The laconic joint statement issued in the pre-dawn hours of April 16 by aides to Blue and White party Chair Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave no hint of the dramatic six-hour coalition negotiations between the two political rivals on the formation of an emergency power-sharing government. “The teams will continue to talk tomorrow in order to arrive at an agreement on a national emergency government,” according to the statement.
This was not the news Gantz had hoped to deliver at the end of the weeklong Passover holiday, but the deadline set by President Reuven Rivlin for him to form Israel’s next government expired at midnight on April 15. Rivlin, who appears thoroughly fed up with Netanyahu’s foot-dragging, wasted no time and immediately handed the mandate to the Knesset. Under Israeli law, unless one of the 120 members of the legislature can drum up a majority and form a new government within 21 days, Israelis will head to the polls this summer for the fourth time since April 2019.
So what has been going on in recent weeks in negotiations conducted behind closed doors at the Prime Minister’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street and on the two sides’ Zoom screens?
With every passing day, Gantz and his people have been growing increasingly certain that Netanyahu is simply unable to sign a coalition agreement that would remove him from power in 18 months and hand his chair to Gantz. Looking back, they realize that every time an agreement appeared on the verge of completion, Netanyahu came up with new conditions. That was the case when Gantz and Netanyahu agreed March 20 on a rotation mechanism triggering an automatic job switch between them within 18 months, and on a roadmap to impose Israeli sovereignty over West Bank lands in accordance with President Donald Trump’s peace plan. Everything appeared ready, but Netanyahu pressed the pause button.
In the ensuing days, he kept upping the ante, demanding a mechanism to ensure he could serve as deputy prime minister to Gantz after the rotation even if the Supreme Court disqualifies him due to his criminal indictment on corruption charges. Netanyahu’s fear of such a scenario is not unfounded. The law currently allows an incumbent prime minister to remain in office even under indictment but does not make such concessions for any other member of the government.
Netanyahu would thus be taking a certain risk, but uncertainty is inherent in all political moves and not all outcomes can be foreseen. However, for someone like Netanyahu, given to apocalyptic imaginings and despising uncertainty, this is a fatal combination. Netanyahu is convinced that absent ironclad guarantees, the minute he signs off on the deal with Gantz, he could find himself facing ruin: The Supreme Court would disqualify him and he would spend the rest of his days as a former prime minister on trial for bribery.
Netanyahu appears crippled by his fears. He knows he lacks sufficient Knesset support to form a government without Gantz’s Blue and White. He also realizes that his reelection will hardly be assured if a fourth election is held in August while many voters are still in the throes of coronavirus-induced economic woes. Nonetheless, Netanyahu is unable to overcome his personality flaws and make good on his commitment to the public and to Gantz to establish an emergency unity government.
In the latest twist, Netanyahu is now demanding an amendment to the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government, stipulating that the Supreme Court would not have the power to order the resignation of an incumbent government minister “unless authorized to do so by law.” In other words, Netanyahu is demanding legislation that would tie the hands of the nation’s top court from ruling against him once he hands the reins to Gantz and is no longer the incumbent.
Gantz, who has repeatedly pledged to defend Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement authorities against persistent attempts by the political right to erode their power, will be hard-pressed to agree to such a law. Not only that, but his associates are also concerned that even if he gives in, Netanyahu will simply come up with another excuse.
A senior Blue and White source tells Al-Monitor that Gantz is adamant about the Supreme Court issue. The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, quoted Gantz as saying, “I sacrificed a great deal in order to establish an emergency government because that is what the state needs. I did not do so in order to pass laws against the Supreme Court or to bypass it.”
Indeed, Gantz negotiated with Netanyahu in good faith. In order to join a unity government that he believed to be vital to address the coronavirus crisis, Gantz sacrificed his original Blue and White party, which fell apart once he decided to go with Netanyahu, leaving him with only half the Knesset seats he garnered in the March 2 elections. He now finds himself in injury time facing a devious, dishonest and paranoid adversary.
Nonetheless, Gantz has not closed the door yet. If he concludes that Netanyahu misled him, he would still have almost three weeks to join forces with his former Blue and White partners and pass legislation targeting Netanyahu that would ban an indicted politician from forming a government. If that move fails, new elections would be called.
Netanyahu faces a life-changing decision: whether to go for an assured 18-month term or risk it all and head for summer elections — the outcome of which is anybody’s guess.
Recent polls are giving Netanyahu hope, but that could all change if hundreds of thousands of Israelis find themselves insolvent due to the COVID-19 fallout and take it out on him at the ballot box. He will also have to explain to voters why he dragged the country to wasteful and irresponsible elections at the height of a health and economic crisis of historic proportions — a near impossible feat even for a public diplomacy virtuoso such as himself.
Netanyahu was forced into negotiations with Gantz under threat. Despite his electoral achievement on March 2 giving his Likud party 36 Knesset seats compared with Blue and White’s 33, he did not have sufficient votes along with his allies to achieve a 61-seat majority and form a government. His rivals, meanwhile, threatened legislation that would ban him — an indicted politician — from serving as prime minister, and they appeared guaranteed of a Knesset majority.
“The problem with Netanyahu is that he does not know how to stop,” says a former close aide of Netanyahu’s, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This will bring him down. Gantz dismantled Blue and White for the sake of unity and Netanyahu is treating him like a villain, something that even the right does not like,” said the aide.
What happens now? Negotiations are expected to continue because neither Netanyahu nor Gantz has sufficient support for a government without the other. Netanyahu will try to tempt Knesset members from the rival camp to cross the lines in order to ensure the endorsement of 61 lawmakers for his next government, but his chances of success are slim. The question is whether Netanyahu can overcome his fears, paranoia and devious nature to join forces with Gantz and avoid a fourth round of elections, or whether he will opt for the unknown. Stay tuned for the answer.