Netanyahu and Gantz both leave all options open, but few may be on the table

A unity government? Bringing Liberman back? Wooing a turncoat or two? Why some of the potential solutions to the deadlock possibly following the latest election may be nonstarters

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara address supporters as confetti falls upon them at the Likud party campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv early on March 3, 2020 (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara address supporters as confetti falls upon them at the Likud party campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv early on March 3, 2020 (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Declaring a “gigantic victory” after exit polls showed his Likud party winning up to 37 seats in Monday’s election compared to Blue and White’s estimated 32-34, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Tuesday morning that he and his right-wing religious partners would form “a strong, stable government, a good national government for Israel.”

The statement leaves Netanyahu’s options open wide. But how he seeks to capitalize on any of those options, and how he hopes to bring anyone other than his right-wing partners into the government, remains unclear.

According to amended exit polls overnight Monday and into Tuesday morning, the right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu could be poised to pick up as few as 59 seats, two short of a parliamentary majority in the 120-seat Knesset, which would complicate his prospects for quickly assembling a coalition and ending a year of political deadlock.

So, in a change of tone from his rhetoric on the campaign trail, Netanyahu made an apparent appeal to the other side of the political aisle, saying in his speech to buoyant Likud activists in Tel Aviv, “We must avoid any more elections. It’s time to heal the rifts. It’s time for reconciliation.”

How he plans to avoid elections and what sort of reconciliation he’s aiming for, however, also remain unclear.

Was he hinting at a unity government with Blue and White? Perhaps a reconciliation between Yisrael Beytenu’s Avgidor Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties? Or maybe between the Labor party and Likud? Or even between former individual members of the right-wing bloc who had left to join parties on the center-left?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara addresses their supporters on the night of the Israeli elections, at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, speaking to his own considerably less joyful supporters, used similar language to Netanyahu’s, even throwing in the U word, saying that Israel “needs healing, unity, reconciliation; it longs for a unifying leadership. And we will continue to offer that to the Israeli public we have come to serve.”

But while also leaving his own options open, Gantz, hinting at one of Netanyahu’s options to end the deadlock — the ostensible possibility of some Blue and White MKs jumping ship to Likud — suggested that there could be a repeat scenario of the first election, which left Netanyahu unable to form a government.

“At the end of the day, the results may have the same political significance as the election results from April, almost a year ago. In those elections, even when it seemed we were headed for the opposition, we remained united, strong and committed to our path. We will remain strong and united going forward,” he said.

Here are three possible options open to Netanyahu and Gantz, and why each may not be on the table in the first place:

1. Unity government

After September’s election, Gantz and Netanyahu both said they supported forming a unity government made up primarily of their own parties. But unity talks floundered before they could even start over Netanyahu and his right-wing religious partners’ insistence on negotiating as a joint bloc, a condition rejected by Blue and White, and Gantz’s ruling out sitting in a government with the Likud leader as he faced pending corruption charges.

Since then, Netanyahu has been indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and is set to face trial on March 17. And Gantz’s rhetoric against Netanyahu and his legal troubles has only hardened, likening the prime minister to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over reports that he is seeking to advance legislation that would prevent his trial from going ahead.

Referring to the corruption trial in his speech on Tuesday, Gantz said: “Regardless of the results of the election, criminal proceedings are decided only in the courtroom. In two weeks’ time Benjamin Netanyahu will sit in a courtroom over serious crimes.”

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks after exit polls for the Israeli elections at party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Gantz then vowed: “We won’t let anyone destroy our country, we won’t let anyone divide us, dismantle Israeli society or crush our democracy.”

For Gantz to join a Netanyahu government he would have to completely renege on his campaign promise not to serve under a prime minister who has been indicted, walking back dozens of vows to never do so. He would also have to persuade a range of key figures in his party — including, notably, party No. 2 Yair Lapid and Netanyahu’s former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon — who have separately and vehemently vowed not to sit with Netanyahu.

And if, despite his denials, the reports are true that Netanyahu is looking for his new coalition to help him escape his trial, he is hardly going to find support for such a move in Blue and White.

2. Bringing Liberman back

Another option for Netanyahu, one that could give him the support needed for legislative measures to help him avoid trial, is to try and persuade Liberman to rejoin the government he left in December 2018, precipitating the series of elections.

Holding the balance of power, again, Liberman could, in theory, return to the right-wing bloc to allow the formation of a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu. His Yisrael Beytenu party’s predicted seven-eight seats would easily take Likud and its partners beyond the 61 seat-majority in the Knesset.

The party was previously a linchpin in Netanyahu-led governments that included the ultra-Orthodox. But he twice denied Netanyahu the opportunity to form a government: first in last April’s election, by demanding significant concessions from the ultra-Orthodox parties, which were refused, and then again last September, by demanding a national unity government between Likud and Blue and White.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman speaks at the party headquarters in Modi’in, on elections night, March 2, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/ Flash90)

Like Gantz, Liberman would have to renege on numerous election promises in order to join a Netanyahu coalition, specifically to not join with the ultra-Orthodox parties, a vow he repeated in his speech to Yisrael Beytenu faithful following the release of the exit polls.

“We are a party of principles. What we said before the election is true after the election,” he said, adding that Yisrael Beytenu “wouldn’t budge one millimeter” from its promises to voters.

While not specifying which promises he was referring to, keeping his own options open, at least for a bit, he later said explicitly on Twitter:”It is still unclear which government will be formed, but it is important for me to make two points: 1. There will not be new elections. 2. We will not join any government led by Netanyahu with Shas and United Torah Judaism.”

Again, quite a tree to now climb down from.

3. Wooing a turncoat or two

If he is unable to overcome the immense challenges facing the possibility of a unity government or of bringing in Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu may be forced to try to pilfer a couple of MKs from across the aisle in order to get to 61 seats.

With the Labor-Gesher-Meretz faction having also vowed not to sit in a Netanyahu-led government and most of its predicted six-seven MKs being longtime harsh Netanyahu critics, one option may be to try and persuade the head of the Gesher faction, former Yisrael Beytenu MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, to jump ship in return for a cabinet portfolio.

Levy-Abekasis, who has made an incredible journey leftward across the political spectrum in the past year, sparked speculation about her future when she tweeted in the wake of the exit poll results that she “hopes to wake up tomorrow to a new era of action.” She removed the post a short time later, after journalists asked if it signaled an openness to splitting off and joining a right-wing coalition in order to give it a majority.

“Nothing has changed, we’re continuing on our path,” a statement from her spokesperson said.

Heads of Labor-Gesher-Meretz Nitzan Horowitz (L) Amir Peretz (C) Orly Levy-Abekasis at the entrance to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, January 15, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A text message poll apparently sent by Likud’s campaign asked party members — and journalists who noticed the message Monday night — whether Levy-Abekasis would be a good finance minister in the next government.

It was not immediately clear if the poll reflected contact between Likud and Levy-Abekasis, the daughter of a former Likud foreign minister, to round out Netanyahu’s majority — or if the poll itself was an attempt to sow distrust on the left or to make other prospective defectors more likely to be amenable to the idea.

That may have also been behind the reports that Blue and White MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, both former aides to Netanyahu and members of the Telem faction within Blue and White, were considering options to jump ship to Likud.

Blue and White Knesset members Yoaz Hendel (L) and Zvi Hauser at the Knesset Plenary Hall, ahead of the opening Knesset session of the new government on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Speaking to The Times of Israel after Gantz’s speech, however, Hauser and Hendel denied reports that they would consider any such move to help Netanyahu form a government.

“It’s complete rubbish. There is no truth to it whatsoever,” Hauser said. “We are a union of three parties [making up Blue and White] that ran as a unit to present an alternative [to Likud]. We will continue to do that.”

“There is no such possibility and it will not happen,” Hendel, speaking separately from Hauser, said of the idea.

Apparently, by his insistence that “we will remain strong and united going forward,” Gantz believes them.

Most Popular
read more: