T. Belman. Israel Policy Forum is left of center.
By Michael J. Koplow, ISRAEL POLICY FORUM April 2,2020
It has been a week since Benny Gantz upended the structure that had ruled Israeli politics for the past year and a half, putting himself forward as a candidate for Knesset speaker in order to launch unity negotiations with Prime Minister Netanyahu and fracturing Kachol Lavan in the process. Yet despite his stated intention to create a government with Netanyahu in order to deal with the coronavirus emergency, a unity agreement has remained elusive. It turns out that after having three hotly contested elections that centered around one man’s fitness for office, dropping the central premise of Kachol Lavan’s reason for being and working out a deal is easier said than done. Reports have identified a host of sticking points between Netanyahu and Gantz, from the control of specific ministries to the timeframe and mechanics of a prime ministerial rotation to the fate of West Bank annexation, none of which were worked out before Gantz publicly announced his intention to join with Netanyahu.
Despite the fact that Gantz currently holds the mandate from President Ruvi Rivlin to form the next government, Netanyahu is actually the one who has more leverage to control this process. It is clear that the primary factor that caused Gantz to change course was fear of how he would fare in a fourth election, and not only has that fear not dissipated but it has likely increased. A fourth election would relegate Gantz and his rump Kachol Lavan to a middling opposition party rather than the primary one, transforming uncertainty about emerging as the largest party in the largest bloc in a fourth election to certainty of his political irrelevance. This is the consequence of Gantz breaking Kachol Lavan apart, immediately condensing the timeframe available to him to impact the direction of any future government and making avoiding a fourth election an imperative rather than a strong preference.
Gantz’s leverage is also dissipating with every passing day as it brings the end of his mandate to form a government closer. That mandate expires in a week and a half, and when it does, Gantz is no longer necessary for Netanyahu. At the moment, Netanyahu cannot legally form a government without Gantz’s sign off, but in order to remove that restriction, he only needs to wait Gantz out. And lo and behold, the leaks from anonymous sources close to the prime minister have shifted from saying last week that a unity deal was imminent that would include an ironclad prime ministerial rotation anchored in Knesset legislation – leaks that were quite obviously necessary to getting Gantz to step on to the highwire without a safety net – to reporting this week suggesting multiple obstacles to an agreement. If Netanyahu actually wants a unity government with Gantz, he can get there, but if Netanyahu wants to run out the clock, this is precisely what it would look like.
Gantz also no longer has the leverage that existed early last week, when Yuli Edelstein resigned as Knesset speaker and Kachol Lavan was poised to take over the position and with it the Knesset agenda. That maneuver was set up so that Kachol Lavan could introduce legislation prohibiting an MK under indictment from being tasked with forming a government and requiring a prime minister under indictment to step down, legislation that Netanyahu wanted to forestall for obvious reasons. Whether or not Gantz and Kachol Lavan intended to actually pass these laws was not the point; the point was that the specter of their passage was the leverage they wanted to force Netanyahu to agree to their demands or risk the legislative consequences.
But even though Gantz is currently the Knesset speaker and has threatened to put this legislation front and center on the agenda should unity talks fall apart, it isn’t clear that this threat is still meaningful. Before Gantz’s declaration that he was pursuing a unity government, there were 61 presumed Knesset votes for limiting Netanyahu’s ability to serve as prime minister. Following Gantz’s declaration, those numbers are uncertain. Even if Gantz reverts to his previous position, he has broken an invisible psychological barrier among those 61 MKs, who were united behind Gantz’s insistence that nobody should form a government with a prime minister under indictment until Gantz himself violated that principle. Not only has that made it easier for anyone in that group to defect on their own irrespective of what Gantz’s position is ten days from now, two members of that group – Yoaz Hendel and Tzvi Hauser – used the breakup of Kachol Lavan to form their own two person party called Derech Eretz, which may join with Netanyahu anyway. Those 61 votes that Gantz presumably controlled as a sword of Damocles hanging over Netanyahu’s head are no longer under Gantz’s control, and may no longer exist independently.
The upshot of this is that while it may appear that the ball is in Gantz’s court, it is actually in Netanyahu’s, and he has a range of options available to him. The first, and the one he is ostensibly negotiating for right now, is to form a unity government with Gantz. If after a week the two sides have not come to a détente on who controls which ministries, let alone on policy issues such as annexation and legislation impacting the independence of Israel’s judicial system, those differences are not going to be easily bridged after a second week either. Even if Netanyahu is inclined to make concessions to Gantz, he is under two sources of heavy pressure to stand firm. One is from his own Likud MKs, who are hearing about promises to give ministries and Knesset committee chairmanships to all 18 Kachol Lavan MKs and realizing that means the back benches for most of them. Another is from Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who are threatening not to join any coalition that does not pledge to pass annexation legislation within a month of being formed. While six Yamina MKs in the opposition will not prevent a government from being formed, it will mean a vocal and savvy opposition coming at Netanyahu from his right flank, which is something that he has historically tried to avoid at any cost.
Netanyahu can take these twin pressures into account, wait until the mandate to form a government passes to him, and put together a coalition that leaves Gantz out completely. He is starting from a base of 58 seats, and he can get there easily with the two Derech Eretz MKs and Orly Levy-Abekasis, who broke away from Labor and now sits on her own as the sole Gesher MK. He might also add Labor to that total, as Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli have been negotiating alongside Gantz and have reportedly each been promised ministries themselves.
While they have pledged to Gantz that they will not enter the government without him, Peretz also spent two election cycles promising not to sit with Netanyahu under any circumstances, going so far as to shave off his famous mustache as the equivalent of making a blood oath, so any promise he makes to Gantz should be treated as equally pliable.
Netanyahu also has open to him the option that Gantz felt he did not have himself, which is to go to a fourth election. Should Netanyahu do that, he will remain prime minister for another few months until an election can be held – a period that may extend even longer than it ordinarily would given coronavirus restrictions and emergency decrees – and with the opposition now fractured as a result of Gantz’s decision, Netanyahu might finally win the clear 61 or more seats that he needs. This may be the most attractive option to him of all, as it requires no concessions and gives him another bite at the immunity apple for which he has been hungering.
The next ten days will illuminate which of these options Netanyahu favors. But make no mistake about it – the spotlight that is currently trained on Gantz as the star of the show that is Israeli politics should really be trained on Netanyahu, who remains Israel’s lead actor.