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Israel’s Gantz Receives Mandate to Form Gov’t, Faces Major Hurdles

Significant divisions between the primary players must be bridged before the possible emergence of a fragile political union

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday tasked Blue and White list political chief Benny Gantz with forming the next government. It came a day after the entire Joint List – a collection of primarily Arab parties – as well as Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Liberman chose to recommend that Gantz be given the first 28-day opportunity to cobble together a coalition.

The development was uncertain, if not surprising, given that the three lawmakers from the Balad faction – considered the most extreme wing of the Joint List – were on the fence about recommending a candidate who identifies as a Zionist.

Joint List head Ayman Odeh described Balad’s decision as “brave” while conditioning his ongoing support for Gantz on the formation of a center-left government, likely a minority one backed by Arab parliamentarians from the outside looking in. Odeh also made clear that his primary motivation was to remove Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from office.

For his part, Liberman over the weekend had voiced modest support for Netanyahu’s call for the creation of a broad, six-month “emergency” government amid the coronavirus outbreak, but is seemingly willing to explore all options.

On Sunday, Netanyahu made a final effort to court Gantz with the public promise of a rotating premiership over a four-year term but the latter reportedly distrusted the incumbent to give up the reins after serving the first half.

The offer came from a marginally empowered Netanyahu, whose trial on corruption charges in three separate cases was postponed until May 24 at the earliest. The development was the result of a coronavirus-related decision by Justice Minister Amir Ohana – a close Netanyahu ally – to halt all court activities that do not qualify as an “extraordinary emergency.”

With Netanyahu’s staying power on full display, Gantz now has four weeks to accomplish the tallest task required to unseat Israel’s longest-serving leader: that is, to satisfy the demands of what could be the most disparate collection of Israeli politicians to ever venture into such uncharted – and no doubt unstable – waters. In fact, the formation from the outset of a minority government would be unprecedented in Israel’s history, where the scenario has only materialized when one party seceded from an existing ruling coalition.

And while the current players involved are united in their disdain for Netanyahu, the divisions between them on nearly every policy issue, perhaps foremost the peace process with the Palestinians, are stark. Indeed, Gantz’s decision whether to implement US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan – which calls for Israel’s annexation of some 30% of the contested West Bank – could be the make-or-break determinant moving forward.

In this respect, Odeh previously stressed that his backing of Blue and White was contingent on Gantz’s agreement not to apply Israeli sovereignty to any territories the Palestinians claim as part of a future state. This potentiality would be anathema to, if not a nonstarter for, the ultra-nationalist Liberman, who in the past has drawn the ire of Arab Israelis for suggesting that control over some of their northern towns should be transferred to a future Palestinian state in the event of a peace deal.

Another primary obstacle is the so-called nation-state law, which, passed in 2018, defined Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. In what many considered discriminatory, it also downgraded the official status of the Arabic language.

Odeh has appealed to Gantz to repeal the law, although this would almost certainly cause further problems within the latter’s own home.

Already, two Blue and White lawmakers – in addition to the head of the centrist Gesher party – are on record opposing sitting in a coalition whose survival depends on the Joint List. More generally, Blue and White legislators remain bitterly at odds over the matter and it is not unfathomable that the alliance could altogether split even before negotiations with other parties begin.

If at least three people switch teams, so to speak, Netanyahu’s right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc could, however improbable, suddenly find itself in the coalition-building driver’s seat.

To avoid this, Gantz, with mandate in hand, still might reassess the idea of a national unity government with Netanyahu, though it is difficult, albeit not impossible, to envision either of them agreeing to step aside while the other serves right off the bat as prime minister.

Additionally, such maneuvering by Gantz would assuredly be viewed as a betrayal of the Joint List and could, ultimately, cause him political harm in the future.

Perhaps, then, the more realistic scenario is embodied by those who have started digesting the previously unthinkable notion of four consecutive elections.