Wed, Nov 20, 2019 Jonathan Feldstein
Following the announcement by Benny Gantz that he is unable to form a government, former general and current head of Israel’s opposition Blue and White Party, Israel could be headed for an unprecedented third national election in one year.
In case you missed it, Israel held national elections in April and September, neither of which provided any one party with a clear majority, or the mathematical probability to form a government with a coalition of multiple parties along the Left/Secular-Right/Religious lines as is traditional in Israel’s parliamentary democracy. The outcome of both elections was more or less the same with Blue and White and Likud together receiving a clear majority of votes, making it most possible mathematically that the two could form a coalition between them, a national unity government.
Politics and personalities have thus far prevented that, meaning that elections might be around the corner, again. For all of its faults, nobody can say Israel is not a democracy. Not with elections being held as often as they are, and not with the third largest party represented in the Knesset (parliament) the coalition of Arab parties known as the Joint List. This year the Joint List has had unprecedented influence in the ability, or inability, of anyone person or party to form the government.
If anything, Israel is a democracy on steroids.
There’s one last chance, a Hail Mary of sorts, that could prevent the need to go back to the polls, something most Israelis don’t want, and most believe would not lead to a substantially different outcome.
As Benny Gantz has returned the mandate to President Rivlin after having a month to form a government himself, unsuccessfully, the next step is the President following the law (a clause thereof that’s never been exercised before) and empowering all 120 members of the Knesset to support/task/settle/compromise on one of its members to form a government. Under this scenario, any member of the Knesset who is able to receive the support of at least another 60 other members would be designated to form the government. This can happen over the next three weeks, ending December 11.
On the surface, that looks unlikely because the right and left blocks seem reasonably united and uncompromising in their respective ideological positions. But there are a few factors that could make that possible.
One of the reasons this could happen is that while Prime Minister Netanyahu has dominated national politics and the Likud party for more than a decade, there are any number of up and coming Likud members who see themselves as Netanyahu’s successor. While loyal to him at least publicly, they want to be in the government, not on the sidelines. They want, and need, to have influence in the coming months and years to mount a campaign to become the head of Likud post-Netanyahu.
There’s a school of thought that if given the opportunity by the President, some of these could abandon Netanyahu and present themselves, or try to find a consensus candidate, to head Likud, at least on an interim basis. Doing so would enable the Blue and White Party to join a national unity government with Likud, as one of the impediments to Blue and White doing so is Netanyahu.
Another possible game changer is the impending announcement, as early as next week, as to whether Israel’s Attorney General intends to bring an indictment against Netanyahu on any of a number of charges. The most serious of these are fraud and bribery which could lead to his immediate resignation, or a call by a plurality of members of his own party (if not the country) to step down.
If he is indicted, and specifically if he steps down, the Likud members who seek to be Netanyahu’s successors will be less restrained to find another person to lead Likud and become the Prime Minister. In this scenario, there will be less resistance among other Likud members, and less of a backlash in that person’s political future.
There are several people who could step forward as such a consensus candidate. One of the most interesting of these scenarios is the current Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein. He’s seen as even handed and not politically or civilly divisive. He is consistently among the most popular among Likud members. Its widely known that Edelstein seeks to replace President Rivlin in two years when Rivlin’s term ends. (In Israel the president is elected by the 120 members of the Knesset.)
An agreement involving Edelstein as the consensus candidate would not only eliminate the impediment by many in Blue and White to join a government with Netanyahu as Prime Minister, whether he’s been indicted or not. It could allow Edelstein to serve as Prime Minister in a rotation agreement with Gantz that would then enable Edelstein to become President.
Even though there are no shortage of other candidates who would like to step in to replace Netanyahu as Prime Minister, few would or could legitimately oppose Edelstein and such an arrangement, as it would set the stage for any of them to become the leader of Likud in a clean-cut transition.
Blue and White would also benefit from this because most of their members have only been in the Knesset since May, and have never served in any government. For them individually, and Blue and White as a party, to have any relevance in the future as being anything other than the “anyone but Netanyahu” party, they need to be in government, begin to pass legislation, and take on leadership roles that would give anyone a reason to want to vote for them in the future.
Lastly, as many Israelis find it unthinkable that we should have a third election with no conclusive outcome, any respectable Knesset member would want to do his/her best to be sure that doesn’t happen. Or at least not to be one to blame because of it.
The next three weeks could be the most dramatic and dynamic of Israel’s 71 years of hyper-democracy. Only God knows what the outcome will be. So it’s a good time to beseech Him that the outcome should be a good one.