January 17, 2020

Israel’s Political Stalemate

Photo by KTS Fotos/Getty Images

On Sept. 18, one day after election day, the numbers came in — and they said nothing new. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud didn’t have a bloc of 61 Knesset members. Blue and White leader, retired Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, didn’t have a bloc of 61 Knesset members. To form a government, either one had to perform a miracle, or they had to join forces.

However, there are no longer rabbits in their hats, nor any great incentive to hold hands. Like the rest of us average Israelis, they were trapped. On good days, I feel sorry for them. On bad days, I feel sorry for us.

The day after the election, I called Haim Ramon to speak about an unrelated matter, but like everybody else, we drifted into a political conversation. Ramon is a former deputy prime minister, former minister and a former political operative. He was a reformer as a member of the Labor Party; he was a revolutionary in forming the Kadima Party; and he once was a prospective prime minister.

Now he is retired and writes about politics.

During our conversation, he asked what I think the odds are of a third election. Remember, this was the morning after election day. Pundits and analysts were busying themselves with creative scenarios for the next government. Because I felt somewhat disillusioned, I gave what I considered to be a fairly bold answer: 30% to 40%, meaning there was a significant chance that the September election, coming on the heels of the April election, would not be the last election.

With only eight days until a new government must be formed, a Dec. 3 meeting about the possibility of a coalition government of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Gantz’s Blue and White Party ended after 45 minutes with no agreement. 

Ramon was bolder. He estimated the chances at 80%. In the weeks after our conversation, I found myself in the position of having to adjust my assessment until it reached Ramon’s original, then surpassed it. Eighty percent is yesterday’s number. Today, it feels higher. Much higher.

Is Israel going to have another election?

That was the opening statement of a Journal story I wrote on Dec. 2, 2018.

My answer was accurate: probably, yes. But my analysis of what would happen next wasn’t quite as accurate. In my defense, at that time no one could have foreseen Israel’s political roller coaster that took up the next year. Yet, I feel a need to mention my failure of imagination as we move forward into the uncharted waters of a possible third round of elections. I feel the need to remind myself that whatever we see today might not be true tomorrow. Or next week.

So is Israel again going to have another election?

The answer is the same: likely, yes. The election committee already informed the Knesset that it can be ready for a next round by Feb. 25 (but as of now, unless the law changes, the expected date is March 17). Yet, a note of caution. There is more than a week for politicians to come up with a solution for the deadlock in which Israel finds itself.

A week in Israel can feel like an eternity. 

With only eight days until a new government must be formed, a Dec. 3  meeting about the possibility of a coalition government of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Gantz’s  Blue and White Party ended after 45 minutes with no agreement. In a statement, Likud said the prime minister offered to pass “creative legislation that would set rules for the rotation in the prime minister’s office”  but Blue and White refused to allow Netanyahu to go first as prime minister for even a short time. “Despite our significant concessions, Blue and White continues to prevent a unity government.” Blue and White said that Netanyahu did not present “any new proposal that is commensurate with his current legal situation or election loss,” concluding that “in short, Netanyahu has chosen elections.”

In late December 2018, the Knesset decided to hold a new election in April 2019. Since then, there have been maneuvers and spins, campaigns and faux pas, twists and turns, ups and downs. There was a lot of noise but only a handful of meaningful actions.

Benny Gantz; Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Six decisions deadlocked Israel:

1. Gantz and Yair Lapid formed Blue and White, a party that could present itself as an alternative to Likud. Had the center-left remained fractured, Netanyahu probably could have convinced one party to join his coalition. 

2. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked formed the New Right Party. By coming up a few hundred votes short in the April election — robbing the right of four seats in the Knesset — this party’s failure blocked the right-wing-Charedi coalition’s path to power. Had the religious right remained united, Netanyahu probably could have formed a 61-62 coalition back in April.

3. Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party insisted on a unity government and was consistent in his refusal to support any other option for government. Lieberman made the option of a religious-right government go away. Lieberman made the option of a narrow center-left coalition supported from the outside by Arab parties go away. Had Lieberman agreed in April or September to join the religious-right bloc, there would have been a coalition.

4. Gantz and other leaders on the center-left (including Labor’s Amir Peretz) decided not to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu if the prime minister was indicted. Had Gantz or Peretz agreed to sit under Netanyahu, Netanyahu would have had a government.

5. All religious-right parties, except Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, chose to stick with Likud and Netanyahu. This bloc of 55 was Netanyahu’s shield against any attempts to create an alternative coalition. Had one or two of these parties decided to dismantle the bloc, Gantz might have had a chance to form a coalition.

Avichai Mandelblit
Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

6. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicted Netanyahu. Had Netanyahu not been indicted, he might have had a chance to form a coalition with both his bloc and Blue and White.

Each of these six decisions had its own rationale and its own motivation — not one of which intended to deadlock Israel the way it did. In fact, all were aimed at creating a better and stronger government. Politicians and parties wanted to advance stability and/or the rule of law, morality, efficiency and democracy. 

Bennett merely wanted a party that represented the not-too-religious hard-core right. Lieberman thought it was time to rein in Charedi political power. Gantz wanted Netanyahu gone after more than a decade in power. Netanyahu wanted to keep his government together and keep Israel safe.

If there was ever an example that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, this was it. They resulted in Israel wasting an entire year on nothing. They made a third election and another few months of wasted time very likely.

Supporters hold up banners as thousands of people attend a rally protesting the Netanyahu indictment.
Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

There is one more thing that makes a third election likely: Netanyahu’s insistence on keeping his job. Twice, he failed to form a government. Twice, he failed to make Likud victorious. He set the record and is Israel’s longest-serving government leader. He already established a precedent by being Israel’s first prime minister to be indicted while in office. 

Yet, he still would not let go. Why? There is more than one possible explanation, and the one people tend to choose usually reveals their preference. A negative explanation goes along the lines of, “He doesn’t care about the country; all he cares about is going to trial as prime minister (or avoiding trial by getting immunity).” A positive explanation might be, “He is the only one who can navigate Israel through the treacherous waters of a volatile Middle East. And besides, why should he let go? Because his rivals can’t beat him at the polls?”

Some interpretations of his actions portray Netanyahu as a villain; others, as a victim. Some portray him as an obstacle to Israel’s well-being; others, as Israel’s only hope.

There is more than a week for politicians to come up with a solution for the deadlock in which Israel finds itself. A week in Israel can feel like an eternity. 

He probably is both. The indictments against him raise many questions. They are based on questionable legal precedent and on testimonies of state witnesses who were left without much choice. Earlier this week, the total number of people expected to be called to testify was a staggering 333. Netanyahu has good reason to suspect the legal establishment was against him from the day he first was elected. He has good reason to argue the legal establishment makes it impossible for a politician to raise questions and propose necessary reforms in the legal system without being cast as an enemy of democracy and the rule of law.

Benjamin Netanyahu;Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

Yet, there is no way to look at the facts the attorney general presented without a sense of unease about Netanyahu’s actions. Is this criminal behavior? There can be debate about that. Is this exemplary behavior? With this question, having a debate is more problematic. Netanyahu acted obsessively with the media, greedily with wealthy friends, and irresponsibly with his staff. Since a decision was made to indict him, he acted dangerously in an attempt to delegitimize the police and the state attorney, which delegitimizes Israel’s system of law and order on which we rely.

Be it because of legal considerations or because he believes he is destined to be Israel’s leader, Netanyahu has decided to fight. His personal drama is at the center of Israel’s political drama, with all other actors paling by comparison. Gantz? A nice guy who happened to be at the right place at the right time. Lapid? Not as lucky as Gantz; he wanted to be in Gantz’s position and must play, obediently if reluctantly, second in command to a man who has no command. Other Likud leaders? For the past year, most of them disappeared in Netanyahu’s shadow. They were (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) the political characters who step out of an empty car.

Is this about to change?

The last batch of Israeli polls are depressing. What we see in them is, well, nothing. No sign of change, no sign of hope, no sign of coalition. If elections were held today, the outcome would be much like the ones of last April and September: no majority for the bloc of the right, no majority for any feasible coalition of the center-left. That is, unless someone is willing to undo one of the six decisions that brought us to where we are. It might be Lieberman deciding to join the religious-right bloc or supporting a narrow coalition that relies on the Arab parties. It could be Gantz, deciding to enter a coalition with Netanyahu. It could be the Charedi parties deciding to abandon Likud. It could be Likud leaders deciding to throw Netanyahu under the bus.

Most of these scenarios seem like flights of fancy.

Lieberman doubled down, Gantz wouldn’t sit with an indicted Netanyahu, and the Charedis had no reason to abandon Likud. Where we did see some movement is within Likud. One Likud leader, Gideon Saar, openly questioned Netanyahu’s ability to ever form a coalition. Another Likud leader, Yuli Edelstein (Speaker of the Knesset), reportedly tested the waters to see if he could get 61 supporters and become prime minister.

These are early signs, but they told a big story: Within Likud, the race to succeed Netanyahu had begun. Saar positioned himself as Netanyahu’s main rival. Foreign Minister Israel Katz and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat chose to be loyal to the end, assuming Likud members are going to punish those who rush to unseat the prime minister.

They are all running — possibly along with Deputy Defense Minister Avi Dichter, Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Minister Gilad Erdan and others. They call Saar’s move “hasty” or “disloyal” as they compete with him for the votes of Likud members, but his move served them well in putting the succession process into motion. Behind closed doors, they plot and strategize, prepare and maneuver. They smell blood in the water — Netanyahu’s blood. They look at him and see a dead leader walking. But since they’ve known him for some time, they also take into account the possibility of sudden resurrection. Saar decided he has nothing to lose because of the existing animosity between the prime minister and himself. Barkat and Katz might hope to get Netanyahu’s blessing when the day comes. And if not a blessing, at least a nod.

The question for many of them is not “if” but rather, “when.” Should they announce only when a new election is called, only after another failure to win an election, or after another failure to form a government? Will they be able to form the next government or have to lead Likud through tough years in the opposition and only then get a chance to occupy the prime minister’s office? They must not rush, but they also must not wait too long lest the train of succession leaves the station without them.

As I write this story, there are a few days for all parties to reconsider their positions and search for ways out of this political mess without having to go through another election. And yet on Dec. 3, Blue and White leaders decided that there is no point in having more meetings with Likud to discuss unity unless Netanyahu accepts the demand that Gantz be the first to serve as prime minister (and Netanyahu second, if the court finds him not guilty).

What could happen in the coming weeks and months?

Options are not many. It could be Netanyahu deciding to step aside, maybe in exchange for a deal that will save him the need to stand trial. It could be Lieberman deciding to go with a right-wing Charedi coalition after all, with the Charedi parties giving him some achievement with which to justify a turnabout. It could be Gantz deciding to trust the untrustworthy Netanyahu and serve under him for a few months in exchange for a promise he will become prime minister next summer or next fall. It could be 61 members of the Knesset deciding to end the madness and support a coalition headed by neither Gantz nor Netanyahu. 

Behind closed doors, Likud leaders plot and strategize, prepare and maneuver. They smell blood in the water — Netanyahu’s blood.

If all these ideas sound farfetched, it’s because they probably are. This means another election in March and another attempt to form a coalition with numbers that don’t match the prerequisite. This means more months without a functioning government to pass a budget, more months without important decisions being made, more months of bickering and political fatigue.

Might this mean a fourth, fifth or sixth round of elections? You might say, “That’s impossible. No one wants that.”

True — but remember that no one in Israel wanted this; yet, somehow, this is where we are.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.