In The Israeli Coalition Negotiations It’s Still All About Bibi

Netanyahu and Gantz are jostling for coalition-forming advantage as the former’s legal fate hangs in the balance

Copyright: zeevveez from Jerusalem, Israel [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The will of the voter in the Israeli elections earlier this month could not have been more clear: from the 107 Jewish members of the new Knesset, 63 belong to Blue and White (33), Likud (32), and Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu (8), representing a nearly 59% majority. Add to that number the seven seats for the religious Zionist Yamina (To The Right!) party, and we get a 65% or nearly two-thirds super-majority of Jewish Israelis who want a thriving free market economy, robust and pragmatic defense policy, and the right balance between personal freedoms for all Israelis and the Jewish character of the only Jewish state.

This election result and the increasing realization that the Iranian-funded rocket arsenals in the hands of the Hezbollah and the Hamas will have to be dealt with decisively one way or another and that right soon, mean that Israel must have a national unity government comprised of the three or four largest Zionist non-ultra-orthodox parties. The only bone of contention at this point is who will lead this unity government: incumbent PM Netanyahu or his challenger and the head of the largest Knesset faction, Benny Gantz.

Unfortunately, the answer to that question cannot be determined until the exact balance of power between these two men is known and that knowledge will not become available until the results of Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearing. This hearing, a courtesy afforded by Israeli law to senior public figures under tentative indictment before said indictment is finalized and the case proceeds to trial will start immediately after the Jewish New Year’s holiday on Wednesday of next week and will last for a full four days.

Three outcomes are possible as a result of this hearing in AG’s Mandelblit’s office: no further action will be taken against Mr. Netanyahu, the felony indictments against Mr. Netanyahu for bribery and breach of public trust will proceed to trial as filed, or a watered-down, non-felony indictment will be filed with the courts. The first outcome is highly unlikely, so we may as well not worry about it. The second would mean that a unity government with Netanyahu as the reigning head of the Likud party will not be possible, as Gantz and other in Blue and White have already said that they will not serve in the same government as someone who has been charged with felony offenses. In this case, Netanyahu will face what would likely be unbearable pressure to step aside and retire from politics, paving the way for a unity government led for the first two years by Mr. Gantz and the second two-year period by as yet to be determined new head of the Likud party.

While the felony indictment remaining standing outcome of the hearing is the most likely, the one in which it is substituted with lesser non-felony charges is not impossible. In this case, Netanyahu will most likely be able to retain his seat at the head of the Likud party and of Israel’s new unity government at least for the first two years of its existence, an eternity in Israeli politics.

Eager to know Mr. Netanyahu’s fate before committing to any course of action, Mr. Gantz had requested that only ten out of thirteen Arab members of the Knesset recommend him to the President as the nominee to form the new government, thus making sure that Netanyahu would garner the plurality of the recommendations (55 to Gantz’s 54) and thus get the first bite at the apple. This gives Gantz the time he needs to see where the winds are blowing with respect to Netanyahu’s legal troubles before he puts pen to paper and signs any coalition agreements.

It is difficult to foresee how things may unfold, but I would venture a prediction. Should Mr. Netanyahu hear from his legal team that the hearing is going well, he will keep pretend-negotiating with Gantz as he is doing now until his final fate is known. Should he, however, be made to understand that a full felony indictment is all but inevitable, Netanyahu will return his government-forming mandate to president Rivlin as he had promised to do should the coalition negotiations become bogged down. Needless to say, Netanyahu will then blame the breakdown in negotiations on Mr. Gantz, the very person who would next be handed the hot potato of forming the new government. Once that happens, Netanyahu will use his 55-strong religious-right bloc, assuming that he can keep it together, to stop the formation of the new government and make it all but imperative that the new Knesset dissolve itself, declaring a new election, a third one in a row, for sometime in late winter to early spring of 2020, by which time Netanyahu may have well had his trial and (as he surely hopes) his acquittal on all charges. In the interim, indicted or not, Netanyahu will still be prime minister with full decision-making powers.

This is the state of affairs in Israeli politics on the eve of the year five thousand seven hundred and eighty from the creation of the Universe. We at Tsionizm wish all our readers a very happy, sweet, and truly blessed New Year. Shana Tova to all!

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