When the clock strikes midnight on Wednesday, Israel will once again find itself in uncharted political territory, on course for an unprecedented third round of elections in under a year — unless one of six improbable options materializes.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has two and a half days left until the deadline Wednesday night, when he must present a government to the Knesset or admit that he has failed to form a coalition in the designated 28 days.
Then it’s open season: Failure to form a government would spark an unprecedented stage in the already protracted coalition building process in which any Knesset member would be eligible to try, in 21 days, to collect the signatures of at least 61 of the 120 MKs each recommending that he or she form a government. If any MK succeeds, they will then be given 14 days to try and form a coalition.
And then, finally, if that Knesset member were to fail to form a coalition, elections would be called for the first Tuesday at least 90 days later: March 3, 2020.
Every single one of the nine parties elected to the Knesset in September’s election has said they will do all they can to prevent Israel from holding what would be its third election within a year.
And yet, Gantz’s chances of forming a coalition look as bleak (if not bleaker) than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s did when he failed to form a coalition after both the April and September elections. And third elections still seem to be the most likely upshot.
Here are various options, each perhaps as far-fetched as the next, that could stop the pendulum swinging toward third elections and, somehow, see the rise of the 35th Government of Israel.
1. Unity government
The easiest solution to the deadlock would appear to be the one being put forward by both Blue and White and Likud, the two parties able to make it happen. Both Gantz and Netanyahu have said they support forming a unity government made up primarily of their own parties.
But with both sides blaming the other, unity talks have floundered 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 of sitting in a government with the Likud leader as he faces corruption charges.
At the same time, neither has yet accepted potential kingmaker Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman’s proposal for Netanyahu to put aside his negotiating bloc and for Gantz to accept Rivlin’s unity proposal — which would allow Netanyahu to serve as prime minister first in a rotation but temporarily step aside if indicted. Liberman said last week he would enable whichever of them accepted his conditions to form a government; so far, neither has done so.
Blue and White and Likud collectively hold 65 Knesset seats, enough to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset without any other parties.
For Gantz to accept Liberman’s proposal, however, he would likely have to walk back considerably on a campaign promise: not to serve under a prime minister facing indictment. 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.
If Netanyahu were to publicly give up on his bloc, agreeing to enter negotiations to join a unity government without his religious and ultra-Orthodox partners, he risks being stabbed in the back by Blue and White, which would then be able to negotiate directly with those parties freshly scorned by Netanyahu, and potentially form a government without Likud at all.
And if a unity government breakthrough made up of just Likud and Blue and White seems unlikely in the next two days, it may be even more implausible during the 21 days when each of Blue and White and Likud would need to get at least 28 and 29 of their respective 33 and 32 MKs to support the other party’s leader as prime minister.
2. Minority government supported by the Joint List
Netanyahu has stepped up his rhetoric against the possibility of Gantz forming a minority government backed by Israel’s Arab-led factions. The tactic is seemingly aimed at leaving Gantz with no choice but to agree to a unity government with the Likud leader remaining as prime minister, or admit his failure to form a coalition and risk new elections.
On Saturday night, Netanyahu held a conference call with Likud ministers and MKs in which he warned of “an emergency situation,” claiming Gantz’s Blue and White party has decided to try and establish a “historically dangerous” minority government based on the support of Arab majority parties.
While he has made similar assertions on numerous occasions in the past, it was not clear what Netanyahu’s comments were based on, and there was no statement to that effect by the leaders of Blue and White, who insisted they continued to seek a unity coalition. At the same time, however, the party does not deny it would seek a “transition government” if talks on unity failed; while Gantz has reiterated his commitment to assembling a “broad liberal unity government,” he has also said he remains “open to alternatives.”
The candidate whom the president grants the right to form a government does not need a majority of 61 to do so. All that is really needed is a situation in which more hands vote in favor of the government than oppose it.
Blue and White therefore has a number of options for a minority government supported from the outside by the Joint List but without it receiving ministries or officially being part of the coalition. Together with its own 33 seats, Blue and White could partner with Labor (6) and Democratic Camp (5) to get to 44 seats. It would then need at least 12 MKs from Yisrael Beytenu (8) and the Joint List (13) to vote in favor of the government in order to outvote the bloc of 55 MKs supporting Netanyahu who would likely oppose.
Members of the Joint List have signaled that at least some of the party, minus the three members of the Palestinian nationalist Balad faction, would be willing to vote in favor of the government in order to oust Netanyahu from office.
Liberman, however — who has long branded Arab Israeli politicians “fifth column” terror supporters — warned on Sunday night (after a “positive” meeting with Netanyahu) that a minority government would be a “disaster” for Israel and that it would be “impossible to deal with.”
3. Minority government propped up by right-wing rebels
While nearly all of the talk of a minority government has focused on the support of the Joint List, there remains another option for a non-majority coalition that would not require any MKs from the predominantly Arab faction to support it.
It would, however, require at least two rebels from right-wing parties to abandon Netanyahu’s bloc and throw their support behind Gantz, a prospect that seems almost as unlikely as Liberman agreeing to work with the Joint List.
Nonetheless, Blue and White (33), Labor (6), Yisrael Beytenu (8) and the Democratic Camp (5) number 52 MKs together and would therefore only need two defections from the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 to be able to win a Knesset vote of confidence in the new government.
The most obvious possible defectors are not the high-profile Likud MKs who have signaled that they would want to lead their own party one day, as such a move would likely require them to resign from the right-wing party and face fierce blowback from Likud’s parliamentary faction and wider membership.
Instead, Blue and White are reportedly seeking to turn some of the former members of the centrist Kulanu party, which merged with Likud following the April election.
Could Kulanu’s Housing Minister Yifat Shasha Biton and Economy Minister Eli Cohen be tempted by promotions to interior minister and finance minister? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
4. Liberman rejoins right wing
Holding the balance of power, Liberman could ultimately renege on both his promise to establish a unity government and his reasoning for leaving Netanyahu’s government way back in December 2018, returning to the right-wing bloc to allow the formation of right-wing government headed by Netanyahu and excluding Blue and White.
His Yisrael Beytenu party’s eight seats would easily take the bloc of 55 MKs beyond the 61 seat-majority in the Knesset.
The party was previously a linchpin in Netanyahu-led governments that included the ultra-Orthodox. After elections in April, however, Liberman refused to join the premier’s prospective coalition unless a bill to boost military enlistment of Haredi seminary students was passed without changes, a demand rejected by United Torah Judaism and Shas.
Without Yisrael Beytenu’s seats, Netanyahu was one seat short of a governing majority and rather than having another lawmaker get a crack at forming a government, he pushed through a vote to dissolve the Knesset and call elections for September.
But faced with the prospect of a minority government, which his rhetoric has suggested he’ll oppose, Liberman still has the option to say that he promised he would do all he can to prevent third elections and rejoining the right-wing bloc is now the only way to do so, despite having effectively caused a year of political havoc by refusing to until now.
At the same time, Netanyahu has reportedly asked the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to show more flexibility on issues of religion and state, in order to potentially open the door for Yisrael Beytenu to join a government of right-wing and religious factions.
5. Shas joins Blue and White
If Shas is willing to soften its stance on religion and state issues to accommodate Liberman, then perhaps it may also be willing give up on the right-wing bloc altogether in order to join Blue and White.
Such a scenario may sound even more wild than the others, but of all the parties in the bloc of 55, Shas has signaled the most willingness to consider partnerships beyond the right-wing and religious parties. If Netanyahu does give up on his right-wing bloc, then Shas would be able to negotiate directly with Blue and White.
And the numbers add up, just.
Blue and White (33), Yisrael Beytenu (8), Labor (6), Democratic Camp (5) and Shas (9) together come to the magic number of 61.
That would mean that a Shas-backed Blue and White-led coalition could, in theory, be formed both in the next two days, and also in the 21-day period for collecting signatures where a clear majority is required.
Of course such a coalition could only exist if both Yisrael Beytenu and Shas were willing to compromise on a number of key issues, but while the primarily Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party is often lumped together with the United Torah Judaism party, it has in the past shown considerable more flexibility than its Ashkenazi partners on matters of religion and state.
6. Someone else steps up
If Gantz fails to form a coalition, any MK can, in theory, try to collect 61 signatures in order to be given the mandate to form a government. Both Gantz and Netanyahu would be entitled to try to get the mandate again, but it is possible that another Knesset member may try their luck at becoming a consensus candidate to break the deadlock.
While a number of senior Likud members have sought to position themselves as the eventual successor to Netanyahu, none has emerged as a clear favorite to do so and none has built up the political support within the party in order to challenge him for the premiership at this stage.
Even without an obvious successor, those possible candidates to one day take over from Netanyahu — popular former minister Gideon Sa’ar, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat to name a few — have been unwilling to be the first to take a step against the venerable leader.
Sa’ar, who has said he will run against Netanyahu in eventual party primaries, may be best placed to try and mount an effort to gain 61 signatures. But with the Likud constitution stating that the prime minister must be head of the party (meaning that Sa’ar would have to resign from Likud in order to become prime minister), he may prefer to wait until another leadership opportunity arises, when he wouldn’t be seen as a turncoat.
One Likud heavy hitter possibly better placed than Sa’ar is Knesset Speaker Edelstein.
Widely respected on both sides of the Knesset plenum, could Edelstein make the case to resign from Likud and serve as an independent prime minister for a number of months before allowing Likud and Blue and White to then share the remaining premiership between them (and then perhaps become president in two years when Rivlin’s term is up)? Could he stand up to the Knesset and say, “Enough is enough. I don’t want to do this but we cannot have third elections and this is the only option?” Could he just manage to persuade enough of his fellow Likud lawmakers to join him in reaching out to Blue and White?
It might seem far-fetched. But not necessarily more than any of the other far-fetched options on the table.