When Israel’s Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff but a political newbie, accepted the mandate to form the next government in Israel he was lauded for “looking prime ministerial” and touted by elements of the media as a refreshing change from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“He paid due respect to every segment of Israeli society — the ultra-Orthodox, whom he promised to treat like brothers, Arabs, Druze, gays and rightists,” Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz. “After years of incitement, division and a systematic fanning of hatred by [Netanyahu] … the difference in both language and vision was refreshing.”
Yet in Israel’s gridlocked coalition race, Gantz, who promises to put together a “liberal unity government” — which seems to mean one without participation of the Orthodox parties — may have a worse chance of success than Netanyahu, who has already failed for a second time to put together a governing coalition.
Gantz needs 61 mandates to form a government. He has only 44 — from his party and other small center-left parties. The right-wing Likud bloc led by Netanyahu has 55. And that bloc is not ready to break up or to abandon Netanyahu as leader for the sake of joining Gantz’s unity government.
The catalyst for change in this stalemate may be Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who is weighing whether to indict Netanyahu on three separate criminal probes. Were an indictment to come during the period Gantz has to form his coalition, Netanyahu would be weakened, and Gantz’s hand could be strengthened.
But what is Gantz offering to potential coalition partners and to the Israeli electorate? Gantz has never made clear what he wants to do as prime minister, or how his policies would differ from Netanyahu. So, it is difficult to determine whether the Ganz alternative is really what Israelis want. That said, we do know that Israelis want (and need) a functioning government, and if Netanyahu is sidelined, Gantz would likely get the votes to form a unity government.
Gantz has until Nov. 20 to put together a majority coalition — or a minority government with fewer than 61 mandates and promises from other parties that they will not take down the government under agreed-upon circumstances. The process is a test of political creativity, and quite challenging.
On Sunday, there were reports that Gantz offered to give Netanyahu the first round in a unity government rotating prime ministership if Likud temporarily dropped its haredi coalition partners and passed several “liberal” laws that the haredim oppose. After that, the haredi parties would be permitted to enter the coalition. According to the same reports, the offer was rejected.
After Nov. 20, President Reuven Rivlin could pick another Knesset member to try. Or Netanyahu again. Or Gantz. If that fails, Israel could be forced into an unprecedented third election in less than a year, with no guarantee that the results will be any different.