He’s in control now, but Gantz’s coalition chances no better than Netanyahu’s

Blue and White wanted the second chance to form a government, betting that the PM would fail. So now Gantz has the opportunity he sought, but no evident path to a majority

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shake hands at the memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For the first time in 11 years, the lawmaker tasked with forming Israel’s next governing coalition is not Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Likud leader marked his 70th birthday Monday evening by informing Reuven Rivlin that, after 26 frustrating days, he was returning the mandate to build the next government that the president had given him after September’s elections.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, about to be given the same improbable mission, is now in the driver’s seat.

This is the exact scenario that Gantz, the IDF chief turned politician, has been awaiting since the results of September 17’s inconclusive election started to sink in.

After Rivlin’s late September consultations with the various parties where he heard their choices for prime minister, the Joint List alliance of majority-Arab parties claimed that Blue and White had asked its hardline Balad sub-faction to hold off on suggesting to Rivlin that Gantz be tasked with forming the government.

Gantz thus ended up with 54 recommendations: 33 from his own Blue and White party, 10 from the rest of the Joint List, six from Labor and five from the Democratic Camp. That was one crucial supporter fewer than the 55 endorsements Netanyahu received, with 32 from Likud, nine from Shas, seven from Yamina, and seven from United Torah Judaism.

As such, Rivlin on September 25 gave Netanyahu, the head of the bigger bloc, the first stab at cobbling together a coalition. Confident Netanyahu would be unable to do so since the Likud train of “natural coalition partners” was down a passenger — Avigdor Liberman’s eight-seat Yisrael Beytenu party did not recommend any candidate — Blue and White preferred to patiently wait its turn.

President Reuven Rivlin meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The party’s strategy held that some lawmakers, who might have dug in their heels during the first round of coalition negotiations, might be more willing to ease up on their demands when a second leader came calling, with the prospect of the year’s third election drawing closer if the deadlock persisted.

Gantz now has 28 days to try to do what Netanyahu could not. If he fails, any MK will have 21 days to obtain the support of a Knesset majority to form a government. If no one succeeds, elections will be automatically initiated.

(Liberal vs. national) unity government

Blue and White may be in the position it had hoped for, and that dark shadow of yet another election is indeed looming, but that appears to be all that’s playing in Gantz’s favor as he prepares to formally receive the mandate from Rivlin.

Looking at the conditions for joining a government that the various parties have established, and so far stood by, Gantz’s path to a coalition is no better than Netanyahu’s.

Blue and White has called for a “liberal unity government.” Its leaders have said the coalition would be based on a partnership with a non-Netanyahu-led Likud, but could extend to the left to include Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp and to the right to include Yisrael Beytenu and New Right, a three-member party that has officially broken off from its more religious partners in the Yamina alliance.

This formula varies somewhat from the unity government that Netanyahu sought. The Likud leader wanted to form a “broad national unity government” with Blue and White, but insisted on including the religious parties (Yamina, UTJ and Shas), which joined Likud after the election to enter coalition negotiations as one bloc. Having campaigned on making structural changes to the status quo on matters of religion and state, Blue and White refused.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man near a billboard with pictures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas head Aryeh Deri, as part of the Shas election campaign, in Safed, March 10, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

What coup?

As he seeks to form the liberal unity government he has proposed, Gantz will over the next month test the cohesion of Netanyahu’s 55-member bloc. He has his work cut out. The right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties have vowed to stick together and stand behind Netanyahu. And Likud’s central committee has declared Netanyahu its sole candidate for prime minister in the current Knesset and said the party will only sit in a government that he heads, whether for the entire term or under a rotation agreement.

The passage of a vote to this effect 11 days ago may have been a formality, but it symbolized Likud’s ongoing determination to demonstrate that it is not going to abandon its long-time chairman, despite his two failures in five months to clearly win an election.

Both during and after the September election campaign, Blue and White leaders insisted that there is a growing tent of figures within Likud that is ready and willing to move on from Netanyahu and join a Gantz-led government. But none has signaled anything of the sort. And, with one exception, the closest any of them have come to jumping ship has been to throw a theoretical hat into the ring for the party leadership battle after Netanyahu has moved on.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa’ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That one deviator is former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, long alleged by Netanyahu to have been plotting “a coup” against him. But even Sa’ar is only talking about contending against Netanyahu when the next leadership primary is called. Netanyahu had weighed holding such an internal election in the coming weeks, and Sa’ar promptly declared he was ready. But Netanyahu ultimately decided against it, and Sa’ar said he was perfectly content to bide his time.

Some Likud lawmakers are seen as more independent, or ambitious, than others — Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Foreign Minister Israel Katz and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat among them. But directly challenging Netanyahu’s grip on the party is regarded as potential political suicide.

Admittedly, Likud MKs have been asked to pledge their allegiance to Netanyahu while the prime minister’s legal record is still officially clean. Keeping them in line might be more of a challenge for Netanyahu if he is indicted in one of the three criminal cases against him.

Prosecution officials said last week that they hoped to reach a final decision on whether to indict the premier by the end of the year, and possibly by next month.

But delays in the probes have been all to common, and an indictment won’t change the Netanyahu narrative — long accepted by his allies — that the cases against him are a shameful “witch hunt.”

With friends like these…

Once the possibility of dragging rebel Likud MKs into his coalition has been removed, Gantz’s options are slim.

Both Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp are more than happy to sit with him and bent on removing Netanyahu from power. But their 11 votes still only give Gantz a total of 44 seats.

Yisrael Beytenu comes to the table with a more enticing eight seats and may be more closely aligned politically to Blue and White than the left-wing parties. But Liberman has made clear in recent weeks that his only interest is joining a unity government with both Blue and White and Likud. But Gantz has said he won’t form a coalition with Likud so long as Netanyahu is leading it and facing possible criminal indictment.

President Reuven Rivlin, left, and then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman at a ceremony for outstanding soldiers held as part of Israel’s 69th Independence Day celebrations, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. May 2, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

For Liberman, even the Democratic Camp is a non-starter, let alone the Joint List, which he has labeled a fifth column.

For its part, most of the Joint List may have been willing to recommend that Gantz form the next government, but that is a far cry from agreeing to a sit in a coalition under his leadership.

Joint List No. 2 Ahmad Tibi told Rivlin during last month’s coalition consultations that the party would not sit in a Blue and White-led coalition, but would be willing — under the right circumstances — to provide support during critical votes from their seats in the opposition.

Netanyahu has used the Joint List offer to accuse Gantz of seeking to form a 44-seat minority government with Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp that would rely on outside support from Yisrael Beytenu and the Joint List.

However, Blue and White has not once expressed interest in such a coalition, and an adviser to a senior left-wing political official who insisted on anonymity told The Times of Israel Monday that Blue and White had not even raised the idea.

As for the ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ, there might be some flexibility, where there was previously refusal, to sit in a coalition with their longtime political enemy, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid. But the notion of the ultra-Orthodox parties sitting in the “liberal unity government” that Gantz has vowed to form is a circle that seems impossible to square.

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh filming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a discussion on the cameras bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 11, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The split of the Yamina faction theoretically helps Gantz, given that members of his party have expressed their interest in luring New Right leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked away from the more hardline religious representatives in the Jewish Home and National Union factions.

Bennett was photographed last week at a cafe meeting with Blue and White MK Yoaz Hendel. Speculation further swirled given that the cafe was in Rosh Ha’ayin — Gantz’s home town.

But days later, Bennett showed where his allegiances lay, publishing a lengthy Facebook post defending Netanyahu in light of the corruption cases against him.

Bennett’s post all but put to bed the notion that he could abandon Netanyahu and bring his party into a Gantz-led coalition with left-wing partners that mix ideologically like oil and vinegar.

Does he have the magical touch?

It would take a political magician to put together a coalition with these cards, and Gantz’s short political record suggests such magic is beyond his reach.

That Blue and White garnered the most seats of any party in September, after matching Likud’s 35 seats in April, is nothing to scoff at. But convincing other parties to abandon their declared commitments and agendas is another task altogether.

A small example: In the June Knesset vote to elect the next state comptroller, Blue and White only managed to convince 45 lawmakers to support its candidate, Giora Romm. So underwhelming was Gantz in trying to persuading his natural colleagues to support Romm, that several were reported to have backed Likud’s winning candidate Matanyahu Englman.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked attend a press conference in Ramat Gan, July 21, 2019. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

If Gantz has learned anything from Netanyahu, his negotiations with the various parties will have already started. The Likud leader didn’t even wait for elections to be called before striking deals with the Haredi parties in 2008. The deal prevented then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni from keeping a coalition together after prime minister Ehud Olmert resigned and forced a new election the next year, after which Netanyahu managed to form a government despite Likud receiving fewer seats than Kadima.

But if Gantz has been quick off the mark, there have been no signs of progress. If he fails, and nobody else can form a government either, Israel will be holding elections again very soon, with various Tuesdays in March already being circled on political calendars. His next-best option may wind up being trying to convince the Israeli public that the year’s third election would not be his fault.

Unless, that is, somebody in the Knesset changes a fundamental commitment and remakes all the arithmetic. Netanyahu couldn’t get that to happen. Gantz insists he can.

“Blue and White is determined to form the liberal unity government, headed by Gantz, that the nation chose a month ago,” the party declared on Monday night.

Good luck with that.

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