Six and a half weeks after he did well enough in the elections to be endorsed as prime minister by a majority of MKs, and a month after President Reuven Rivlin invited him to form the next government, Benny Gantz’s march toward the edge of Israel’s political cliff gathered fresh momentum on Thursday.
Opting out of the uphill and quite possibly unwinnable battle to muster a viable majority himself, Gantz instead began a journey toward oblivion four weeks ago by announcing that he was abandoning his Blue and White party’s sole raison d’etre — its pledge to voters that it would work to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Gantz and his key colleagues Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon had spent the past year assuring the Israeli public was dictatorial, unscrupulous, corrupt and dangerous.
Declaring that a combination of the coronavirus crisis and the threat to Israeli democracy posed by Netanyahu and his colleagues required “atypical” behavior, Gantz indicated on March 26 that he now intended to join forces with that self-same Netanyahu, whose parliamentary speaker, Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, had just made Israeli political history by blithely defying a High Court of Justice ruling to put his job up for a vote.
Appalled at what they termed Gantz’s capitulating “crawl” toward Netanyahu, and accusing him of stealing the votes of their electorate, Lapid and Ya’alon severed their alliance with Gantz and headed off toward the opposition, to try to pick up the pieces and challenge Netanyahu another day. Gantz, meanwhile, got himself elected Knesset speaker — hoping that job would give him some sway over Netanyahu in the coalition negotiations that would follow.
Gantz’s tactics, however well-intentioned, were controversial, muddy and inept.
Controversial, to put it mildly, because he had run for election, and won votes, on the clear, relentlessly repeated promise that he would not sit in government with Netanyahu so long as the Likud leader was under indictment on corruption charges. Of course, politicians routinely abandon core positions; it is less common for them to abandon their own stated reason for entering politics in the first place, and the only position around which their entire political party coalesced. (Netanyahu’s trial was supposed to have begun on March 17, but his justice minister closed most of the courts with the outbreak of the pandemic, and it has now been postponed to May at the earliest; Netanyahu denies the charges and claims he is the victim of an attempted political coup, involving the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.)
Muddy, because if he genuinely felt the coronavirus crisis and the threats to Israeli democracy required atypical action, but was unable to muster a coalition of his own, Gantz could have returned the mandate to Rivlin and announced, in an act of principled good citizenship, that Blue and White would back the transitional Netanyahu government (and support the necessary legislation to push off new elections) for as long as the virus battle required. At the same time, Gantz could have promised to block legislation long mooted by Netanyahu and his allies to curb the powers of the High Court, and to prevent unilateral annexation of West Bank territory.
Inept, because his abandonment of his party’s sole unifying principle was guaranteed to lead to the collapse of his alliance with Lapid and Ya’alon, thus depriving him of the political weight to negotiate with the immeasurably more experienced Netanyahu from a position of strength. Gantz may well have become convinced that Israel must have stable government at this moment of crisis, but he knew he would be negotiating on the platform of that government with a prime minister who has silkily outmaneuvered a series of partners and would-be partners over the years, and that he would thus need every ounce of leverage he could muster in their dealings. Days into the talks, he was already wearily said to be telling his diminished circle of colleagues that he couldn’t be sure Netanyahu would honor any rotation agreement the two might sign, and that if this gambit marked his political end, he would at least console himself that he had been acting for the good of the country.
Thoroughly predictably on Thursday, therefore, Gantz’s deadline to form a government — the mandate he had chosen not to exercise — expired. Thoroughly predictably, the self-weakened Gantz had proved unable to finalize a coalition agreement with Netanyahu.
And thoroughly predictably, for all Gantz’s and Netanyahu’s near daily talk about the current “emergency” situation in Israel — with the virus confining most Israelis to their homes, concerns about high levels of contagion in many ultra-Orthodox areas and possibly parts of the Arab sector too, and unemployment at over 25% and rising — the talks were not deadlocked over anything related to the pandemic.
They were, rather, ostensibly stalled over Netanyahu’s insistence on legislation to prevent the High Court from disqualifying him as prime minister, because of the indictments against him, at any stage of the next government’s lifespan — either at the start, when he would begin another 18-month stint as PM under the unsealed deal; or at any period during those first 18 months, were the court to issue a belated ruling; or after 18 months, when he would be scheduled to hand over the reins of power to Gantz and become a mere “acting” prime minister, whom the court might then deem would need to step down. I say “ostensibly” because, for all we know, Netanyahu may have decided from the get-go to simply string Gantz along until his mandate expired.
With Rivlin having formally informed the Knesset on Thursday morning that neither Gantz nor Netanyahu currently has the votes necessary to form a government, MKs now have 21 days to try again to agree on a prime minister a majority of them can get behind. With the expiration of his prime ministerial mandate, his already negligible leverage now all but disappeared, Gantz has thus managed, in the space of six and half weeks, to transform himself from the party leader charged with building a coalition into the compromised head of a far smaller party and a mere irritant to the incumbent.
He could yet threaten or even try to push through legislation as Knesset speaker to disqualify Netanyahu as prime minister, but seems to have neither the will nor the support for a move of such dubious democratic legitimacy. It would also go against everything he has said over the past month about the urgent imperative for a stable government to tackle the coronavirus.
Decision-making freedom now overwhelmingly reverts to Netanyahu, who has three reasonable paths to retaining power and, barring judicial intervention, no real prospect of losing it. Flying high in the polls, as the man in our living room most nights telling us how he’s handing the pandemic and what limitations he is imposing or easing on our lives, the prime minister can, first, afford to contemplate a slide toward yet fourth elections with relative equanimity. Even though rising joblessness and the status of the pandemic crisis four months from now, when such elections would be held, could render the electorate less satisfied with him, Gantz’s maneuvering means Israel no longer has a substantial, credible opposition.
Netanyahu now has three reasonable paths to retaining power and, barring judicial intervention, no real prospect of losing it
Second, Netanyahu can bide his time and see if Gantz capitulates entirely to his terms, and joins a coalition in which Blue and White would be a marginal partner with no real influence, to be ditched at the prime minister’s convenience long before the due date for rotation in fall 2021.
Or, third, Netanyahu can intensify the efforts he is already making to win over two or more “defectors” from the Blue and White and/or Labor camps. He currently heads a bloc of 59 MKs; he only needs two more to give him a Knesset majority.
As of Thursday, many members of those parties are contemplating a descent into elections in which they will lose their seats. Netanyahu can argue that he is doing everything in his power to avoid yet another resort to elections — for what would be the fourth time in 16 months — and that it is the principled thing, a genuine national interest, to help him in that endeavor by joining his government.
I put the word “defectors” in quotes above because Gantz, after all, has blazed the trail for members of his own shattered Blue and White alliance to potentially follow. If their own party leader was ready to sit with their nemesis Netanyahu, they might not unreasonably conclude, why shouldn’t they?