Could Israel’s president prevent third elections in a year?

With Avigdor Liberman insisting on a unity government, Blue and White rejecting a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Netanyahu’s upcoming pre-indictment hearing, the establishment of a government seems almost impossible.

al-monitor Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks as he meet members of the Likud party as he began talks with political parties over who should form a new government, at his residence, Jerusalem, Sept. 22, 2019. Photo by Menachen Kahana/Pool.

Sep 25, 2019

Once the dust settled, it transpired that the outcome of the Sept. 17 elections and the resulting political deadlock could not have been more complex. However, with the final voting tally published Sept. 24, it turned out that the imbroglio was even worse, with the ruling Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gaining an additional Knesset seat for a total of 32, and the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah party going down one seat to seven in all. That precludes the option that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz (33 Knesset seats) would form Israel’s next government with the ultra-Orthodox parties but without the Likud. Such a combination would not offer Gantz the 61-seat majority he needs.

This deepening entanglement could lead Israel to one of the strangest and most intransigent crises in its history: a constitutional deadlock, with no candidate able to form a government, requiring yet another election, the third in just over a year. This scenario, which would have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago, is emerging before our eyes.

Given this state of affairs, President Reuven Rivlin, whose position under Israeli law is largely ceremonial and devoid of real political power, has become the key figure. By law, the No. 1 citizen is the one who decides which candidate to task with forming the country’s government. Generally, this is a pro forma exercise, with the leader of the biggest party getting the nod, but not this time, when neither man has a clear chance of garnering sufficient support for a majority coalition. Thus, Rivlin has become the only one who could potentially resolve the bind in which Israel finds itself.

The president has risen to the challenge. In recent days he has played the role of a stubborn matchmaker trying to force an intransigent couple who despise each other into a marriage of inconvenience. After consulting with the leaders of all the elected parties, Rivlin decided he would not ask either of the two to form a government and would take time in a bid to weld these two together into forming a unity government. He called them in for a joint meeting at his official residence, sitting with them for the first half hour and then making a dramatic exit and leaving them alone. His office announced that both men were invited to dinner Sept. 25. This evening, Rivlin gave the nod to Netanyahu, tasking him with the formation of the new government.

Conflicts of interest, contradictory promises and political alliances make this an unprecedented constitutional-political crisis. Another key figure, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, whose party has eight Knesset seats and is refusing to endorse either candidate, told Al-Monitor this week that there was no way he would join a narrow coalition government, “not with Netanyahu and the right and not with Gantz and the left,” he reiterated for the umpteenth time. As far as Liberman is concerned, only a secular-liberal unity government comprising his party, the Likud, and Blue and White is a viable option.

Netanyahu, too, is in a political bind, which could prove fatal for himself and the right-wing religious bloc of parties he created (comprising the Likud, Yamina and the two ultra-Orthodox parties) and to which he has sworn allegiance. Netanyahu knows his political future depends on the extent of this bloc’s loyalty, which was why he locked in these parties’ support on the day after the elections. In the ensuing days, he has promised them almost daily not to betray them and not to join or form any government without his “natural partners.” At the same time, this bloc is also a deadweight that could drag Netanyahu down into an abyss because it distances any prospects of a majority government with Liberman or Gantz. Netanyahu cannot dance with the ultra-Orthodox, on one side, and with the anti-clerical Liberman and Blue and White, on the other.

Gantz’s room for maneuver is also limited. His party is committed to a pledge not to partner with Netanyahu given the three possible criminal indictments he faces on charges of corruption. They are also bound by the promise to voters to form a “secular unity government.” For the first time in history, a Zionist party has won the endorsement of the Arab Joint List (except for the three Knesset members of its Balad faction), but cannot ask it to join a minority government because Liberman would never sit side-by-side with elected Arab lawmakers, not even on an unofficial basis.

The only option is to fantasize about imaginary scenarios and pray for a miracle — or for a revolt in Likud ranks against Netanyahu.

The political mess is compounded by Netanyahu’s scheduled Oct. 2 hearing before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to determine whether to indict him on corruption charges. The attorney general’s associates are telling reporters that an effort will be made to reach a final decision in November. That also places Netanyahu in difficult circumstances: the nightmare scenario of “The State of Israel v. Benjamin Netanyahu” catching him as he tries to form a government could be a severe blow to his political and public standing. What could pull the country out of the quagmire is a type of Likud uprising, with top members of the party standing up to Netanyahu at the moment of truth. Prospects of that happening are not high.

Therefore, all eyes are on the president. If Netanyahu and Gantz, each in turn, are unable to forge a government, the process then goes into its third and final 21-day stage, during which a majority of Knesset members can provide Rivlin with the name of another candidate who enjoys parliamentary support. What happens if Blue and White and Liberman obtain the signatures of 10 renegade Likud lawmakers in support of a prime ministerial candidate other than Netanyahu? What if President Rivlin tasks some other candidate with forming a government, giving a creative interpretation to the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government? Will Israel be dragged into a third consecutive election, which would mean a total freeze of government activity for a cumulative period of 18 months (since the April elections were announced)?

The coming weeks will be nerve-wracking. Add to all this the internal unrest within Blue and White (Gantz’s co-chair Yair Lapid refuses to join a government with Netanyahu while some of his colleagues are inclined to compromise on this matter), and top it off with the security tensions in the north and south. There is no precedent for such a paralyzing political crisis in the country’s 71-year history.

Whoever becomes Israel’s next prime minister, one thing is clear: This strange and unwieldy form of government must be replaced or at least amended.

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