Contrary to the prevailing political wisdom, Benny Gantz, the Blue and White leader who from Wednesday evening has 28 days to form a government, does potentially have a clear path to becoming prime minister. As with so much of what has played out in Israeli politics since April, it runs via Avigdor Liberman. The question is whether he should and will choose to walk it.
First, the background:
Word is that Gantz will begin his coalition-building bid by reaching out directly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and inviting him to face-to-face talks on a “liberal unity government” comprising Blue and White and Likud and other parties that accept its guidelines. This may sound curious to those who have paid even cursory attention to Israel’s endless months of political campaigning, since Gantz has repeatedly declared that Netanyahu should leave the stage and tend to his legal difficulties; that he will not sit in a government with Netanyahu so long as the Likud leader is facing grave allegations of corruption; and that Blue and White will “take it from here.”
It is not entirely clear that Gantz’s refusal to share power with a Netanyahu-led Likud still holds. It is clear that Gantz would insist on taking the first turn as prime minister in any Blue and White-Likud partnership. This would mark the end of Netanyahu’s 11-year, record-breaking consecutive tenure as prime minister. It would deny Netanyahu the ostensible prime ministerial right — a right not fully tested in the Israeli courts — to remain in office even if he is charged in one or more of three corruption cases he faces. It would thus leave Netanyahu far more vulnerable to potential prosecution. And it is, therefore, a demand that Netanyahu can be reliably expected to dismiss out of hand, dooming the notion of a Blue and White-Likud partnership, for now.
Gantz’s next intended move is to reach out to all the other parties in the Knesset, including those that did not recommend him for prime minister, set out the goals of his planned government, and discuss the circumstances and conditions under which those parties might support it.
At that point, conventional wisdom holds, Gantz will begin to reluctantly accept that there is no escaping the September 17 electoral arithmetic which gave him a bloc of 54 supporters, and Netanyahu a bloc of 55 supporters, with three members of the Arab-majority Joint List and Liberman’s eight Yisrael Beytenu members endorsing neither candidate. Since Liberman has said he will only join a Blue and White-Likud coalition, and since Blue and White and Likud cannot form a coalition, Gantz is expected to have no choice but to lament Likud’s disinclination to abandon its leader, and, sooner or later, “return the mandate” to President Reuven Rivlin, just as Netanyahu did on Monday night.
Now, the alternative:
Rather than giving up, however, Gantz could declare, at the end of his consultations with the various parties, that he will be presenting a minority coalition for approval by the Knesset. He could explain that he attempted to form a unity coalition, that he was thwarted by Netanyahu, but that his government would remain open to Likud and all other parties that accept its platform.
Which parties would comprise this coalition? That would depend on his consultations. Would Liberman be in or out? If out, it might be a 44-strong government — Blue and White (33 seats), Labor-Gesher (6) and Democratic Camp (5). It might be a 39-strong government — without the Democratic Camp. The determining factor would be whether it could win a Knesset majority.
Liberman has said his eight MKs would not join anything other than a Blue and White-Likud coalition (though he has no apparent objection to Labor-Gesher’s participation too). All 13 members of the Joint List have said they would not sit in a Gantz coalition. But would some or all of those 21 MKs back a Gantz-led coalition, from the outside, in its key Knesset vote?
If all 21 did so, the Blue and White leader would have the support of an emphatic 65 of the 120 MKs. If Liberman’s eight MKs abstained, and the Joint List backed him, Gantz would still have a 57-55 majority. Only if Yisrael Beytenu opposed him, and/or the three Balad MKs in the Joint List abstained or voted against him, would Gantz fail.
Liberman and the Joint List don’t have much in common, to put it mildly. But neither wants further elections, and both detest Netanyahu. Would they really condemn Israel to a third vote within a year, and, more significantly, save Netanyahu’s political skin?
A minority coalition would represent an extremely problematic way to govern Israel and might not last long. Nonetheless, while it takes only a simple majority to get such a coalition into office, it takes an absolute majority, 61 votes or more, to get a government out. So long as Liberman was on board, Gantz’s coalition would be hard to remove.
Why might Liberman choose to back, possibly even be part of, such a minority coalition, abandoning his demand for a Blue and White-Likud partnership? He and his colleagues have already been providing all the reasons he would invoke.
On Tuesday, for example, Liberman castigated Netanyahu for preventing precisely such a government for purely “personal reasons,” and deriding Likud MKs as “chickens” for allowing the prime minister to drag them “against their will and their interests” toward yet another election. On Wednesday in an Army Radio interview, Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar alleged that Netanyahu had wasted the past four weeks blocking a unity government and said, a little ominously, that he hoped Netanyahu did not intend to spend the next four weeks continuing to do so.
In their consultations, Gantz will presumably want to first discuss with Liberman the platform of his intended coalition — including implementing key Liberman policies that match Blue and White’s thinking, such as raising the number of young ultra-Orthodox males drafted into the IDF. (In an interview in August, Gantz’s No. 2 Yair Lapid told this writer, rather strikingly, that Liberman is pushing the very “liberal, free Israel, centrist goals” that brought Lapid into politics, “really tangible things, which I happen to agree with. So I’m happy. I don’t care when people tell me, You might be losing votes [to Liberman] over this.”)
Gantz will also, presumably, assure Liberman he is prepared to accept the equal power-sharing arrangement recommended by Rivlin, with the proviso that Gantz serves first as prime minister. They could then move on to discuss budgetary issues and, finally, stress their shared willingness to allow other parties to join the coalition if they accept its guiding principles.
And thus Gantz will have engaged seriously with Liberman’s four-stage blueprint for the next government, as set out two weeks ago.
Playing the hand the electorate dealt
If this all sounds a little confusing, sneaky and even cheap, well, those are the cards that Israel’s diverse electorate handed its politicians. Our system is one of the purest in terms of reflecting voter preferences — absolute proportional representation once the 3.25% Knesset threshold is cleared. Once the results are in, it’s up to those who we’ve elected to play their hands to their maximal advantage.
Compared to the shenanigans we are currently witnessing at Westminster, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson was found to have illegally suspended the “mother of parliaments” as he battles to bring Britain out of the EU, forming a minority government is small potatoes. What Netanyahu tried to do for six weeks in April and May, and for 26 more days just now, and what Gantz now has 28 days to attempt, is simply the continuation of seven uninterrupted decades of complex, endlessly friction-filled, multi-party Israeli politics and government.
Once a non-Netanyahu government takes office, or is even about to take office, the hitherto unthinkable might start to happen. The minority coalition just might grow into a majority coalition
Once a duly approved coalition is in office, Israel would be liberated from the transition governments, with their somewhat limited powers, that have presided since the Knesset dissolved late last December. Parliament could start actually legislating — for the first time in almost a year. Blue and White is already reported to be considering pushing a bill that would require a serving prime minister to step down if indicted, as serving ministers are already required to do.
And once a non-Netanyahu government takes office, or is even about to take office, the hitherto unthinkable might start to happen. The minority coalition just might grow into a majority coalition. Lapid and the New Right’s Naftali Bennett used to call each other “brothers,” remember? Shas’s spiritual leader last week promised the afterlife, no less, to Lapid and Liberman if they would sit in government together with ultra-Orthodox MKs.
Even some in Likud — unanimously standing by Netanyahu for now — might start to openly wonder why they were still backing a leader who had failed twice in five months to win the elections he had initiated. And if Netanyahu was indicted, they’d likely do more than openly wonder.
I should stress that none of the above constitutes a recommended course of action for Gantz. He might well decide to bide his time a little longer, return the mandate, take the chance that nobody else can form a government in the final 21 days allowed by law, and hope to do better in a third round of elections.
He might, moreover, reflect on the failure of Shimon Peres’s “stinking maneuver” of 1990, when the Labor leader thought he had the votes to oust Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir, but got his sums wrong because he had placed unwarranted faith in the empty promises of putative allies.
Gantz might also, however, remember the fate of Tzipi Livni, who might have become prime minister in 2008 if she’d handled coalition negotiations differently, and who is now a political footnote.
Curiously, her Kadima party got one seat more than Likud in 2009, just as Gantz’s Blue and White did in September.
But it was Netanyahu who wound up forming the government that year, and he’s been in power ever since.