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The Only Way Netanyahu Could Remain in Power

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Reuvin Rivlin, center, at a Memorial Day ceremony in Jerusalem, last week
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Reuvin Rivlin, center, at a Memorial Day ceremony in Jerusalem, last weekCredit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government is slated to expire in two weeks, and the prime minister has yet to succeed in putting together a governing coalition.

If he is unable to do so within the alloted 28 days, President Reuven Rivlin may extend the mandate by two weeks, pass the mandate to another lawmaker or return it to the Knesset. These are the possible scenarios that may arise in the coming weeks:

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1. Benjamin Netanyahu forms a government in the next two weeks – chances are low 

As of this moment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no new coalition. The two main players, who could help him form a government, have refused to cooperate: Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich isn’t prepared to be part of a government supported by an Arab party, and New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar is sticking to his promise not to join a Netanyahu-led government. The prime minister has already internalized this situation.

Instead of putting together a coalition, Netanyahu is now focused on two main missions: Thwarting the establishment of a government led by the anti-Netanyahu bloc, and preparing for a fifth election. Instead of encouraging his potential governing partners, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, Smotrich and United Arab List chief Mansour Abbas to ease their stances and join him, Netanyahu is taunting them and has begun to publicly advance his old initiative to revive a direct election of the prime minister.

In the absence of an attractive rival among his opponents, Netanyahu believes he will succeed in winning the confidence of the public. Even if he doesn’t succeed in forming a functioning government afterwards, a direct election will also allow him to continue serving as a prime minister during the transition period.

2. The anti-Netanyahu bloc forms an 'Israeli unity government' – moderate chances

Coalition talks in the anti-Netanyahu bloc are ambling along. Thus far there are pending questions that make it tough to assess the possibility of either Yesh Atid party chief, Yair Lapid or Bennett succeeding in establishing an “Israeli unity government.” For example, the question of whether Bennett would agree to be supported by the Joint List or the UAL after Smotrich’s right-wing campaign against such a move. It’s also not clear whether the Arab parties would agree to support a center-right government headed by Bennett.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Would Labor or Meretz agree to accept Bennett’s leadership according to which any government he participates in would be a “light-right” one in which Yamina sets the agenda? Senior officials in the bloc have in the past days expressed cautious optimism about the chances of this happening, based on their common desire to oust Netanyahu.

3.  A surprise - chances unclear

Could a dramatic surprise bubble up from beneath the surface unexpectedly? It’s hard to tell. Currently no party is mulling a possible violation of their campaign promises by defecting to the opposite bloc. Will New Hope break its promise in order to support a right-wing government? Will any of the ultra-Orthodox parties agree to form a government with the anti-Netanyahu bloc? These options, which have been closely analyzed since the election results were published, appear to be slim. Netanyahu’s efforts to find lawmakers willing to defect to his party, in exchange for lavish perks, have failed thus far. Nobody is ready to risk their political future and make a public mockery of themselves to join a government that could fall apart in a matter of months.

However, surprises are phenomena which come about at the last minute: Will a new candidate for prime minister arise, someone acceptable to both blocs and who could succeed in forming a government? Will any of the parties make a Kahol Lavan or Labor move and cross to the other side for some “emergency” government? Would Likud plan any significant parliamentary steps, which alongside the direct election of a prime minister, make it easier for Netanyahu to hang onto power? Time will tell.

4. Holding a fifth election – chances are high

Even after four elections, neither political bloc has a clear chance of forming a government. If the stalemate persists, a fifth round of elections is only a matter of time. The Basic Law on the Government from 1992 states that another election is called if no lawmaker succeeds in forming a majority coalition.

5. Personal elections - chances are low

Benny Gantz during a visit to military headquarters with Lloyd Austin, yesterday.Credit: Moti Milrod

Netanyahu’s initiative to hold a personal election is above all aimed at trying to extricate himself from the political quagmire and make it easier for him to form the next government. The current government has a November 2021 expiration date. If nobody forms a government by then (and that date could come, given the current stalemate in the negotiations), Benny Gantz could be expected to take over for Netanyahu for an interim period until a stable coalition is formed.

The legislation for direct, personal elections introduced by Shas would cancel the agreement with Gantz in favor of a candidate chosen directly by voters. Netanyahu believes his chances of winning such an election are high, among other reasons because his opponents’ bloc lacks an attractive enough competitor.

What are the chances of knesset passing a law for direct election of a prime minister? It’s too soon to tell: In Netanyahu’s circles assessments are that all the moderate parties on the right and the left may support it if they fail to establish an alternative government, out of a desire to avoid a fifth exhausting and expensive campaign that could risk their success in making it to the next Knesset.

But it is doubtful whether parties such as Yamina, Religious Zionism or the UAL, seen as playing the role of kingmakers, would be happy to give up their power to allow Netanyahu to crown himself with the help of a new law. Alongside the political quagmire, the bill may also face a list of legal problems that may prevent it from advancing, starting with the fact that the measure seeks to influence an election midstream and ending with a question regarding the legality of a clause that would cancel the individual arrangement with Gantz.