Three options for Benny Gantz to compose a government

As his deadline to form a government approaches, Blue and White party head Benny Gantz is left with three main options before returning the mandate to the president.

al-monitor Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, speaks during a rally commemorating the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 2, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Corinna Kern.

Nov 11, 2019

The last time someone from the liberal camp gave up on a chance to form a government, the opportunity was lost for over a decade. Throughout that entire time, the country’s leader was drawn from the hard right instead. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni was supposed to re-create Ehud Olmert’s coalition after he was forced to resign over suspicions of criminal activity in 2008. Everyone knows what happened next. Livni grew disgusted with the way negotiations with the ultra-Orthodox parties were going, and hoped that by advancing the election, she would win enough seats to prevent those parties from making demands that were impossible to meet. But in the February 2009 election, her party, Kadima, won a plurality of just one seat. She found herself unable to form a coalition, and the rest is history. The president tasked Benjamin Netanyahu with forming the new government, which he did. Netanyahu has served as prime minister ever since.

The delusional appointment Nov. 8 of New Right senior right-wing hard-liner Naftali Bennett to the position of defense minister indicates that Netanyahu is determined to ensure his continued role as prime minister.

Now Benny Gantz has that rare opportunity to form the next government. It is not because his Blue and White party has one seat more than the Likud. It is because Avigdor Liberman, chairman of the Yisrael Beitenu party, decided to keep victory out of Netanyahu’s clutches. The motivation behind Liberman’s decision to fill the role of liberal in his current incarnation remains unclear. Then again, it doesn’t really matter. As long as this is the situation, it is a patriotic duty to save Israel from the unenlightened forces of extremism, and to start a new chapter in the country’s history. Giving up on this option to return the liberal camp to power is too big a risk, as will be seen if all other options are blocked.

Since Gantz owes this chance to form a government to Liberman, the Blue and White chairman will have to coordinate everything with the Yisrael Beitenu leader. Liberman is willing to accept a coalition consisting only of Blue and White, the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, which would then pass a series of laws that the ultra-Orthodox parties could not support. A budget could then be approved, and other parties could then be brought into the coalition. But that is not enough.

I believe that Gantz should accept the president’s proposal for a coalition and insist that as soon as Netanyahu is indicted, the prime minister announce his incapacity to continue in his position, allowing Gantz to serve as acting prime minister until the end of the Netanyahu’s legal proceedings or the end of his term, according to the rotation agreement.

If Netanyahu rejects this option, it would make sense for Liberman to agree to some other option. On Nov. 9, after Bennett’s appointment, Liberman made it clear that he had not changed his mind on the necessity of a unity government, dramatically stating that if Netanyahu or Gantz won’t make the right decision, Liberman will support ‘’the other side.’’ One possibility is that he would accept a narrow government headed by Gantz. Yisrael Beitenu could be a part of that government if it wants (together with Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Camp, the coalition would then consist of 52 members). The Arab Joint List would provide such a government with a “security net” in the event of no-confidence motions and on votes over the budget and other vital matters. Since it would be possible to function with the active support of just four out of the Joint List’s 13 members (because the right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc has just 55 seats), it is fairly safe to assume that option is viable.

And there is a third option too. In this scenario, the government would consist of just the three center-left parties, while Yisrael Beitenu and the Joint List would be able to grant their members freedom to vote their conscience, provided that the Gantz government is assured in advance that it would have the active support of 56 members of the Knesset. Since it would be necessary to get 61 votes to bring down the government, the two aforementioned options could result in a minority government able to endure for a considerable amount of time.

It is safe to assume that a minority government would still be able to advance vital legislation for change. And it is also safe to assume that once it becomes clear to everyone that it is actually a functioning government, and not some transition government preparing the way for an early election, other parties would likely ask to join the Gantz coalition.

Only after these three options are exhausted and found to be unrealistic (or unfeasible) should Gantz throw up his hands in defeat and unlock the door to a further option, which has remained out of bounds in our democratic home since the founding of the state. By this I mean allowing the other members of Knesset 21 days to do whatever they can to support the candidacy of any one of them. At this stage, a candidate supported by 61 Knesset members could ask to be tasked with the mission of composing a government.

Since none of this has ever happened before, it is hard to tell what would actually come of it and what the dynamics behind it would be. One possible result might be that enough signatures are collected so that someone else in the Likud, perhaps even someone more hawkish than Netanyahu, would win the support of the right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc, including Yisrael Beitenu. Should that happen, the window would be slammed shut on Gantz and the Blue and White party, and Israel would sink yet again into the darkness of a right-wing ultra-Orthodox government, with all the religious and political extremism that this would entail.

So far, Gantz has been acting as if he actually won the election. He kept his cool and succeeded in some sophisticated and manipulative way to get the president to grant Netanyahu the first chance to form a government instead of Gantz (assuming, rightly, that Netanyahu would admit his failure to assemble a governing coalition). Since Gantz seems to know exactly what he must do, theoretically, by the end of the time granted to him, he will have succeeded in forming a coalition and assuming the role of prime minister. But that might not be what actually happens in the real world.

Gantz did not win the election. He is entirely dependent on Liberman’s mood, without knowing what is really motivating this enigmatic individual. If Liberman rejects the second option, or even the third option for that matter, Gantz will not be prime minister. In that case, Liberman could go for a government headed by Netanyahu and not object to immunity for the prime minister even if he is indicted.

A new round of elections would result in economic damage that exceeds their direct cost considerably. And that is not the worst outcome either. New elections would also cause severe damage to Israel's diplomatic reputation, which has stood out for the stability of its democracy for many decades now. The political price that Gantz would pay will far exceeds any criticism he would face if he agrees to the president’s proposal or if the government he forms is not a unity government (in which everyone is invited to join so that they can argue with each other until the end of its term).

It is Gantz’s moral and ideological duty to exhaust each of these three options in the days he has left to form a new government. I want to believe that he will not let the scepter of moderation slip out of his hands until it is perfectly clear to him that in the most practical terms, none of the options he has is feasible. 

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