Israeli politics is entering an unprecedented 48 hours. For the first time in Israeli electoral history, it looks extremely likely that two candidates tapped by the president have failed to form a government. We will be entering the final three-week period, in which any Knesset member can try to gather 61 MKs' signatures to try and form a government. And if that doesn’t happen, a third consecutive election campaign.
At this point, the least likely outcome seems to be a national unity government with Kahol Lavan and Likud, even though this is what most party leaders claim to support. For a national unity government to come about, either Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz, who have both agreed in principle to a rotating premiership (two years each), have to agree to their rival going first as prime minister.
Netanyahu, who intends to fight the almost inevitable criminal indictments against him while serving as prime minister, will therefore not let Gantz go first under any circumstance. And he has the backing, for now, not only of all the Likud MKs, including the rebellious Gideon Sa’ar, but of all the rest of the right-wing and religious bloc.
Gantz, for his part, is committed not to serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges, and since the attorney-general is expected to announce those charges within a matter of days, he cannot possibly enter a Netanyahu-led government. Even if he was inclined to do so, as some have been suggesting, he will lose a large part of his party. As a Kahol Lavan MK close to Gantz’s co-leader Yair Lapid said last week, “Gantz can go ahead and sit in Netanyahu’s cabinet over our dead bodies.”
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Gantz has shown little appetite for in-party fighting and it’s almost impossible to see him breaking with his colleagues. So national unity is out. For both candidates it’s a zero-sum game.
As time elapsed over the past four weeks and Kahol Lavan’s negotiating team desultorily tried to work out coalition agreements with other parties, their creeping realization has been that there will be no defections from Netanyahu’s bloc and the only possible alternative coalition, a narrow minority government supported by both Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and at least some of the representatives of the Joint List, likewise doesn’t seem to be happening. Gantz’s advisers tried to spread the claim that they would present a government by Wednesday evening, come what may, but this hasn’t taken off. Nobody believes Gantz will allow himself to be humiliated by losing his first confidence vote. And Lieberman has made absolutely no indication that he would be willing to support such a government.
Which brings us to Lieberman and his announcement on Monday at Yisrael Beitenu’s faction meeting that if by noon on Wednesday, Gantz and Netanyahu have failed to agree on a national unity government, it would be every man for himself. Was he just explaining the electoral procedure or was he trying to threaten someone?
The mixed messages Lieberman has been putting out in the last couple of days have set Likudnik hearts racing. One apparently good meeting with Netanyahu on Sunday evening was enough to send ministers scurrying to do radio interviews in which they spoke warmly of him as being a staunch right-winger and someone they could do business with again. Netanyahu made two speeches in which for the first time in months he didn’t attack his old chief of staff; he didn’t even mention him. Lieberman reciprocated with a meeting with Gantz and allowed Yisrael Beitenu’s negotiating team to put out a joint statement that they had achieved significant success in their last meeting with Kahol Lavan’s team. But it’s meaningless as he’s still ruling out supporting a narrow government with either side.
Lieberman knows that the national unity coalition is all but inconceivable. So why does he continue to insist that it is the only viable government? He seems to have given up on Netanyahu long ago, and is now simply going through the motions in their meetings. He knows Netanyahu can’t give up his ultra-Orthodox partners and a narrow right-wing-religious government won’t work for him. If he had any real intention to support Gantz’s narrow government, he would have already given some form of tacit agreement by now, in the last week of the mandate. He almost certainly won’t go along with anything that involves the Joint List.
Lieberman is obviously playing for time. The indictments, which could be announced early next week, may change the picture and if there is no choice but to hold a third election, he needs to position himself accordingly. He will tell the voters that he was the only one who could join a narrow government on either side, and was offered a king’s ransom by both Gantz and Netanyahu to join either of them – but he wouldn’t give up his principles and join a coalition with either the Haredim or the Arabs.