With Nine Days Left to Form a Government, Can Israelis Be Spared a Third Election?

Any Knesset member has until December 11 to gather 61 signatures and get a chance at forming a government, but the president wants to prevent a reality show atmosphere

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Kalon Lavan leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset.
Kalon Lavan leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zweygberg

Just nine days remain until the period ends in which the Knesset can present a candidate to form a government. If that effort is unsuccessful, the Knesset will dissolve and a third round of elections will be inevitable. If, on the other hand, a Knesset member is successful in collecting the required 61 signatures, the president will give that person 14 days to form the government. Here are the possible scenarios:

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Can a Knesset member sign in support of more than one candidate?

The law is not specific on this. Eyal Yinon, the Knesset legal adviser, has said that an MK can, in fact, sign in support of more than one candidate because the law doesn’t rule it out. Yinon has noted that his interpretation also increases the chance of establishing a government and gives MKs room to maneuver, which he said is the purpose of the law.

What will happen if two candidates collect 61 signatures?

According to the procedure developed by the Knesset legal adviser, the first candidate who presents himself or herself will be appointed to form the next government, but the President’s Residence wants to avoid the atmosphere of a reality show race. Therefore, if two candidates submit the required list of 61 lawmakers, President Reuven Rivlin will remove the option of signing in support of more than one candidate and will ask the double signatories to opt for one candidate.

Sources close to Rivlin say that this special procedure is relevant only if two lists of signatories are submitted within minutes of one another. Under any other scenario, the president will accept Yinon’s plan – that the candidate who submits the signatures first receives the presidential nod to form the government, even if another candidate manages eventually to gather more signatures.

Do the leading candidates want another chance to form the government?

That’s unclear. Kahol Lavan chairman Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are preparing for any eventuality and have not decided at this time. If Netanyahu receives the mandate to form a government, he might be dragged into a legal battle over whether he is permitted to do so while under indictment. If he tries and fails to form a government, it would be his third such failure, something that he would hardly be proud of.

On the other hand, Netanyahu fears that if Gantz gets another crack at forming the government, he might manage to persuade some of his Likud party colleagues to cross over to his side. But Gantz also seems less than thrilled with another crack at the task. He has not yet collected signatures from the largely Arab Joint List, and it appears that, unless he establishes in advance that he has a coalition in hand, he would prefer not trying again.

A demonstration in Tel Aviv in support of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Nov. 26, 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Who will Lieberman support?

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman has not really decided, and at this point he is toying with both sides. On Saturday, the media reported that he intends to sign in support of both Netanyahu and Gantz. These reports are not accurate. Lieberman will only decide next week at the last minute, and all the options are still on the table: signing in support of both, for one, or for neither.

Lieberman at the Knesset. Credit: Ohad Zweygberg

What is the significance of the reservations expressed by the National Union’s Bezalel Smotrich and Shas leader Arye Dery over signing?

Dery tweeted on Sunday morning that “there’s no point in signing right now,” because there is still time. He also attacked Lieberman, whom he said “won’t join the right-wing bloc, and will more likely support a left-wing-Arab government.”

Later Dery made it clear that he had in fact gathered the signatures of his faction members. He added that “following consultations with the heads of the right-wing bloc, we will decide what to do and that would be only after we receive the signatures of Yisrael Beiteinu.” According to a report on the Walla News website, Smotrich said that if he and his fellow faction members sign, they will do it on the last day possible.

But it’s not clear whether the declarations of the two mean anything. Experience has shown that if Netanyahu wants their support, they would both provide their signatures on his behalf.

What has happened to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s efforts to bring the two sides together?

Edelstein is continuing to talk to the negotiating teams from both Likud and Kahol Lavan, but in private, the sides have expressed bitterness that the meetings have been a waste of time.

So what are the chances of avoiding another election?

Low. Apparently negligible. A unity government will not be established and Lieberman has clearly stated that he will not join a narrow government, whether right-wing or left-wing. And there will be no internal party elections in Likud before the 10-day period ends. As a result, there is no prospect on the horizon of avoiding elections.

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