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3rd Elections Loom in Israel

As Israel rapidly approaches the deadline for the formation of the next government, 11th-hour negotiations aimed at offsetting the likelihood of a third round of national elections on March 2 have so far fail to yield success.

Blue and White Chairman, Knesset Member Benny Gantz, has maintained his refusal to join a unity government with the Likud under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, until the Premier’s legal woes have been resolved. Netanyahu has refused to step aside, and insists that he serve first in a prospective rotational premiership with Gantz.

The latest in the impasse involves the Gantz’ rejection of an offer from Likud to join a unity coalition, allegedly conditioned on a vow from Netanyahu not to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution on multiple criminal charges against him. The shunned-deal is also believed to have included willingness by Netanyahu to relinquish the reins of power after the first six months to Gantz for the remainder of the term.

Gantz has consistently pointed to the 33-seat majority his Blue and White holds over the Likud’s 32; and long-demanded Netanyahu declare that he will not seek immunity in connection to bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges related to three separate criminal cases for which he is set to be indicted.

“Netanyahu needs to place Israel before Netanyahu and take action,” said Gantz, reiterating “I call on the prime minister again, and repeat what I told your representatives from the first day of negotiations: if you give up on immunity, we’re partners to start talking.”

Likud dismissed the call, insisting that immunity is “an explicit right” exclusively within the domain of the Knesset.

Meanwhile, Avigdor Liberman has been actively pursued by Likud; even though his 8-seat Yisrael Beiteinu faction is not enough on its own to afford either of the two major parties sufficient support to form a government. Netanyahu, however, has the advantage over Blue and White, having built a 55-member right-wing, religious bloc.  “I call on Avigdor Liberman to enter into accelerated negotiations in the 48 hours left to establish a broad, strong unity government for Israel,” Netanyahu said on Monday, December 9.  According to reports, the offer to entice Liberman into joining a narrow Netanyahu-led government included a return of the Defense portfolio from which he resigned last year, as well as the critical Interior Ministry that would afford his rightist, secular party control over key issues related to state and religion. Most strikingly, Liberman was allegedly invited to assume the premiership in place of Netanyahu during the last year of the term.

Liberman spurned the offer, however; stating that he is ‘a man of his word’ and would remain faithful to his vow not to serve in a narrow government led by either major party. The Moldova-born politician has consistently insisted he will only join a unity government including both Likud and Blue and White. During talks with Likud-affiliated mayors and local council leaders, Liberman said, “Israel faces a dual challenge — security and economic — and cannot function within the constricted framework of a narrow government, which will put Israel in desperate straits.” He went on to say that, “It wouldn’t be possible to cope with the challenges at hand, in either security matters or the economy. The current situation requires dramatic decision-making, and broad national consensus, first and foremost, in the Knesset.”

There have also been reports that there has been a behind-the-scenes campaign to nominate Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein as the next candidate tasked to form a government. Under Israel’s Basic Laws, any MK with the support of a 61-majority can be appointed within a 21-day-period, as a third never-before implemented option; which expires at midnight Wednesday December 11. The procedure was enacted in the wake of failure by Netanyahu to build a viable coalition after the April or September elections, nor Gantz to do so after the second round of balloting.

Internal party politics have also witnessed several policy shifts. In the event of a third election, Gantz will represent Blue and White’s sole competitor for Israeli leadership. Until now, he had run as a joint-candidate alongside his party’s co-Chairman MK Yair Lapid, who announced at Monday’s faction meeting at the Knesset that he will relinquish his quest for the premiership because “it is what is best for the country.” “The rotation and the job aren’t what’s important,” Lapid, the former Chairman of the Yesh Atid faction said, later describing the ultimate goal as “Freeing the country from Netanyahu.”

Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s 71-year history. He served his first term 1996-1999; with the remaining three terms in succession since 2009. The 70-year-old is also first – and only premier – to have been born in Israel after its establishment.

The Prime Minister’s bureau released a statement, accusing the Blue and White of engaging in “transparent tricks” and “empty spins.” Blue and White shot back that  “The only thing that is transparent is Netanyahu’s desire to lead Israel to an additional round of elections with the sole purpose of seeking immunity. Netanyahu, set Israel free.”

Meanwhile, the Likud Central Committee voted on Sunday December 8 to cancel anticipated party primaries until after it has been decided whether or not new elections will be held [Editor’s Update: on Wednesday December 11, Likud announced it’s primaries are expected to be held on Thursday, December 26]. The move prompted the Prime Minister’s main in-house rival MK Gideon Sa’ar to contend, “There are some people who try to smear those who want to run for Likud headship,” adding that “It’s legitimate to challenge someone who held the position for 14 years.” In a later post on Twitter, Sa’ar wrote “I am determined to run for the party leadership out of an understanding that a change is needed,” while stressing that “A turning point must be achieved in order to rescue the nation from the ongoing political crisis, establish a Likud-led government and unify the people.”

Likud MK Yoav Kisch threw his support behind the premier’s contender, commenting “We may lose the right-wing rule and the only one who can get us out of this situation is Gideon Sa’ar.” He emphasized that “On Wednesday, we are likely to head to another election and I wish there’ll be a different solution to this situation. After we got 60 seats [in the April 9th election), we went down to 55 (in September 17th election), I’m afraid we’re going to miss those 55 seats. The right-wing bloc will likely pay a heavy price.”

While Kisch’ concerns are not borne out in the latest poll, the results are disarming over their reflection of little change among voters should they be required to return to the ballot box – forecasting no breakthroughs to the political impasse thrusting the nation into perpetual political turmoil.

According to the findings of a survey issued by Israel’s pubic Kan network conducted by the Canter Institute on Sunday November 8, Blue and White would rise to 35 seats and Likud to 34. The Joint Arab List would hold steady at 13 seats. Shas would drop from 9 to 8, while United Torah Judaism would increase from 7 to 8. Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu would also drop one mandate to 7, while Naftali Bennett-Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina-New Right would strengthen from 3 to 6. The Labor-Gesher alliance would also lose a seat and decrease from 6 to 5. as would the Democratic Union from 5 to 4. Habayit Hayehudi would lose all of its current 4 seats and fail to pass the 3.25% electoral threshold, which Otzma Yehudit would also fail to cross.

The results reveal the Center-Left holding steady with its current level of support with 44 mandates, although the right-wing bloc would rise to 56-57 (at the perceived expense of Yisrael Beiteinu). The survey reflects the opinions of 556 respondents, with a margin of error of +-4.3%.

Once again, neither of the two major parties would garner a clear majority to rule; and once again necessitate a process of seemingly-endless coalition negotiations which much of the Israeli public has come to dread.

— By Erin Viner