November 18, 2019

Clear Your Calendars for a March Election

Benny Gantz; Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images

Something dramatic happened this week: For the first time in a full decade, a person other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was handed the mandate to form an Israeli government. More dramatic events are expected in the coming days: For the first time in two decades, an Arab party is expected to be invited to participate in coalition-building negotiations. 

But don’t hold your breath: A new Israeli coalition is weeks, possibly months away. Retired Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White, has about a month to form his coalition. In case he fails, three more weeks are available for negotiations. This means there are almost two more months for talking and after that’s over, there could be either a new government or another election — in another three months. So, you can basically mark March 17 on your calendar. Because the election must be held on a Tuesday, and March 10 is Purim, March 17 is a probable date for a third round, which seems quite likely. It is also half a year after the most recent election, Sept. 17.

Why is another election likely? Because of numbers, and even more so, because of principles. The numbers are easy to understand: Netanyahu didn’t find a majority for a coalition — and Gantz doesn’t have a majority for a coalition. The principles are just a little harder to understand: For Netanyahu, it was his insistence on coming with baggage. He doesn’t speak for the Likud Party — his party — but rather for the whole right-religious “bloc” of parties. Because Blue and White wouldn’t sit with the bloc, and Netanyahu wouldn’t sit without the bloc, a unity government cannot materialize.

So now, it is Gantz’s turn to try to make a lemonade. Is there a lemon for him to squeeze? Inviting Likud and the other right-religious parties for negotiations is a way for him to play the blame game, not a way to form a coalition. He needs to say that he tried, and that “they” said no. His two real lemons are these: First, wishing for a quick ruling on Netanyahu’s legal issues, in the hope that an indictment will somehow reshuffle the political cards. Second, forming a minority government in the hopes that it will somehow grow when all parties realize that a government is a done deal.

“So now, it is Gantz’s turn to try to make a lemonade. Is there a lemon for him to squeeze?”

A minority government is legally and politically possible. Gantz will need 56 members of Knesset to support it. This means that he must reach an understanding with the anti-Charedi parties, with the leftist parties and with the Arabs. If he does, Charedi parties will not join in and right-wing parties will not join in. The Netanyahu bloc will hold, anticipating a quick meltdown of an impossible coalition. This will be a coalition based on the support of, on the one hand, promoters of Jordan Valley annexation and, on the other hand, promoters of Palestinian statehood. This will be a coalition based on the support of, on the one hand,  defenders of the legal establishment and, on the other hand, wannabee reformers of the legal system. This will be a coalition based on the support of, on the one hand, nationalist Zionists and, on the other hand, anti-Zionists. The only adhesive of this coalition will be the No-Bibi-Cement. 

This basically means a continuation of the test we’ve seen in the past month or so. A test of volition. A test of determination. Netanyahu didn’t succeed in forming a coalition, but his bloc holds firm for now. Gantz doesn’t have a majority for a coalition, but his no-Bibi bloc also holds firm for now. If these two blocs continue to show such steadfastness, the only option other than a third election is a minority government. Alas, a minority government will be not much more than a continuation of this game of volition for another few weeks or months, until one of the two blocs crumbles.

That they haven’t yet crumbled is proof that something real holds them together. Right-religious parties have become convinced that they have no promising political future without each other. Center-left parties have become convinced that they have no promising political future as long as Netanyahu is in power. And what about the broader public? We have no promising political future as long as the blocs hold firm.


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

Shmuel’s book, #IsraeliJudaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, is now available in English. The Jewish Review of Books called it “important, accessible new study”. Haaretz called it “impressively broad survey”. Order it here: amzn.to/2lDntvh