All other things being equal, Israel’s two major parties have a lot in common. Theoretically, the negotiations between Likud and Kahol Lavan, which got underway on Tuesday at President Reuven Rivlin’s behest, could yield a comprehensive coalition agreement within a matter of days. Likud is more nationalist and Kahol Lavan more liberal, but grosso modo, both parties straddle the perceived pragmatic center of Israeli politics, shunning radicals and extremists on both sides of the political map.
If one ignores personalities, the main roadblock on their way to a broad-based national unity government is their disparate views on religion and state, the only issue that achieved any prominence in an election campaign predominantly focused on Benjamin Netanyahu. Ostensibly, at least, Benny Gantz is willing to contemplate the establishment of the “Zionist and secular” coalition advocated by Avigdor Lieberman, while Netanyahu is loath to risk his currently ironclad alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties and the religious right.
Both, however, could easily cajole their parties to embrace either direction or anything in between. Gantz would cite the overriding goal of stopping Netanyahu’s destructive battles against democracy and the rule of law; Netanyahu could argue that preventing the establishment of a leftist, Arab-loving Gantz government is worth any sacrifice. And both could connive to skirt the issue altogether by excluding Lieberman and declaring their allegiance to the current status quo, which should suffice for the ultra-Orthodox to overcome their aversion to Kahol Lavan’s Yair Lapid and expand the broad coalition even more.
Nonetheless, the talks between Gantz and Lieberman are bound to fail. They might reach agreement on a broad set of issues but will stumble on the question that may seem trivial but is, in fact, the most cardinal of all: Who goes first?
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The differences between Gantz and Netanyahu on this matter are virtually irreconcilable. As in the irresistible force paradox, their conflicting views represent a clash between an immutable force and an unmovable object. Their conflict is axiomatic: Gantz, whose meteoric rise to the top was fueled by the center-left’s virulent opposition to the prime minister, risks internal upheaval in Kahol Lavan if he joins a government led by Netanyahu before his legal challenges are resolved.
For Netanyahu, on the other hand, going first is the name of the game. The September 17 election may have left the identity of the next government unresolved, but it unequivocally defeated Netanyahu’s quest for immunity along with his dreams of reshaping Israeli democracy. Approaching his impending hearing with, and potential indictment by, the attorney general from the august position of prime minister is Netanyahu’s weapon of last resort. Serving in a Gantz-led government as a “lowly” minister, who is required by law to resign in case of indictment, is a non-starter.
If conspiracy theorists are to be believed, the inevitable stalemate is part of an elaborate ruse concocted by Netanyahu and Lieberman that would allow the former defense minister to renege on his promise to support a secular coalition between Likud, Kahol Lavan and his own Yisrael Beiteinu alone. This week, Lieberman ominously signaled his disdain for the conflict over “who goes first.” He could very well portray Gantz’s refusal to serve under Netanyahu as a game-changer that releases him from his pledge. In exchange for a hefty bounty, Liberman could realign with Netanyahu and give him the immunity-granting radical right-wing coalition of his dreams.
The more likely scenario, however, is the one envisioned before Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to play the national-unity charade, mostly to placate Rivlin. If Lieberman stays true to his word to sit out any talks that are not geared to produce his secular coalition, and if – and it’s a big if – both candidates fail to recruit defectors from rival camps, then both Gantz and Netanyahu will fail to garner a majority. Israel will face the outcome it dreads most: a new election, the third this year, which would erode the public’s confidence in Israeli democracy and undermine the country’s economic stability because of the ongoing paralysis at the top.
Israel’s Basic Law: The Government, however, provides a formula to break the logjam. The law, which details the rules governing the president’s appointment of prospective prime ministers, does not actually require him to appoint the leader of the biggest party or the candidate who has garnered the most endorsements by the various Knesset factions. The law states that the president can appoint any “member of the Knesset who has agreed” to the appointment, which, theoretically, could be any one of the 120 members elected to the Knesset last Tuesday.
In all previous elections, the candidate chosen by the president either led the biggest party or was endorsed by a majority of the Knesset members, but the September 17 ballot broke the mold. Gantz has the bigger party, and Netanyahu managed to eke out one more endorsement than his rival, but, given the likely collapse of their bilateral talks, neither candidate seems capable of cobbling together a majority. The unprecedented political stalemate and the specter of a third election give Rivlin an opening to appoint someone other than Gantz or Netanyahu.
But even if the president feels obligated to stick to tradition and to giving both Gantz and Netanyahu a fighting chance, the Basic Law stipulates that after a failure by two appointees to form a government, a majority of Knesset members can decide to give someone else a try and the president is bound to accept their recommendation.
Thus, the next prime minister could be a legislator who currently has no inkling of his impending rise to the top and who no one currently views as prime ministerial material. A Likud candidate other than Netanyahu – Gideon Sa'ar, for example – could easily overcome the “who goes first” hurdle because Kahol Lavan could serve in a government he heads. A Kahol Lavan candidate other than Gantz – the popular Gabi Ashkenazi, say – could garner widespread support from the center-right as well as the center-left, forcing Netanyahu to serve as his minister or, more plausibly, compelling him to step down altogether.
According to rumors –which may be emanating from Lieberman himself – Rivlin is actively contemplating appointing the former defense minister and current kingmaker himself. Lieberman’s appointment would certainly spark an unprecedented uproar, but theoretically he could provide both Likud and Kahol Lavan with a way out of the corner into which they've backed themselves.
Lieberman or not, critics would inevitably savage the “undemocratic” appointment of a prime minister who hadn’t even vied for the job. Israeli politics would be upended. The High Court of Justice would be asked to intervene. Nonetheless, Israel might gain a working government that enjoys a stable parliamentary majority. Human nature being what it is, Netanyahu and Gantz would be quickly forgotten.
It’s not a likely scenario, but it’s not implausible either. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention. Israel’s need to break out of the stalemate and return to normal life is so acute that even the craziest notions could soon be on the table.