Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Israeli electoral alliance, greets supporters during an election rally in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, on February 11, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Elex: Benny Gantz’s Path to Premiership Runs Through Likud

After ruling out sitting with the predominantly Arab Joint List, the math does not add up well for Blue and White

Events of this week have made it unlikely that Blue and White leader Benny Gantz could become Israel’s prime minister following the March 2 national elections unless he forms a government with the Likud party, analysts told The Media Line.

This reality, they say, has been blurred by recent polls showing Blue and White ahead of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud by a margin of one to two seats, while inching closer to a 61-seat majority bloc when the Joint List, a predominantly Arab-Israeli political alliance, is included.

One such survey over the weekend by Israel’s Channel 13 found the Center-Left, including the Joint List, garnering 59 seats in the 120-member parliament, compared to 53 for the Right.

Notably, Yisrael Beytenu was forecasted to win eight mandates, thereby reinforcing the prevailing notion that party chief Avigdor Liberman remains the country’s political kingmaker.

However, the situation may have changed significantly on Tuesday when Gantz ruled out sitting in a government with the Arab-majority alliance, which is expected to win 13 to 14 mandates in the upcoming vote.

This is a far cry from the aftermath of the inconclusive national vote in September, when the Joint List took the rare step of recommending Gantz for prime minister. But tensions between the factions have grown since the January 28 release of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.

Gantz on Tuesday reiterated a vow to implement the proposal “in coordination with regional actors,” which would entail Israel’s annexation of large swaths of the West Bank, a move that Arab-Israeli parliamentarians vehemently oppose.

“I and the Joint List have deep disagreements on everything, including issues relating to diplomatic concerns [regarding the Palestinians] and the national and security issues of the State of Israel,” Gantz said. “My disagreement with its leadership … is deep, fierce, and unbridgeable.”

In response, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh stressed that he would not support Gantz this time around – even from outside the government looking in – if the latter extends Israeli sovereignty to any areas in the West Bank.

Accordingly, the likelihood that the March 2 vote ends in a third political stalemate – after an initial indecisive election last April – is increasing, with neither Gantz nor Netanyahu predicted to have a clear path to forming a governing coalition without the other.

Yet many pundits do not believe Israelis would countenance a fourth consecutive election in less than 18 months. Some are therefore postulating that public pressure could force Gantz to join forces with a Netanyahu-led Likud to form a broad government with a rotating premiership. This, even though the Blue and White chief has for over a year repeatedly promised not to pursue this avenue due to existing indictments against Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases.

“I am not expecting this election to come out differently, but my sense is that there will be a national unity government [between Blue and White and Likud],” Dr. Galia Golan, professor emerita at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former chair of its Political Science Department, told The Media Line. “This is especially so now that the Joint List will not recommend that Gantz head the next government. Moreover, with Gantz coming out in favor of the Trump peace plan, it is very unlikely that [left-wing] Meretz and Labor supporters will abandon their parties and vote for Blue and White [as some did the last time] simply to oust Netanyahu.

“It is therefore very hard to see how Gantz could create a government,” Golan emphasized.

However, she also stressed that “nobody wants to be blamed for a fourth round of elections and Netanyahu is not going to resign. So, unless there is a legal decision [by the Supreme Court that prevents the prime minister from forming the next ruling coalition], my gut reaction is that Gantz will ultimately give in and sit under Netanyahu to begin with,” she said.

“Obviously, there can be surprises and anything can happen,” Golan qualified, while underlining the perils associated with making election predictions.

Dr. Avi Bareli, professor of the political history of Israel at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told The Media Line that seemingly favorable polling numbers are clouding the precariousness of Gantz’s position.

First, Bareli noted that the Joint List has traditionally acted as “its own bloc” and therefore its amalgamation into the Center-Left distorts the actual situation.

Additionally, he highlighted voter turnout as possibly “the key factor” in the upcoming election – and that Netanyahu was liable to outperform electoral expectations, as has been the case throughout most of his political career.

“In the last two elections there was a low participation rate among Likud supporters even though they are very loyal,” Bareli said. “Now, Likud is making a huge [grassroots] effort. On the flip side, it appears that Gantz has maxed out his [political] reservoir.”

Bareli likewise “cannot envision” a fourth election, although he, too, sees few realistic options. In his estimation, the most probable, albeit “remote,” outcome of the March vote is that Gantz backtracks and agrees to join a Netanyahu-led coalition “even if this might cause Blue and White to split.”

In the interim, other permutations being considered include the prospect of Yisrael Beytenu’s Liberman thrusting Likud and its allies past the 61-seat threshold at least until Netanyahu’s criminal trial concludes or the Supreme Court forces the premier to step down.

This would constitute a U-turn for Liberman, who, while being right-wing, refused to join a Netanyahu government in both April and September, ostensibly over disagreements with ultra-Orthodox parties on legislation to draft religious youth into the army.

Nevertheless, Liberman could conceivably be induced to act “in the national interest” should further political gridlock prompt a major public backlash.

In this case, Gantz would be relegated to leading the opposition.

Finally, based on current polls, Netanyahu could try to form a minority government – a potentiality previously floated by Likud – even as he fights the charges of fraud, breach of public trust and bribery against him, and irrespective of the low chances of success.

Overall, while some cataclysmic event – such as a war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip – could cause a significant shift in the political fault lines in the next two-plus weeks, survey after survey over the past few months have shown little change in support for the Right and Center-Left.

This seemingly bodes poorly for Gantz, who may very well come out on top on March 2 only to find himself facing a steep, if not insurmountable, climb to the pinnacle of Israeli politics – a path that, if actualized, will for now in all probability somehow run through the Likud.

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