the election with a clear majority, he would have sought immunity from prosecution via a Knesset vote and then tried to enact legislation that would block the Supreme Court from overturning any such Knesset decision. In the final days of the campaign, Netanyahu was evasive when asked whether he would indeed seek to limit the powers of the Supreme Court.
The president, in his address Wednesday, said he had proposed to Gantz and Netanyahu a legal change to the position of “interim prime minister” that would grant the office holder “full power” in the case the prime minister cannot fulfill his duties and has to take a lengthy leave of absence.
“As long as the prime minister is unavailable, his role will be preserved and he will return to it when he is able to. That was my proposal and that is what I suggest,” Rivlin said.
Such a change could theoretically enable Gantz to avoid sitting in a government with Netanyahu if and when the latter is indicted by allowing the Likud head to step aside temporarily.
In Gantz’s immediate response, however, he appeared to brush aside Rivlin’s last remaining card, underlining the president’s failure to broker a deal: “Blue and White under my leadership doesn’t agree to sit in government led by someone who is facing a serious indictment,” he stated.
After two days of flurried excitement, Rivlin, Netanyahu, Gantz — and the people of Israel — appear to be back to square one, with a third election campaign looming.