Netanyahu gives up on forming government – for now

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced Monday that he is giving up on forming a government. This was no surprise. Neither of the two main contenders, Likud’s Netanyahu nor Blue-White’s Benny Gantz, had enough support to reach a 61 seat majority in the 120 seat Knesset. In fact, Netanyahu had not even used his full four-week opportunity and announced that he is giving up more than two days ahead of the deadline, which was originally today.

Although Likud ended up just under Blue-White with 32 seats vs 33, Netanyahu was tapped first by the President Reuven Rivlin because he had slightly more support across parties – 55 seats vs. 54. Gantz’s support was at first thought to be bigger with 57 seats, but three representatives of the Joint List – from the Balad party – refused to join chairman Ayman Odeh’s endorsement of Gantz.

In any case, Gantz is not in a better position. He will now be tapped by the President to form a government. But how will he? Gantz has announced repeatedly that he will not serve with Netanyahu if he is indicted – but what if Netanyahu is not indicted? The hearings from earlier in the month concerning Netanyahu’s various corruption cases have yet to result in a possible indictment, although Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit could announce one in a few weeks. In the meantime, for Gantz, Netanyahu is like Schrödinger’s cat – he is both guilty and not guilty, and thus cannot be a bet for partnership.

There has been speculation that some of the parties supporting Likud might defect and support Gantz, but unlike decades ago when the religious parties were more willing to join left-center governments, they are more right-wing nationalists nowadays, and it seems quite improbable. Even the support offered by some of the Joint list does not mean they will actually join a government, even if they were offered ministerial seats – and there’s Avigdor Lieberman on the other end, which would refuse to sit with them in the government if they did. Lieberman, to the right of Blue-White, has been pointing to a unity government of Blue-White, Likud, and his Israel Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) as the “only option”.

So really, unless something really, really unexpected happens (never say never), everything is pointing to a continued stalemate. If Gantz does not succeed in forming a government in the four weeks from when he is tasked with doing so, or in the 3-week extension (where in theory any candidate having the support of 61 Knesset members can run), then it’s going to have to be yet another repeat election, most likely in March.

Netanyahu has chided Gantz for not acquiescing to his proposals for a unity government – where Netanyahu reportedly wanted to bring in other support parties from the right – naturally to strengthen his position as superior to Gantz. Gantz has also pointed to a unity government. The only difference between the two is really semantic – Netanyahu said he wanted a “broad national unity government”, Gantz says he wants a “liberal national unity government”. And Gantz is not really such a liberal. So in the end, it’s really a question of two shades of ‘blue and white’, if you will – two right-center Zionist options.

For Netanyahu, this is not over yet. His ‘giving up’ is tactical only. Whatever one thinks about Netanyahu, he must be credited for being a mastermind of political survival, perhaps the best in Israeli history. And for him, it’s basically about waiting this out – to witness the likely failure of Gantz, and to await yet another election. In the meanwhile, he will continue to be Prime Minister, even if he goes on a leave of absence in the case of him being indicted, which Likud officials have suggested might become the case. Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz opines that this option may also be favorable to Netanyahu’s case:

[I]f Netanyahu is indicted, he would be tried by three Jerusalem District Court judges, as the law states for a sitting prime minister. He believes he has a better chance than there than in front of a single judge in Tel Aviv, where judges are the experts on white-collar crime, and usually less lenient in their verdicts, adding to the fact that the investigation against him was led by the State Prosecutor’s Tel Aviv branch.

Whatever the case, it is far from decided yet. It is clear that the baton to form a government will be passed to Gantz, but it is very, very unclear whether he will be able to form a government. He would no doubt be clear to form one with Likud if Netanyahu were not leading it – but despite murmurs of mutiny within the Likud, Netanyahu’s rein is tight and that too seems rather unlikely in the near future. It is hard to put bets on this one, but it seems likely that Israel will be facing a third election. Many of those who were in the mode of “just not Netanyahu” (which certainly includes Blue-White), were somewhat ecstatic to witness that Netanyahu did not win a decisive victory. But neither did Gantz.

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Don’t underestimate a crooked, cunning man. He is trying to conspire, and calculate ways, to cling to some power. He truly belongs in jail, not only for corruption, but for human rights violations too.

“everything is pointing to a continued stalemate.”

So nobody is responsible for what the Israeli government does in this ‘interim’. What an opportunity, which Israel won’t fail to miss.