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Israel heading for a third election

  • Paula
Increasingly, it seems inevitable that Israelis will be heading into a third round of elections. Until now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to concede that he is unable to form a government. But at the same time, he has not allowed any other member of his Likud party to try to do so.
by PAULA SLIER | Oct 10, 2019

Netanyahu has also made sure he has the full support of the right-wing bloc of parties, guaranteeing him 55 knesset (parliament) seats. They have assured him they will back only him to form the country’s next government.

And he is so certain that his rival, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, cannot become the next prime minister, he is now expected to give his mandate to form a majority coalition back to President Reuven Rivlin. He will then will pass it onto Gantz. Legally, Gantz will then have 21 days to effectively fail in forming a new government.

The only party Gantz can approach that isn’t already signed up to Netanyahu is Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Our Home. Gantz has 54 knesset seats under his belt and with Lieberman’s eight, he would win a majority of 62 seats. But Lieberman will never agree to join forces with the left-wing Zionist Meretz party or the Arab faction that are part of Gantz’s coalition. Netanyahu knows this. Gantz knows this. Rivlin knows this. Israelis know this. The only way out seems to be to call for a new election. 

But how another election, possibly to be held in February or March next year, will break the political deadlock is unclear. The latest polls suggest it won’t, and that almost all parties will receive the same number of knesset seats they currently have.

The only variable could be Lieberman. Over the past two elections, his party has grown stronger. How his supporters decide to vote will be critical. If they, frustrated by the situation, decide not to vote for him a third time and instead vote for other parties in the right-wing bloc, Netanyahu could win the majority he craves.

But, emboldened by Lieberman’s strong show of leadership and his insistence on separating state and religion - a key issue, particularly to the Russian voters who support him - they could choose to remain with him.

The chances of Lieberman and Netanyahu working together seem almost impossible as they despise one another intensely. Still, after attacking each other so fiercely during the election campaign, they agreed to meet last week. That meeting lasted less than an hour and failed to make any progress, but it showed that anything is possible when it comes to Israeli politics. 

Meanwhile the right-wing parties are weak, split, and lack clear direction. Who knows how they will fare in a third election?

One solution out of the impasse could be a national unity government between the two biggest parties of Netanyahu and Gantz. But negotiations to achieve this have failed so far. Gantz has refused to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu for as long as the prime minister is facing corruption charges. Gantz is hoping that another prominent Likud figure might lead a breakaway within the party, and join forces with him.

For a few short hours last Saturday, that seemed possible. Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, a former education and interior minister who commands a loyal following within the party, tweeted that he would challenge Netanyahu for control of Likud if leadership primaries were to be held. But Sa’ar signalled that until then, he would back his potential rival. The idea was swiftly shelved amid reports that Netanyahu realised he had little to gain and much to lose by holding it.

Another option on the table has been a possible power-sharing deal and rotating premiership between the Likud and Blue and White parties. But the sides have been unable to agree who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.

Gantz was prepared to entertain the idea, but his co-leaders reportedly warned him that it would be his end - Netanyahu would break the agreement, and make his life difficult.

What’s clear is that Netanyahu is fighting desperately to retain the premiership for no other reason than that he can push forward legislation that would give him immunity from the three corruption charges he’s facing.

On Monday night, the fourth and last day of his pre-indictment hearings wrapped up. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit now has until December to decide whether or not to close the cases against the premier.

Either way, that decision will come with Netanyahu serving as prime minister - possibly in rotation with Gantz or some other solution, or as a transitional prime minister as the country heads into a third election.

If he’s indicted, it could take months before the trial begins, and Netanyahu could ask for a plea deal instead. As prime minister, he’d be under no legal obligation to resign from office without a conviction. Israeli law states that ministers must vacate their posts if charged, but prime ministers can potentially stay on until all appeal processes have been exhausted.

If convicted in a trial, Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison. He’s already the first prime minister in Israel’s history to be subjected to a pre-indictment hearing on a series of serious criminal charges. He might be Israel’s longest serving prime minister, but he’s also the first to be holding office while on trial.

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