Analysis

Is Gantz Really About to Become Prime Minister? Panicking Bibi Thinks He Might

Kahol Lavan leader has three days left to form a coalition. Benjamin Netanyahu is worried, and there could be a delicious irony if he is ultimately dethroned by Israeli-Arab lawmakers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 17, 2019.
Gali Tibbon,AP

Benjamin Netanyahu usually runs his “gevalt!” campaign in the last few days before Election Day, but we are now being treated to the first ever post-election gevalt blitz. The prime minister on social media, and his proxies on the airwaves, have embarked on a coordinated campaign of mass hysteria and rank incitement against Arab-Israeli politicians, in an attempt to prevent the formation of a minority government led by Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. 

So how real is Netanyahu’s panic? By all accounts, he isn’t bluffing this time. The Netanyahu seen in the video he released on Saturday night was gray-faced and had little of his usual smugness. This was a man fully believing this could be his last weekend in the Balfour Street residence as serving prime minister. On the other hand, Netanyahu has long made paranoia a key tool in his survival kit. His panic is real, but is it well-founded?

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How realistic is a minority government led by Gantz? The first thing to consider is: Does Gantz himself want to lead such a government? The answer is no. Gantz is a middle-of-the-road, consensus politician. The idea of leading a government that to some degree will be dependent on members of the predominantly Arab Joint List does not appeal to him — not because he harbors any especially racist feelings toward Israeli Arabs, but simply because he is not the kind of politician to bravely go where other politicians have never gone before. He’s barely a politician of any kind, for that matter. The only way he’d lead such a government was if there was no other way to avoid a third election in the space of a year.

The next thing to consider is: What does Avigdor Lieberman want? At least some members of his Yisrael Beiteinu party would have to vote in favor of the Gantz government, alongside at least some Joint List lawmakers. But Lieberman has been inciting against Arab Israelis for even longer than Netanyahu — and in much more blatant terms. Just last Wednesday he called the Joint List a “fifth column” and “irrelevant,” and accused its MKs of “trying to destroy the country from within.” He certainly doesn’t want any form of partnership with them. But does he have a better option? 

For the past year now, ever since he resigned as defense minister, Lieberman has been on a mission to end Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister. That’s the impression of everyone who has spoken to him over this period. But has he finally reached the one bridge he cannot pass to accomplish this mission? He hasn’t ruled out supporting a narrow Gantz government backed by the Joint List, but this could be just another way of tormenting Netanyahu — an activity he revels in. 

At this point, the only part of the equation that seems to really want a minority government is the Joint List MKs (minus three Balad lawmakers), who are filled with glee at the prospect of being the tools of Netanyahu’s downfall. And who could blame them? Not only would it be the greatest irony if the man who used racist incitement to win the 2015 election now lost power due to them. They would also be doing what the overwhelming majority of Arab-Israeli voters want them to do: Play a more central part in government, rather than remaining as bystanders.

So, if Gantz and Lieberman are in — so are they. 

Netanyahu’s campaign to taint Gantz and Lieberman by association with the Joint List may well backfire on him. He hasn’t offered them anything in return. Netanyahu could have made some gesture toward them; loosened the grip on his bloc of 55 (right-wing and religious) lawmakers, which both Lieberman and Gantz have demanded as a precondition for a national unity government. And while he officially agreed to President Reuven Rivlin’s “framework” whereby he would take a leave of absence if and when indicted, the actual details of that arrangement remain very vague. Netanyahu believes that any “suspension” would not mean he loses all his powers and would not come into effect until the evidentiary stage of any trial — which could be another year down the road. 

Gantz and Lieberman believe Netanyahu has already made the decision to go for a third election, which would give him four or five months, at least, as head of a caretaker government, ensuring that legal proceedings against him would only begin while he is still prime minister. This means he would receive preferential treatment (three more amenable district court judges in Jerusalem, instead of one Tel Aviv judge specializing in white collar crime). In that case, and since Netanyahu has already basically accused them of treason for just considering cooperating with the Joint List, what other options do they have than going ahead and cooperating with the Joint List?

The other option for Gantz is to capitulate and accept a national unity government where Netanyahu has first turn as prime minister. That would be political suicide for him, as a large chunk of Kahol Lavan would probably split and not join such a government. 

The other option for Lieberman is to abandon his plan to depose Netanyahu and rejoin a right-wing/religious coalition, which would grant Netanyahu legal immunity. Going back into government with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties would be suicidal for him, after spending the past year talking up Yisrael Beiteinu as the “sane and secular” alternative to the governing coalition. 

So, the choices facing Gantz and Lieberman are an Arab-backed minority government; political suicide through capitulation to Netanyahu; or a third election. Does that mean they have to make the decision now? Or before Gantz’s mandate to form a government runs out on Wednesday night? 

From his statements at least (and from what Kahol Lavan members are saying), Gantz seems to have made up his mind to do everything he can to form a government over the next three days. With the Joint List, if necessary. 

If he fails by Wednesday night, there will be a three-week free-for-all in which any lawmaker who can gain 61 signatures can try to form a government. That almost certainly means a third election, because getting 61 MKs to sign the same nomination paper (unlike a vote on forming a government where a simple majority is sufficient and the rest can abstain) will be next to impossible.

Lieberman, though, seems to think otherwise. He told Ynet on Sunday: “Even in the final 21 days, there are many options and possibilities. To form a government that will fail very quickly doesn’t make sense.”

And why should he rush? He’s got the entire Israeli political establishment hanging on his decision, so why not play this for as long as he can?