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As if Coronavirus Wasn’t Enough, Israel’s Constitutional Contagion Is Out of Control as Well

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Avigdor Lieberman, center, and Benny Gantz are shown on a billboard wearing masks in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan, March 29, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Avigdor Lieberman, center, and Benny Gantz are shown on a billboard wearing masks in the Israeli city of Ramat Gan, March 29, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

President Reuven Rivlin threw a monkey wrench into Israel’s already paralyzed political machinery on Sunday. Contrary to widespread expectations, Rivlin refused to extend Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz’s mandate to form the next government and at the same time indicated that he would refrain from passing it on to Benjamin Netanyahu.

If the Knesset then fails to resolve the political impasse within the three weeks allotted by law, the hitherto-inconceivable will occur: Israel will head into its fourth straight elections, following three inconclusive ones.

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Rivlin’s move surprised Kahol Lavan, which had viewed the extension of Gantz’s mandate as inevitable. It enraged Likud, which views Rivlin’s seeming refusal to transfer the mandate to Netanyahu as an abuse of presidential powers. And it flummoxed experts and analysts who found themselves navigating uncharted constitutional waters without so much as a compass to guide them.

In announcing his decision, Rivlin did provide a narrow escape route from the mayhem of his own creation: If the sides reach agreement on national unity before Gantz’s mandate officially expires on Monday at midnight, he would reconsider his decision. But, as Rivlin noted, talks on the proposed alliance between Likud and Kahol Lavan have broken down, with no indication that they can be revived.

The breakdown in the negotiations between Likud and Kahol Lavan occurred ostensibly because of disagreements over Netanyahu’s last-minute demand for veto power over senior legal appointments. Many political observers believe, however, that Netanyahu’s decision to reopen previously agreed elements in the negotiations provided further proof that he had no intention to establish a coalition with Gantz in the first place.

After all, national unity talks have already splintered the opposition, whittled down Kahol Lavan to half its original size and undermined Gantz’s standing as an equal partner to Netanyahu. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, he can already credit himself with “mission accomplished.”

However Rivlin’s apparent refusal to transfer the mandate to Netanyahu plays havoc with the prime minister’s game plan. It theoretically throws his fate into the hands of 120 Knesset members, most of who are, in the eyes of paranoid Netanyahu, weak and untrustworthy. Rivlin’s move allows Gantz to retain control of vital Knesset committees and to keep threatening Netanyahu with legislation that could bar him from running in future elections.

And it brings Netanyahu’s impending trial back from the relative obscurity it was consigned to in the shadows of the coronavirus crisis – right back to center stage, where he least wants it.

In a statement announcing his decisions, Rivlin asserted that Netanyahu had not mustered the necessary 61 recommendations that would have assured his ability to set up a new government and thus force the president’s hand to give him Gantz’s mandate. The widespread assumption, however, is that Rivlin would have appointed any other candidate who enjoys the support of 59 Knesset members, as Netanyahu does, were it not for the prime minister’s criminal indictments and pending trial.

A dagger in the back

According to Likud officials, Rivlin is motivated mainly by a lust for revenge: His relations with Netanyahu have enjoyed a few ups and many downs, and the two leaders have devoted time and effort to disparage and even delegitimize each others’ tenures. Rivlin, they claimed, has finally found the right time to stick the dagger into Netanyahu’s back.

President Reuven Rivlin, center, meeting at the President's Residence with Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Benny Gantz on March 15, 2020.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

Netanyahu would still have a fighting chance of setting up a narrow 61-seat government during the three weeks that would be allotted to the Knesset to find its own prime minister. All he needs is to persuade two renegades from the center-left bloc to join his coalition, presumably in exchange for wildly generous rewards.

Netanyahu’s first targets would probably be Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, the two right-leaning members of the original Kahol Lavan slate who blocked Gantz’s path to his own center-left coalition because of their opposition to any kind of association with the Joint List. Alternatively, he could try to entice Labor Party leader Amir Peretz and sidekick Itzik Shmuli, who have burned most of their bridges with much of their constituency anyway.

Gantz, for his part, could also try to persuade Hauser and Hendel to reconsider their opposition on the Joint List, paving his own way to his own 61-member majority. In any case, as long as he remains Knesset speaker and, by virtue of Rivlin’s position, in control of the Knesset committees, Gantz will retain his ability to threaten Netanyahu with legislation that would block his policies and effectively bar him in the future from politics.

All of which means that the political stalemate, which has paralyzed Israel since the beginning of 2019, is as entrenched as it ever was, that the public declarations that the coronavirus crisis dictates a realignment of priorities and prejudices was nothing more than lip service: Gantz doesn’t believe a word Netanyahu says and Netanyahu’s main objective was and remains securing an escape from his impending trial and potential prison sentence.

Therefore, as Israel tries to turn the corner in its battle against the coronavirus, it is also about to be plunged into a period of mischief of mayhem, unprecedented even by its own loopy standards. Observers and laymen and women are once again discovering that in Israel one can never say never – as evidenced by the start of preparations for a fourth election campaign that they said would never come.