Mission impossible? Why Netanyahu, asked to form a coalition, isn’t smiling

Mission impossible? Why Netanyahu, asked to form a coalition, isn’t smiling

As the president again asks the PM to build a government, 5 months after the last such effort failed, ToI answers 5 key questions on Israel’s increasingly complex political reality

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the President's Residence in Jerusalem after being tasked by President Reuven Rivlin (not in frame) with forming a new government, on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the President's Residence in Jerusalem after being tasked by President Reuven Rivlin (not in frame) with forming a new government, on September 25, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday night invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to build a majority government following the September 17 elections. And Netanyahu accepted the mission.

But neither man seemed to believe that Netanyahu would succeed. And the prime minister’s rival, Benny Gantz, was apparently untroubled that he had not been given the task.

Here’s an effort to make sense of Israel’s increasingly complicated post-election reality.

1. Why did Rivlin choose Netanyahu over Gantz?

The president selected the incumbent prime minister because, in consultations on Sunday and Monday, 55 members of Knesset recommended Netanyahu as prime minister, compared to 54 who endorsed Gantz. Moreover, Rivlin noted, 10 of those who recommended Gantz, from the 13-strong Arab parties’ Joint List, made clear that they would not actually sit in a coalition with the Blue and White leader. Hence, concluded the president, Netanyahu’s chances of mustering a majority in the 120-seat Knesset were better than Gantz’s, even though Gantz’s party won 33 seats in the elections, compared to Likud’s 32.

2. Does Rivlin believe that Netanyahu will succeed?

The president indicated that he has little faith in Netanyahu’s prospects of success. “There are no 61 necessary votes for building a government,” the president said, “not for outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and not for MK and ex-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.” Five months ago, Rivlin gave the same coalition-building mission to Netanyahu, and the prime minister failed to win a majority, crucially because Avigdor Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu party refused to join forces with Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Liberman’s party again holds the balance of power between the two rival blocs, and is again refusing to sit in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox. “The act” of giving Netanyahu the task of building a government, the president said, “is not the solution.”

Said Rivlin bleakly: “It doesn’t matter who I task first with building a government, or who, if necessary and appropriate, I task second. Unless the ruling out and boycotting of entire segments of Israeli society comes to an end, as long as there is no motivation to create new alliances between parties big and small, until there is a genuine will to reach agreements and to compromise, there will be no government.”

3. How is Rivlin trying to break the deadlock?

The president has called repeatedly for a unity government, in which Likud and Blue and White would be the core partners. He repeated that perceived imperative on Wednesday night. With each of the rival candidates unwilling to cede to the other, he said he had proposed a “paritetic” government, under which all government authority would be equally distributed.

In such a partnership, with the premiership presumably being shared between the two leaders on a rotation basis, Rivlin also proposed giving more power to the role of “interim prime minister”. Should the serving PM be incapable of fulfilling his role, for whatever reason, the interim prime minister would step in with all of the prime minister’s powers. This initiative appeared designed to overcome Gantz’s refusal to partner in a coalition with Likud so long as Netanyahu, facing potential criminal indictment, is its leader. A further suggestion from Rivlin was that a prime minister could take a leave of absence for longer than the maximum 100 days currently mandated — an idea apparently intended to assuage Netanyahu’s fears that if he steps out of the Prime Minister’s Office to battle his legal difficulties, he will not easily return.

Gantz’s party promptly restated its refusal to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu, apparently dooming the president’s initiative.

4. What happens next if Netanyahu fails?

Rivlin specified that both Likud and Blue and White had promised to “return the mandate” to him if their leader was selected to form a coalition and failed to do so — in contrast to April-May, when Netanyahu moved to dissolve the Knesset rather than let Gantz try to build a majority. Rivlin indicated that if Netanyahu does indeed fail, he would be prepared to let Gantz have a try. Blue and White may want to believe that, as the weeks pass, and the prospect of a third election inside a year looms larger, Likud Knesset members might break away from Netanyahu or seek to oust him, rather than risk losing their seats under a leader deeply embroiled in legal complications. To date, all Likud MKs have pledged and shown complete loyalty to Netanyahu, however.

5. Does Netanyahu think he’ll succeed this time?

Netanyahu said he’d “accept the mission” but without exuding much confidence. He said he shared Rivlin’s desire for unity, and recognized the imperative for national reconciliation after a divisive election campaign. He said Israel needed a “broad unity government” — indicating his ongoing commitment to his ultra-Orthodox and religious-nationalist allies, with whom Gantz has refused to negotiate. He also argued that Israel needs a government soon — to grapple with the Iranian threat, to meet Israel’s economic challenges, and to deal appropriately with the opportunities and challenges of the imminent Trump administration peace plan. Still, he indicated that he would not take all the time the law allows to try to build a majority; if it was clear within the next few days that there was no chance of success, he’d return the mandate to Rivlin.

Plainly, Netanyahu would like to depict Gantz as the holdout against a viable government — both to try to win over Liberman, however unlikely that may seem, and to win over public opinion if Israel is to be doomed to Elections: Part 3.

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