The Netanyahu-Gantz Stalemate Is Testing Israeli Democracy to the Limit

Marc Schulman* –  Newsweek

On Thursday, the members of the 22nd Knesset took their oaths of office. With eight exceptions, the members of the freshly sworn-in Knesset are identical to those who had served in the 21st Knesset, which was in session less than two months, before voting to dissolve itself at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Those who arrived for today’s festivities all wondered if this Knesset would survive longer than the last. While the Knesset inauguration proceeded with all the formal pomp and circumstance, just a few miles away (in the basement of the Ministry of Justice,),ten attorneys representing Netanyahu met with lawyers for the State Prosecutor’s office, in a desperate effort to convince them to dismiss the pending indictments against the Prime Minister.

As the two events took place in parallel, rumors and stories circulated. First, it was rumored that Netanyahu announced planned to return the mandate to form a government he received from President Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin last week, that very night. Second, reports circulated that Netanyahu was calling for a new party primary to prove he is the undisputed leader of the Likud.

But the moment Gideon Saar tweeted he was ready (to challenge Netanyahu), Netanyahu seemed to have dropped the idea of a new primary. As to returning the mandate, that is yet to happen.

The September election constituted a defeat for Netanyahu. But the opposition has no clear path to form a government, either. The Blue and White Party made it clear from the start that while they sought to create a coalition government with the Likud Party, they had one caveat — this Likud would need to be led by anyone but Netanyahu. They hoped that when it became clear Netanyahu had lost, there might be a palace revolt and he would be replaced as party leader. Something that is not happening. That was certainly the hope of Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Yisrael Beiteinu ran on the platform of establishing a secular coalition government, made up of only the two main parties, i.e., without including any of the religious parties. This would result in an Israeli government able to deal decisevely with many of the contentious issues surrounding religion and state, issues most Israelis have indicated they want to be addressed.
Within hours of the election results being released, in a tactically brilliant move, Prime Minister Netanyahu signed all the members of his alliance (his party and three religious parties) to an agreement promising none would negotiate or act independently of the others, thus giving him a solid bloc of 55 supporters. In doing so, Netanyahu accomplished two goals: first, it made him the leader of the larger, more coherent faction; second, it made less likely the possibility that one of the religious parties might be enticed to jump ship and join a government led by Blue and White’s Benny Gantz.

President Rivlin tried to get Netanyahu and Gantz to agree to a national unity government, which the President believes is the only solution. Rivlin also proposed an interesting plan, suggesting Israeli law be changed to grant real authority to the deputy Prime Minister, to allow the Prime Minister to take a leave of absence for an indefinite period, during which time the deputy would serve as acting Prime Minister and hold all the powers of of the office. That way, if, Netanyahu gets indicted, Gantz would become acting Prime Minister. Then, at the end of the legal process (which could take 2-3 years), if Netanyahu is found innocent, he could return to office. During that period Netanyahu could continue to live in the Prime Minister’s residence and still have the title of Prime Minister, just without any of its powers.

While Gantz expressed an interest in exploring this option, the other three co-heads of his party were very wary of the proposal. They fear that if left in power, Netanyahu would find a way to manipulate the agreement and remain in power indefinitely. In addition, while Blue and White want to form a coalition together with the Likud, Netanyahu still insists on keeping his promise to the religious parties to negotiate as a bloc, and Blue and White will not be a part of a larger Likud-dominated coalition.
Thus, in a solemn ceremony on September 25th, President Rivlin announced that since Netanyahu had a larger number of recommendations he would being given the responsibility to form the government first. Netanyahu then gave a sober speech warning that the people of Israel need to be prepared for the possibility of a coming war with Iran, thereby making the formation of a coalition government an imperative (interestingly, this part of Netanyahu’s speech received almost no media coverage.)He repeated that warning in his speech at the opening of the parliament on Thursday.

Netanyahu is trying to navigate between two ticking bombs: a legal one and a political one. On one hand, if Netanyahu’s lawyers do not sway the opinion of the Attorney General and his staff then the AG is likely to render his decision to indict Netanyahu in the coming two months. Netanyahu believes he needs to be in office if that happens to either better fight the indictment or get a better plea deal. On the other hand, if Netanyahu is seen as responsible for dragging Israel to a third election, he knows he will pay the price at the ballot box.

So where does all this leave Israel? There are four possible scenarios:

1) Netanyahu manages to convince Lieberman to join his coalition with the religious parties, something Lieberman has repeatedly vowed he would not do. Some pundits believe that is a very realistic outcome, making Lieberman Netanyahu’s heir apparent.

2) Gantz and Netanyahu agree to some version of the Rivlin plan, and Netanyahu concedes to a coalition without the religious parties.

3) Gantz successfully forms a short-term, minority government with the support of the Joint List (Arab Israelis) from outside the coalition, remaining in force long enough for the Likud to replace Netanyahu should he be indicted. This, least likely scenario, is opposed by Avigdor Lieberman.

4) Finally, another election could be held — which is something everyone professes not to want, but many believe it what Netanyahu is hoping for. .He would remain interim Prime Minister for at least another four months, and who knows what might happen during that time. Many political commentators are already calculating the timetable for when a fourth election might be held.

After Netanyahu returns the mandate to the President—Benny Gantz will have 28 days to try to form a new government. If Gantz fails, the law provides for 21 days when any member of Knesset to try to gain support from 61 fellow members and attempt to forge a coalition. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already been busy getting his coalition partners to agree not to support anyone but him, thereby almost ensuring the need for new elections.

How this crisis will be resolved is very much unknown. One thing everyone seems sure of is that whatever is going to happen, it will likely come to pass during the last hours of the final 21-day period. Never in Israels, 71 years has there been this level of uncertainty and chaos in the political system. Despite some of its flaws Israeli democracy has remained strong—but the next few months will test that strength to a new limit.


*Newsweek Columnist and Editor of