The outcome of the Israeli political battle royal rests firmly in the hands of one man known for his hardball tactics: Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman
Intense pressure is building ahead of the Wednesday deadline for the leader of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz to form a government that would enjoy the support of the plurality (not necessarily the majority) of the members of the Knesset. Should he fail to do so, a 21-day period would commence during which any member of the Knesset (MK) can present a government for the Knesset’s approval, something that has never happened in Israel’s seven decades of existence as a modern state. When that period expires without resolution, a new election will be called for March of 2020.
Here are the possible scenarios of what may transpire between now and Wednesday.
The national unity government. This would be a broad-based majority coalition comprising of the center-left Blue and White and center-right Likud parties with others joining in or not. Incumbent PM Netanyahu and his challenger Gantz would serve in the prime minister’s office in rotation, two years each. Who goes first will be an outcome of the negotiations leading to the formation of such a government. This scenario is increasingly unlikely because Gantz has made it clear that his condition for going along with it is that Likud abandons its natural allies on the religious right and the ultra-orthodox side of the political spectrum. However, Netanyahu has already made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of breaking his religious-right bloc comprising of 55 (out of 120) MK’s and would rather lead the bloc into opposition.
Minority government by Blue and White with Lieberman’s secular and (supposedly) right wing Israel Beitenu party plus two Jewish socialist parties with external support by at least three Arab MK’s. Such a government would enjoy a plurality of at least 56 MK’s and would barely overcome the 55-string religious-right bloc led by PM Netanyahu. The impetus for forming such a government is strong because it would remove Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office, but it hinges upon the support of Lieberman, a support that if granted would be a permanent “get” (writ of divorce) between him and the Israeli right. Additionally, such a government is nearly unprecedented in Israeli politics and it is exceedingly unlikely that it would survive more than a few months.
Majority religious right government led by incumbent PM Netanyahu with participation from Lieberman and his faction. This government could have already been formed after the April election had Lieberman not scuttled it at the last moment. Joining this coalition at this point would require face-saving concessions from the religious parties in the arena of the observant-non-observant divide in Israeli politics, such as public transport and the opening of grocery stores on the Sabbath. The most important concession that would be required is movement towards ending the blanket exemption of ultra-Orthodox youth from the military draft. While these concessions are exceedingly painful for the religious parties to make, they are nothing but pragmatists when pragmatism is called for and they have already signaled their willingness to be flexible. Achieving such concessions while adhering to the right-wing of Israeli politics is what most of Lieberman’s ex-Soviet Jewish voters want. It remains to be seen, however, whether he ends up listening to his voters or to his own ego and his long-held hatred for his erstwhile mentor Netanyahu and allow him the win of forming, once again, a stable religious-right governing coalition.
The only other possible outcome is a new election in March of next year, an unprecedented third election in a row, all in the face of polls that show that this third election will yield results that are virtually identical to the second one. With those polls firmly in hand, nobody wants to be seen as the party guilty of dragging the country through the expense of another election campaign the likely outcome of which will solve nothing.
In this atmosphere of a near total political stalemate, all that remains is taking to Twitter and hurling insults. Netanyahu is calling out Gantz and Lieberman for betraying their voters, Jewish Israelis who believed their hawkish credentials when it comes to dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, by relying on the votes of pro-terror Arab MK’s to satisfy their lust for power. Blue and White leaders, not to be outdone, are all but calling Netanyahu a racist for describing the Arab MK’s as beyond the pale and anyone who relies on their support a traitor to the Zionist cause.
While these insults are distasteful, majority Jewish opinion in Israel is closer to Netanyahu on these issues than to his detractors and thus the insult war is likely accruing to his favor. There can be little doubt that behind the scenes frantic internal polling is taking place, especially by Avigdor Lieberman. After all, it will be his decision as to which party, if any, to join that will determine which of the three possible scenarios comes to pass. In the IDF there is a saying, which rhymes in Hebrew: “from medal to private”. Either you get decorated or you get demoted in rank all the way to the bottom. Lieberman is facing such a moment right now. His decision will determine: will he be a hero or a zero when the dust settles.
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