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Israel’s Dilemma As Gantz Bids To Form A Government – OpEd

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By Yossi Mekelberg*

Something that felt as if it was contradicting the laws of nature — Israel’s political nature, that is — took place last week, when President Reuven Rivlin tasked Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz with forming a coalition. It has been 11 years and five election campaigns since someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu was asked to form a government, which has made many rub their eyes at the sight of this novelty. Even more significantly, a rare insight is slowly creeping in, with the words “Netanyahu” and “outgoing prime minister” being spoken in the same breath. However, this scenario is far from being a done deal and, even if it happens, the country is only at the starting point of a long and excruciating path to it being a reality, including a probable third national election in the space of a year.

Is it possible to avoid this ludicrous scenario of three elections in just 10 months? Time will tell. In the meantime, it is evident that what is preventing a coalition from being formed is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s obstinacy, to the detriment of the country. It is crystal clear that, if he steps down, there will be several options for forming a new government.

The September election result left the political system with what is known in game theory as a prisoner’s dilemma, and this even before Netanyahu is indicted for corruption. In the classic version of the prisoner’s dilemma, two delinquents who are arrested on suspicion of bank robbery will get off lightly if they trust each other and do not cooperate with the police. While Netanyahu and his alleged accomplices might apply this tactic while they are being investigated, his dilemma is whether or not to trust the entire 55-MK bloc of the right and the ultra-Orthodox, who committed to him as their prime ministerial candidate, to not switch their allegiance and join forces with Gantz. Trust doesn’t exist in Netanyahu’s vocabulary and very few, even those on his side of the map, have faith in his loyalty to them. They know that Netanyahu serves only the Netanyahus, and hence they may be ready to jump ship to suit their interests.

Gantz may have been given the task of forming a coalition, but the person holding the wild card is Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. He and his team are mulling over what they learned from the hearing they conducted with Netanyahu’s lawyers last month, and are deciding whether what was presented to them is convincing enough to dissuade them from pursuing Netanyahu on any or all of the three corruption charges he faces.

There is an expectation that Mandelblit will indeed indict Netanyahu, but not before December. Here the timeline is crucial. Gantz has only 28 days to form a government, which most likely will run out before the attorney general makes his decision. Unless and until the charges against Netanyahu are abandoned, it is unlikely that any challenge to his leadership will be mounted from within his Likud party or that his partners from other parties will renege on their solemn pledge not to negotiate with Gantz separately from the Likud. But how much is a politician’s solemn pledge worth? For several of the smaller parties, who are mainly pressure or lobby groups, staying out of government and thus being unable to tap into public finances to quench their supporters’ thirst for resources might be a position too costly to sustain.

If, for instance — and it doesn’t look very likely at this point — Gantz is able to form a minority government, supported by the Arab Joint List, it would unsettle some of Netanyahu’s partners to the point of deciding that it is time to say farewell to one who has overstayed his welcome.

They might not care so much about the corruption issues surrounding Netanyahu. They might turn a blind eye to his unscrupulous spreading of discord and division between what Rivlin calls the tribes that comprise Israeli society, including infesting the public discourse with racist demagoguery directed against Palestinians. They might not even be worried that this is a prime minister who miscalculates the country into wars with its neighbors, or that Israel has one of the biggest wealth gaps between rich and poor in the Western world. But they do care, and are deeply worried by the fact, that he doesn’t win elections anymore — he has lost two in the space of five months — and is therefore jeopardizing what they see as their divine right to govern the country.

Netanyahu’s power to position himself best to form a coalition is rapidly fading and, after two elections and twin attempts to form a government, Emperor Bibi seems to have no clothes left at all — not even a fig leaf.

So Gantz may have edged closer to becoming the country’s next prime minister but, unless he manages to form a minority government within the allocated time, the more likely scenario is that the Knesset will have to recommend to Rivlin that he asks Gantz, Netanyahu or a third party to form a government within 21 days. If this also proves impossible, it means another general election by the end of March 2020.

Forming a minority government has its advantages, especially as it would begin to wean the Israeli electorate off its perception that Netanyahu is the only viable option for prime minister. It would also give Gantz a short period to leave his mark before he goes into fresh elections, and it might be the first and most important step toward recognition that the Palestinians and their representatives in the Knesset are legitimate partners in governing the country.

However, in the racist anti-Arab environment created by Netanyahu and his lieutenants, incitements against a government and leader supported by the Joint List of Arab parties would increase, and might cost Kahol Lavan at the ballot box. But if one of Gantz’s acts as prime minister, should he achieve that position, were to be the advancement of inclusiveness within Israeli society, he would have more than earned his premiership.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg


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