Under no small amount of stress, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 1. (Abir Sultan - pool/AFP via Getty Images)

With No Government in Sight, Netanyahu Might be Losing Strength

Expert says Sunday meetings indicate possible cracks in Likud support for PM

The seemingly never-ending negotiations in Israel to break a political deadlock went into high gear on Sunday.

At this point, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has until midnight on December 11 to nominate one of its members to form the next government, with both Prime Minister and Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu and his rival, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, having failed to do so on their own following September elections.

The first Knesset member to garner the support of a majority – at least 61 MKs – will be given 14 days to form a government. Lawmakers are allowed to back more than one candidate.

Reports on Saturday night said that Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, seen as the country’s political kingmaker, would be willing to support either Netanyahu or Gantz – or both. This immediately led to speculation that the staunchly conservative Liberman would prefer a right-wing government under the incumbent.

Overnight, the Likud sent a message to all 55 members of a declared right-wing bloc – as well as the eight Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers – asking them to sign a short statement by 9 a.m. Sunday in support of Netanyahu’s candidacy. But by early morning, Liberman clarified that he meant he would support either candidate only in the framework of a national unity government.

With the 9 a.m. deadline having come and gone, Aryeh Deri, the head of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party in the right-wing bloc, announced he would not sign the statement in support of Netanyahu’s candidacy until after Liberman’s party did. Two other parties in the bloc, the New Right and the National Union, said they would wait to back an MK until just before the December 11 deadline, after which another round of elections – the third in less than a year – would be inevitable.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a senior Likud figure, met in the afternoon with the negotiating teams of the Likud, Blue and White and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, the last link in the right-wing bloc, after having met with Liberman in the morning. There were even reports that he was holding the meetings in more than just his capacity as speaker: Edelstein, it was said, was exploring the possibility of offering himself as a compromise candidate.

When the dust settled toward the end of the day, though, there was still no breakthrough, and party leaders were pessimistic about the chance of averting a return to the polls.

“I don’t see a way out of this,” Likud Central Committee member Gidon Ariel told The Media Line. “It seems to me we’re on our way to a third election. And I don’t see the outcome [from new elections] being much different from the current situation.”

Prof. Gideon Rahat, a member of the Political Science Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Political Reform Program, told The Media Line that some of the day’s political activity was significant.

“The story with Edelstein seems like a trial balloon,” he said. “These are the first signs of cracks in Netanyahu’s hold on power.”

Ariel does not think Edelstein’s moves indicate a questioning of Netanyahu’s authority.

“That is not the Yuli Edelstein that I know. First and foremost, he’s very statesmanlike,” the Likud member said.

Rahat, though, connects Sunday’s events with a pro-Netanyahu rally last Thursday in Tel Aviv. It attracted about 5,000 supporters – only half of the expected turnout – and few members of the prime minister’s Likud faction.

“There were,” he said, “hardly any MKs or ministers there.”

He added that some in the party “are starting to think Netanyahu may be a burden” rather than an asset.

“Until last week, the Likud was Netanyahu and Netanyahu was the Likud,” he explained. “Now, a gap has opened between them.”

The questioning of Netanyahu’s leadership within the Likud is coming particularly from West Bank settlers, Rahat says, “because their main interest is the territories, not Netanyahu or anything else.” He also mentions “people who are still strong advocates of the rule of law.”

It remains to be determined whether Netanyahu can be tipped to form another government since he stands to be indicted on criminal charges in multiple corruption cases.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit so far has refused to weigh in on the legality of the matter, although he says the prime minister can certainly continue to serve as head of an interim government. The question could ultimately be determined by the Supreme Court.

Last week, Elyakim Rubinstein, a former attorney-general and Supreme Court justice, called into question the legitimacy of Netanyahu leading anything at all.

“The people have not elected Netanyahu to office at this time, and he has failed to form a government twice,” the highly respected jurist said during an interview with Army Radio, referring as well to inconclusive elections that had been held in April.

“He should not be allowed to continue as prime minister,” Rubinstein stated, “and certainly should not be allowed to run for office in a new election while he is under indictment.”

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