Mandate to Form a Government Returns to Knesset After Both PM Candidates Fail

For the first time in Israel's history, two candidates for prime minister failed to form a government. Now, a third election looms

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference regarding the transfer of the mandate to form a coalition to the Knesset, Jerusalem, November 20, 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Hours before his Wednesday midnight deadline for negotiations, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz announced he was unable to establish a governing coalition,

Returning the mandate to form a coalition to President Reuven Rivlin, Gantz has plunged Israel’s political sphere into even greater uncertainty, raising the chances of a third election cycle within a year.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 49Haaretz

After two failed rounds of unity talks, the first led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the September 17 election and the second by Gantz, any Knesset member with the backing of at least 61 lawmakers would be tasked with forming a coalition. Lawmakers now have 21 days to nominate a candidate.

This is the first time in Israel’s history that two candidates have failed to form a coalition.

Earlier on Wednesday, Avigdor Lieberman, seen as Israel’s kingmaker in government talks, said he would not support any kind of minority government, either one backed by the Arab parties or a narrow one with the 55-seat right-wing bloc backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lieberman blamed both Netanyahu and Gantz for the political deadlock, saying both men refused to budge from their positions for personal reasons.

By law, there now starts a period of 21 days for a majority of the Knesset to make a binding request to the president to give the mandate to form a government to a specific candidate they put forward. If such a candidate is found, the president could consult for two more days before giving the mandate to the named MK. After that the candidate would have 14 days to form a government.

Netanyahu and Gantz both failed to form a governing coalition. What happens now?

If the Knesset cannot agree on a candidate, or if the candidate fails to form a government, the Knesset dissolves and there will be another election.

Gantz told Rivlin that he had failed to form a government, and returned the mandate to do so. Nevertheless, the Kahol Lavan leader told the president that he is committed to do everything in his power to help form a governing coalition in the 21-day period left before a new election is called, and thanked Rivlin for his help in negotiation talks.

“The [right-wing] bloc stood firm, insisting to only see the best interest of one person, before that of the patients lying in hospital corridors,” Gantz said in reference to Israel’s dire health care system.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz at a press conference, November 20, 2019.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Gantz said there were those who insisted on preventing Israel’s citizens from entering an era of political sanity.

“Preventing Israel’s citizens from having a government led by those who were elected to do so in a clear and decisive manner is a dangerous move, one of its kind in Israel’s history,” Gantz said.

“No secular, Arab or religious party is above the people’s best interest. No leader has a right to tell the people ‘my personal interest takes precedence over the people’s interest,’” he said, adding that since he had entered politics he had “proven that I don’t cave in to any kind of threats,” he said.

Likud officials said an agreement with Kahol Lavan was foiled by senior party officials Yair Lapid and Moshe Yaalon.

According to the Likud sources, both parties’ negotiation teams were close to agreeing that Netanyahu would serve first in a rotating premiership agreement, that he would declare incapacity and take a leave of absence within six months to a year if an indictment is filed against him, and that the right-wing bloc wouldn’t be dismantled.

“In the past 28 days no stone was left unturned while we tried to form a government that would bring Israel a leadership of dignity, morals and values, a leadership that has been forgotten,” Gantz said.

Gantz and Netanyahu had met Tuesday to deal with the main disagreements between them, and at the end of the meeting Gantz made it clear that he remained firm about two of the party’s demands: breaking up the right-wing coalition bloc and establishing a government headed by Kahol Lavan.

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman at a press conference, November 20, 2019.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Netanyahu said Gantz had rejected the proposal made by Rivlin and claimed Kahol Lavan was planning to establish a minority government. But Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman on Wednesday put to rest the possibility of a narrow right-wing government or a minority government headed by Kahol Lavan, saying, “It was clear we would not go into a coalition supported by the Joint List.”

Netanyahu blamed Gantz for refusing to accept the president’s proposal that he, Gantz, go second as prime minister in the rotation, as also demanded by Lieberman two weeks ago. “Lieberman said he would go with the side that didn’t refuse. Now it remains to be seen if Avigdor Lieberman keeps his commitment,” Netanyahu said. However, Netanyahu himself refused Lieberman’s demand to dismantle the bloc of right-wing parties.

During a meeting of the parties that make up the right-wing bloc Wednesday, Netanyahu addressed Gantz and called on him to “free himself from the veto” of his co-leader Yair Lapid and join him in a unity government, saying, “We cannot drag the country into another election.” Netanyahu said he “knows from the coffee ladies” who serve him that the nation wants a unity government. He added that it’s illegitimate to rule out any public en route to forming a government – “the ultra-Orthodox [or Haredi] public, Jews or non-Jews.”

Netanyahu was referring to statements by Lieberman, who on Wednesday accused the prime minister of “mortgaging the entire Likud movement for the benefit of the Haredi parties.”

Lieberman criticized both Gantz and Netanyahu for refusing to compromise during the coalition talks. “One wasn’t prepared to accept the president’s outline,” he said, referring to Gantz, while adding that, “Netanyahu wasn’t prepared to separate from his Haredi-messianic bloc.”

According to Lieberman, Netanyahu tried to drag things out during the negotiations, while at the same time Kahol Lavan “played a double game,” not accepting the president’s outline while also trying to set up a government with the Haredi parties. Lieberman said he had gotten very tempting offers to agree to join the government, including being named deputy premier and being prime minister during the last year of the government. “We don’t sell out our principles, even for seats,” he said.

Lieberman also referred to words of thanks that Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) had said Tuesday to MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) for the cooperation between them. “Whoever saw during the Finance Committee meeting how Gafni opened the meeting by heaping praise on Tibi, and who saw today just the reverse, Tibi [singing] Gafni’s praises [knows that] the real cooperation in this Knesset – coalition, opposition, it doesn’t matter – is between the Arab and Haredi MKs. It’s an anti-Zionist coalition that’s playing with both blocs.”