It has been 35 years since an Israeli president has faced the kind of political crisis President Reuven Rivlin is facing in the wake of the September 17 elections, which saw the Likud and Blue and White parties almost evenly matched and, with them, the right and center-left blocs all but tied.
The last time this happened was in 1984, when the Labor party (then called the Alignment) led by Shimon Peres won 44 Knesset seats, and the Yitzhak Shamir-led Likud won 41 seats, forcing the two to cobble together a national unity government in which they rotated the premiership.
Over the past three decades, the traditional consultation process the president holds with representatives of political parties ahead of designating a potential prime minister — usually the head of the largest party — has been largely ceremonial, hassle-free and almost redundant.
But not this time.
Sunday’s consultations with representatives of the Blue and White, Likud, and Yisrael Beytenu parties illustrated the gravity of the political impasse Israel is facing — one that has to be resolved somehow if we are to avoid a third general election in the span of one year.
As expected, Blue and White, which won 33 seats, recommended party leader Benny Gantz be tasked with forming the next government. Likud, with its 31 seats and the guaranteed support of all right-wing parties, recommended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be given the first crack at what has clearly become a mammoth mission. Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, for his part, remained determined to force a broad, liberal national unity government, and did not back either of them.
Rivlin met with the representatives of Blue and White first and outlined his vision for the next coalition: a unity government comprising at least the two major parties; one in which both big parties have an equal number of ministers, and with a rotation in the role of prime minister.
He also said that as Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges in three separate cases, has yet to be indicted, there is nothing preventing him from trying to form the next government.
Rivlin is, as he has stated, trying to compel the politicians to form a government, rather than see them force another election down the public’s throat.
Blue and White wants to form a liberal national unity government sans Netanyahu. Leading the meeting with Rivlin, party co-founder Moshe Ya’alon dropped the “secular coalition” part from his pitch, despite the fact that this was the campaign promise that won the party many votes in the final days leading up to the elections.
That adds up to a kind of voter fraud and certainly a cheap political ploy. The party lured voters away from Yisrael Beytenu with false promises, only to revert to the old formula that could pave the way for ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism to eventually join the center-left bloc, despite the fact they have endorsed Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, the Joint List, an alliance comprising the Arab or mostly Arab parties Balad, Ra’am-Ta’al, and Hadash, decided to break with tradition and endorse a candidate, naming Gantz as its candidate for the role of prime minister.
But the party, which won 13 Knesset seats, may have done a disservice to Gantz especially when, within hours of the announcement, members of the Balad party withdrew their support. In terms of numbers, this means that only 10 of the Joint List’s MKs backed Gantz for the role.
Rivlin then met Monday with members of the United Torah Judaism and Yamina parties, who endorsed Netanyahu, and with Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp, which backed Gantz.
After all of this, the math gives Netanyahu’s bloc a razor-thin lead over Gantz’s — 55 to 54 recommendations — in the race to be the first to have a shot at hammering together a coalition.
Given the prolonged political uncertainty, the next month will also test all the commitments made by Blue and White co-founder Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who during the campaign repeatedly declared that once the president tasks Blue and White with forming the government, “Everyone will join us.”
Numbers aside, if Rivlin does decide to give Gantz the first 28-day chance to form the government and he fails, the deadline will not be extended and Netanyahu will be given his own, four-week-long chance to do the same.
In this scenario, public pressure and the very real possibility of calling a third election are likely to play in Netanyahu’s favor.
But Gantz is not completely devoid of advantages: The new Knesset will be sworn in on October 3, and Blue and White will gain control of the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee — a panel formed specifically after elections to oversee the beginning of the Knesset’s term.
This committee is actually the early form of the Knesset House Committee, parliament’s governing body and the one deciding the composition of the various committees and the appointment of their chairpersons, and it also handles the issue of lawmakers’ immunity. Blue and White will be able to install one of its MKs to head the committee, replacing Likud MK Miki Zohar. That is a statement in and of itself.
Still, whether or not Blue and White will be able to replace Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with Yesh Atid MK Meir Cohen — in order to demonstrate that a new order has begun — depends on Avigdor Liberman.
Yisrael Beytenu’s chair is a close associate of Edelstein and he is unlikely to be party to such a move, nor will he want to seem as cooperating with a center-left bloc relying on the Arab parties. For these reasons, Edelstein can probably relax, albeit not entirely.
Liberman, the would-be kingmaker, seems to be swinging a political pendulum whose movement is anxiously followed by all.
Meanwhile, everyone has lost sight of the fact that Liberman is a radical nationalist who loathes Arabs; that he has been the target of a decade-long police investigation which culminated with a recommendation — never implemented — to press criminal charges, and that he is the leader of a party steeped in corruption.
Many of Liberman’s friends and associates have served various prison terms, or are on their way to jail. This is the man who triggered the elections and now holds the fate of the next government in his hands.
But no good deed goes unpunished.
Liberman has to sit and watch the Arab parties, which he wants nothing to do with, grow exponentially stronger and play a pivotal role in deciding the nature of future coalition talks. And not a word about the unprecedented media attention they are getting.
For Liberman, who was the driving force behind raising the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 3.25% to keep the Arab parties out of the Knesset, this is a bitter pill to swallow.
With the consultations done, the president invited Netanyahu and Gantz for a meeting on Monday evening in an attempt to move forward in the coalition-building process, and both confirmed that they would attend.
Will Rivlin succeed in forcing a unity government with a premiership rotation in a situation when one of the candidates is facing a judicial hearing and possibly an indictment?
If so, he will truly have wielded the political magic wand that has, until now, kept Netanyahu in power.
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.