A week after the March 2 election, it’s beginning to look as if the likeliest scenario for a new government could be an emergency one to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
That would certainly solve a lot of problems for Benjamin Netanyahu: It would allow him to portray himself as the nation’s safe pair of hands, and break the opposition’s taboo against serving under an indicted prime minister. But as this is being written, we’re not there yet and the political process is still taking place somewhat removed from the epidemiological one.
Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't win
Now the dust has settled and the election results are clear – despite a half-hearted attempt by Likud to try to dispute them – there are seven possible scenarios for forming a new (nonemergency) government, plus a potential fourth election since April 2019 if all these options fail. All will take time, and none will be easy or simple for the prime minister who eventually emerges on top of the heap.
Netanyahu majority government
The Likud leader only has 58 lawmakers in his right-wing bloc and, for now at least, 62 Knesset members are resolved to vote against any government led by him. Last week, when the exit polls predicted that Netanyahu’s governing coalition would have 60 seats, the prospect of picking off a defector from the opposition to give him the necessary majority seemed fairly realistic. Three lawmakers willing to defect is an unrealistic target – but what about an entire party, or part of one?
There are four opposition slates, but actually the number of parties in opposition is 11 as most of these tickets are a result of mergers. Kahol Lavan, for instance, is a combination of Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem. Labor-Gesher-Meretz is literally those three parties, while the predominantly Arab Joint List is made up of Hadash, United Arab List, Ta’al and Balad. And then there’s Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Are any of these parties a weak link?
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If there’s one thing that unites all 11 of the opposition parties, it is their deep antipathy toward Netanyahu. From far right to radical left, their leaders have all ruled out joining a Netanyahu coalition. And for now at least, there’s no reason to suspect they will change their minds.
But things could change. Besides, an opposition party wouldn’t necessarily have to join the government to give Netanyahu yet another term...
Netanyahu minority government
One peculiarity of the Basic Law on the Government is that a potential prime minister does not need an absolute majority of the 120 lawmakers to swear in a new government; a simple majority will suffice. However, once the government has been inaugurated, it takes 61 Knesset members to vote it out. Netanyahu is assured of 58 votes in a confirmatory vote of confidence to establish a new government. If five opposition lawmakers were to abstain or absent themselves from the vote, he’s back in with a 58-57 majority.
But if Netanyahu can’t convince three opposition lawmakers to come over and join his government, what are the chances he can get five to abstain?
Not that great either. But there is the possibility that Gantz might make a bad job of his negotiations with coalition allies, or even fail to keep his own Kahol Lavan party together. In that case, one or two disgruntled parties could make a quiet deal with Netanyahu for enough of their lawmakers to suddenly be in the restroom or inexplicably unwell (the new coronavirus?) during the vital vote.
Likud messengers have already put out feelers to various factions in the Joint List to try to ascertain what kind of funding promises for the Arab community might induce them to go missing at the appropriate moment. It seems highly unlikely they will take the bait – but if Gantz screws things up, who knows?
Netanyahu-led national unity government
A national unity government is essentially a coalition including the Knesset’s two largest parties. From a purely ideological and policy perspective, there shouldn’t have been much trouble with Likud and Kahol Lavan joining forces. The differences between their platforms are minimal and focus mainly on the two parties’ attitude to the legal system (which won’t be relevant in the Knesset, since the Netanyahu coalition lacks the necessary numbers to win a vote). But there’s one massive, Bibi-sized obstacle to that happening.
On Election Night, Gantz seemed to be wavering over his rejection of serving under an indicted prime minister. His speech included only the condition that Netanyahu must go on trial, but didn’t mention whether Kahol Lavan would sit in his government. The final results were much less in Netanyahu’s favor, though, and Gantz’s resolve has subsequently returned.
However, a Likud-Kahol Lavan coalition – or at least one or two of the parties that comprise Kahol Lavan – led by Netanyahu is still a possibility. While it hasn’t been officially raised, the proposal originally made by Rivlin after last September’s election that the two main parties form a unity government and Netanyahu remain prime minister for a few months, before moving aside to an undefined role and Gantz taking charge, is now the main option being spoken about by Likudniks.
Gantz rejected it then and, ostensibly, the fact that Netanyahu has since been formally indicted and his trial is scheduled to begin on March 17 (though it may be postponed) should only solidify his stance. His people are insisting that is still the case.
But as time passes and government paralysis sets in – and, of course, if the COVID-19 crisis dramatically escalates – a government led by Netanyahu initially, but with some form of ironclad guarantee on his relinquishing power within a few months, will seem the easiest and smoothest way out of the political deadlock while ensuring the government seamlessly continues to deal with the public health emergency.
Officially, Kahol Lavan is still against it, and if Gantz eventually goes for this option it could well split the party. But it is beginning to look like a fairly realistic scenario.
Gantz majority government
The opposition has in theory a majority of four in the Knesset (62-58), but there is literally no scenario in which all its lawmakers would sit in the same government. The Joint List won’t join a coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu, and vice versa. Neither will most of the members of Kahol Lavan wish to sit with the Joint List. Parts of the Joint List, especially the Arab nationalist Balad, remain ideologically opposed to sitting in any Israeli government at all.
A majority government led by Gantz is only possible if parties in Netanyahu’s existing coalition break away to join him. Likud isn’t about to split and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina isn’t big enough for Gantz to have a majority (it only has six lawmakers). And Shas and United Torah Judaism would not only have to break their current pact with Netanyahu, but also bury the hatchet with Lieberman – who has vowed not to join a government with ultra-Orthodox parties in it anyway.
In other words, at this point there is no prospect of a majority government led by Gantz – though it could happen at a later stage if he first succeeds in forming a minority government and then Netanyahu leaves the political stage.
Gantz minority government
This is currently the most viable coalition option for Gantz, and its execution could be relatively straightforward. It goes like this: Next week, Kahol Lavan, Labor-Gesher-Meretz, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List (minus its three Balad lawmakers) all endorse Gantz in the government consultations with Rivlin. Gantz has 59 endorsements, one more than Netanyahu, and gets asked to form a government. This government would only have 47 lawmakers from the three Zionist parties. However, in return for a series of agreements on funding and legislation, the 12 Joint List lawmakers who endorsed Gantz would also support his government in its confirmatory vote. Gantz is now prime minister and in order to replace him, the opposition would need to muster 61 votes. Netanyahu goes off to face his trial and some of his erstwhile coalition parties eventually join the Gantz government.
The only problem with this scenario is that, as yet, there is no such deal with the Joint List. Gantz hasn’t even approached it formally, and it will certainly demand a formal recognition of the unprecedented role it is expected to play – including an apology from Gantz for various things said about the Arab alliance during the election campaign.
Even if this deal is agreed with the Joint List (and those three Balad lawmakers could still ruin things by turning their abstentions into nays), two of Kahol Lavan’s lawmakers – Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel – are currently opposed to a government relying on the Joint List. These objections may still be overcome, and there is even the possibility of Hauser and Hendel resigning from the Knesset instead of being forced to choose between their party and their principles.
Gantz-led national unity government
Likud is insistent that in any national unity deal with Kahol Lavan, Netanyahu goes first as prime minister – even if only for a few months. It is the largest party (36 seats), and even though its coalition does not have a majority, it is by far the largest “homogenous” political bloc in the Knesset.
On a personal level, Netanyahu is desperate to start his trial next week as serving prime minister, as he believes it will somehow have an effect on the judges. But Netanyahu and his allies are under pressure to prevent a Gantz minority government in which they will be cast out to the wilderness of the opposition. Further pressure is being exerted by the proposed legislation from Kahol Lavan that would prevent an indicted lawmaker from forming a government and serving as prime minister. A law limiting the number of terms a prime minister can sit may also be added to this.
To prevent a minority government and laws that would block his path back to office, perhaps forever, Netanyahu may be forced to agree to Kahol Lavan’s terms for forming a national unity government and to resign.
At this point, Netanyahu leaving office while Likud remains a senior government partner seems almost unthinkable. But Netanyahu may be left with no choice. He would at least be left with the promise of serving half a term as prime minister if he wins his trial – which he would now be able to fight without any distractions.
National unity government led by neither Netanyahu or Gantz
Netanyahu could turn the tables on Gantz by agreeing to step aside and form a national unity government, but insisting that, as the largest party, another Likud lawmaker must serve the first half of the rotation government as prime minister. It would be difficult for Gantz to turn this down, as his main condition of not serving under an indicted prime minister would have been removed. Also, if the 1984 precedent of rotating prime ministers is anything to go by, the largest party should get the first turn.
But Gantz isn’t the main reason why such a scenario, despite making a lot of sense, is extremely unlikely to happen.
If Netanyahu was a “normal” politician, this solution might have appealed. He could remain as Likud leader, appoint the new prime minister – whom he would then mentor – and the other Likud ministers. Since an indicted lawmaker cannot be a minister, he would have to exert his influence from outside the cabinet. But it would still be considerable as he would control half of its members, as well as the prime minister for the first two years of the government’s term.
But Netanyahu has never anointed a successor. The very idea is anathema to him. He still has no plans for retirement, and he doesn’t make it any easier for anyone – not even a loyal Likudnik – to replace him. This scenario could happen only as an absolute last resort for Netanyahu. And probably not even then.
It could also happen without Netanyahu, if he signs a plea bargain with the attorney general. Such a deal would entail his resignation in return for a reduced sentence, thus saving him millions of shekels in legal fees. As of yet, there is absolutely no sign that he is pursuing such a deal.
It seems almost too bizarre to contemplate Israel returning to the polls again in five months’ time. But a second election was unprecedented, and a third seemed just as bizarre back in September. The Central Elections Committee has already begun logistical preparations for a September 6 election. Just in case.
Beside having to vote three times in 11 months, most Israelis have yet to feel any implications of the prolonged transitional government (Netanyahu has officially been a caretaker premier since December 2018), and the civil service has kept things running smoothly. This, however, is about to change.
The state is running on budgetary autopilot, based on last year’s economic arrangements. But this means that municipalities and semi-private educational systems, and a whole range of other institutions that rely on funding from outside the regular budget, will soon run out of money. This could particularly affect the ultra-Orthodox communities represented by Netanyahu’s steadfast allies Shas and United Torah Judaism, who are exhausted of elections anyway, like everyone else in politics.
Basically, the only person in Israel who will be happy with a fourth election is Netanyahu, who would be guaranteed another half year in power and perhaps even a postponement of his trial.
Everyone else, including his closest allies, have no interest in further political paralysis. But since none of the seven other scenarios are very likely, a fourth election remains a distinct possibility.