The State of Israel would appear to have a vacancy at the very top.
Seven weeks after we held elections and chose our 120 members of parliament, none of those 120 appears capable of winning the support of a majority of his or her colleagues to actually run the country.
Yes, 65 of them, in the immediate aftermath of the vote, recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that our hyper-talented, long-proven, acutely controversial incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu, be charged with the task of assembling another government. But seven weeks after we citizens dutifully placed our voting slips in those little blue envelopes — with the global spotlight having long since moved on and most folks worldwide having doubtless assumed that Netanyahu was safely re-ensconced in power — he has failed to cobble together the various bickering factions whose support he needs. And his loyalists have been reduced to imploring various MKs from parties that emphatically do not want to join him to nonetheless defect, and help Netanyahu secure a majority with evidently insufficiently attractive promises of high ministerial office should they cross party lines.
Stymied primarily by his longtime nemesis Avigdor Liberman, who has suddenly decided that a legislative effort of no particular significance (more on this in a moment) simply has to go through parliament without so much as a punctuation change, Netanyahu now faces what he would appear to believe are two options: He can slink unhappily off to see Rivlin and tell the president that, sorry, he can’t form a majority government after all, and somebody else should now have a try; or, he can engineer new elections and hope the public rewards him in a few months’ time with a slightly different crop of MKs — hopefully excluding the meddlesome Liberman — whom he can mold into a compliant majority.
Both of these options are dreadful for Netanyahu. Option one, admitting defeat and giving someone else a chance to be prime minister, is plain unthinkable. If the words “prime minister” and “Benjamin Netanyahu” are synonymous in the minds of many Israelis, they are veritably welded together in the psyche of the man himself. He simply doesn’t exist otherwise. But option two is unthinkable as well, since new elections, which would be held in September, would likely leave him insufficient time to advance the anti-democratic legislative gambits by which he hopes to immunize himself from prosecution in the three criminal cases for which he faces indictment. His pre-indictment hearing before the attorney general is set for October, and if he can’t persuade the attorney general to change his mind, and can’t legislate to gain immunity from prosecution, he will find himself on trial for bribery soon after.
While Netanyahu hasn’t thus far been able to get the necessary votes to secure a majority coalition, however, the signs for now are that none of his 119 legislator colleagues could do so either. All 65 of the MKs who last month recommended Netanyahu to Rivlin as PM, including Liberman and his four Yisrael Beytenu colleagues, are standing by their choice. There is no shortage of men and women in that 65 who privately hold reservations regarding Netanyahu. More than that, several MKs in the lower slots of the Likud Knesset slate fear losing their seats if we are sentenced to another round of elections (and especially if Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party is merged into the Likud), and it is conceivable that they might vote against dissolving the House should we actually get to a dissolution vote on Wednesday. In the improbable event that the dissolution bill then fails, Netanyahu’s aura of invincibility would be shattered and he would be in deep trouble. But as of this writing, none of the 65 is ready to overtly defy Netanyahu and side with a different prime ministerial candidate.
That, in turn, means Benny Gantz, the ex-IDF chief who heads the main Blue and White opposition alliance, is as incapable as he was seven weeks ago of mustering enough support for a Knesset majority under his leadership. And the same goes for the other 54 MKs on the opposition benches.
Gantz, who made a spectacularly ill-timed “victory” speech hours after the polls closed on April 9 — when it was clear to everyone but him that he had no majority — is again reluctant to face up to the political arithmetic. We therefore witnessed the surreal sight, early in the hours of Tuesday morning, of Netanyahu and his supporters voting in favor of the first reading of a bill to dissolve parliament seven weeks after an election in which they came out on top, while Gantz and his supporters unsuccessfully voted against dissolution, in the faint hope that Gantz might, in the days and weeks ahead, defy political gravity and persuade several right-wing or ultra-Orthodox MKs to back him as prime minister.
You’d have thought the opposition would be only too happy to allow Netanyahu and his allies to admit their embarrassing defeat — to allow Likud and its satellite parties, that is, to demonstrate to the public that they are incapable of putting their minor differences aside and build a majority — and to subject us all to another election. You’d have thought the opposition would have enough self-confidence — especially given indications of public dismay at Netanyahu’s post-election efforts to place himself above the law — to think that new elections would mark an opportunity to turn April’s defeat into success in September. Evidently not.
So here we ignominiously find ourselves, seven weeks after the elections, with 120 freshly sworn in MKs, and none of them capable of commanding a parliamentary majority. Netanyahu can’t do it. Nobody in Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Kulanu or the United Right-Wing Parties dares at this stage to seek to usurp him. Rebel-in-chief Liberman is plainly delighted to thwart him, but cannot replace him. And nobody in the opposition can get the votes either.
Perhaps, therefore, the time has come for a little creative thinking. If we want to spare ourselves fresh elections — if we want to avoid, as Netanyahu put it on Monday night, becoming “what Italy once was” — perhaps we need to think outside the box, or, rather, to look outside the Knesset.
Is there not somebody outside the 120 newly elected legislators upon whom a majority of those 120 could agree as their new leader? What about Benny Begin, the unerringly ethical son of the legendary first Likud prime minister Menachem? Or Beit Shemesh’s impressive new mayor Aliza Bloch? Or if we’re already spreading the net, what about SodaStream’s fizzy water-to-gold alchemist Daniel Birnbaum?
Or the inspirational Marie Nahmias, the 93-year-old Tunisian-born matriarch who fostered 52 Jewish and Arab children, and who brought this fractured country together for a few brief moments with her plea for tolerance when she lit a torch at last month’s Independence Day festivities? She probably doesn’t have the security chops, but doubtless the recently retired IDF chief of staff Gabi Eisenkot would be only too pleased to offer his assistance.
No, I am not being serious. Nahmias probably wouldn’t take the job (though Birnbaum might). But Israeli law, in any case, requires that the PM be an MK, and an MK can’t simply step aside on a whim and allow an outsider of choice to come in and take his or her seat.
I’m not being serious. But then again, neither, to the immense detriment of this country, are our politicians, headed by Netanyahu.
Liberman, overflowing with personal enmity for the prime minister — who he has over the years branded “a cheat, a liar and a crook,” “the world champion of zigzagging,” a “prime minister incapable of making a decision,” and a leader who “brazenly deceives the people of Israel” — is preventing a coalition, and condemning us to utterly unnecessary elections. He is doing this in the ostensible cause of a law that barely changes the current untenable, discriminatory situation in which only a tiny proportion of the ultra-Orthodox sector does any kind of military or national service.
And Netanyahu is pleading with Liberman to change his mind rather than warning the ultra-Orthodox leadership — United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman, Shas’s Aryeh Deri, and their rabbinical patrons — that if they don’t assent to the passage of this law, he’ll hit them with legislation that might genuinely require their community to take on its fair share of the national service responsibility.
While Netanyahu is looking at his two lousy ostensible options — letting someone else try (and almost certainly fail) to form a government, or consigning us to new elections — he plainly has a third: reversing the usual process by which ultra-Orthodox politicians extort him and the rest of the country, and telling them that they’d better get in line or else. The ultra-Orthodox may feel they have nothing to lose from new elections in terms of Knesset seats, but they would have a lot to lose from a less empathetic and accommodating prime minister.
If Netanyahu doesn’t realize that this is the course he ought to take, and if he can’t muster the skills in order to prevail, then even some of his loyal supporters will begin to wonder what has become of their formidable prime minister.