A transitional government has been in place in Israel for sixteen months, and elections have taken place three times. Now it is up to Parliament again to find a way out of the permanent political crisis.
Despite the severe crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, Israel remains caught in a political deadlock. To get this under control, acting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger Benny Gantz had agreed to form a government of “national unity”. Gantz even risked splitting his alliance between blue and white. According to information from both sides, the coalition agreement was almost as good as closed two weeks ago. But then the negotiations stalled.
President Reuven Rivlin twice granted the political opponents an extension of the deadline. But it was of no use. After the talks failed to break through on Thursday night, Rivlin handed over the mandate to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, on Thursday morning.
This morning, I informed the Speaker of the Knesset that I am entrusting the Knesset with the task of forming a government, according to Article 10(a) of Basic Law: The Government (2001). I hope majority of MKs can be found as soon as possible. preventing a 4th round of elections
— Reuven Rivlin (@PresidentRuvi) April 16, 2020
Israel may be heading for renewed elections, it would be the fourth ballot in a year and a half. Since none of the candidates had a majority for the formation of a government after the election of March 2, he handed over the mandate to the Knesset, the president said. He hoped that MPs would find a majority so that a government could be formed as soon as possible and a fourth election prevented.
MEPs now have 21 days to stand behind any candidate with a majority of 61 of the 120 votes. The latter would then have 14 days to form a cabinet. Israel took this path for the first time last fall after Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form a government. If MEPs fail again this year, there would be new elections in the summer.
The dispute over the judiciary
Gantz and Netanyahu announced Thursday night that they would continue their talks. In principle, both agree on rotation on the chair of the Prime Minister. Accordingly, Netanyahu would remain in office until Gantz took over the post after eighteen months.
However, according to Israeli media reports, the coalition negotiations failed due to the question of appointing the highest judicial offices and a law that was to ensure that Netanyahu would ultimately pass the baton on to Gantz. Accordingly, Netanyahu insists on a veto right to fill the judges’ offices. The maneuver is transparent. Netanyahu is charged with corruption, fraud, and infidelity in three cases. In a highly controversial step, the managing minister of justice declared the legal emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic and thus ensured that the opening of the proceedings, which was planned for mid-March, was postponed.
Netanyahu has always dismissed the indictment as a conspiracy against lawyers and the media who are hostile to him. New judges could reopen the trial or put it off altogether. Netanyahu seems to be betting on that. For his part, Gantz has stated on several occasions that he is not prepared to compromise on the rule of law and democracy.
In the election campaign, Gantz had promised never to support a defendant as head of government. He secured the support of 61 MPs and thus the mandate to form a government. However, the circle of its supporters made up of Jewish moderates, nationalists and leftists, as well as Muslim moderates and Islamists, was linked solely to the rejection of Netanyahu. There was no realistic chance of becoming a government.
Then the corona pandemic came and Gantz was ready to hold coalition talks with his opponent. Parts of Blau-Weiss resented that Gantz broke his election promise. About half split off and formed a separate faction in the Knesset around the second strong man, Yair Lapid. Gantz was then elected President of Parliament with the votes of Netanyahu’s Likud and his allies in the religious and right-wing camps.
It’s up to Netanyahu
Critics accuse Gantz of falling into Netanyahu’s trap. The latter had never seriously considered giving up the office of the head of government and had now successfully split the opposition. Commentators speculate that the senior prime minister, who has been washed with water, is looking at new elections. Opinion polls currently see him on top. Of course, that can change again. Compared to other countries, Israel is relatively well positioned in the corona crisis. As of Thursday evening, there were 12 758 infected, 142 people died from Covid-19. Economically, however, Israel has to face difficult times. Hundreds of thousands are at risk of losing their jobs.
It is by no means certain that the Netanyahu electorate will be as benevolent in a few months as it is now.
Also, as Knesset chairman, Gantz has the power to put all kinds of stones in his way. Netanyahu, on the other hand, could now – in parallel to negotiations with his challenger – try to find the two votes in the opposition that he lacked for a majority. However, the chances of this are relatively slim. It stays that way: either Netanyahu and Gantz find a compromise or Netanyahu clears the way for a government without him at the top.