Analysis

Netanyahu and Gantz Moved on From the Blame Game. Now They're Playing Chicken

The two drivers of Israel's main parties are barreling toward a collision - and a third election

Illustration: Kahol Lavan and Likud on a collision course
Amos Biderman

From the blame game, Israel’s burned-out political system has moved on to playing a new game: "chicken," as the Americans call it. Two cars barrel toward each other on a narrow road. Somebody has to be the first to blink, lose his nerve and swerve at the last second – or they'll crash. The way things looked on Sunday night, drivers Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu don’t mean to swerve. A collision in this case means that a third election is a likely option.

On Sunday night, at what was called an "emergency rally" in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu staged a one-man show of lunacy. Aside from calling on his supporters to march on the headquarters of Gantz's Kahol Lavan party in nearby Ramat Hahayal, brandishing torches and pitchforks, Netanyahu did not stint on expressions that broadcast utter hysteria. The first signs of this erupted over the weekend, which he spent in the bosom of his family.

Netanyahu called a potential minority government headed by Gantz – with the support of the Joint List from outside – a “historical national terror attack” that would, he said, spur celebrations in the Gaza Strip, Ramallah and Tehran. That was the natural sequel to his declaration that, “when the red telephone rings, Gantz will ask [Joint List Chairman] Ayman Odeh for permission to act.”

Between the lines, the premier is signaling to the masses that planners of terror attacks must be foiled. And at any price. This man would be dancing on the roof of his official residence on Jerusalem's Balfour Street if he could instate a government supported by Kahanists – fans of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. He wouldn’t see that as an existential threat to the state, rather as a victory of the Jewish spirit – embodied by him.

As of Sunday, two lines in the sand could be discerned. President Reuven Rivlin’s plan for a national unity government is losing the altitude it once had. Now, among the four-man "cockpit" of Kahol Lavan leaders, there is a consensus that Netanyahu cannot be a partner to a gentlemanly agreement. He is, simply, not a gentleman in their eyes. During the negotiations between his Likud party and Kahol Lavan, he refused to commit to any deadline for stepping down, should he be indicted in the corruption cases pending against him. He refused to give any guarantee that he wouldn’t seek immunity. He left the term “start of the trial” opaque. In practice he was signaling that hell could freeze over before he’d pack up and leave Balfour.

The second line in the sand is that all four Kahol Lavan leaders rule out a minority government of 44 Knesset members (out of a total of 120) that would include their party, Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union, supported by the Joint List and with the abstention of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. A minority government without Democratic Union but with Yisrael Beiteinu seems more appetizing, at the moment.

In any event, from the get-go any such coalition would be short-lived and then there would be a new election. Its only advantage is that Netanyahu would be relegated to the Knesset rank-and-file – and, possibly, to the courtroom – while Gantz would take over the prime minister’s office. But that would require Lieberman’s agreement and on Monday evening – when Gantz's mandate to form a government is about to run out – he is expected to announce his decision.

The most curious item of news on Sunday hailed from the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv, where Lieberman and Netanyahu were meeting. The fact that the two could meet alone for a full 50 minutes without the security detail being called in, guns drawn, is a wonder in and of itself. Thereafter, the two released a joint announcement that their discussion had been “practical and good” regarding progress toward a unity government. There will be another meeting, apparently today, Monday.

Actually, all this has just made the fog of battle even thicker.