Analysis

37 Days After the Fact, Israel Saw Today the First Real Manifestation of Netanyahu’s Election Defeat

The incongruous sight of someone other than Netanyahu taking charge could alter expectations of his rival’s inevitable failure

Rivlin and Gantz in Jerusalem, October 23, 2019.
Emil Salman

Conventional wisdom holds that Benny Gantz will be just as unsuccessful as Benjamin Netanyahu in setting up a new government. That means that President Reuven Rivlin giving Gantz the mandate to form a new coalition on Wednesday night was nothing more than ceremony. A ritual. A mostly symbolic gesture with negligible influence on reality.

Nonetheless, the live, prime time broadcast of the ceremony in which Rivlin anointed Gantz as prime-minister-in-waiting jolted an Israeli public that had come to believe that Netanyahu would entrench himself in the prime minister’s office for all eternity. Instead, there was Rivlin handing over the mandate to someone completely different, Gantz, who has remained largely unknown to the public despite leading Kahol Lavan in two successive election campaigns.

It was like a scene from Bizarro World. Nothing was familiar. The face was different, as were the demeanor, the tone and the message. Gantz read out his overlong speech from teleprompters, but his excitement and his anxiety broke through. He was conciliatory to everyone but Netanyahu, who, he warned, would be ejected from politics if he took Israel to a third election campaign running. And his dynamics with Rivlin were a study in contrast compared to Netanyahu: Instead of hiding his hostility, Rivlin had to squash his obvious satisfaction.

Netanyahu’s die-hard fans believe that it ain’t over till its over. It is a matter of faith for them that Netanyahu “the magician” still has a Hail Mary up his sleeve that will save the day and keep him in office. After two straight electoral failures, however, their devoutness is being sorely tested.

The fifty percent or so of Israelis who voted against Netanyahu know that the ceremony may turn out to be meaningless, but it was magical for them just the same. 37 days after the fact, the scenes broadcast from the President’s House in Jerusalem were the first actual physical manifestation of Netanyahu’s defeat in the September 17 elections.  Even if their celebration turns out to be short-lived, center-left voters feasted on the sweet taste of victory they thought they’d savor no more.

Gantz does seem to be facing a mission impossible. The stalemate between his Kahol Lavan and Netanyahu’s Likud over who would serve first as prime minister in any rotation agreement remains as intractable as it was over the past month, when Netanyahu tried and failed to set up a broad-based government.

And while Kahol Lavan insists on engaging in coalition talks with the 32-seat Likud faction alone, Netanyahu refuses to disassemble his 55-seat bloc with the ultra-Orthodox and religious right. Netanyahu suspects, with good reason, that rather than paving the way for a Kahol Lavan- Likud alliance, dismantling the religious-right bloc will allow its non-Likud components to bolt to Gantz’s side. That will leave the Likud in opposition and Netanyahu to fend for himself in his efforts to avoid criminal prosecution.

So far, Gantz has rebuffed Netanyahu’s allegations that Kahol Lavan is set to establish a minority government “backed by the Arabs.” It’s an option supported by many in the center-left camp, despite Likud efforts to portray any political deal with the Joint List, which represents most Israeli Arabs, as tantamount to treason. The main thing is to eject Netanyahu from office, supporters say, by hook or by crook.

Gantz, who in absolute terms should actually be positioned in the center-right, would prefer a coalition that is not dependent on Joint List support. For his own ideological reasons and for the fury such a move might unleash among right-wing members of Kahol Lavan, including former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. A government that “relies on supporters of terror,” as Likud figures phrase it, could spark unprecedented unrest among right-wingers, up to and including actual sedition.

The scheme, in any case, depends on the unlikely acquiescence of Avigdor Lieberman, the man most responsible for Netanyahu’s current predicament. No one expects Lieberman to actually join such a coalition, but right-wingers suspect he might abstain from voting either way if and when such a minority government is presented to the Knesset. That would allow a 44-member coalition comprised of Kahol Lavan, Labor and the leftist Democratic Camp to be approved by a majority of 57-55, on the assumption that all Joint List members could be induced to support it.

Conventional wisdom holds that Gantz will spend the next 28 days in futile efforts to induce Netanyahu to accept that Gantz will serve as prime minister first; or to foment a Likud rebellion that would dump the prime minister altogether; or to induce one or more Likud satellite to defect; or to persuade Lieberman to collaborate with the Israeli Arabs he has incited against throughout his political career. The smart money says that efforts to set up a new coalition that would avert the need to hold new elections will start only after Gantz fails and the Knesset has 21 days left to agree to a last-ditch compromise.

But conventional wisdom is, after all, based on convention. It cannot account for the potential after-effects of the fact that for the first time in a decade, Netanyahu isn’t the one calling the shots. Someone else is, at least potentially, in charge. Perceptions and attitudes could very well change.

The ritual at the President’s House could turn out to have an effect that parallels what physicists call “the observer effect”, whereby the mere observation of an experiment can change its results. It could ultimately turn out to be more than mere protocol, but reality in the making. And if not, center-leftists will console themselves, it was great fun while it lasted.