Who will be the next to wear the Israeli crown?
After the second election in less than six months, Netanyahu’s right-wing block was left with a 55 majority, one seat more than former Israel Defense Forces chief and leader of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz’s, centre-left bloc with 54. Neither has the minimum 61 mandates required to be the country’s next prime minister.
All week, president Rivlin pushed the two leaders to work together. They met without him behind closed doors and it’s anyone’s guess what was said. Both blamed the other for the breakdown. It seems to have been over the issue of who would head a possible unity government between them. Both wanted it, and reportedly refused to budge.
Netanyahu now has 28 days to secure 61 mandates. If he can’t, president Rivlin can then give him another two weeks. But even with the extension, he’s likely to fail. His right-wing coalition partners will never agree to sitting with those on the left, and there’s really no-one else left for Netanyahu to ask to join his coalition. The question is whether president Rivlin will then give Gantz the opportunity to try. But Gantz’s centre-left coalition will never sit with those on the right, and so his chances are also less than promising. At the time of writing, speculation was rife that president Rivlin would reluctantly be forced to call for a third election.
Much has been written about former defense minister and leader of the Israel Our Home party, Avigdor Lieberman, being a kingmaker after securing eight mandates. Should he join Netanyahu, he’d bring enough votes to secure him the government. But Lieberman has announced he’s not joining forces with Netanyahu – or with Gantz for that matter.
In a significant development, the Arab Joint List (a political alliance of the main Arab-dominated political parties in Israel – Balad, Hadash, Ta’al and the United Arab List) gave their backing to Gantz, ending the community’s usual policy of not supporting any candidate for prime minister. The last – and first – mainstream Jewish candidate backed by representatives of Israel’s Arab minority was Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.
Still, the support was not unanimous, and three of the faction’s members opposed the recommendation, writing in a statement that, “Gantz should not be recommended due to his right-wing political stance, which is not too different from Likud, as well as for his bloody and aggressive military history.”
Gantz’s response to the Arab support was lukewarm. In spite of Netanyahu’s effort to paint the former army chief as a left-winger, on key issues, the two leaders are not that different. Gantz said he would not support a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, and has so far refused to rule out the annexation of settlement blocs, echoing Netanyahu’s comments. Also, don’t forget that Gantz was head of the army during the 2014 Gaza War in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed.
It’s no surprise then that when the Arab Joint List endorsed him, his reaction was restrained, and he took pains to broadcast his limited appreciation. He knows their support comes at a price.
Among the demands already put forward by the Arab Joint List to Gantz are freezing home demolitions in unrecognised Arab villages; cancelling the controversial nation-state law that enshrines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; and revising a law that penalises illegal construction. This would benefit Arab Israeli towns where illegal construction is rife.
The Arab Joint List hasn’t said what it will do if Gantz refuses its demands – and it seems highly unlikely he’ll agree to any, certainly not most, of them. But with Netanyahu now tasked to form a government, this question is moot. It will become relevant only if Gantz gets the chance to try his luck.
If that occurs, Arab support could weaken Gantz’s efforts to attract right-wingers to his potential coalition. It has already partially been responsible for Lieberman’s decision not to endorse him.
Balad, the most extreme Arab party in the Arab Joint List, opposed recommending Gantz, saying that it believed he intended eventually to form a unity government with Netanyahu and Lieberman that, in its opinion, would be “worse than a right-wing government”.
Balad, though, will never support a Zionist leader. The party’s founder, Azmi Bishara, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and fled Israel in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War after being suspected of telling Hezbollah where its missiles landed. Former party Knesset members have taken part in the Gaza flotilla, and gone to jail for smuggling cell phones to terrorists in prison.
Still, the main reason the majority of Arab leaders support Gantz is that they want Netanyahu out. The latter’s relentless incitement against the Arab minority during the election campaign galvanised Arab voters to go to the polls. Just prior to the elections, Netanyahu promised he’d annex settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley which while buoying his right-wing supporters, had the opposite effect on the Arab community. His scare tactics continue to the extent that I’ve heard Likudniks say that if Gantz becomes prime minister, there will be an Arab defense minister.
These elections were as much about a vote of confidence in Netanyahu as anything else. The result is that Israelis want him – and don’t want him. In the end, the country finds itself in the same position it was in this past April. Political analysis might be a science, but in Israel at the moment, it feels more like guesswork.