Israel Pulse

Trap facing Gantz: mustering a government while preparing for elections

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Article Summary
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz is facing an impossible mission, where anything he says in the coalition talks might be held against him in a third election round.

Chairman of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz was well prepared the evening of Oct. 23, when President Reuven Rivlin granted him a mandate to form a new government. His speech was proper and met all expectations. It relayed a message of reconciliation, along with a promise to form a liberal unity government. As soon as he was done, Gantz called all the leaders of the various parties in the Knesset and invited them to meet with him. This was organized meticulously as well in order to provide a sense that he was being proactive and that he had a genuine desire to unite everyone.

The Blue and White party knew that they would eventually come up against a wall, in the form of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc of 55 seats, the Likud party together with other right-wing parties and the ultra-Orthodox. What they failed to assess correctly was how consolidated that bloc would be. Each of its members responded politely and even cordially, but one by one the leaders of the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties refused to meet with Gantz, suggesting instead that he meet with Netanyahu as the head of their bloc. Gantz had hoped that he would manage to eke out a meeting or two, with the heads of the New Right, for example, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, or with his old army buddy, Chairman of HaBayit HaYehudi Rabbi Rafi Peretz. Instead, he got the same generic answer from all of them. It turns out that the right-wing bloc was carefully briefed and well prepared for when Gantz woulc receive this mandate. Had Gantz managed to get even a single meeting, it would have created the sense that there were cracks in the bloc. Netanyahu has managed to prevent that for now.

But that is the least of Gantz’s problems. He is going to the coalition negotiations with a sincere desire to form a broad unity government, because he really believes in it. The problem is that he has little room to maneuver and no idea what Netanyahu really wants.

Quite a few senior members and advisers in Blue and White believe that what Netanyahu does want is a third round of elections, and that he is fooling everyone with his calls for a unity government. They warn Gantz that any negotiations with Netanyahu would trip up him and the Blue and White party, and get them entangled in all sorts of statements or deeds, which would be used against them in the next election. What this means is that Gantz will have to conduct coalition negotiations under impossible conditions. He is facing a bloc of 55 Knesset members and Netanyahu’s precondition that he serves first as prime minister in a rotation agreement. If he negotiates over this point and a third election is held, Gantz could suffer from having shown intent to violate one of his cardinal election promises, i.e., not to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu, who is expected to be indicted on criminal charges.

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Trust in Netanyahu tends toward zero among the four party leaders sitting in the Blue and White cockpit — Gantz, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. They all know him personally. Gantz and Ashkenazi both served as chiefs of staff while Netanyahu was prime minister, Lapid was finance minister under him and Ya’alon was brought into the Likud by him and served as his minister of defense. There is a general consensus among them that it would be impossible to trust Netanyahu to vacate the prime minister’s office if he serves first in a rotation agreement.

Suspicion and a lack of clarity are not limited to the Blue and White party either. All of the parties are operating under the same assumption. The current coalition negotiations could be nothing more than a prelude for another round of elections, and that anything said or even insinuated behind closed doors and then leaked will be used by political rivals in the next campaign. All it takes is a quick glance at the one day that passed since Gantz received the mandate to appreciate the intensity of the suspicions and deep differences between all the players.

While Gantz chose not to call the chairman of Balad, Knesset member Mtanes Shehadeh, he did speak with the leaders of the other Arab parties that make up the Arab Joint List. This was no coincidence, of course. Balad is a flashing red warning light for Gantz, because of its extremist ideology. The problem is that the Joint List was very unhappy about Gantz’s attempt to stir up division among them. They clarified to him that coalition negotiations with them would have to include all the factions of their party, including Balad. If not, there will be no negotiations.

Knesset member Yousef Jabareen of Hadash tweeted, “Gantz got off on the wrong foot in his talks with the Joint List. … We will not be divided into radicals and moderates. We all share the same position, and our strength derives from unity.”

Similarly, the other members of the Joint List, headed by the party’s chairman, Knesset member Ayman Odeh, have made it quite clear that they will only participate in negotiations with Gantz as a single bloc. Gantz is certainly aware that his sitting in the same room to negotiate with Shehadeh will surely be used by Netanyahu in the next election as proof that the Blue and White party is willing to sit with the extremist Balad faction, if Gantz think that this will bring Netanyahu down.

Gantz can expect quite a few obstacles on the ultra-Orthodox front as well. In the last election, Blue and White ran on a ticket of forming a secular government. Any attempt to show flexibility and any attractive offer made to the ultra-Orthodox in order to break Netanyahu’s bloc will be used against Blue and White in the event of a new election and will ultimately hurt the party.

The chairman of Shas, Knesset member Aryeh Deri, gave a series of interviews to various media outlets Oct. 24 to clarify that he has no plans to violate his alliance with Netanyahu. He recommended that Gantz accept the president’s proposal, by which Netanyahu would serve first as prime minister, and accused him of wasting precious time by refusing to negotiate on that basis. In addition, Deri made it clear that he will not negotiate on the status quo related to state and religion issues, and that he even plans to advance major legislation, which would prevent local authorities from operating public transportation on the Sabbath, based on Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s model. How will Gantz respond to that?

Gantz is expected to meet with Netanyahu next week in an attempt to get the negotiations into motion. Netanyahu will arrive as the head of a bloc of 55 seats. Gantz will need to arrive with a proposal that will allow the Blue and White party to assess how serious Netanyahu is about forming a unity government. It is possible that he will propose that Netanyahu abandon his bloc, in exchange for a chance to serve first in a rotation agreement. Nevertheless, there is no chance whatsoever that Netanyahu will accept such an offer. Netanyahu knows that whatever happens in that room could be used against him as well. The moment he as much as hints that there is something to talk about, it will likely leak, and he will be left without a bloc and without any chance to serve as prime minister.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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