Blue and White’s Calamitous Week and Israel’s Political Forecast

Benny Gantz - Blue and White
Amir Levy—Getty Images

A week is a long time in politics, and so it proved to be for MK Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party over the last seven days.

In what could only be termed a calamitous sequence of events, Blue and White went full-speed ahead for the politically perilous option of forming a minority government backed externally by the Joint List, before even receiving a formal mandate from the president to do so.

Three Blue and White MKs then said or indicated they would not support such a government, as did another member of the center-left bloc.

Not only did the party clearly violate a campaign promise it had repeated over and over again – namely, that it would not seek such a government – it also failed to check whether it would have the requisite support for such a maneuver in its own backyard.

In addition, it managed to ruin the internal unity of its own party and political bloc, threatening party leader Gantz’s ability to receive the first mandate from the president to form a government.

And Blue and White has also weakened its hand, should it try to return to the idea of a unity government with the Likud, since the threat of forming a minority government can no longer be made.

The final blow this failed gambit has delivered is to its electoral chances in the event that there would be, heaven forbid, a fourth round of elections, since it not only completely reversed itself on a key pledge, it did so on an explosive political issue.

Polls have shown that around half of Blue and White’s voters oppose a minority government supported by the Arab parties, meaning that going back to the ballot box could inflict further electoral harm on the party.

Senior party MKs Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon have argued this week in defense of their play for a minority government that Blue and White promised to its voters it would not sit in a government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would not allow a fourth round of elections, and would not seek the backing of the Joint List.

Since not all three can be kept given the result of the election, Ya’alon said, the party was breaking one of the promises, in order to avoid breaking the other two, which he claimed would be far worse to violate.

Either way, the upshot of this turn of events is that even before Gantz has actually been handed the mandate by President Reuven Rivlin to try to form a government, he has suffered an embarrassing public defeat at the hands of his own political allies.

SO WHERE does that leave both the center-left and the right-wing blocs, as the deadline on Tuesday for Rivlin to hand the mandate to the leader of one of the political camps approaches?

Despite the woeful week Gantz has experienced, he is still theoretically in pole position to obtain the most recommendations from Knesset members, since it is possible the extremist Balad Party within the Joint List could recommend him to the president to form the next government.

Gantz would therefore likely exceed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recommendations, even if MK Orly Levy-Abecassis, who split her Gesher faction away from Labor-Meretz this week, does not recommend the Blue and White leader.

But what then?

Blue and White MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel and Levy-Abecassis have said they will not vote in favor of a minority government supported by the Joint List.

Blue and White officials believe that if a government can be cobbled together from the disparate factions of the Center-Left, and a coalition agreement complete with guiding principles formulated, it is possible that the rebel MKs could be convinced to relent and allow such a government to be formed.

In stitching together such a government, Blue and White’s stated goal is merely to defenestrate Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Residence, something that Lapid and Ya’alon have emphasized this week.

Once achieved, Blue and White hopes that other coalition partners from the right wing can be enticed to join the coalition, and it is this picture that the party will paint to its internal rebels to try to convince them to adopt it.

Given the likely extremely short life expectancy such a government would have, however, as well as the damaging electoral consequences forming it might have on Blue and White in the next election, it would appear almost fantastical for any of the right-wing, religious and ultra-Orthodox parties to join such a coalition.

Netanyahu himself has said that he is not afraid of sitting in the opposition, and given the mood in the Likud, it is far from certain that he would be removed as leader, despite his upcoming trial, scheduled to begin next week.

The right wing would surely wait for a government comprising the lefties of Meretz and the ultranationalists of Yisrael Beytenu, backed by the anti-Zionists of Balad, to implode and then capitalize in a new election.

The center-left bloc can always try the doomsday weapon of passing legislation that would ban an MK from forming a government if under indictment or on trial, in order to get rid of Netanyahu that way.

But this is a high-risk gambit, and ethically dubious since the most recent election demonstrated that more voters wanted Netanyahu to serve as premier than any other politician. Thwarting the will of those voters through legislation after the ballot could do real political and even democratic damage.

So in the high probability that a minority government fails to even get off the ground and the center-left decides not to legislate against him, what options does Netanyahu have to form a government, either before or after Gantz has had a try?

IN TRUTH, the prime minister has even fewer options than Gantz.

Netanyahu has almost no path to 61 MKs, unless three deserters can be found from the center-left bloc, which appears highly improbable.

He will try to persuade Avigdor Liberman and his seven MKs to return to his home in the right-wing bloc, but since the Yisrael Beytenu leader appears bent on toppling the prime minister, that route appears an unlikely avenue for success, especially given his religion-and-state demands, which Netanyahu, beholden to the ultra-Orthodox and hard-line religious-Zionist parties, cannot deliver.

Netanyahu will also likely go back to Labor Party leader MK Amir Peretz to get the support of him and his two MKs, but this again looks like an impossible task.

Levy-Abecassis could conceivably help the prime minister out, but he would still be two short of the 61 MKs he needs to form a government.

Ultimately, when all options for a narrow center-left or right-wing government prove unworkable, all eyes will turn back to the unity government option, before the unthinkable can be considered – a fourth election.

And at this stage, the blame game will be crucial. If responsibility for bringing about fourth elections through unreasonable intransigence could be clearly laid at the feet of one party, then it could be enough to bring about the necessary concessions to form a government.

Netanyahu will claim that he heads the biggest party and therefore should go first in any rotation agreement for the premiership with Gantz, while the Blue and White leader will insist that Netanyahu should not be leading the country while on trial.

But a new factor has also entered the game: the coronavirus pandemic.

At a time of national emergency, when tough decisions need to be taken and in which the country faces real threats to its health, well-being and economy, playing petty politics, or being seen to do so, could well be fatal.

It is possible, therefore, that the pestilential threat posed by this viral scourge could save Israel and its politicians from their mortal struggle.

This time around, there is more at stake than just politics.

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