Knesset’s 21-day grace period: Opportunity for change

Instead of heading for a third election in less than a year, Knesset members could support a noncontroversial member among themselves for the position of prime minister.

al-monitor Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addresses the opening session of the 22nd Knesset, Jerusalem, Oct. 3, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Nov 24, 2019

Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz failed to muster a new government. Following this double failure, the mandate for composing a new government passed Nov. 21 to the Knesset for a period of three weeks. If no Knesset member succeeds in assembling a majority, Israel will head to new elections.

This has never happened in Israel’s history. While the clause in the Basic Law that enables Kennet members to crown a prime minister with the support of a majority of 61 has never been applied, there is a municipal precedent of sorts from 1965 in Nazareth, when the mayor was not elected directly by city residents but by the city council. Thus the winning candidate had to form a coalition to be selected. In Nazareth that year, the election results were as follows: seven representatives for Mapai (Workers Party of the Land of Israel, which later merged into Labor), seven representatives for the Communist Party and one representative for Mapam (the United Workers Party, which was a leftist Zionist party). All of the representatives were Arab citizens of Israel. The Communists made an effort to win over the Mapam representative in order to gain a majority, and offered him important roles in city management. Mapai did so as well, to no effect; the Mapam representative refused all of the offers. In the end, after everyone had given up, and talked of a repeat election, a solution was found: The single elected representative from Mapam on the council was chosen as mayor.

Back to 2019. This could be the moment for one of those Knesset members who don’t belong to a big party or for one of the backbenchers, known for their good relations with the whole chamber despite holding political positions that are not accepted by all. This is how presidents were once chosen in Israel, and this is precisely how the next prime minister could be chosen, someone who draws little hostility and is not seen by their colleagues as a rival in the long run. 

In this situation, when no party head has a mandate to form the next government, a sense of anarchy could take hold, in which members of Knesset would be willing to break down party lines in order to avoid standing for a third election within so short a time, and to find themselves outside of the Knesset after just a few months of service. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone through the last couple of months since the September election continuing to bear his title while heading a transition-caretaker government. We can assume that if he had had to choose between a unity government with Gantz and a narrow government, he would have preferred to form a narrow right-wing government that would serve as his “immunity coalition.” If he had had to accept the second option of sharing the office with Benny Gantz in a rotation agreement, he would have insisted on serving first as prime minister because he wanted to arrive at his trial as prime minister. Some say he wished to do so not only in order to show up at the courthouse with an array of bodyguards who could impress the judges and intimidate them, psychologically, discouraging them from giving him a long sentence, but because he sees the premiership as an asset he could trade for a waived sentence. Thus, a third election is the least bad option for Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox 55-member bloc has proven itself and has not dissolved. Within the Likud, despite the lack of affection for Netanyahu felt by many ministers and Knesset members, no one has dared break the line. This is indeed a success for the veteran politician, who knew to play the right chords, to work the mechanisms of hostility to the Arabs, to turn the statement of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the settlements are not necessarily illegal into a historic statement and to take pains to save us all from one of the leaders of the military arm of Islamic Jihad who planned to attack Israel (Islamic Jihad senior leader Abu al-Ata was killed Nov. 12) and thus cause heartfelt unity among the Israeli public when Tel Aviv and its environs shut down, including schools, workplaces and entertainment venues because of fire rocket from Gaza.

Gantz did not turn out to be a cunning politician behind the facade of the “good kid.” If anyone expected that by the end of the 28 days in which he had to form a coalition, he would surprise the world with a government that he would led, they were in tiny minority that ended up disappointed. In dealing with personalities such as Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, former Chief of Staff Gantz wasn’t a chief of staff but a recruit, and missed the opportunity to serve as prime minister for at least two years, and perhaps for much longer (in a situation where Netanyahu would have had to step down and Gantz would fill his place).

Gantz’s big problem was his inability to impose his will on the other generals in the leadership of the Blue and White party; each one pulled in an opposite direction, and the leader sometimes had to retreat from public and other declarations in order to appease his colleagues and prevent, at any price, a split in the party whose common denominator is low and fragile.

It’s hard to say that the big winner of the two rounds of coalition talks is Liberman. He managed to maintain the mystery as to his real intentions, and changed, constantly and without paying a public penalty, his conditions for entering a government and the dates by which he promised to make his decision. In his media appearance Nov. 20, where he explained that everyone is to blame and rejected a government with anyone who is not Zionist — treating the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors similarly — Liberman announced new goals. This time he came with a menu (which focused, as usual, on the rules of the games and not the essence) that included returning to the failed idea of a direct election of a prime minister who would form a government of experts if he or she could not form a coalition with the elected members of the Knesset. This government, he decided, would serve for two years, and then new elections would be held. He also suggested increasing the power of the prime minister and giving him the possibility of nullifying Knesset laws, without giving a balancing power to the Knesset, and only allow it to override the veto with 81 out of the Knesset's 120 votes. It seems that President Donald Trump’s success in the United States has caused Liberman to suggest a similar method for Israel.

Liberman’s lack of seriousness, his insatiable desire to surprise everyone and to be at the center of the action, to draw the media to him and his hatred for anyone who isn’t like him — all were exposed in his Nov. 20 speech and in the period since the first election results were announced April 9.

It may be that now, with the beginning of the Knesset’s 21 days to choose a prime minister, it could be possible to form a different government that doesn’t depend on Liberman and would avoid bothering the voters for the third time in less than a year. 

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