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Israel's Gantz must build house of cards on shaky Knesset grounds

The clock is ticking now that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has been tapped to compose a government and he faces some very tough decisions.
Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party pays his respect to former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar who died on Saturday during a memorial ceremony held at the supreme court in Jerusalem October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RC1245A6F000

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has made history even before he's done anything. On the evening of Oct. 23, Gantz became the first new politician to receive the mandate to assemble a government in Israel in the Netanyahu era. The last time that happened was in 2009, when Kadima leader Tzipi Livni received the mandate after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned under the pressures of criminal investigations. Livni failed and Israel went to elections. Though Netanyahu received only 27 mandates (Livni’s Kadima had garnered 28), he succeeded in creating a majority coalition. For 11 long years, no one but Netanyahu has received the mandate to assemble the government. It was given to Netanyahu almost automatically in 2009, 2013, 2015 and in both rounds of 2019.

The game is over: Netanyahu failed twice in a row to assemble a government and lost his mandate. It was not long ago that such thing was viewed as implausible or even impossible. Yet despite the upset, the event is of little significance at this point because Netanyahu can still return to power if Gantz fails to assemble a government in the next 28 days.

The odds of Gantz failing are high. Netanyahu has not yet given up and the decisive battle of this fascinating historical-political game is still before us. The only barrier that has been breached for the moment is a psychological hurdle. We are still in the beginning stage that will set the tone for what follows.

Gantz faces two problems: First, he has been dealt a hand only slightly better than Netanyahu's. Gantz is still very far from creating a stable coalition. Second, to emerge as the winner, Gantz will have to what he doesn’t like doing, certainly not under pressure: He’ll have to make a series of difficult decisions.

Gantz now has 28 days to notify the president that he has cobbled together a government and bring it to the Knesset for approval. Incidentally, Gantz doesn’t need the support of 61 Knesset members to swear in a government. Even a narrow minority government based on external support from the Arabs or abstention by the ultra-Orthodox (or vice versa) could be relatively stable. Anyone who tried to bring it down would have to get 61 Knesset members on board for a no-confidence vote, plus an alternative prime minister and alternative coalition. That’s not an easy task. 

For a minority government to rise, Gantz will have to convince Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman to join a coalition also supported by the Joint List, including the Balad faction, which is detested by most of the Israeli public and certainly Liberman himself. The Arab Knesset members themselves would have to be convinced to take part in such an unprecedented arrangement. Certainly, the three Balad lawmakers would not be convinced easily, if at all. There are even elements in Gantz’ Blue and White Party who won’t like the idea — for example, right-wing Knesset members Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, who both worked for Netanyahu in the past.

And yet, we are talking about a possibility that could free Israel from the Netanyahu family. On the day such a government is sworn in, Netanyahu will become a has-been. He’d have to pack his bags and leave Balfour Street, say goodbye to the protective security detail that constantly follows him and give up his responsibilities and status. He’d become a regular Knesset member. In such a situation, it will be also much easier and simpler to bring a bill of indictment against him. Today, Netanyahu tightens his grip over Likud seniors almost on an hourly basis, but if all this happens, the Likud will be much more ready for and open to dramatic changes in its leadership.

Is this a realistic scenario? No. Too many miracles would have to take place for it to happen. There are many risks that could cause a Blue and White government to fall apart quickly in the next elections, mainly because of its necessary cooperation with the Arab factions. This scenario is mainly based on the mutual loathing that continues to grow between Netanyahu and his former historic partner, Liberman. To realize this plan, Gantz would have to make the most difficult decisions of his life and show more leadership, determination and decisiveness than he has throughout his entire career.

There are additional possible scenarios and those, too, demand that Gantz make difficult decisions and demonstrate great leadership. A rotation unity government is one of them. Gantz and Netanyahu can sit together in a logical structure that Liberman supports. But Gantz promised that he would not serve under a prime minister with an indictment hanging over his head. Netanyahu demands to be first in the rotation — without this condition, he has no chance to wriggle out of an indictment. Another logical compromise is President Reuven Rivlin’s outline for a power-sharing government in which Netanyahu would be required to declare himself “incapacitated” if indicted and transfer his powers to Gantz. The problem is that the top Blue and White officials won't hear of it. The other Blue and White leaders — Yair Lapid, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon — are convinced that Netanyahu intends to out-maneuver Gantz and will never agree to abdicate power. Also, the Blue and White people feel that two prime ministers serving simultaneously is too grotesque to ever become a reality. If Gantz decides, nevertheless, that it is a real option, he may have to go against his Blue and White partners and destroy the party.

There are still other possibilities. One of them is the dismantling of the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc and the historic disconnection of these parties from Netanyahu’s grip. This situation would give Blue and White, the right-wing parties and the ultra-Orthodox 56 mandates. Together with the six mandates of the Labor-Gesher party, it could be a relatively stable coalition of 62 mandates even without Liberman. True, the chances for that happening, are low. But also true, Gantz has excellent relationships with the ultra-Orthodox and also with Yamina leaders Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett. Is he capable of restraining the left flank of his party and turning his back on some of the most important election promises he made? As a reminder, Gantz stated that he aims to establish a liberal unity government. Here, too, leadership and risk-taking are necessary. Here, too, it is not clear if Gantz is willing or ready to assume the challenge.

Meanwhile, Gantz is enjoying his moment in the sun after having received the mandate to muster a coalition. The more time that passes, the more the pressure will rise as the decision of Israel’s attorney general's indictment decision grows closer, and unanticipated possibilities are bound to pop up. Throughout his career, Gantz had enjoyed constant luck and unexpected opportunities. They have played a decisive role in laying out the path that led him to where he is today, and could well do so again.

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