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Israel’s third election only intensified political chaos

Four days after the elections in Israel, all the different sides are still squabbling among themselves as if the election isn’t over yet.
Traffic moves past a Blue and White party election campaign poster, depicting party leader Benny Gantz, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen - RC243F9KEJJJ

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had less than a day of grace before learning that his great achievement — increasing the size of his Likud party and the right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc by three seats — had come crashing down against the cement floor of reality. Once again, he found himself facing off against the man who spent a year keeping him from a fifth term as prime minister, Chairman of Yisrael Beitenu Avigdor Liberman. While Liberman is not Netanyahu’s top rival, he holds the keys for Netanyahu reaching a majority coalition. And it looks like this time Liberman will do anything he can to “finish the job,” as he sees it, and “remove” Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office.

In the two days immediately following the election, Liberman kept his silence and held his cards close to his chest. By March 5, he was already back in the ring with a renewed vigor and all sorts of bad news for Netanyahu. At the end of a party meeting that he called, Liberman announced that Yisrael Beitenu had decided to advance two new laws, including one that would prevent any Knesset member under indictment from being tasked with forming a new government. Sources close to Liberman noted that he would recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz be tasked with forming the next government.

Netanyahu has 58 seats in his right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc. His opponents — the Blue and White party, Yisrael Beitenu, the United Left List of Labor-Gesher-Meretz and the Arab Joint List — have 62 seats. This is an “Anyone but Netanyahu” coalition. Its members have virtually nothing in common except for wanting to get rid of Netanyahu. Liberman’s plan is to have the president task Gantz with forming a government, while at the same time amending a Basic Law so that Netanyahu would be blocked from forming a government because he is indicted on criminal charges. If necessary, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud party) will also be deposed so that he does not slow down the new legislation. According to this plan, Gantz would head a minority government with outside support from the Joint List and Yisrael Beitenu.

While Liberman’s plan to get rid of Netanyahu seems promising on paper, the chances of it actually happening are slim. Legislation targeting an individual is problematic, particularly when done right after an election in order to remove a particular person from the political arena. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that all the members of the Joint List would support the move — it will be remembered that after the September 2019 election, the three Knesset members from the Balad faction refused to recommend Gantz to the president.

So what’s really behind this? It looks like these moves are intended to apply pressure to Netanyahu and to signal to the right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc that he is a lame duck, despite his performance in the election. Netanyahu’s opponents hope that this will break his bloc apart and allow Gantz to form a unity government with some other Likud leader. But this scenario is also very unlikely. Netanyahu has a tight grip on his bloc, and his position in the Likud is strong and stable. He defeated Gideon Saar in a primary last December, and was reelected head of the Likud. The only way he can be removed from this position would be a new round of primaries for the party’s leadership.

Despite all this, the political and media focus on moves to block Netanyahu have given the initiative back to the Blue and White party and Liberman, along with the feeling that they are in control. This comes after two days of shock, when they saw the March 2 election results showing Netanyahu getting stronger even after he had been indicted. Suddenly, the victory party that Netanyahu held just hours after the polls closed seemed completely divorced from reality. Yes, he did win, but he is still unable to form a government. Across the political divide, the Blue and White party is also facing a crisis. This election proved that the momentum that the party had at its inception has faded. Its agenda focuses exclusively on “Anyone but Netanyahu,” and Gantz has also been unable to win an election and form a government, just like Netanyahu.

Over the last two days, the Blue and White party has been signaling that it plans to work together with the Arab Joint List to remove Netanyahu from office. This is a politically dangerous zigzag on their part. Blue and White spent the entire election trying to distinguish itself from the Joint List, in an effort to keep its soft right supporters. This was especially important for the party after internal polling found that quite a few of these supporters left Blue and White in reaction to coalition negotiation between Gantz and the Joint List after the September 2019 election.

The Blue and White party does not want a fourth election. However, in the same breath they reject the possibility of sitting in a unity government with Netanyahu because of the indictment against him. Senior party members told Al-Monitor that Gantz has lost any trust and empathy he had for Netanyahu because of the mudslinging campaign waged against him. They added that Gantz was offended personally by this. On the other hand, Netanyahu realizes that he could lose control over what happens in the Knesset or even find himself in a fourth round of elections. That is why he launched a new campaign March 5: “We won’t let them steal the election from us!”

“The Likud and the right won the election in a knockout,” Netanyahu announced in a video posted to social media networks. “Having failed at the ballot box, Gantz is now trying, together with Liberman, to rob masses of Israeli citizens of their decision, which gave the Likud a decisive victory under my leadership. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan could learn a lot from them. They wouldn’t even do this in Iran. There, they disqualify candidates before the election, not after …” He concluded, “We are millions of citizens in the State of Israel who will not allow them to steal this election.”

Netanyahu’s objective was to launch a public delegitimization campaign against a minority government supported by the Joint List in order to preempt it. But that’s not all. Netanyahu believes that a fourth round of elections is not some impossible scenario, so he is already honing his message that Gantz and Liberman are “robbing” over 2 million citizens of their democratic choice, nothing more and nothing less, and that they are doing it with the support of the “Arabs.”

At this point, all the different sides are still squabbling among themselves as if the election is not over yet. In response to Liberman’s recent move, the Likud asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to open a criminal investigation against him over a bribery scandal in his party, which exploded in 2015. As far as Netanyahu and Liberman are concerned, this is a lot like flipping the board. Nothing good will come of it.

It turns out that this third round of elections not only failed to resolve the political imbroglio. If anything, it made it worse. In the current situation, with no one showing the slightest flexibility, and the rhetoric only intensifying, it is impossible to form a stable government. The option of a unity government based on rotation between Gantz and Netanyahu is the most reasonable option under these circumstances. It could restore calm to the political system, which seems to have spun out of control. But the chance of that happening seems more remote than ever.

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