Written by David M. Halbfinger
After three brutal campaigns, three elections and three failed attempts at forming a government, Israel now finds itself right back where it was more than a year ago: deadlocked over the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His devotees in Parliament still insist he should stay. They remain outnumbered by lawmakers who want him gone.
But the outcome this time, after Monday’s election, may be different.
Netanyahu’s trial on bribery and other serious corruption charges starts in less than two weeks. His opponents appear wounded and exhausted after he outfought them to win a solid plurality for his right wing and religious coalition in this election. And no one in the country appears eager to contemplate a fourth.
The prospect of yet another failure to form a government after more than a year of stalemate resurfaced troubling questions about Israeli democracy: Can a system that depends on a fractious jumble of political parties to come together to build a majority function in so polarized a country?
The déjà-vu-all-over-again desperation prompted a frenzy of exploratory maneuvering Wednesday, with forces on both sides of the Netanyahu-or-not divide all seeking to gain advantage.
The prime minister, who needs three more parliamentary seats for a majority, tried baiting right-leaning opposition members to defect. His adversaries threatened to pass legislation that would bar an indicted lawmaker from serving as prime minister.
Neither gambit appeared too likely to work, and both threatened only to raise temperatures and harden positions.
But with Israel’s entire political establishment trying to identify a way out, the question was whether a creative new solution might emerge before the politicking grinds to another acrimonious halt.
A nearly complete vote tally Wednesday showed Netanyahu’s coalition with 58 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. The parties opposing him have a total of 62 seats, but at least two of them have pledged not to join forces with a third, the predominantly Arab Joint List, which won a record 15 seats.
The scenarios most commonly being discussed all have serious flaws.
Netanyahu could woo turncoats from the other side, given the presence of right-leaning politicians in the broad coalition headed by Benny Gantz, the former army chief at the helm of the Blue and White party.
But just one defector — whose political career could be ended, analysts said, by such a betrayal of the voters who elected him or her — would be a lot to ask; three would seem to be a miracle, even for a political wizard like Netanyahu.
And the likeliest prospects each insisted they were holding fast to their promises to send him into retirement, or to prison, saying they could not be bought off, no matter the inducement.
Yoel Razvozov, a former Olympic athlete and Blue and White lawmaker, wrote on Twitter that he had rejected a Likud approach. “There’s a better chance that Netanyahu will topple Hamas’ rule than that someone from Blue and White will defect,” he said, alluding to the Islamist militant movement that controls Gaza.
Showing they still had some fight in them, lawmakers from all three center-left parties spoke in favor of passing a law to bar Israel’s president from giving the task of forming a government to a lawmaker under indictment.
“It reflects the will of the public,” said Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party. “And it’s the moral thing to do.”
Israeli law now prohibits someone under indictment from serving as an ordinary government minister but does not specifically address the post of prime minister.
It was not clear whether Avigdor Liberman’s ultranationalist, right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose seven seats would also be needed, would join such an effort.
But good-government groups warned that a retroactive law aimed at a specific person would not survive a court challenge. And Netanyahu allies accused their rivals of trying to steal the election.
“Why go in circles? Just pass legislation that Gantz be prime minister,” taunted Ayelet Shaked, the former justice minister from the right-wing Yamina party. “Not for four years. For 40 years. After all, you have a majority.”
Some Likud members have talked of forming a unity government by inducing one of the smaller center-left parties to break away, perhaps in return for a “democratic cease-fire,” in which Netanyahu would drop his efforts to undermine Israel’s judiciary, according to Yohanan Plesner, president of the nonpartisan Israeli Democracy Institute.
But while center-left politicians might cut such a deal to protect the judiciary if Netanyahu seemed on the verge of capturing a 61st seat, they would be less likely to crumple with Netanyahu three seats away from being able to exert his will.
Other ideas for forming a new government were difficult to fathom given the people involved.
Netanyahu could revive a deal proposed by Israel’s largely ceremonial president, Reuven Rivlin, and agree to step aside at some point, in exchange for Gantz’s joining a unity government. But that would require trusting Netanyahu to follow through and actually step aside.
Liberman could play the kingmaker, exacting a high price from Netanyahu to throw him his support. A secular nationalist, he has vowed not to join a coalition with ultra-Orthodox religious parties, who he says have too much power.
Or he could throw in with Gantz to form a minority government with the outside support of the Joint List. But that would require Liberman and Arab politicians, who are archenemies, to cooperate.
What absolutely no one is talking seriously about at the moment is Likud’s deposing Netanyahu, which Gantz has long set as his condition for a unity government — one that would instantly hold a powerful 69-seat majority in Parliament, according to the latest vote tally.
“That’s what a majority of Israelis probably want,” said the right-leaning writer Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “That’s the stability that we need.”
The problem, he said, is that Netanyahu’s Likud party depends on Netanyahu, known in Israel as Bibi.
“Without Bibi, they probably go down to a dozen seats,” Halevi said. “So how do you force Bibi out?”
The most intriguing possibility circulating on Wednesday was one being promoted by Plesner, of the Israel Democracy Institute, for what he called a “technocratic” interim government, led by Gantz, in which ministries are led not by lawmakers but by professional appointees.
Its goal would be to pass a budget, get the wheels of state turning, and enact reforms to Israel’s political system “to get us out of this deadlock,” Plesner said.
The two most critical changes, he said, would be to award the position of prime minister in future elections to the leader of whichever party receives the most votes, and to prevent the dissolution of Parliament by a simple-majority vote of no confidence.
A new 61-seat majority would first have to be formed to pass such laws, Plesner said.
Those changes would have far-reaching consequences, including reversing the power dynamic between the prime minister and his coalition partners — vastly reducing, for example, the influence that ultra-Orthodox parties hold over Netanyahu.
“It’s an idea that will be considered,” Plesner said. “And when I look at the options, it’s one of the more serious ones.”
Halevi expressed excitement at the idea. “What’s so frustrating and tantalizing about this moment is that we can see the outline of a civic coalition, that can pull Arabs and Jews together in a shared, neutral, Israel identity, without endangering the basic Jewishness of the state,” he said.
“Both sides are terrified about deepening this relationship,” he added. “On the Arab side, it means admitting they’re really part of Israeli society. On our side, it means legitimizing Parliament members who have supported terrorism, or who make these tortured distinctions between killing Israeli soldiers and civilians.”
Netanyahu wasted no time on Wednesday re-establishing the high political price he would try to make Jewish politicians pay for even contemplating collaboration with Arab lawmakers. And a law barring someone under indictment from being prime minister qualifies, since it would require the votes of the Joint List to pass.
“We warned again and again during the election campaign,” Netanyahu said. “Gantz is joining the terror supporters in the Joint List.”
But Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, offered his own warning.
“Bibi, I will teach you what democracy is,” he wrote on Twitter. “It is the rule by the majority of the citizens, not only the majority of the Jews. Pack your suitcases. You’re on your way out.”
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