Israel’s opposition still wants to oust Netanyahu… just not yet

Blue and White won more seats than Likud in last week’s elections. Its leader Gantz has the support of more MKs than Netanyahu. But in a risky gambit, it wants to bide its time

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

President Reuven Rivlin, right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, at a memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
President Reuven Rivlin, right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, left, at a memorial ceremony for the late president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, on September 19, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

You really couldn’t make this up. After a bitterly contested election campaign in which it managed to deprive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a clear path to a majority coalition, Israel’s opposition Blue and White party has apparently concluded that it would like the world — and especially President Reuven Rivlin — to believe that Netanyahu nonetheless has a better chance than its leader, Benny Gantz, to form the next government.

What? That can’t be right, I hear you protest.

Fraid so.

As follows: When the parties that won Knesset seats in last Tuesday’s election began trooping in to see Rivlin on Sunday afternoon, the arithmetic showed that Netanyahu had locked in the support of 55 MKs — 31 from his Likud, and 24 from his ultra-Orthodox and right-wing allies (9 from Shas, 8 from United Torah Judaism, and 7 from Yamina). Gantz, for his part, appeared to have 44 — 33 from his own Blue and White, 6 from Labor-Gesher and 5 from the Democratic Camp.

The 13-strong Joint List of Arab parties was leaning toward recommending Gantz as prime minister, which would have given him a 57-strong bloc. And Avigdor Liberman’s eight-strong Yisrael Beytenu held the apparent balance of power between the two blocs — recommending nobody and pushing for what Liberman has called a “liberal, nationalist, wide” coalition, which would appear to mean a government with neither the ultra-Orthodox parties nor the Arabs.

But by the end of Rivlin’s meetings with five of the parties on Sunday evening (Blue and White, Likud, Joint List, Shas, and Yisrael Beytenu; he’ll meet the others on Monday), that picture had changed. Twice.

First, the Joint List informed Rivlin it did indeed back Gantz as prime minister. “We want to put an end to the Netanyahu era,” its leader, Ayman Odeh, told the president, the man charged with the responsibility of selecting our next potential prime minister.

At this stage of the day, Gantz was therefore both the head of the largest party in the new Knesset, and the MK with the most recommendations. It seemed likely, therefore, that he would be the politician given first shot by Rivlin at forming the new coalition.

Rivlin has a fair amount of wiggle room, and made clear in the course of his meetings Sunday that his emphatic preference is for a coalition including both Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White. But Netanyahu won’t form a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox, who won’t sit in government with Blue and White’s No.2, Yair Lapid. And Gantz won’t form a coalition with Likud so long as Netanyahu, who is facing indictment in three criminal cases pending a hearing, is leading the party.

Ultimately, Rivlin has to pick either Netanyahu or Gantz, and the numbers were working in Gantz’s favor.

But then came the second change to our putative coalition picture: Blue and White apparently decided that it doesn’t want Gantz to have the first shot at mustering a majority. Better, its leaders concluded, after some intense internal debate, to let Netanyahu go first and fail.

Likud’s representatives at their meeting with Rivlin promised that, were Netanyahu to again prove unsuccessful in this coalition building endeavor, as he did after April’s election, he would “return the mandate” to the president — which he did not do last time — so that somebody else can have a go. By then, a month or more from now, runs the apparent expectation in Blue and White, conditions will be more propitious for Gantz to somehow cajole the magical number of 61 MKs to support him. “We’d rather be tasked [with forming a government] when the [other] parties are more flexible, rather than now, when they’re locked into their positions,” one source in the party was quoted as saying.

But how could Blue and White credibly assert that Gantz has less support than Netanyahu? At this point, the support for Gantz from the Joint List was, shall we say, redefined. Yes, representatives of the Joint List had indeed recommended Gantz to Rivlin as their preferred next prime minister. But, not all the representatives of the Joint List had done so. The Joint List is an alliance of four mostly Arab parties, and one of them, Balad, regards Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff and no great political dove, as no better for its interests than Netanyahu. So, when you dig down a bit, only 10 of the 13 Joint List MKs are backing a prime minister Gantz. And when you adjust the arithmetic accordingly, Netanyahu still has his 55 supporters, but Gantz’s bloc is down to 54.

The new “we won, but we kind of lost” gambit being essayed by Blue and White, if that is indeed the game plan, marks a change of course. As of Saturday night, it was plainly trying to woo the Joint List.

And it is a high-stakes change, at that. Gantz’s party seems to be prepared to risk Netanyahu pulling a political rabbit out of his hat in the next few weeks — finding some kind of crack in the bloc supporting Gantz. Convinced that Netanyahu can’t do so, Blue and White believes that Gantz will then ride triumphantly to Israel’s rescue.

Why would he better able to crack the pro-Netanyahu bloc? Because apart from the political clock, Netanyahu’s legal clock is also ticking. Next week is his hearing with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, his last chance to avoid indictment. A few weeks after that, Mandelblit may be ready to press charges. Likud MKs, being urged by Gantz a few weeks from now to join him in a coalition without Netanyahu, might be more likely to do so. The Likud fared relatively poorly this time, and Blue and White will be asking them, do they really want to sentence Israel to yet another round of elections, and under a leader who may be about to go on trial?

As we cannot say too often, the electorate last Tuesday gave its elected leaders a spectacularly complex outcome with which to contend. There is a straightforward solution: Likud and Blue and White to break some of their commitments and alliances and form a coalition, with the prime ministership rotating. They show every sign of refusing to do so. There is another solution: Liberman to throw in his lot with one or other of the blocs. Again, for now: not happening. There are other scenarios, too — minority coalitions, improbable alliances involving the ultra-Orthodox and parts of Gantz’s bloc, etc, etc. No sign of them coming to pass.

And so we have the beyond curious situation of the party that worked for the single key purpose of ousting Netanyahu, and is adamant that Netanyahu lost these elections, now apparently seeking to depict its chances of forming a government as being slightly less good than his, in the hope that he will fail, and they will succeed a few weeks down the road.

Rivlin, it should also be stressed, has no obligation to follow Blue and White’s arithmetical preferences. He can certainly conclude that the Joint List recommended Gantz, and pay no heed to its internal disagreements.

Or maybe our estimable president has a rabbit of his own.

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