For the second time this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to form a government, opening the door for his main rival Benny Gantz to do so.
But the former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff’s chances are no more certain, as Israel faces the reality of protracted political deadlock and the growing possibility of a third general election within 12 months.
In a video statement, explaining why he was returning the formal right to form a ruling coalition to President Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu said Monday evening: “In the course of recent weeks, I made every effort in order to bring Benny Gantz to the negotiating table, every effort in order to establish a wide national government, every effort to prevent additional elections. Unfortunately, time after time he simply refused.”
For the first time in a decade, Netanyahu is not firmly in charge of Israeli politics. He has tightened his grip on his own Likud party and united the religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox parties under his leadership, but he has shown himself unable to win an election decisively two times in a row.
On top of that, a potential indictment in ongoing corruption investigations before the end of the year could deal another major blow to the longest-serving leader in Israel’s history. Netanyahu has maintained his innocence, but if he is formally charged it would likely mean further damage both political and personal.
Long considered the magician of Israeli politics, Netanyahu had 28 days to negotiate the formation of a government — and he could have requested two additional weeks as is standard in Israeli politics — but he returned the mandate to the President a few days early, on what happened to be his 70th birthday.
Netanyahu’s failure paves the way for his chief political opponent to get the chance to form a government. Blue and White Party leader Gantz can expect to receive the mandate from the President, but only after parliamentary factions have had the opportunity to inform him if they have updated their position on their choice to form the next government.
In a statement, Gantz signaled he was ready to pick up the mandate and attempt to get a breakthrough.
“The time of spin is over, and it is now time for action. Blue and White is determined to form the liberal unity government, led by Benny Gantz, that the people of Israel voted for a month ago,” his party said in a statement.
Gantz’s political partner in Blue and White was more direct. “Netanyahu failed again,” said Yair Lapid. “It’s become a habit.”
Unlikely scenarios for Gantz to form government
But Gantz’s chances of forming a government appear no better than Netanyahu’s. The Blue and White party emerged from September’s elections as the largest party with 33 seats but without enough coalition partners to achieve the 61 seats needed for a parliamentary majority.
Gantz would need one of several different — but equally unlikely — scenarios to emerge to form a government. One scenario could be a rebellion or a split within Netanyahu’s own Likud party. Another might be a decision by one of the ultra-Orthodox parties to support him.
Or he would need former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman — whose Yisrael Beiteinu party has eight seats in the parliament — to support a minority government along with the Arab parties. None of these scenarios or others like them is considered properly realistic, leaving Gantz facing the same nearly insurmountable task that bested Netanyahu.
Gantz will have 28 days to form a government. If he too fails, the 120 members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, have three weeks to put forward another member of Knesset with the backing of a majority of parliamentarians. If no third name emerges, new elections are automatically triggered three months later.
Israel has been trapped in a state of political deadlock since early April, when the first general election this year failed to produce a clear path to victory for either Netanyahu or Gantz, the former IDF chief of staff.
Failing to form a government after six weeks of negotiations, Netanyahu called a second general election, instead of giving Gantz the opportunity to try. It was the first time in Israel’s history that a political leader was unable to form a government after an election.
The second election took place in September but failed to break the political deadlock.
In his video presentation Monday, which felt as much like a campaign ad as a political statement, Netanyahu sought to blame Gantz for his failure. He claimed he had made every effort “to establish a wide national unity government” because “that’s what the country wants.”
Analysts point out that before September’s elections, Netanyahu had been adamantly opposed to a unity government, aiming only for a religious, right-wing coalition. Only when the election results made that impossible, did he start calling for a unity government.
Netanyahu also continued his attacks on the Arab parties, accusing them of supporting terror and saying a government relying on their support is “dangerous.” In an election campaign tinged with overtones of racism, Netanyahu had claimed Arab voters were trying to steal the elections and asserted there was widespread voter fraud in Arab towns in Israel.
Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List of Arab parties, fired back Monday evening on Twitter, accusing Netanyahu of incitement. “The magician has long since run out of tricks, and he again plays the incitement card. I hope that this is the final time that Netanyahu incites against the Arab citizens as the Prime Minister.”
Odeh also acknowledged the possibility of another general election, saying, “It will be a little tiring.”
Netanyahu was given the first chance to form a government because he had united a bloc of 55 conservative, religious Zionist, and ultra-Orthodox seats behind him. It was one more seat than Gantz had supporting his candidacy, but the Prime Minister was still unable to find the six additional seats he needed to build a majority.
Rivlin said Monday his intention was to hand the mandate to Gantz within the three days stipulated by law. That will officially begin the clock on Gantz’s opportunity to form a government. Any outcome will be significant: a second failure and continued political deadlock that could lead to a third general election, or the end of Netanyahu’s tenure as Israel’s Prime Minister.