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Paralysed Israeli politics makes third election increasingly likely




Previous elections in April and September saw neither incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his main rival, the former military chief and leader of the centrist-left Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, able to form a majority coalition. Nothing significant has changed since then. Should a third election be held at the beginning of next year, the results are expected to be much the same, give or take one or two extra seats for the main parties, which is not enough to end the impasse.

Israelis are increasingly fed up with the situation. Each time an election is held, it costs the country between 3 billion to 4 billion shekels (R12.3 billion).

Last week, Gantz was tasked with trying to form a government after Netanyahu failed and returned the mandate to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Should Gantz prove incapable of doing so by 20 November – and as the days pass, it seems increasingly unlikely he’ll be able to form a majority coalition – Israeli law dictates a three-week period during which Israeli parliamentarians can ask the president to task someone else. Once this period has passed – and presumably it will end unsuccessfully too – the Knesset (parliament) will automatically dissolve, and new elections will be called for.

Netanyahu currently has a coalition of 55 Knesset seats compared to Gantz’s 54. Each needs a minimum of 61 (out of 120) to form a majority. The right-wing parties have signed a commitment paper declaring they will join only a government headed by Netanyahu and will never sign up to one established by Gantz. To date, they’ve refused even to meet with the Blue and White party leader as he tries to cobble together support.

This leaves Gantz with two options. Both go against his election pledges of “just not Netanyahu”, and the promise that there will not be a partnership with the Arab parties.

First would be to form a national unity government with Likud that would result in a rotation between him and Netanyahu in the position of prime minister. The latest polls show that most Israelis – 56% – like this option best. But for it to happen, either Gantz or Netanyahu would have to agree to serve second in the rotation, and both refuse. It would also mean that Gantz would need to backtrack on his insistence that he’d never serve under a prime minister facing grave charges of criminal wrongdoing.

There is talk that Gantz could be swayed on both these points, but the other leaders in his party, especially his number two, former journalist Yair Lapid, refuse to budge. They don’t trust Netanyahu to relinquish power when his round is up, and believe he wants to retain the premiership “not for unity but immunity”. There is nothing in Israeli law that prevents a sitting premier from being on trial, and Netanyahu won’t have to vacate his seat should the attorney-general decide to go ahead and indict him. This is part of the reason Netanyahu is so keen to hang onto his position.

In Netanyahu’s defence there are many who point out that Gantz has no experience in government, having entered politics less than a year ago. Being the second to lead a rotation would give him the chance to sit at the government table and better understand how things work.

Another problem for any kind of partnership between the two is that Likud would need to relinquish its alliance with right-wing religious parties and/or Gantz would need to relinquish his partnership with the left-wing Zionist party Meretz and/or the Arab parties. This will never happen – and these parties could never sit together.

The only other possibility for Gantz therefore would be to form a minority government with Labour and the Democratic Camp (44 seats in total). Such a government would not need 61 votes to begin its tenure, and would secure a Knesset majority with backing from outside the coalition of the Arab parties (10 seats) and Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Israel Our Home party (8 seats).

While there have been minority governments in Israel before, there has never been one formed following an election. The few cases of minority governments occurred after one or more factions withdrew from a coalition mid-term.

It’s a difficult predicament for the Blue and White leadership. In the past two elections, Gantz and his colleagues avoided the Arab elephant like the plague. While the majority of Arab parties gave Gantz their nod to form the next government – and he needs their votes – he’s acutely aware that Netanyahu is using this against him. And will continue to do so in another election campaign.

Netanyahu has pointed out that prominent members of the Joint List – an alliance of the main Arab-majority political parties in Israel – have repeatedly expressed support for terrorism and refused to condemn harm brought to Israeli soldiers and civilians. One of the leaders, Ahmed Tibi, was Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat’s former advisor, and refuses to see Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Another, Ayman Odeh, sees himself as part of the Palestinian national resistance against Israel.

Netanyahu has asked, “How will the state of Israel be able to act against the terrorist organisations, with its government dependent on the voices of Tibi, Odeh? How can the state of Israel act against Iran and Hezbollah when Knesset members and supporters of Hezbollah can overthrow the government? Establishing a minority government that relies on the Joint List is an anti-Zionist step that would jeopardise our security.”

Such comments have made an impact on right-wing voters.

But, at no point has Gantz expressed any intention to form a minority coalition. Such a government would be very shaky as it would not have a Knesset majority and would thus constantly have to bargain for the support of other factions in order to pass laws and decisions. The Israeli public is unlikely to regard such a government as legitimate.

However, the very real threat of a third election could make politicians and parties desperate. With his back against the wall, Gantz might be forced to go the route of a minority government or some of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners might break rank and join the former army general.

Israelis might not want another election, and as insane as it might seem to hold one, there might be no other option.

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