President Reuven Rivlin awarded a mandate for forming a new government four times over the past two years – twice to Benjamin Netanyahu and twice to Benny Gantz. Each time the chosen candidate failed. On Tuesday afternoon he conferred the mandate for the fifth time, and the chances of the candidate this time around, Netanyahu on his third try, are slimmer than ever.
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If they had endorsed Yair Lapid, at least two more Joint List legislators would have joined them, giving the Yesh Atid chief one more endorsement than Netanyahu. Rivlin could have chosen a candidate who wasn’t in court facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
But they left him with little choice when they bizarrely asked to “deposit” their endorsement rather than specify if they were recommending Lapid or the other non-Netanyahu candidate, Naftali Bennett.
It was “an ethically difficult decision,” Rivlin said, but he preferred that difficulty to triggering an inevitable crisis for the institution of the presidency, just four months before his seven-year term ends.
Perhaps if he was at an earlier point in his term he would have risked it. But he knew that not conferring the mandate on Netanyahu would have branded him “president of only half the nation” when he left office. It was too much to expect him to act otherwise.
This was the first bit of good news Netanyahu has had in two weeks, since the election-night exit polls that were initially in his favor turned and he was denied his majority. In a week in which he has faced bruising testimony at Jerusalem District Court, while far away in Vienna his diplomatic campaign against the Iranian nuclear deal is beginning to crumble, he needed this. At least he’s ensured now that for the next 28 days, no one else can form a government or wrest control of parliamentary business from the incumbent Knesset speaker, Yariv Levin.
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But Netanyahu is more bogged down than ever by circumstances of his own creation. With only four parties – Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism – supporting him, he remains nine seats short of a majority. He needs at least two more parties to join his coalition, and the chances of that happening are receding.
The two parties that currently are not supporting him but haven’t ruled it out are Bennett’s Yamina and the United Arab List. They’re Netanyahu’s most obvious track to 61 seats, but the Jewish supremacists of Religious Zionism have made clear their veto on any coalition supported by Mansour Abbas’ conservative Islamists.
The two parties that probably wouldn’t have been in this Knesset if it weren’t for Netanyahu’s interventions are canceling each other out and in the process denying him his majority.
They’re also providing Bennett with the perfect excuse. If it was only his seven seats that Netanyahu needed for a majority, Bennett would find it very difficult to refuse to join a full-on right-wing/religious coalition. But since Yamina’s seven seats would still leave the Netanyahu bloc at 59, he’s free to pursue his ambitions as prime minister-in-rotation with Lapid.
Netanyahu now has another four weeks to pressure Religious Zionism to relent. He’ll organize delegations of rabbis to try to persuade party leader Bezalel Smotrich, but the problem is that Smotrich, even if he were open to persuasion – and everything he has said in the last two weeks indicates the contrary – isn’t alone.
Religious Zionism is made up, thanks to Netanyahu, of three far-right parties, and Smotrich can’t force the neo-Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit or the homophobes of Noam to go along. And besides, Smotrich has the same excuse Bennett has: Why should he capitulate to Netanyahu when it won’t ensure he has a majority anyway?
Netanyahu is stuck in the Bennett-Smotrich-Abbas triangle with the three party leaders only entrenching their positions. His only way of breaking the deadlock is luring another party, or defectors from another party, to join him.
But where will they come from? From New Hope, whose entire raison d’être was forming a government under anyone but Netanyahu? From Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, which made the mistake last year of joining a Netanyahu coalition that lasted only five months?
Netanyahu has 28 days to come up with an answer, but Lapid will be hard at work as well. And his chances of removing Netanyahu have never been better.
Lapid has already made the major concession necessary for forming a coalition. He has agreed to a rotating premiership in which Bennett will get the first half-term as prime minister. And on paper at least, eight parties are prepared to join their government: Yesh Atid, Kahol Lavan, Yamina, Labor, Yisrael Beiteinu, Meretz, New Hope and the newly legitimized, by Netanyahu, United Arab List, which together have 62 Knesset members.
It would be the most unwieldy and diverse Israeli government ever, and the bar for that is high, but so far none of the eight have ruled any of the others out. They’re united by one burning desire: to see Netanyahu leave.
The Lapid-Bennett government can’t be inaugurated for another 28 days at least, but that gives its architects more time to iron out the complex coalition mechanisms. In the next four weeks, the idea of actually becoming prime minister will grow in Bennett’s ambitious imagination and start to become a reality. On the other hand, Netanyahu will have time to try to pick off the weakest members.
With his chances of forming a government diminishing, Netanyahu’s objective will be to deny anyone else a chance. As he desperately strives to build unity among his potential supporters, he will increasingly be sowing discord among his rivals, in the hope of running the clock down on coalition talks until the deadline for a fifth election.