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By: Dave Gordon

To Bibi or not to Bibi, that is the question. Despite two Israeli elections in six months, still no one knows yet if the sitting Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will get another mandate to rule.

Parties Bid for 61 Seat Majority

The Israeli government has been locked in a months-long stalemate, with two majority party leaders – Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu – jockeying for who can scramble sufficient supporters to form a majority coalition of 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

So why is this election different from all others? Unlike previous elections, where partnerships were swiftly reached via negotiation, deal-making, “horse-trading,” or due to common interests, political deadlock has occurred after both recent elections. Possibly a third election looms if a coalition is not formed, which allows the members to reach “the magic number” 61, allowing for a majority in the Knesset.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest serving Israeli prime minister, in office for more than 13 years. Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, had initially been tasked to build a coalition after the April 9th election, after Likud tied with Gantz’s Blue and White party with 35 seats. Shortly afterward, the Kulanu party officially dissolved, absorbing itself into Likud, bringing Likud’s total to 38 seats.

Elections, Round Two

By the May 29thdeadline, which included a two-week extension granted by President Reuven Rivlin, talks had stalled, and there was still no majority coalition formed. With eight seats, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman could have joined Netanyahu to form a majority coalition. However, Lieberman would only agree to join with Netanyahu if a law was passed to cancel the exemption for yeshiva students from army conscription. This was unacceptable for the coalition’s harediparties, whom the prime minister relied upon to seal in any potential majority. New elections were called for September 17th, with the hopes that a second round might bring about different results so that a majority coalition could be secured to form a new government.

It was another dead heat, with the top two parties virtually tied, at 33 seats for Blue and White, 32 for Likud. Currently, Netanyahu has 55 seats in his coalition. Blue and White leader Gantz has 54 seats. No matter how the math has been played and reorganized, a coalition of 61 remains elusive. In true Talmudic fashion, there are likely to be multiple answers, but none of which enough people can currently agree on.

 A week after the latest election, on September 25th, President Rivlin selected Netanyahu to build his coalition, with the proviso that, if by October 24th, he was not be able to reach the required number, another candidate (presumably Gantz) will be chosen to attempt to do the same. If Gantz cannot reach a majority, any member of Knesset would then be permitted to seek, and acquire, 61 signatures from members of the Knesset in order to form his own government in the 21 days between November 21stand December 12th. If that fails, a third election will be called.

Netanyahu Seeks Different Options

By mid-October Netanyahu brokered an official deal with right-leaning parties whereby they agreed to cooperate as a single bloc. This bloc includes Shas, United Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi, and Hayamin Hehadash. “(They) decided unanimously that we’re going to negotiate together for the establishment
of a government under my leadership,” Netanyahu said,
according to Haaretznewspaper. The memorandum not only ensured that Netanyahu would have a solid, loyal number, but also potentially eliminated Gantz’s chance at making any inroads to a majority, in the event he’s tasked to next form a coalition.

Netanyahu also expressed his willingness to pursue a “national unity government” whereby the top two parties combine
efforts. In this case, it would be the center-left Blue and White and center-right Likud parties.

“During the elections, I called for the establishment of the right-wing government,” said Netanyahu in a statement. “Unfortunately, election results show that this is not possible. Therefore, there is no choice but to form a broad unity government that is as wide as possible.”

“Now I call on you, Benny Gantz, to join us in establishing a broad unity government today. The people expect us, both of us, to show responsibility and work for cooperation.”

Unity Government Scenario

One scenario of a unity government is a power-sharing agreement. This arrangement was in place in the 1980s when Shimon Peresand Yitzhak Shamir agreed to a rotating premiership, with Shimon Peres serving as the prime minister for two years, followed by Shamir for the following two years.

Seizing the chance to speak on that very scenario, Netanyahu addressed Gantz at a memorial service for Peres in September. In his remarks Netanyahu said, “When there was no clear outcome from the Knesset elections, Shimon chose national unity. He and Yitzhak Shamir agreed to cooperate, to navigate Israel’s path
to safety.”

Netanyahu’s unity overture included certain concessions in favor of Gantz and his partners. One concession involved state/religious matters, which Netanyahu said would remain according to the status quo. The other had to do with finding a compromise concerning the drafting of yeshiva students, whereby MKs would be free to vote according to their conscience, rather than bowing to party line. Likud partners United Torah Judaism and Shas, in this framework, consented to negotiate with Blue and White’s second-in-command, Yair Lapid, despite their past differences.

“This is the only government that can be formed now, and it is the government that must be formed now,” Netanyahu said he told Gantz. “All citizens of Israel are looking toward us, and seeing a Middle East that is changingbefore our very eyes. Those who need to know, see increasing security challenges that are now waiting for us. That is why I call on Gantz to show responsibility, and enter immediate negotiations on the government that Israel so desperately needs.” Unfortunately, Gantz rejected the offers, declining to discuss or meet with Netanyahu on these proposals, reports say.

Gantz Walk and Talk

Netanyahu expressed his reaction in a tweet: “I was surprised and disappointed that at this time Benny Gantz still refuses to respond to my call to meet.”

Gantz, however, appeared to tout unity in his AIPAC Policy Conference speech in March: “Even though we have the best army, the best air force in the world, the best fighters in the universe…
We must remember that if we want hope, we must have unity,” he said in Washington, DC.

“With new world security, we must have unity, and throughout history, the only way we have won is by being united. Unity isour past, and unity must be our future.”

Conclusion Still Elusive

The latest slate of Knesset members was sworn in October 3rd. Israelis however, are still waiting for party leaders to settle on an agreement about who would govern.

Israelis are weary of the political jockeying. Likud members have stood firmly behind Netanyahu, but his leverage is limited. Without Lieberman, who is a hawk on security issues, but is fiercely secular and refuses to sit in a government with religious parties, it looks like there is no way Netanyahu’s allies can muster a majority. Gantz, a former military chief of staff, has ruled out a partnership with Likud if Netanyahu remains at the helm. If yet another election is called, will a solution somehow arise? This remains to beseen.