The Latest on Israel’s Political Impasse

By Erin Viner

Nearly one month after Israel’s second national election on September 17, there has yet to be a resolution of the political deadlock preventing the formation of the next government.

Time is quickly running out on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate to build a ruling coalition before his October 24th deadline to do so, and local media is reporting that sources close to President Reuven Rivlin say that he will not grant Netanyahu an optional two week extension as he did in the wake of first balloting on April 9.

The Blue and White faction holds the largest number of parliamentary seats with 33, while the Likud trails at 32. Both fell far short of garnering a majority of 61 Knesset seats to assemble a stable coalition without agreeing to form a national unity government. After holding the required consultations with the nine parliamentary bodies that won mandates in the election, President Rivlin first tapped Netanyahu as he was deemed the most viable candidate; based on a probable 56 seat center-right bloc which constituted a razor-thin margin over the 55 held by the center-left.

In accordance with Israeli law, Netanyahu was given 28 days to build a successful coalition (in the wake of both the 2019 elections). Barring any unexpected breakthroughs, he will have failed to achieve a successful coalition in either case.

Rather than return the mandate to the President after his failure following the April elections, the Premier’s rightwing Likud party quickly voted to dissolve the 21st Knesset itself just two months later on May 30; and the unprecedented holding of two elections in one year commenced.

A caretaker government lead by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has remained in place since December 2018 when he led the dissolution of the 20th Knesset, in what his critics argue was a maneuver aimed at delaying his indictment in three separate corruption cases involving charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Those hearings were in fact delayed to accommodate the September 17 balloting, and ultimately held earlier this month on October 2, 3, 6 and 7; when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit granted Netanyahu’s request to hold the proceeding over four separate days. Mandelblit is expected to announce his decision on whether to formally indict Netanyahu by the end of this year, and possibly as soon as next month.

The ability to form a government in the coming days would ensure Netanyahu’s retention of the premiership throughout any potential indictment, trial and appeals process; whereas it would be incumbent upon him to resign from any other official position if he is not prime minister.

It has been speculated in Israeli media that both Netanyahu and his greatest political rival, Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz, want Mandelblit to expedite his decision: the Prime Minister, because he believes he will be exonerated of the charges. Gantz would theoretically want to see the process accelerated due to his conviction that an indictment would prompt Netanyahu’s unseating as Likud Party leader – a move which could potentially break the stalemate toward the formation of a national unity government, as Gantz has refused to join a government with Netanyahu as long as he faces indictment.

Another obstacle to the formation of a national unity government was the inability of the Likud and Blue and White negotiating teams to reach consensus on which faction head would first serve as prime minister in the event of that a rotating premiership was created. Other analysts argue that both candidates are hoping that President Rivlin will in fact grant Netanyahu a two week extension to continue coalition-building efforts, affording Mandelblit sufficient time to render a decision that each is hoping will bolster his own prospects based on the same reasoning as above.

In a bid to remain at the helm of his party, Netanyahu had considered the convening of a primary election; but later dropped the bid after the most serious challenger within his faction, Gideon Sa’ar, tweeted “I’m ready.” In the wake of the nixed race, Sa’ar has confirmed his intention to run for the Likud leadership once Netanyahu has stepped down. Former Jerusalem Mayor and Likud Member of Knesset Nir Barkat echoed that sentiment while announcing his own plans to compete for the party’s leadership, saying he will only toss his hat into the ring “the day the Netanyahu era has ended.”

In apparent efforts to offset any premature competition, party loyalists of the Likud Central Committee gathered on October 10th to declare Netanyahu as the party’s sole candidate for the premiership, reaffirm loyalty to him as faction chairman and proclaim the Likud would only join a government under his leadership. Even though he chose not to attend the vote, Netanyahu later tweeted “Thanks to members of the Likud Central Committee for the crushing support and the full trust in me and in Likud,” without citing a reason for his absence from the session.

According to Likud negotiating team member and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Netanyahu is only likely to return his mandate to build the next government just ahead of the expiration of his deadline in nine days’ time (barring the granting of the optional 14-day presidential extension). This appears to be the likeliest scenario, given confirmation from a Blue and White spokesperson to TV7 that “there currently are no negotiations” between the two sides. If and when Netanyahu returns the mandate, President Rivlin is then expected to task former IDF Chief of Staff and political newcomer Gantz with the mission of building the next government within a 28-day period ending on November 21, without the possibility of an extension. While the party has not issued an official statement, the Blue and White Spokesperson told TV7 that if Netanyahu again fails to build a viable coalition, “of course Blue and White expects to receive the mandate and begin efforts to establish a stable and broad unity government.”

Inability by either side to form a viable coalition is followed by a third legal avenue, in which Members of Knesset have the option to file written applications with President Rivlin, requesting he/she be tasked with coalition-building. Approval of that prospective candidate would necessitate a 61-member majority of the plenum to proceed. Such a precedent has yet to occur in Israel’s 71-year history.

Most analysts believe it far likelier that the 22nd Knesset will share the same fate as its predecessor by dissolution in its nascency and necessitating a return to the ballot box yet again for a third consecutive election – costing not only further political turmoil, but an estimated $3.5 billion and a warning from the Moody’s Analytics international firm that Israel’s failure to form a stable government could also adversely affect the nation’s credit rating.