On Tuesday, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin summoned the leaders of the two largest parties in Israel, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud, and his rival, former general Benny Gantz of Blue and White. After two elections in just over six months that left the two parties and their associated blocs nearly tied, Rivlin told the two party leaders that Israel did not desire a third election and they should figure out a compromise that would allow both parties to share governance. Rivlin then left the room.
Netanyahu and Gantz continued the discussion alone, and then their representatives met in Ramat Gan to negotiate further. The challenge for both is finding room to compromise. Unlike past elections in Israel, this time the two largest parties are not sharply divided over issues of peace and security. Gantz and Netanyahu disagree little with each other on how to manage threats from Hamas in Gaza or the Iranians and their proxies, and both are reluctant to make many, if any, concessions for a permanent peace deal with Ramallah, although only Netanyahu overtly favors annexation of the Jordan Valley.
On most other policy issues, compromise should be straightforward. Few issues are both salient and non-negotiable to either Likud or Blue and White. The two parties will likely find middle grounds for most every divisible good like taxes and subsidies, the number of ultra-Orthodox men drafted, or which businesses or bus routes may open on Shabbat. Non-divisible goods are more complicated since either Israel allows civil marriages (as supported by Blue & White) or opposes them (as supported by Likud and its religious party allies), but many of those issues can be log-rolled for other issues or appointments. So perhaps Likud can agree to support instituting civil marriage in exchange for giving control of the education ministry to Shas? Other seemingly non-divisible matters, such as the question of who will serve as prime minister, can be rotated, as exemplified by former prime ministers Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir in the mid-1980s.
The challenge is that the biggest issue, the role of Netanyahu, cannot easily be resolved through any of these mechanisms. Gantz is not keen to let Netanyahu remain as prime minister in exchange for holding the defence and foreign ministries since he fought two campaigns by promising to remove Netanyahu from office. Netanyahu does not want to rotate the prime minister’s office with Gantz if Gantz serves as premier first because Netanyahu expects to be indicted for corruption and will be ineligible to serve in any cabinet role less than the prime minister’s post once indicted. Netanyahu wants to remain as prime minister with immunity from prosecution.
Can Gantz meet Netanyahu halfway, by offering him to remain as prime minister but without immunity? Many observers are skeptical, but one Likud leader suggested that such a deal was possible – giving Netanyahu one year as prime minister, then letting Gantz serve for two years before giving way to a new Likud leader for a year. Alternatively, it may be possible to let Netanyahu go to court and either win acquittal or pay the penalty for any conviction (including jail) before returning to office in two years. The leader of Shas, Aryeh Deri, is living proof that a criminal record does not disqualify one from political leadership in Israel, but Netanyahu is not keen to follow Deri’s lead.
With little common ground, Rivlin’s efforts to force Gantz and Netanyahu to form a unity government may prove to be in vain. Already, politicians are openly speculating that the best position to be in would be the politician given the second, or even the third opportunity to form a government since the first person given the task of forming a government is so likely to fail. Rivlin is not bound by Israeli norms to give the power to form a government to either party leader, so one way out of the impasse might be to give the power to form a government to another member of the Likud. This should remove the barrier of Netanyahu’s looming criminal case that prevents Blue & White from joining a government. Rivlin is unlikely to break such norms, though, until after at least one party leader fails to assemble a coalition.
There may also exist pathways out of this impasse for either party leader. Netanyahu possesses a greater sense of urgency to form a government because of the criminal court proceedings, yet he is publicly trying to force Gantz to capitulate and support his continued rule. Assuming that Gantz does not concede, nor will any factions of Blue & White breakaway to serve in government on Netanyahu’s terms, Netanyahu has only two possible paths to remain in power: a deal with one of two small parties, Labor or Yisrael Beiteinu. Neither appears likely. Labor’s leader, Amir Peretz, told Netanyahu to not even bother trying to bring him into government. Yisrael Beiteinu tends to agree with hawkish Likud, but disagrees with Netanyahu’s religious coalition allies over issues like prohibitions on public transit running on Shabbat. Finding common ground on matters of religion and state is unlikely after the second election hardened the stances of secular Yisrael Beiteinu and the religious parties, all of whom did as well or better at the polls in September compared to April.
Gantz can try to form a government with the Arab Joint List and Yisrael Beiteinu to realize a majority, but neither Yisrael Beiteinu nor the Joint List want to serve with the other in government. Gantz enjoys one other plausible path to power without support from Likud, a coalition with Labor, leftist Zionist Union and the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Although both Shas and United Torah Judaism publicly pledged to negotiate alongside Netanyahu and the Likud, they may be motivated to negotiate separately with Gantz to avoid losing all influence to Lieberman’s secular crusade. Finding common ground between the first party in Israel to be led by an openly gay man (Democratic Union) and the ultra-Orthodox may not be easy, but it may be more attainable than finding common ground between Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties, or Lieberman and the non-Zionist parties in the Joint List.
Further complicating matters, Gantz’s party ally, Yair Lapid, is a long-time advocate against Haredi political influence. After the election, though, Shas leaders told the Israeli media that they would be able to serve in a coalition with Lapid as long as Lapid does not insist on changes to the Israeli Chief Rabinate’s authority on marriage and conversion. Similar reports suggested that United Torah Judaism leaders were meeting with “Lithuanian” leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and the Council of Torah Sages of Agudath Yisrael to gain permission to negotiate with Blue & White. The opportunity to enter a government without Netanyahu may be sufficient for Lapid to agree to the ultra-Orthodox terms, especially if the prospect of a national unity government with the Likud but without the ultra-Orthodox parties or Netanyahu may be realistic once Netanyahu goes on trial.
Unlike Netanyahu, Gantz has the luxury of being able to play competitive groups off each other to moderate their demands and forge a compromise. In the aftermath of the election, Netanyahu is deliberately trying to thwart this strategy by insisting that the right-religious parties negotiate as a united front. If Netanyahu succeeds in maintaining control over the Likud while holding together their longtime nationalist and religious party allies while Gantz refuses to capitulate, Israeli voters may suffer through a third election. Already some commentators speculate that a third election is more likely than any coalition-formation scenario, but if the second election of 2019 is indicative, a third election will not resolve this impasse either.