Analysis

Israel Election Results: Netanyahu’s Mandate Is Meaningless, but He Will Continue Campaigning

He will appeal to Gantz’s sense of national responsibility while secretly reaching out to potential defectors in the opposition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin at a ceremony in Jerusalem in August.
Emil Salman

“A person prefers a kav [measure] of his own produce to nine kav of another’s,” says the Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzi’a. The Greeks had a similar proverb about birds, hands and bushes. Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t have a majority in Knesset but the 55 MKs who are supporting him are his. For now. And thanks to them, he once again has a mandate from the president to form a government.

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There’s no denying what happened eight days earlier. Netanyahu lost the election on September 17. But in his book and by Israeli law he doesn’t have to leave the Prime Minister’s Office until a new prime minister is sworn in. And only 54 MKs currently say that Benny Gantz should be the new prime minister. And as President Reuven Rivlin pointed out Wednesday evening when he conferred the mandate on Netanyahu, 10 of those 54, the members of the Joint List, endorsed Gantz, but also said they would not be joining his government. Rivlin really had no choice.

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So Netanyahu now has the mandate. It’s a meaningless one as long as a clear majority in the Knesset still refuses to join his government. But nevertheless Netanyahu will use it to continue campaigning. Because Netanyahu did not stop campaigning when the polls closed on September 17. He never stops campaigning.

Netanyahu’s art of the constant campaign is that you are always fighting. Fighting to form a government. Fighting to keep your coalition together. Fighting to undermine your rivals within your party and in the opposition. Above all, fighting the next election even when the previous one has just ended. And Netanyahu’s speech at the president’s residence after receiving the mandate was a campaign speech.

He was making his pitch to the parties that have not yet agreed to join his government, and setting out to the public why they should blame those recalcitrant politicians for not joining him, if need be by voting Likud in a third election. And have no doubt. In his mind, Netanyahu is already fighting an election in a few months.

Just as he did in his speech on election night, Netanyahu cited the threat of Iran and the opportunity of the Trump peace plan as reasons why he must be allowed to from a government. Then he added a new element. Apparently there is an urgent need to balance the books and free up funds for the massive costs of facing Iran. In other words, after months on the campaign trail of telling Israelis that the economic situation, thanks to him, had never been better, suddenly Netanyahu was acknowledging that Israel is facing a growing deficit.

Don’t expect any remorse from Netanyahu at having hidden the dire financial statistics throughout the last campaign. Instead, we’ll hear in the next few days how only an economic wizard like him can be trusted to deal with the impending crisis.

So what are Netanyahu’s chances now? Kahol Lavan seems resolute. They are sticking to their promise of not serving under a prime minister who is facing corruption charges. And Avigdor Lieberman, who could save Netanyahu and give him the votes necessary to form a right-wing-religious government that would grant him immunity from prosecution, is not budging from his insistence that he will only join a national-unity government “without the Haredim and without the messianists.”

Netanyahu will let them stew for now, over the High Holy Days. He will appeal to Gantz’s sense of national responsibility while his emissaries secretly reach out to potential defectors in the opposition. This is unlikely to yield the six MKs he needs for a majority. But the constant campaigner will probe and push and apply pressure on all fronts.

After Simchat Torah, with Netanyahu’s four-week period to build a coalition almost up, things may begin to move. Perhaps Netanyahu will by then be willing to give Gantz the first go in a rotation government, just so he can at least have some control. Maybe Gantz will begin to soften and accept one of the compromise solutions, such as a commitment from Netanyahu to resign as soon as the indictments are final, or a new, enhanced deputy prime minister’s role. Perhaps for once Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit will speed up his plodding, methodical pace and preempt Netanyahu by announcing the indictments.

But all these scenarios for now are of low probability. The chances of a third election have gone dramatically up and Netanyahu is on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, he believes one of his adversaries will blink. He has nothing to lose as he will remain caretaker prime minister anyway.