“President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday officially tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with assembling a coalition…” No, that’s not a quote from the latest Times of Israel news report from Jerusalem. It’s the opening to our news story from April 17 — from the last time, that is, the president invited Netanyahu to try to muster a majority coalition following general elections.
Last time, Netanyahu set about his task with confident vigor — having celebrated his success late on the night of April 9, with wife Sara at his side, and fireworks exploding at Likud’s post-vote festivities. But he was derailed, his victory Pyrrhic and his majority evaporated, when it turned out that his former ally Avigdor Liberman was adamant in his refusal to sit in a coalition alongside the ultra-Orthodox parties.
This time, Netanyahu has refrained from asserting victory. This time, the late night, post-election Likud gathering was glum and firework-free, and Mrs. Netanyahu was absent from the stage when her husband gave an understated, non-victory address. This time Netanyahu accepted “the mission” on Wednesday with barely a smile, no real expectation and precious little hope. He said he didn’t even think he had a better chance of forming a government than his rival. Rather, he explained with a resort to double negative, “my inability to form a government is slightly less than that of [Benny] Gantz.”
This time, as last time, the impediment to his success is Avigdor Liberman.
The only difference is that Netanyahu has no illusions about Liberman now.
Compared to five months ago, in fact, the Yisrael Beytenu leader is a much enlarged, far more confident obstacle to Netanyahu. His party has swelled to eight seats from five. And whereas, in April, voters who chose Yisrael Beytenu reasonably believed they were backing a party on Netanyahu’s side of the spectrum, those who chose Liberman last week knew that they would be making life complicated for the prime minister. They knew Liberman was pushing for what he has termed a “liberal, nationalist, wide” coalition — without those he calls the “messianists” of the religious right, without the ultra-Orthodox, without the too-left Democratic Camp, and without the Arabs. And they voted for him in still greater numbers.
Our rapid one-two elections have been marked by the radical decline of the left, and the shift of left-wing voters to Blue and White. They have seen the emergence of a fairly credible security alternative to Mr. Security Netanyahu in the shape of Gantz and his two other ex-IDF chief of staff colleagues — Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. They have seen the clouding of Netanyahu’s “winner” sheen, with even his American presidential ally Donald Trump moved to remind us all that the US alliance, rather than with any one politician, is with Israel. They have seen an Arab electorate demonized by Netanyahu, deterred and then revitalized.
But crucially, for the coalition-building arithmetic, they have seen the rise of Liberman as the champion of secular Israelis opposed to what he has described as Netanyahu’s “serial surrendering” to the demands of Shas and United Torah Judaism.
As Netanyahu took on the unpromising task Wednesday night of trying to turn last Tuesday’s results into a viable government, Likud sources were being quoted in Hebrew media as saying that if only Yisrael Beytenu would add its eight seats to his 55-strong bloc, the prime minister would ensure that Liberman’s key demand in April — for the passage, unchanged, of a draft law regulating the conscription of young ultra-Orthodox males to the IDF — is met.
But Liberman has upped the stakes since April, and is now calling for civil marriage legislation, increased commerce and public transportation on Shabbat, the teaching of English and math in ultra-Orthodox schools, and more. As he put it earlier this week, he doesn’t care who the prime minister is, so long as a government that pledges to meet Yisrael Beytenu’s demands takes office. He doesn’t even care if his own party is in the government, he asserts. As far as he is concerned, Gantz and Netanyahu could “flip a coin” over who goes first as prime minister.
Rivlin had promised creative ideas to break Israel’s second successive post-election deadlock. And, indeed, on Wednesday, he suggested giving an “interim prime minister” greater powers if a serving prime minister has to take a leave of absence, and changing the law to allow a prime minister to stay away for longer than the current maximum 100 days. These are ideas designed to persuade the two would-be leaders to agree to the unity government that the president has repeatedly termed the “obligation of the hour.”
The president also said he had proposed that the two men form a “paritetic” government, under which all responsibilities and authority would be distributed utterly equally between them. Rivlin is a self-described utopianist, who insists the Jewish nation has the absolute right to sovereignty between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, believes that all Arab residents of that area should have equal rights, and knows that he cannot really square that circle and ensure a greater Israel that is both majority Jewish and fully democratic. Similarly, he would know that his utopian talk of paritetic equality is unlikely to fly between two would-be prime ministers insistent that the other is a dire threat to the nation.
For all the president’s moving talk of the need for national unity; for all Netanyahu’s ostensible post-election conversion to the cause of national reconciliation, and for all Gantz’s apparent contentment with a timetable in which he gets second crack at trying to form a government in the hope that Likud MKs will abandon their party leader as indictment looms, the unforgiving electoral arithmetic still leaves Israel on course for a third election in 12 months. Unless, that is, somebody departs from their oft-restated coalition conditions.
That implausible somebody could be Netanyahu, or Gantz, or would-be kingmaker Liberman.
On Monday, Rivlin posted on his Instagram page a black and white photograph dating from the 1961 elections, showing president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Rivlin noted that, back then, after Ben-Gurion had tried and failed to build a governing coalition, his presidential predecessor charged Levi Eshkol with the task, and Eshkol indeed put together a government “headed by Ben-Gurion.”
The law had changed since then, however, the Instagram post noted. And “today,” Rivlin wrote, “the Knesset member charged by the president,” if he succeeds in building a coalition, “becomes the prime minister.”
One wonders, reading that post, whether Rivlin briefly considered giving Liberman a shot at bashing heads, and forcing unity upon Netanyahu and Gantz in the style of Eshkol in 1961. But then, Rivlin would have realized, under the amended law, Israel would have woken up to prime minister Avigdor Liberman.