By Michael Regenstreif, Editor
‘Who will form Israel’s next government?” was the headline of my column in the September 23 edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. That question is still on the table.
That column was written on September 13, four days before Israelis went to the polls on September 17 for their second election in five months; an election that was called after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not put together a coalition of 61 Knesset seats needed to govern.
The stumbling block to a coalition after the April 9 election was former defence and foreign minister Avigdor Liberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party, which controlled five Knesset seats, but opted not to serve in a Netanyahu-led coalition that included the haredi Orthodox parties.
That gambit only served to strengthen Liberman’s hand. His Yisrael Beiteinu party won eight seats this time and, as I write, Liberman is still refusing to put Netanyahu over top for the same reason.
Recognizing that neither Netanyahu, whose Likud party won 32 seats, or rival Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party was slightly ahead with 33 seats, had a particularly viable path to forming a governing coalition, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin attempted to broker a unity government between the two major parties.
As I write, on September 27, that initial effort to broker a unity government has failed and Rivlin has given Netanyahu the first crack at forming a governing coalition. Unless there is some totally unexpected development, it is unlikely that Netanyahu will succeed in putting together a coalition.
If Netanyahu fails, it is likely Gantz will be given an opportunity to form a coalition, but Gantz’s odds of success appear to be no better than Netanyahu’s.
That would leave two options: forming a unity government or a third election in less than a year. At this point, few observers believe that the results of a third election would be substantially different than the first two.
But the effort to form a unity government if both leaders fail to put together a coalition might have a better chance at success than the first attempt.
Perhaps the biggest factor that stopped the first effort at forming a unity government was the status of the possible indictment of Netanyahu on three criminal corruption charges. Gantz insisted that he would not share power with Netanyahu while he is under indictment or the cloud of indictment.
Before the April election, Netanyahu had succeeded in delaying his pre-indictment hearing on the three charges until October 2 and 3. Lo those many months ago, Netanyahu assumed he would be back in power and would have been able to pass a law protecting himself from indictment. Things did not work out that way and Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicated he would not change the hearing dates.
With Netanyahu’s opportunity to form a coalition lasting well into October, Mandelblit’s decision on whether or not to indict him could well be at hand during the negotiation period. Although Netanyahu has vowed to stay on even if he is indicted, there is much speculation that Likud will force him to step aside if he is under indictment.
So if another Likud leader is in place, Gantz’s objection to forming a unity government would be removed. And should the attorney general decide not to indict Netanyahu, the objection would also be irrelevant.
In power since 2009, and having served a previous term from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu is now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and while he is still popular with many voters, the success of the Blue and White party – which was only founded about seven months ago – must be at least partially attributed to voter fatigue with Netanyahu. At some point, in every democracy, voters want – indeed need – to change leaders. Many Israeli political commentators are saying much of the country has reached that point.
The next weeks and months could well see huge changes in Israel’s political leadership.
Meanwhile, here in Canada, we’re well into the federal election campaign, and it’s hard to turn away from the daily bus crashes of American politics. Fascinating times for political junkies like me.