Elections and the Future Israeli Government

On the very night of the March elections, Hosen L'Yisrael leader Gantz rejected the idea of an alliance with Netanyahu, demanding that the prime minister stood trial. As we all know, however, things went otherwise.

 

Photo: Reuters

On April 16, 2020, the negotiations between Gantz, former IDF Chief of Staff - who had been entrusted by the old Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, with the task of forming a government - and the current Prime Minister Netanyahu broke off.

In the last elections held on March 2, 2020, Netanyahu's Likud won 36 seats, while the political List led by Gantz obtained 33 seats.

At least until the night of April 16, the only possibility was to accept - as, in fact, happened - a generic national unity government between Gantz’s Party, Hosen L'Yisrael (literally "Israel's Resilience Party"), and Netanyahu's Likud. A pact with a two-year "rotation" between the two Prime Ministers and the two Parties.

Both politicians tentatively agreed to rotate as Prime Minister, with Netanyahu serving for half of the full term, i.e. two years, and then Gantz serving for the remaining term. In the interim period, Gantz would be Foreign or Defence Minister, or he would anyway have a very important post.

Meanwhile Gantz, who was also Speaker of the Knesset, would give up the post of successor to the previous Speaker, Reuven Rivlin, to sit in the "national unity" government formed between his party and the Likud.

Initially, the offers made by the Likud leader for a national unity government were accepted only cum grano salis by Gantz, who believed that a national unity government was particularly necessary to coordinate the actions to fight against the COVID-19 epidemics.

It should obviously be added that, in such a sensitive political situation, many doubts are emerging also on the partners’ mutual reliability or on the solidity of their Parliamentary groups that could possibly break apart, in the Likud's case, if Netanyahu pressed too much for avoiding the investigations and trial on charges of corruption regarding him - which is, in any case, an unavoidable issue in the negotiations between the two Parties - or if Gantz pushed too much for an agreement with the Likud, whatever it takes - a policy line that might displease a large part of his Party and his Parliamentary alliances.

Therefore, a new general election is highly likely in Israel and we will see what the prospects are for the various Parties.

Hence what are the prospects, as they have been analysed by many Israeli politics experts?

There is, initially, the prospect of a government with the Likud alone, which, however, has only 58 votes available, with at least 62 members of the Knesset who will never vote for it. Moreover, 72% of Israeli voters think that the issue of Netanyahu’s trial is fundamental to determine the next Parliament’s complexion.

Any defectors? It is always likely, when the government sirens begin to sing their melodious and irresistible song.

The 11 opposition parties, however, are united by deep dislike for the Likud leader.

Israel's Basic Laws also enable the potential Prime Minister to have not an absolute, but a relative majority.

Netanyahu has 58 sure votes available, but abstentions (and only them are enough) could even lead him to a possible, but knife-edge majority.

There is also the possibility - already tested in the past, but that we believe now remote - of a coalition government between the two major parties, namely the Likud and Gantz’s Israeli Resilience Party.

On the very night of the March elections, the Hosen L'Yisrael leader rejected the idea of an alliance with Netanyahu, demanding that the Prime Minister stood trial. As we all know, however, things went otherwise.

There would also be the possibility of a Likud-Kahol-Lavan government, the "Blue and White" political alliance between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid Party (literally "There is a Future") and former Finance Minister in Netanyahu’s government from 2013 to 2014.

With a government led by Netanyahu. The "Blue and White" alliance is certainly linked to the majority party of Benny Gantz, but there are also Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and Telem (Tnua Leumit Mamlakhtit, literally the "National Statesman-like Movement"), a movement in remembrance of a truly great Israeli military leader and politician, my old friend Moshe Dayan.

Another possibility - if there are no elections, which are ever terribly closer after the failed agreement - is a government that could be a "broad-based coalition government" that we in Italy know all too well.

The idea was put forward by Gantz, certainly to weaken the Likud and its leader-Premier (since 11 years) and place them in a sort of "safety belt" basically favourable to the "Blue and White" political coalition.

The idea, however, was not liked by Shas, an old party founded in 1984 and representing the Sephardic, Haredi and Mizrahi Jews, nor by the United Torah Judaism Party, a traditional ally of the Likud. Hence, for the time being, this option is not feasible.

Gantz, however, could form his minority government with his "Blue and White" coalition (33 seats) and with Yisrael Beitenu, (literally "Israel our Home") a right-wing and anti-Islamic party born to oppose religious Zionism.

Yisrael Beitenu has currently seven seats in the Knesset.

A probably very soft participation of some Arab parliamentarians in the Knesset may even be currently possible.

Gantz could even play the card of a minority government, according to the old Israeli tradition, which has always seen - with one single brief exception - governments with an absolute majority of Parliamentary votes.

In fact, the opposition to Netanyahu has a 62 to 58 majority in the Knesset.

The only party excluded from this possible government complexion would predictably be Yisrael Beitenu, but there is also the possibility that even a part of the Likud move away from "Bibi" Netanyahu.

There are no explicit signs of this split yet, but some important Israeli newspapers are talking about this possibility.

Certainly for Gantz there would also be Yamina, the right-wing political alliance led by Naftali Bennett, which has 6 seats only.

Shas and the other religious party will certainly not break their pact with Netanyahu and they will also agree with the Israel Beitenu leader, Liebermann, who - indeed - also said he no longer wants to deal with religious parties.

Hence currently there are not the numbers for a minority government led by Gantz. This government, however, could be formed if Netanyahu were to give up power and release the full potential of Likud's current alliances.

The current Prime Minister, however, has two problems: firstly, to remain Prime Minister when the trial concerning him begins, possibly thinking that his role could influence or intimidate the judges. Therefore Gantz has been forced to accept a role as Prime Minister after Netanyahu two-year Premiership - and I believe this suits him.

Secondly, the Likud leader also wants the government to be formed anyway and as soon as possible, which could be a good card even in the hands of Gantz and his "Blue and White" alliance.

On the other hand, however, the Likud and its Prime Minister do not absolutely want a minority government led by Gantz that would relegate them to the opposition, and would be personally dangerous for Netanyahu.

What if there were a government led neither by Benny Gantz nor by "Bibi" Netanyahu?

In other words, the Likud leader could tell the leader of the "Blue and White" coalition that his party is still the most voted and stable in the Knesset and he could assign the Premiership to another figure, but only from his own party, thus stopping the two-year rotation mechanism and proposing to Gantz to merely take up an "important" post in the next government, as one of the many allies of the coalition led by him.

Off the record, Gantz has never really believed in a normal premiership rotation after the first two years of the "great coalition" government between the "Blue and White" alliance and the Likud. He has probably never trusted Netanyahu - maybe not even on a personal level - but, if the current Prime Minister were condemned in Court, his chances to decide the "new" Likud Prime Minister and the rest of his government team would be very low.

Netanyahu, however, has never named a successor, nor has he ever indicated any of his Cabinet Ministers as primus inter pares in the Likud Party and in governments.

There is also the possibility that Netanyahu himself may sign an agreement with the Court - a deal whereby he should resign as Prime Minister, in exchange for a much "softer" judgment than expected, which would enable him to run for the premiership in future governments and would leave him with a lot of money spared, instead of paying high fees to his lawyers.

Currently no one can predict the outcome, but nothing is impossible in such a complex context as Israeli politics.

What about a new election, which is ever more likely after the choices on the night of April 16?

The Central Elections Committee has already begun preparations for the next elections, which should be held on September 6.

The State is going ahead with last year's spending forecasts - hence many of the Administration's semi-private activities must proceed with extra-budgetary funds, especially in the Covid-19 emergency phase which, as is said in Israel, has so far led to an immediate 23% increase in public costs.

A network of private support that is already in crisis, which could cause difficulties for the religious parties, which are loyal allies of Netanyahu’s government.

The only one who could be happy with new elections is Netanyahu, who would remain in power for further key months, and could even hope for an ope legis delay in his trial.

A particularly complex factor in the Israeli political system is its wide range of parties.

Nine of the eleven political Lists and real Parties are represented in the Knesset and the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is already a very serious matter.

In 2019 the unemployed people were approximately 157,000, but it is currently estimated that they are already half a million.

Israel has a very large current account and balance of payments surplus, as well as very large foreign currency reserves and a public debt that is still 60% of GDP. Its banking system has a big amount of capital and liquidity available.

Therefore, the time of financial and economic stability in the Covid-19 crisis phase is very long, certainly longer than in any other EU country. However, a strategic and another strictly economic consideration need to be made.

Firstly, from a geopolitical viewpoint, the situation in Syria and in the Lebanon could worsen, and a country living on a monthly 1/12 of the 2019 budget liquidity cannot afford exceptional military spending, even now that it would be needed.

The other Arab and Islamic countries, although facing a severe Covid-19 crisis, can still pour social anger into an external enemy.

Secondly, if the political crisis were to reoccur after the elections of September 6, the instability of the Israeli government would become an important variable in the Iranian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Egyptian strategic equation.

In any case, even though all these countries are facing the Covid-19 crisis, it would not be an easy situation for Israel. And a sequence of targeted attacks, inside and outside the Jewish State, would have to be taken into account.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group