In addition to the unparalleled havoc the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking, Israel is facing an unprecedented political deadlock, with no path to a stable government in sight after three elections.
A fourth election would be dreadful under any circumstances, but appears logistically impossible with the deadly coronavirus disrupting public life to the extent that restaurants and schools are closed and people are about to be prohibited from straying more than 100 meters from their domiciles.
On the face of it, there are only three options to end the stalemate, all of them unfeasible.
The first and ostensibly most popular option envisions a national unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White. Given the coronavirus turmoil, many politicians and analysts think that a stable government made up of the Knesset’s two largest factions is the best way to tackle the COVID-19 emergency.
But many senior members of Blue and White staunchly oppose joining a government under Netanyahu, a defendant in three corruption cases. Furthermore, Gantz repeatedly vowed in three election campaigns not to serve alongside Netanyahu, and doing so would greatly damage his credibility among left and center-left voters. Finally, Netanyahu and Gantz cannot agree on who would go first in a rotation for the premiership. Netanyahu has offered to vacate the Prime Minister’s Office after a year and a half, but Gantz simply doesn’t believe him.
Both leaders on Tuesday spoke about their willingness, in principle, to work together. But Blue and White’s planned move to replace Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a Likud MK, with a lawmaker from its own ranks, Meir Cohen, would doom any chance of a unity government, Netanyahu has warned.
The second possibility currently being discussed is a minority government comprising Blue and White, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu and Labor-Meretz, which would be supported from the outside by the mostly Arab Joint List.
This, too, would violate a key Blue and White campaign promise not to build a coalition reliant in any way on the Joint List. Furthermore, even the more dovish elements in Blue and White no longer think this is a viable option.
Before the coronavirus spread and changed everything, proponents of this course of action considered it an expedient way to get rid of the incumbent prime minister, paving the way for a unity government with Likud in the post-Netanyahu era.
A Netanyahu minority government would safeguard democratic norms, guarantee governing continuity until the coronavirus storm is weathered and would force no one to break his campaign promises
But today they realize that a narrow and unstable government that relies on the Joint List is not what the nation needs, or wants, in these most turbulent of times. Deposing a serving prime minister who is widely appreciated as a savvy and responsible manager of the current crisis, and replacing him with an unstable and far from consensual minority coalition, is seen as a deeply unwise move by the Blue and White leadership, one that will badly hurt its standing when the public next goes to the polls.
Thus more and more analysts are speaking of options three — yet another election — which almost nobody in the Knesset wants because none of them knows how it would change the political map.
Likud could lose support among working class voters due to the deepening economic disaster and growing unemployment amid the coronavirus restrictions, not to mention frustration about the almost-lockdown. And Blue and White worries that its semi-aborted attempt to form a government with the help of the Joint List may have alienated many of its supporters from the right and center-right.
Nobody can even be sure whether it would be practically possible to send Israelis to the polling stations later this year. Some are convinced that a fresh election, the country’s fourth within a year and a half, would be entirely out of the question due to ongoing restrictions on public life and the need for social distancing. Others predict that the pandemic may have been subdued sufficiently by September — the ostensible date for new elections.
Given the uncertainty that surrounds all three of these ostensible “options,” some bright sparks have floated the idea of passing legislation that would freeze the status quo until further notice — not an option for ending the deadlock, then, but deadlock by design. According to this notion, new elections would be held at a yet-unspecified date, after the disease is safely behind us. While Netanyahu would doubtless appreciate this idea, his opponents would bitterly oppose letting him stay in power for an undetermined period of time, and thus it looks even less viable than the conventional options.
But there is a way out of the deadlock. It’s not for me to advocate it — but since it’s not being discussed, it seems sensible to at least describe it, since it could conceivably constitute a viable compromise that would safeguard democratic norms, guarantee governing continuity until the coronavirus storm is weathered, and require no breach of campaign promises. Wait for it: A minority government… headed by Netanyahu.
This scenario would see the parties in the current caretaker government — Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which have 58 seats between them — form a temporary coalition that would be supported from the outside, or at least tolerated, by Blue and White.
All it would take to establish Netanyahu’s fifth government would be for Blue and White to leave the hall when the Knesset votes on it.
As it promised its voters, Blue and White would not be sitting in a coalition with Netanyahu, and it wouldn’t be building a coalition dependent on the Joint List either, leaving the party strong and unified for the road ahead. (Party leaders Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon would likely break up the faction if Gantz teamed up with Likud; and MKs Yoaz Hendel and Tzi Hauser vehemently oppose forming a minority government with the help of the Joint List.)
Gantz could take credit for saving the country from new elections by putting the national interest above all, and for temporarily setting aside his own ambitions.
His centrist list could assume the role of a responsible opposition, fully supporting the government in its fight against the coronavirus and combating it relentlessly on most everything else.
Once the pandemic is over, Netanyahu’s corruption trial will begin, and he will no longer be able to argue that he is indispensably steering the country through an unprecedented health crisis.
Gantz could topple the government, whenever he feels the time is right, with a constructive vote of no-confidence, since Blue and White, Labor-Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu and the Joint List have a majority of 61.
It’s a wafer-thin majority, to be sure, but perhaps it’s enough of an insurance policy for Gantz to graciously agree to let Netanyahu stay on for a few more weeks, or even months, depending on how long the state of emergency persists. He might even look prime ministerial in so doing.
Header: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a memorial ceremony marking 24 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in the Knesset on November 10, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Original: Raphael Ahren, the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.