While politics makes for strange bedfellows, there are huge divisions to overcome before the political players involved can agree on such a fragile union
The head of Israel’s centrist Blue and White electoral list, Benny Gantz, claims to have started negotiations to form the country’s next government. The former military chief’s political alliance garnered 33 seats in last Monday’s national election, the third in under a year following inconclusive votes in April and September 2019.
For his part, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won 36 seats, but his right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc won 58 seats, three shy of a majority in the 120-member parliament.
While Gantz did not divulge details of the purported talks, it is assumed that he is working toward heading a minority government comprised of the center-left Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.
On Sunday, the latter’s chief, Avigdor Liberman, set out his coalition demands, which, notably, Gantz immediately accepted. The two were scheduled to meet on Monday, perhaps to hash out the final details.
Trickier is that the Joint List, a collection of primarily Arab parties, would from the outside-looking-in have to back Blue and White’s minority government on crucial issues. Though together these factions hold a majority of 62 seats in the legislature, the situation is complex due to key policy differences among the players.
Specifically, there is a huge chasm between the Joint List and Yisrael Beitenu, with Liberman in the past having drawn the ire of Arab Israelis by suggesting that some of their northern towns and villages be transferred over to Palestinian control in the event of a future peace deal.
Moreover, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh has conditioned support for Blue and White on Gantz’s agreement to not annex any West Bank territories in accordance with US President Donald Trump’s Middle East proposal.
For Gantz, this is a political hot potato – perhaps even a nonstarter – and could, therefore, be an unbridgeable sticking point.
Finally, there are rumors of internal divisions within Blue and White itself, with two parliamentarians from the list’s center-right Telem faction apparently opposed to forming a government supported by the Joint List. A rebellion by even two lawmakers would keep Gantz’s prospective bloc at 60 seats and thus short of a majority.
And this does not include the three lawmakers from the Balad party – considered the most extreme wing of the Joint List – who, barring an extraordinary development, are unlikely to recommend that Gantz form the next government. This eventuality could, effectively, also block Blue and White from assuming power.
“First of all, a new government needs to win the backing of a majority in parliament for it to be confirmed. Then, a new budget must be passed within 100 days,” Dr. Assaf Shapira, director of the Political Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, explained in reference to the initial hurdles Gantz would need to overcome.
“Most of the time, specific arrangements are outlined in advance, whether they relate to the passage of laws or foreign policy, such as [the US] peace agreement. In the current case, there would likely be a focus on matters applying to religion and state,” he told The Media Line.
According to Shapira, minority governments have, historically, been viewed as inefficient, if not altogether illegitimate due to the perception that democracies should be governed by majority rule. However, he noted that this view has changed significantly over the past few decades, pointing to the reality that since the end of World War II, about one-third of Western European governments have been of the minority type.
“It is not necessarily true that minority governments are less stable, especially when it comes to Israel, where majority coalitions have regularly fallen before the end of their term,” Shapira said. “It depends on numerous factors. Generally, the smaller the number of parties involved, and the fewer divisions between them, the more balanced they are.
“Given the divide between the Joint List and Yisrael Beitenu, there will be difficulties,” he predicted. “There has to be a cost-benefit analysis on whether this route is preferable to a fourth election.”
In fact, most agree that such a fragile political union would not come close to surviving a four-year term, although this hardly appears to be a focus of the anti-Netanyahu bloc. By contrast, its raison d’être seems crystal clear: that is, to oust the prime minister and get along to go along for as long as possible while at the same time preparing for another national vote.
“The latest election was a referendum on Netanyahu,” Dan Meridor, Israel’s former deputy prime minister and long-time Likud stalwart, told The Media Line. “There was little [campaign] talk about Iran, the Palestinians or the economy, and in the event of a minority government, there will have to be compromises.
“Finding sufficient common ground is not guaranteed,” Meridor continued. “It is easy to unite against Netanyahu, but then you still have to govern. This requires [what are sometimes known as ‘confidence-and-supply’] agreements between the parties, and, presently, some of them are on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum.”
The formation of a minority government in the immediate aftermath of an election would be unprecedented in Israel, where such has only materialized after one faction seceded from an existing ruling coalition.
The most recent occurrence was during then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s second government, which was established in 1992 with 62 lawmakers. It became a minority government only after the ultra-Orthodox Shas party pulled out in September 1993 in the wake of the signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, with the external support of Arab parties, Rabin’s government lasted another two years until his assassination.
Today, the scenario from the get-go appears plausible, albeit littered with obstacles, primarily due to Gantz’s repeated vow not to sit in a coalition led by Netanyahu, whose trial on corruption charges in three separate cases begins on March 17.
But the prime minister, as he is wont to do, will not go down easily and is undoubtedly planning the equivalent of a political counterattack. At an “emergency rally” this weekend, a defiant Netanyahu stressed that “I’m not going anywhere” and accused his rivals of attempting to “steal the election through deceit and anti-democratic legislation.”
The latter reference was to an initiative by Blue and White to pass a bill once the next parliament is inaugurated in ten days that would prevent an indicted parliamentarian from forming a new government and thus serving as prime minister.
For now, the effort may have been placed on the back burner given that Netanyahu has few, if any, viable paths that ultimately arrive at a majority coalition. Nevertheless, his political allies have, to date, continued to back him, thereby ruling out the emergence of a so-called national unity government between Likud and Blue and White, Israel’s two largest political entities which, parenthetically, share similar ideologies.
Yet allegiances are fleeting and could change on a dime, especially if Netanyahu’s legal issues start being considered a liability or if the courts intervene in one way or another to force him to step down.
Hence, the initiation of negotiations to form a Gantz-led minority government comprising perhaps the most disparate cross-section of Israeli lawmakers ever. Politics does make for strange bedfellows but few are discounting the possibility of another election in the near, if not immediate future.