Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (center) does his best to bring together Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (left) and challenger Benny Gantz on September 19, two days after Israel’s latest election. (Yonatan Sindel/AFP/Getty Images)

With Mandate to Form Israel’s Next Government, Netanyahu is under Pressure

If he fails, it could be a long road until the dust settles and the country has a clear leader

After days of respectful and even kind references to Benny Gantz, the main challenger to his future at the helm of state in the wake of the September 17 redo election, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu roused supporters of his Likud party late Thursday by coming down hard on Gantz and his conditions for joining a unity government.

“The other side has all kinds of fantasies, I’d even say hallucinations,” Netanyahu, who this week was given a mandate by President Reuven Rivlin to form a government, told them.

“First they thought they could break up the partnership in the nationalist [right-wing] camp between us and our partners. That didn’t happen. We have strong partners. Our partnership is stronger than ever,” he sermonized. “So what are they fantasizing about now? Now they think they’ll be able to break up the Likud. I ask you – are you going to let them tear apart the Likud? Are you going to let them oust the Likud’s chairman?”

Netanyahu, who has chaired the Likud since 1993, is increasingly seen by some in the party as an impediment to its future owing to pending indictments against him in three corruption cases, one of which involves a charge of bribery.

Yet Ofer Kenig, a senior lecturer in political science at Israel’s Ashkelon Academic College and a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, feels that, right now, a party putsch is unlikely.

“People have been saying for at least two years [since the first reports of corruption surfaced] that the time has come for someone else in the Likud to raise the banner,” he told The Media Line. “To be honest, I still don’t see anything.”

How can this be explained?

“It’s a combination of two things,” Kenig said.

“The first is the so-called Likud DNA, of backing their leaders… especially when these leaders provide access to power – and Netanyahu has provided access to power for the past 10 years. But remember that Menachem Begin was in the opposition for 30 years and without power, and there was no real challenge against him,” he said.

“The second,” he went on, “is that for many Likud voters, Netanyahu represents the anti-elite sentiments they feel vis a vis the media, academia and the courts. For them, he is the champion who fights against old elites, and they give him a lot of credit for that.”

Still, there is at least some resentment against Netanyahu within his Knesset faction, and the prime minister knows that this issue must be addressed.

“If he cannot put together a coalition and returns the mandate to Rivlin, Netanyahu could announce primaries in the Likud just to reconsolidate his position,” Kenig postulates. “He would say, ‘Okay, I hear some sounds of doubt; let’s have leadership primaries.’ Then we’d see if there are any actual contenders who would dare to challenge him for the Likud leadership.”

Outside the Likud, Netanyahu’s legal woes are seen as being behind many of his recent political setbacks. Key observers are convinced that he called for early elections late last year believing that his large political base would allow him to negotiate a new coalition from a position of strength – including the strength to demand that his partners agree to legislation granting him immunity from criminal prosecution as long as he remains prime minister.

Right now, Israeli law says that elected officials must step down if they are convicted of a crime. But Netanyahu’s predecessor, who went to prison for crimes of his own, stepped down not only prior to his conviction, but before he could even be indicted – creating a precedent that Netanyahu’s adversaries can gleefully note.

One of these adversaries is Gantz, who, as head of the Blue and White list, a centrist alliance of parties, has said all along that he’d refuse to sit in a government with a partner facing indictment. This stance is what is believed to be behind his current refusal to join Netanyahu in a unity government despite strong efforts in that direction by Rivlin.

In giving the prime minister the mandate to form the next government, Rivlin made abundantly clear that if he does not succeed, Netanyahu is expected to return the mandate. The president placed this matter front and center because in the April election, when he was unable to build a coalition, Netanyahu quickly forced through legislation calling for the redo vote. While perfectly legal, it did not conform to what is viewed as the president’s traditional prerogative to oversee the formation of governments to the very end of the process.

“Rivlin, as the representative of citizens who don’t want a third election, had to spell it out because he wanted it to be clear,” Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line.

“Once he said it, it fairly obliged Netanyahu, at least politically and perhaps even morally, to return the mandate,” Rahat said. “You never know, but I think this means there will be pressure on him [to do so].”

If this happens, Rivlin will be under no obligation to give Gantz a go at forming a government, especially if a sufficient number of parties inform the president that they will not support it. Yet Rahat believes that Rivlin would do this, if only for appearances, especially with the electorate so weary of elections.

“It wouldn’t look proper if he didn’t,” he said. “[Rivlin] represents something beyond politics, so I would be surprised if he wouldn’t give Gantz a chance to establish a government.”

Should Gantz fail, the president would next turn to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and give its 120 members a chance to settle on a third candidate, someone from their own ranks, provided this candidate can garner a minimum of 61 votes from his or her colleagues.

But what if this, too, fails?

“The only way out, as I see it, is new elections,” Rahat says. “Either that or the demise of Israel’s democracy. There’s no other option.”

No matter what happens, one thing is sure: Netanyahu remains the country’s caretaker prime minister. This is crucial to him for two reasons. First, it allows him to retain political power and visibility as a leader. Second and more importantly, it allows him to remain prime minister even if he is indicted.

“It’s all about Netanyahu,” Rahat insists. “It’s personal. It’s all about him being supported by his own camp and all about him being rejected by the others. It’s what all of these elections have been about.”

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