Israel Pulse

Likud blames rival over Netanyahu-instigated political crisis

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Article Summary
The insistence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to step down while being investigated by police is at the source of the current crisis; yet he prefers to blame his rival for the political deadlock.

Over nine months ago, Israel’s 20th Knesset voted itself out of office in order to embark on an election campaign — a campaign that ultimately brought the state to a dead end. After two elections (in April and in September), Israel still has no government. At best — or perhaps at worst — the elections held on Sept. 17 for the 22nd Knesset will eventually result in a narrow coalition government or a two-headed power-sharing government, an option becoming less likely with every passing day. At worst — or perhaps at best — in January or February 2020, Israelis will be summoned to the ballot boxes once again, for the third time in less than a year. Either way, the State of Israel has been run for months by a group of people devoting most of their time and energy to being reelected and keeping their jobs or being promoted. Furthermore, most of the prime minister’s energies are devoted to keeping his own private business intact, meaning to achieve immunity from prosecution and stay in office.

A grocery shop owner who takes annual leave makes sure he has a replacement to run the business. The prime minister of Israel, surely one of the most complex jobs on the planet, has not named a substitute, believing himself irreplaceable. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to take leave in order to devote himself fully to proving his innocence of the charges of corruption dogging him. He is holed up at his official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, paralyzing the entire state.

In a bid to break the deadlock produced by the election results, President Reuven Rivlin cooked up a power-sharing deal between Netanyahu’s Likud and his rival Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party. In a Sept. 25 meeting, Rivlin suggested a legal change to the position of “interim prime minister” that would grant the interim prime minister (Gantz) “full power” in case the prime minister (Netanyahu) could not carry out his duties. Netanyahu, standing alongside Rivlin as the president laid out his blueprint, nodded in agreement several times. The nodding was calculated, sending the clear message, “See? I’m going along with the president; the ball is now in Gantz’s court.”

Indeed, the following day, at a toast marking the Jewish new year, Netanyahu took advantage of a lull in the wild cheering by his Likud followers chanting, “Netanyahu, King of Israel lives on,” to declare that he had displayed leadership for their sake. “I gave up quite a bit, we agreed to discussions based on the president’s plan. Now, I am saying, ‘Benny, the ball is in your court. … Stand up. Do the right thing. Display leadership. Join me in unity.’”

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But Netanyahu did not come alone to the president. Right after the elections he allied with the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox parties, declaring that they would enter coalition talks as a bloc. But what if Gantz refuses to go along with the broad-based government Netanyahu is trying to engineer — based on the Likud and its so-called natural allies? Netanyahu had a ready answer. The man who has sent Israelis to the ballot boxes three times since 2015 was quick to argue that Gantz would be to blame for dragging the country “into unnecessary elections that will paralyze the state for another six months.”

This hot potato is shaping up to be Netanyahu’s main spin from now until a government is eventually formed or elections are held in the winter. Being a consummate consumer of polls, Netanyahu is probably not surprised by the findings of a Sept. 27 Channel 12 poll indicating that he will have to try harder to convince the public of his innocence for the current political entanglement. About one-third of those polled (33%) said it would be Netanyahu’s fault if they are forced to stand in line to vote once again. Only 20% blamed Gantz and 25% said the blame lies equally with both. Not only that, but 52% (including some 33% of Likud voters) believe that in order to avert another election, Netanyahu should step down and allow another elected Likud lawmaker to try his hand at forming the country’s next government.

Israelis are witnessing an interesting role reversal. The Likud is playing the part of the Palestinians who are demanding renewed negotiations with Israel and claiming Israel has turned its back on their peace overtures. On the other hand, Blue and White has severed contact with the Likud, claiming Netanyahu is not a worthy partner as long as he is suspected of criminal wrongdoing.

On Oct. 1, right after the Rosh Hashanah (New Year) holiday, Gantz called off his meeting with Netanyahu planned for the following day. A statement issued by Blue and White said even the most basic conditions for such a meeting had not been met but a meeting could be rescheduled for later in the week or next week, “depending on the need and interest.” The Likud’s reaction was not long coming. “The Likud was astounded at Blue and White’s decision to blow up negotiations,” the party said, adding that the prime minister was once again urging Gantz “to display responsibility, avoid elections and meet with him tomorrow, as planned.” Netanyahu himself did not pass up the opportunity to take a jab at Gantz’s party Co-chair Yair Lapid, reminding Israelis that the “army reserve sergeant” (Lapid) would also serve as prime minister according to a rotation agreement with Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gantz should Blue and White form the next government. Netanyahu argued that Blue and White’s refusal to adopt Rivlin’s idea, which would necessarily result in new elections, stemmed from Lapid’s rejection of the proposed Netanyahu-Gantz rotation and his desire to ensure his own rotation deal with Gantz. 

On Oct. 3, Lapid announced that he is willing to give up his rotation agreement with Gantz, in favor of a unity government. Now Netanyahu will have to find someone else to blame.

The Channel 12 poll indicates that a third election would not break the stalemate between the two major political blocs — Netanyahu’s right and Gantz’s center-left. Only 11% of those surveyed said they would vote for a different party, changing their September ballot.

Sadly, another round of elections will increase the budget deficit by as much as 500 million Israeli shekels ($143 million) and cost the economy over 1 billion shekels ($286 million) in a legally mandated paid vacation day for the entire workforce. As long as the country is run by a caretaker government, a series of key positions also remain unstaffed, including the Israel police commissioner, new state prosecutor and directors general of government ministries. Obviously, a transitional government, which does not enjoy the confidence of a majority of the electorate, lacks the political or moral authority to send troops into combat in the Gaza Strip or to conduct negotiations on US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.”

Little wonder that in The Economist’s 2018 index of government functioning, Israel ranked nearer the bottom than the top, with an average grade of 7.5. One explanation for this low grade lies in the government’s dependence on small, radical niche parties. A comparative study by Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute found that the size of the country’s two main parties is the smallest among 15 other parliamentary democracies studied. The law, which does not oblige the president to task the leader of one of the major parties with formation of a government, erodes their power and increases the appetite of the smaller parties for budgetary and other concessions in return for their support.

In May 2014, Netanyahu instigated a bill dubbed “the Big Party Law” that would remove the president’s authority to delegate the task of forming the country’s government and give it instead, automatically, to the head of the largest Knesset faction. The Zionist Camp, the second-biggest party at the time, led by Isaac Herzog included the proposal in its platform. As with numerous previous proposals to amend Israel’s electoral process, this initiative too, fell by the wayside. Israel has thus entered the new Hebrew calendar year without a functioning government and with little hope of change.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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