Why the man who comes second in Israel’s election could end up as prime minister

Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz is set to get the support of 61 MKs, so they’re battling to head the biggest party and thus win Rivlin’s okay to build a coalition. This may not be wise

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

This combination of pictures created on April 2, 2019 shows (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz. (Ronen Zvulun and Jack Guez/AFP)
This combination of pictures created on April 2, 2019 shows (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz. (Ronen Zvulun and Jack Guez/AFP)

Israel goes to the polls on September 17, and some aspects of the race are known to all.

Neither Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud nor Benny Gantz’s Blue and White looks set to draw an easy 61-seat coalition. Likud’s falling out with Yisrael Beytenu and the latter party’s campaign promise to force a secularist national-unity coalition without the Haredi parties has denied Likud an obvious right-wing majority. Meanwhile, the media’s curious habit of lumping the center and left together with Arab parties as a “bloc” flies in the face of the actual intentions or history of the Arab factions, who have only rarely, and for specific causes like ensuring the passage of the Oslo Accords in the Knesset, supported mainstream Zionist parties.

With an obvious majority likely denied them (assuming pre-election polls bear out at the ballot box), and with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz therefore assured 61 MKs’ recommendations for prime minister to President Reuven Rivlin, the two leading parties are now in a race to become the largest single faction. Being the biggest party, they believe, will assure them Rivlin’s blessing for prime minister-designate.

And that has meant turning on their own blocs. It is easier to draw a right-wing Yamina voter to Likud through scaremongering about “leftists” than it is to draw a Blue and White voter to within half a mile of Netanyahu. It is similarly easier to draw a Labor or Democratic Camp voter to a “secular” campaign by Blue and White than to pull in a far-rightist.

Thus this election has been marked by Netanyahu warning ominously against voting for Yamina, and working furiously to push Zehut (successfully) and Otzma Yehudit (in vain) out of the race, which would force their voters to either stay home or, for some at least, come under his banner. Gantz, too, albeit more delicately, has campaigned against the left, and the left has had no compunctions about campaigning hard against Blue and White in turn, keenly aware that the centrist party’s very existence is due to the left’s generation-long shedding of voters and support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement on applying Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and its Jewish settlements, at a press conference in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Much depends on turnout. This unprecedented second election in a year is expected to draw lower numbers to the polls, especially among the political mainstream. Religious-Zionist and Haredi parties probably have the ground organization and strong communal identity to sustain turnout even in an unpopular race. Arab turnout is liable to grow, as it did in 2015, because the Arab factions had the good political sense to unify once again. The swing turnout will therefore take place in Likud and Blue and White. A 10% shift up or down in the turnout of either party would likely determine who gets first dibs at forming a coalition.

A host of new ironies

Thus far we have covered the obvious. But from here things take a turn for the bizarre.

This is a deeply strange election — a first-of-its-kind redo in a single year; a first-in-a-decade challenge to Likud’s unassailable rule; with Yisrael Beytenu unmoored from the right and demanding a secular unity government; a left-wing electorate rallying around a party that is careful not to be leftist; and a Likud that now openly brands its opponents, including on the right, as “leftists” and “traitors,” having wholeheartedly and proudly — while publicly patting itself on the back for it — adopted the newly fashionable politics of manipulation through disingenuous and ceaseless vilification.

All of these factors bring some new ironies into play.

The first: The person who comes in second in the race for largest faction on September 17 may have the best chance of being prime minister.

If neither Gantz nor Netanyahu has a clear 61-seat coalition, all the vituperation of the race will evaporate instantly. Each will need the other to fill out a viable coalition — and the first-place finisher will suddenly discover his own weakness.

A large campaign poster for Blue and White with the words “secular unity government” and a picture of Benny Gantz, in Tel Aviv on September 9, 2019. (Flash90)

Assume for the moment that Netanyahu’s Likud is the larger party, and that Netanyahu therefore wins President Rivlin’s nod to form a coalition. That appointment as prime minister-designate would come about a week after election day, and begins a roughly 42-day period (assuming an extension from the president) in which the candidate can try to piece together his coalition.

If during this period Netanyahu cannot find 61 seats for a rightist coalition, and Yisrael Beytenu holds out for a unity government, as Liberman has promised, then the prime minister-designate would have to turn to Gantz.

Here he encounters a problem: Haredi parties have declared they will not sit with Gantz’s No. 2 Yair Lapid (and vice versa), so Netanyahu is likely to try to break up Blue and White into its constituent factions: Gantz’s Israel Resilience party, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem. If Netanyahu convinces Gantz to leave his allies, Gantz could theoretically bring 15 seats (Israel Resilience’s portion of Blue and White’s current 35-seat faction), granting Netanyahu an unassailable coalition majority.

It is theoretically possible, of course, that Netanyahu will manage to convince Gantz to abandon his Blue and White comrades and Liberman — or, indeed, that Netanyahu will manage to sow enough fear of such a betrayal in either Liberman or Ya’alon to tilt Telem or Yisrael Beytenu into joining him. The old-new prime minister will surely offer the moon in the attempt, from senior ministerial posts to a freeze in his promised West Bank annexations, to, in the case of Gantz, perhaps even some political process with the Palestinians.

But from what we know of Gantz after many years in the public limelight, we can say with some measure of certainty that the famously unflappable ex-IDF chief is unlikely to be swayed to such a break-up — if only because he knows he has a far more attractive alternative to falling under Netanyahu’s wing.

Namely: wait for Netanyahu to fail.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, on June 30, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

No third election

The 22nd Knesset is not likely to acquiesce a second time in a year to a desperate Netanyahu pushing the country into a third election. If Gantz offers Liberman sufficiently robust promises of ministries, budgets and policy influence, Liberman is quite likely to agree to wait it out with him — positioning the Yisrael Beytenu leader as the nation’s kingmaker. Similarly, Yesh Atid’s Lapid and Telem’s Ya’alon have committed themselves to replacing Netanyahu as a matter of principle; could they be seen to betray Gantz when he seems to have Netanyahu over a barrel?

When Netanyahu’s deadline arrives in late October or early November (depending on extensions from the president) without a coalition, and if he cannot summon a Knesset majority to force yet another election, which even his own Likud is unlikely to support, the ball returns to Rivlin’s court, and parliamentary tradition dictates that he hands the reins to Gantz.

There are many ironic political realities in this scenario, which both Likud and Blue and White planners increasingly think is a likely one.

One of them is this: It is the left, not the right, that may yet save Netanyahu. Even a diminished six-seat Labor party is likely, according to all recent polls, to push Netanyahu over the top. Would Labor or Democratic Camp step into the breach to seal up Netanyahu’s coalition while the center has him on the run? Would Netanyahu’s promise of, for example, renewed peace talks and a freeze of his announced West Bank annexations give them the political cover to do so?

It seems safe to assume that possibility is unlikely — while noting that Democratic Camp’s Stav Shaffir, in a bid to siphon Labor votes to her left-wing faction, has warned that Labor leader Amir Peretz is preparing to do just that. And it’s important to remember that Labor or its splinter Independence party were linchpins in Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 government.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak in 2012. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Then there’s Orly Levy-Abekasis, head of the Gesher faction now running with Labor. If Labor wins seven seats, numbers 2 and 7 will be Gesher’s, and she would be able to break up the union and join Likud’s coalition. The daughter of a Likud foreign minister and until recently an Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker, Levy-Abekasis, now on the left, surely does not feel any special loyalty to either camp.

But back to our main narrative, which assumes Labor and Democratic Camp don’t spoil it for Gantz.

Having passed his deadline around early November, and facing a Knesset too terrified of the public’s ire to disband itself yet again, Netanyahu now sees a Prime Minister-Designate Benny Gantz with the same problem he had. He must cobble together a coalition in a fractured Knesset.

Netanyahu’s best hope at this point is either to negotiate a power-sharing government with Gantz — and Gantz is the one who would be PM first, since he holds the president’s mandate — or risk reaching Gantz’s own deadline in December and likely forcing new elections again, which, if they can be convincingly blamed on a hold-out Netanyahu once more, could prompt the sort of rebellion within Likud against its longtime premier that hasn’t been seen since Sharon was pushed to form Kadima after the Gaza Disengagement in 2005.

If Netanyahu does not seem willing to join a Gantz government after failing to establish his own, it is safe to assume that the entirety of Gantz’s roughly 42-day negotiating period will consist of one thing and one thing only: convincing Likud to drop Netanyahu, who will have transformed at that point from the party’s greatest electoral asset to the main obstacle preventing it from returning to power, albeit shared power.

Likud party MKs meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a vote to dissolve the Knesset, May 29, 2019. (Courtesy Likud)

Netanyahu is often credited as a brilliant political tactician, but it can be hard for outsiders to see why. Here is one example: Having calculated that these sorts of predicaments are now possible, Netanyahu pushed a change to Likud bylaws before the April election that makes it harder for the party’s central institutions to depose him as leader without forcing a full primary for the entire Knesset list — meaning that sitting MKs who seek to topple him risk losing their own positions in doing so. It is today harder for Likud to rid itself of Netanyahu in such a scenario than it was a year ago.

A curious equilibrium

So where does that leave Israel’s political system?

Both Netanyahu and Gantz appear set to face the same predicament: a Knesset that offers no easy coalition for either.

This has guided their campaigns. Netanyahu is in the unenviable position of campaigning both to ensure a large Likud outcome — mainly at the expense of other right-wing parties — and to ensure a 61-seat rightist coalition in order to avoid the doomsday scenario outlined above. Those are more or less mutually exclusive goals, and he must thread a very careful political needle to get both.

It must be said: If he succeeds in reaching the slimmest majority of 61, which no poll has given him for several weeks, then things will likely work out for him fairly easily. Once Netanyahu has 61, Liberman will have little reason to remain loyal to Gantz, Gesher no real reason for sticking with a diminished Labor, and so forth.

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis speaks during a conference of the Israeli Television News Company in the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz’s campaign is simpler: Blue and White must be as big as possible. There is no other priority. It will in any case need right-wingers to fill out any conceivable coalition, so there is no political benefit to ensuring a larger center or left beyond the party’s ranks.

Netanyahu’s best chance at holding onto the premiership may thus come toward the end of his coalition-building period, when he turns desperately to Gantz — who knows Netanyahu needs him, and that Netanyahu might be able to torpedo his own coalition down the road, and so may choose to take advantage of the prime minister’s desperation to exact a windfall of coalition benefits.

It is here, around the end of October, that we may see a curious equilibrium develop between the two men, with Netanyahu offering Gantz (and Liberman, since Gantz won’t move without Liberman in order to ensure Liberman makes no deal without Gantz) every imaginable boon to ensure his support, including the second half of the coalition’s term as premier. Until then, Gantz is likely to control the defense, foreign and finance ministries and lead the policy on the Palestinians.

It is, then, the second-place finisher who may, in the end, have the winner over a barrel. Netanyahu may be wiser, though it would be a spectacularly gutsy gamble, to try for second place with President Rivlin, saddling Gantz with the first-round failure.

Indeed, if he is to leave the Prime Minister’s Office for any reason, either due to his legal troubles or the coalition talks tilting in Gantz’s favor, Netanyahu’s overriding personal interest would suddenly transform from winning the election to ensuring he remains chairman of Likud, from which he could mount a strong re-run for the premiership in the future. To do that, he will do everything in his power to ensure Gantz, and Gantz alone, is prime minister, as the alternative could be another lawmaker from Likud winning the premiership, a shift that would sideline Netanyahu and likely consign him, Israel’s longest-serving premier, to the political history books.

Israeli elections are generally not won on election day, but in the complex coalition-building process that follows. Netanyahu did not win the April 9 race, and would likely have lost it outright had he let the president hand the coalition-building mantle to the next candidate in line, Gantz. To avoid that, he pushed the country to new elections. Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz believe they will have such a “reset” option in the coming round of talks.

Unless one wins a certain and unassailable 61 seats, their path to power will be a difficult one indeed.

Most Popular
read more: