Underappreciated at first, the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” a comedic fable about an embittered TV weatherman trapped in a time loop until he becomes a better person, has come to be regarded as something of a classic. Over the quarter-century since its release, it has also sometimes been pressed into service when describing political or military deadlock. And that’s just where Israeli politics finds itself today — paralyzed in “Groundhog Day,” condemned to repeat its election cycle over and over and over again, with no realistic prospect of a significant reordering of our reality.
Our national leadership standoff is not a complete case of gloom and doom. The climate of debate in Israel right now is less hysterical than that in the United States, where the president is battling efforts at impeachment. Our democracy — battered by a prime minister who has sought to demonize the Arab electorate and alleges that the media, the cops and the prosecutors are engaged in a witch hunt to oust him with trumped-up charges of corruption — seems nonetheless to be holding up a little better than that in the UK. There, the prime minister has just been castigated by the Supreme Court, in an 11-0 ruling, for acting illegally in suspending Parliament, but shows little respect and no contrition.
Here, an impressive 70 percent of us dutifully went off to vote on September 17, even though we’d done so just five months earlier. All the diverse sectors of the Israeli demographic exercised their rights, including the Arabs, where turnout rose from 50% in April to 60% this time. The voting process unfolded without major disruption, disproving widespread fears to the contrary. And, despite the prime minister’s pre-election warnings that nefarious forces were bent on stealing the elections, nobody seriously queried the results.
Our problem is that the enmity between our various would-be leaders is so profound, our electorate is so divided between them, and our election system so purely reflects those divides, that we cannot find our way out of our very own post-elections Groundhog Day.
To his credit, we do have one key political figure who is trying to break the loop: President Reuven Rivlin. Conscious of the limitations of his largely ceremonial powers, he presented a framework on Wednesday evening designed to enable our two would-be prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, to co-habit, but did so rather subtly. He suggested that the rivals share the premiership, with Netanyahu going first since he heads the larger bloc of Knesset supporters, and that legislation be introduced to allocate full prime ministerial powers to an “interim prime minister” should the prime minister be required to take a protracted leave of absence.
What Rivlin apparently meant, but did not specify, was that if Netanyahu is charged in the three criminal cases in which he is facing indictment, he would step down for as long as necessary to try to clear his name, and Gantz would step in.
This arrangement was designed to satisfy Netanyahu, since he would remain prime minister, albeit in name only, but with a clear path to returning to power should he establish his innocence. And it was intended to satisfy Gantz, since he had vowed to voters not to sit in government with Netanyahu so long as the Likud leader was under his legal cloud.
The issue of Netanyahu’s future role amid his legal battles is not the only factor preventing a Likud-Blue and White coalition, but it is the main one. Evidently, Rivlin needed to specify exactly how he hoped it might be resolved. It’s not too late for him to do so
Trouble is, neither prime minister-in-waiting has proved receptive. Netanyahu, well aware that Israeli legal precedent does not definitively require him to quit or even take a leave of absence even if he is convicted — a premier may even be allowed to retain office until all appeal processes have been exhausted — has not specified that he would suspend himself if he is indicted after his imminent hearing with the attorney general. And Gantz, in the absence of a commitment from Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if charged, is rejecting the Rivlin framework.
The issue of Netanyahu’s future role amid his legal battles is not the only factor preventing a Likud-Blue and White coalition, but it is the main one. Evidently, Rivlin needed to specify exactly how he hoped it might be resolved. It’s not too late for him to do so.
As a poll conducted for Israel’s Channel 12 news on Friday night made plain, the hapless Israeli electorate is desperate to break out of our dark, post-elections Groundhog Day to a bright and glorious non-election dawn. Almost two-thirds of those polled preferred that the paralyzed parties compromise on their positions to enable a coalition. A narrower majority said Netanyahu should step down to enable a unity government. Anything to avoid our third elections inside a year.
I don’t want to take the parallels with a 26-year-old, gently moralizing Hollywood romantic comedy too far. It was love that ultimately helped Bill Murray’s nasty weatherman break out of his time loop trap, and nobody’s looking for love from politicians.
But he also developed a newfound selflessness. And surely that — especially in these holy days of introspection, and encouraged by some astute presidential prompting — should not be beyond our would-be leaders.