Analysis

Giving Up on Forming Government, Netanyahu Is at Lowest Ebb in Years – but Don't Count Him Out Just Yet

Gantz's chances of securing a coalition after Netanyahu capitulated may seem slim, but Israel has entered uncharted waters and suddenly everything is possible

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu arrive at the swearing in ceremony for Israel's Knesset, Jerusalem, October 3, 2019.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Few members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party, if any, were appraised in advance of his late Monday announcement in a Facebook video to return the mandate to form a government to President Reuven Rivlin, cutting short by 52 hours the 28 days he was given to build a coalition.

It was intriguing timing for Netanyahu to post his video, two days before his Wednesday deadline and moments after the end of the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, which is observed like Shabbat. Senior Likud members were expecting Netanyahu either to have made the announcement on giving up his mandate two or three weeks earlier, or holding on until the last minute.

Ministers have learned to fear the moment Netanyahu emerges from these holiday breaks, which he spends incommunicado to nearly all his political allies and advisers at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem or at his weekend villa in Caesarea.

These are not periods of much-earned rest and repose for the prime minister. Instead, this is when his wife Sara and son Yair have 25 hours of uninhibited access to him; time to stoke paranoias and resentment. Often, he drastically changes previously agreed policies or comes out with disturbing statements.

We may never know the true reasoning behind Netanyahu’s decision. The only thing we know for sure about Netanyahu’s holiday, coincidentally the day he turned 70, was that he received a phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin, which doesn't seem to be connected to his decision. It’s quite likely that Netanyahu simply wanted, as he always does, to monopolize the news agenda.

President Reuven Rivlin will summon Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz as early as Tuesday and confer upon him the mandate. This isn’t just a formality. For the first time in nearly 12 years, a politician who isn't Netanyahu will have been tapped for the role.

President Reuven Rivlin welcomes visitors at a Sukkot event at his official residence in Jerusalem, October 17, 2019.
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

As things stand now, Gantz doesn't seem to have a coalition in hand, but this is the widest crack to appear in the Netanyahu facade since he returned to power in March 2009.

Palace coup or Iran-related emergency

On paper, Gantz’s chances of forming a coalition are slim. 54 lawmakers endorsed him last month as prime minister – seven short of a Knesset majority. And of those 54, 10 are members of the four-party Arab alliance Joint List, who wouldn't join a Gantz-led government even if he offered them cabinet positions, which he won’t.

A national unity government with Kahol Lavan and Likud is impossible as long as Gantz and his colleagues continue to refuse serving under Netanyahu, who is facing criminal indictments, and Netanyahu continues to insist to serve as prime minister for at least the first year of the government’s term.

There is now a wide plethora of scenarios, such as a minority government of Kahol Lavan and other center-left parties, backed by the Joint List or Yisrael Beiteinu. Gantz could also capitulate and agree to let Netanyahu remain prime minister at the helm a national unity government. Netanyahu could change his mind and let Gantz go first.

A palace coup in Likud could see Netanyahu removed as party leader, opening the way to a unity government. Other parties or even individual Knesset members of Netanyahu’s "bloc of 55" could defect and support a Gantz-led government. Avigdor Lieberman, who continues to insist he will join only a "liberal national unity government," may suddenly change his mind and rebuild his bridges with Likud.

Benny Gantz gestures during a party meeting in Jerusalem, October 3, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

At present, every single one of these scenarios seems far-fetched, but Israel has entered uncharted waters. Someone who isn't Netanyahu is about to receive the mandate to form a coalition, and suddenly everything is possible.

A minority government alternative may turn out to be more than just Netanyahu’s feverish phobia; some Likud members are already quietly muttering mutiny. A security emergency, probably Iran-related, could force Gantz to enter a government with Netanyahu out of a sense of "national responsibility."

Third election campaign

And then there are the looming indictments. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and his team are to begin Tuesday their deliberations over whether Netanyahu's legal team succeeded in sowing any doubt that the charges of bribery and fraud can stand up in court. A decision could be ready in a matter of weeks and it's highly unlikely to be in Netanyahu's favor. A serving prime minister about to be charged in court is still unthinkable. Could Netanyahu hold on?

2000breach

And yet, the most likely outcome right now is that Gantz exhausts the 28 days he will be granted, and the next 21 days, in which any candidate backed by 61 lawmakers can form a government, will run out as well. And then Israel will be heading to a third election in less than 12 months.

It’s clear that Netanyahu is now aiming for that. His rhetoric in recent weeks, including in Monday's video, has been to blame Gantz both of irresponsibly forcing Israel to face the Iranian threat without a functioning government, and of entertaining the possibility of cooperating with the "Israel-hating" Joint List. These are outlandish claims and also the main messages for the next election campaign.

A third election cycle works well for Netanyahu. It means he gets at least another six months to serve as prime minister and then another crack at winning a majority.

Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by senior Likud members, gestures during the swearing in of Israel's Knesset, October 3, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Furthermore, if Netanyahu is indicted, he would be tried by three Jerusalem District Court judges, as the law states for a sitting prime minister. He believes he has a better chance than there than in front of a single judge in Tel Aviv, where judges are the experts on white-collar crime, and usually less lenient in their verdicts, adding to the fact that the investigation against him was led by the State Prosecutor's Tel Aviv branch.

Netanyahu is now at his weakest point in the last eleven and a half years. But he's still prime minister and he's not going anywhere, until he is forced out of office.