Israel Election Results: The Two Benjamins Are Inching Toward National Unity

Israel election: Netanyahu and Gantz both left crucial elements out of their election night speeches. Add them together and you have a framework for cooperation

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Gantz and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv after Israel election exit polls, March 2, 2020
Israel election: Gantz and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv after Israel election exit polls, March 2, 2020Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The two Benjamins are exhausted. The veteran Bibi Netanyahu wears it better than newcomer Benny Gantz; he’s a born campaigner. Gantz, despite his military background, has yet to acquire a taste for blood sports. But they are both suffering from long-term election fatigue after over a year in the trenches and three quick-fire campaigns. In their speeches on Election Night, both men tried to draw a line under the results and rule out a fourth Israel election.    

Gantz’s fighting talk of “sticking to our values” and “not allowing anyone to divide us” was aimed at keeping his young party, only a year old, together. Kahol Lavan failed to win in three consecutive elections, but it is now a considerable force in politics, having won over a quarter of the electorate three times running. That is, if it can stick together.

Bibi went gunning for his only real rival

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>> Israel election results: Netanyahu two seats away from majority with 90 percent of votes counted

Gantz is already under attack in the party for his haphazard campaigning. His three partners in the “cockpit” – Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – all believe they could have done a better job. Will they remain loyal to Gantz now that the dream of forming a Kahol Lavan-led government seems to have evaporated?

Netanyahu spoke of a “great victory” in his speech, repeating the words “victory” and “we won” over and over. But if there’s one thing Netanyahu knows well, it’s electoral arithmetic. He knows the exit polls predicting a right-wing bloc with 59 seats will probably not morph into 61 seats and a majority once the full results are in.

He won’t admit it, but Netanyahu hasn’t won yet. Therefore, he needs to establish the inevitability of his victory before Israelis wake up and realize that, in reality, the majority voted for parties opposed to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu needs two seats, at least, to form a government. He will try to get two lawmakers from the opposition to defect to him. But the chances of that happening are slim. His preferred partner now is Gantz. They worked together relatively harmoniously when Gantz was the army’s chief of staff. Netanyahu certainly never wants to work with Avigdor Lieberman in his government again.

That’s why Netanyahu did not mention Gantz or his party once in his speech. Netanyahu briefly mentioned that he would be meeting with the leaders of Likud’s allies to “form a strong, stable national government.” But they simply don’t have enough lawmakers to do so. And Netanyahu didn’t rule out new partners joining or set any limits to who those partners could be. He actually stressed “that the time has come for reconciliation.”

Gantz repeatedly vetoed serving under a prime minister facing criminal charges. Before the election. Now, though, the situation has changed. Gantz has no chance of forming his own coalition. Instead of waiting around for Netanyahu to pick off stragglers and manipulate a split in Kahol Lavan from the wilderness of the opposition, he made his own offer to Netanyahu in his speech. “Criminal procedures must be dealt with in court,” he said, reminding supporters that “in two weeks Benjamin Netanyahu will sit on the defendant's bench in an Israeli court for three serious crimes.” Unlike during the campaign, this time Gantz did not add that this disqualifies Netanyahu from serving as prime minister.

From the elements omitted from Netanyahu and Gantz’s speeches, a framework for a future national unity government emerges. Gantz’s concession will be to serve under Netanyahu, despite the indictments. Netanyahu will have to agree to appear in court and not carry out his implied threats to remove the attorney general who indicted him. It is a risky proposition for both of them.

Some of Kahol Lavan’s members have already reiterated their policy of not serving under an indicted prime minister. Will they go along with Gantz if he concedes that crucial point? Netanyahu will have to accept that even though he remains prime minister, his fate lies in the hands of the judges at Jerusalem District Court.

If the exit polls reflect the actual results, this may be the two Benjamins’ only way to finally end the political deadlock and guarantee their political survival. At least for now.

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