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Fateful Week for Israel Coalition Talks

Minority government unlikely, unity government possible, but most likely scenario remains third election

Israel’s long road of political uncertainty may be coming to an end – or at least taking interesting turns – in what promises to be several days of dramatic developments.

The allotted time for Blue and White faction chief Benny Gantz to form a government expires at midnight between Wednesday and Thursday. By that time, there will be an agreement to form either a national unity coalition or a Center-Left minority government, or no agreement at all.

By law, the latter scenario will lead to a last-ditch attempt – never tried before – to form a governing coalition within the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, although most likely it will lead to a new election, the third in under a year.

President Reuven Rivlin, speaking to a group of visiting ambassadors on Monday, said that while “two elections in a year is enough,” a third election was a distinct possibility.

Israel’s electoral woes began when the country went to the polls in April.

The ruling right-wing Likud party and its centrist challenger, Blue and White, tied, winning 35 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset. The overall bloc of right-wing parties was larger than the Left, so the president tasked Likud leader and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with the job of forming a government.

But Netanyahu failed to put together a coalition, for the most part because Avigdor Liberman, the avowedly secular head of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, refused to sit with two of Netanyahu’s natural political partners, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties.

Further interfering was a growing enmity between Liberman and the prime minister, who were once close allies.

This led to a second election, in September, which brought similar results. This time, Blue and White edged out Likud, 33 seats to 32. But the Right bloc totaled 55 seats, and the Center-Left had 44.

Netanyahu was again given the first chance to form a government, and again he failed. Then the nod was given to Gantz.

Given the near tie in two successive elections, a national unity government has been touted as the obvious solution. In such a scenario, the premiership would rotate between Netanyahu and Gantz, with each taking a term of around two years.

But there is a major point of contention: Each side claims the right to hold the premiership first.

Israeli governments rarely last their entire term, so whoever serves second is likely to have a shortened term or none at all. In addition, Israeli law requires any government minister under indictment to step down. Not so the prime minister, who can remain in office unless he is convicted and has exhausted all chances for appeal.

Netanyahu is facing three indictments for alleged corruption. Israeli television reported Sunday night that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit was re-examining evidence ahead of an announcement, expected next Sunday or Monday, on whether he will file those indictments.

Avraham Diskin, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line that the probability of an indictment was high.

“It’s very difficult for the attorney-general not to sign some kind of indictment,” he said.

Under a unity government plan suggested by Rivlin, Netanyahu would take the reins first. If indicted, he would hand over his powers to Gantz for as long as his case was in court, while formally retaining the title of prime minister. If acquitted, he would reassume the powers of the office.

But during the election campaign, Gantz promised his voters that he would not serve in a Netanyahu-led government as long as legal suspicions hung over the prime minister.

If he keeps that promise and there is a unity government with rotation, he cannot accept the Rivlin compromise. He would have to serve as prime minister first – meaning that Netanyahu would be no more than a regular minister and thus be forced to resign if indicted, something he seems unready to accept.

Diskin has his own proposal for rotation and power-sharing, which he insists could be acceptable to both sides.

“Netanyahu would serve for the first eight months,” he said, explaining that if there is a trial, it would not happen before then. After eight months are up, he would be replaced by Gantz for 24 months.

“Early elections could not be called unless there was agreement between the two parties,” he continued. “There would be full parity between the two sides in the allocation of government ministries. Each party could hand some of the ministries in the government to its partners. … [A]ny party that accepts the program of the government could join the coalition. And no one would have veto power [over] the ministers of the other side.”

Asked if Israel was likely to see the formation of a national unity government under such a formula, Diskin said: “I still believe that people are so stubborn and [that] the hatred toward Netanyahu is so big, the chance of a third round of elections is higher. … But there is a real chance for a national unity government based on principles like I described.”

Another possibility is a minority government.

Gantz’s Blue and White could form one with Labor and the Democratic Union, two left-of-center parties, and with Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. It would control only 52 seats in Knesset while the right-wing opposition would have 55.

Gantz would need at least another four votes from the outside to put him over the top; these would come from members of the Joint List, an alliance of four predominantly Arab parties.

On Sunday evening, the Likud held an “emergency rally” against a government that relies on votes from the Joint List for its existence. Netanyahu told a crowd of thousands that such a government would be “celebrated in Tehran, Ramallah and Gaza, just like they celebrate terror attacks against Israel.”

Dr. Chaim B. Weizmann, a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, told The Media Line that only four of the Joint List’s 13 Knesset members would be needed.

“For Balad, it would be most difficult to support a Zionist, Jewish government,” he said, referring to the most radical, anti-Zionist component of the Joint List, with its three seats.

Some Joint List Knesset members have made it clear they would support a Gantz government. MK Aida Touma-Sliman, interviewed on Army Radio, said: “Gantz and Blue and White need to decide finally if they are interested in removing Netanyahu from office. They know where to turn.”

Mohammad Darawshe, a political strategist at the dovish Givat Haviva Institute, told The Media Line that “Netanyahu’s expanded, vicious attack on our political participation” has increased the motivation among Israeli-Arabs for his removal.

“He’s seen as spearheading the process of delegitimization of Arab citizens of Israel,” he explained.

“The Arab parties are willing to play a game that is not 100% in their interest … knowing that Gantz does not give them the full package of legitimization,” he continued, “but at least they agree on current tactics [if not] on strategy.”

Diskin told The Media Line that the minority-government scenario was highly unlikely, calling it “on the edge of an illusion.”

Weizmann told The Media Line that “it all depends on Liberman.”

“We don’t know how strong his desire is to get rid of Netanyahu, or what drives him. If he decides he’s going to support such a government, I don’t see anybody in Blue and White preventing it,” he said.

All along, Yisrael Beytenu and Liberman have been meeting with Gantz and Blue and White, though mostly about the formation of a national unity government. On Sunday night, the heads of Blue and White met to discuss the basic principles of a draft agreement reached earlier in the day with Yisrael Beytenu – almost as Liberman, still a consummate player, was meeting with Netanyahu.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Liberman said a minority government would be a “disaster” and that “the next 48 hours will be critical to know whether there is a government committed to preventing further elections.”

If plans for a unity government don’t pan out and a narrow, Gantz-led government emerges as a strong possibility before Wednesday night, Netanyahu is expected to pull out all the stops to prevent it, even if it means another election.

And according to Weizmann, elections remain the most likely scenario.

“Netanyahu’s only option is to prevent Liberman from supporting a minority government,” he said. “I think [a third round of elections] is what’s going to happen eventually. Unfortunately.”

Diskin agrees, saying that there is a “decent chance for a national unity government” but that “unfortunately, the chance for a third election is higher.”

Gantz could also come to power by peeling away several Likud MKs who are tired of Netanyahu’s control. But according to current law, he’d need to find 11 such defectors, as a party can split only if at least a third of its MKs are willing to break away, something that in this case seems extremely unlikely.

“They haven’t shown much courage lately,” Weizmann said. “I don’t see it until [Gantz] manages to form a government. Once … Netanyahu is no longer viewed as the almighty ‘King Bibi,’ there is a possibility, but not until then.”