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Friday Feature - A Tempest In a Typhoon

Friday Feature

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27 Sep 2019
Friday Feature - A Tempest In a Typhoon
Israel’s recent parliamentary elections ended with a virtual tie between the two leading contenders, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue & White leader Benny Gantz, although neither emerged with a clear path to the premiership. By week’s end, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had surprisingly handed Netanyahu an initial mandate to try to form a ruling coalition, urging him to pursue a national unity government above all. All the main players are saying good things about the unity idea, but it may just be posturing in order to paint everyone else as uncompromising and angling for a dreaded third election. But it may also be a realization that there are greater concerns for the nation looming on the near horizon and they need to somehow close ranks and prepare for some expected regional turbulence ahead.

After all the ballots were counted and recommendations made for prime minister by the various party heads, Netanyahu wound up with a bloc of 55 MKs supporting him while Gantz had 54. Netanyahu quickly organized his Likud faction (with 32 mandates) to lead a united Right bloc along with Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina, all of whom pledged to “stick together” amidst whatever came next.

Then, Netanyahu made a surprise move by publicly challenging Gantz to cooperate with him on forming a “national unity” government, admitting to his supporters that his campaign promise to form a solely Right-wing governing coalition was no longer feasible in light of the election results. Gantz replied to this challenge by saying that he was open to the idea but since his faction had received one more mandate than Likud, he would be dictating the terms of any agreement and was not ready to begin discussions unless that point was quite clearly understood.

However, President Rivlin issued several statements which made it clear that he believed the people of Israel wanted a unity government and that was also what he personally wanted. He also invited both leaders to the President’s residence in Jerusalem to hold an initial round of talks on Monday aimed at achieving that objective. Despite the initial reluctance of Gantz, pressure from many different quarters convinced him to acquiesce. The initial meeting took place on Monday, followed by more meetings between senior aides to both leaders on Tuesday and then another meeting of the leaders on Wednesday. Those talks reportedly ended inconclusively, but the mere fact that they occurred was taken as a sign by many observers that the process of forming a unity government, something that had not seemed possible before the election, was indeed moving forward.

Although Rivlin was legally able to delay his decision on whom to give the first chance at forming a governing coalition for several more days, he decided on Wednesday evening, in a move that surprised many, to immediately give Netanyahu the first opportunity. This was, to quote Winston Churchill, merely the “end of the beginning”, as it kicked off a process of negotiations and horse-trading between Netanyahu’s Likud-led bloc and the many other parties which managed to cross the 3.25% electoral threshold and enter the 22nd Knesset. Rivlin also suggested they consider a government of equal partnership between Likud and Blue & White, as well as passage of a ‘rotation’ style bill which effectively would allow Netanyahu to temporarily suspend himself as prime minister if he is indicted, rather than outright resign, with Gantz taking over the premiership in the interim.

During his brief remarks to the press upon receiving Rivlin’s go-ahead to begin the negotiations, Netanyahu mentioned several times both the possibility and the need for the process to move quickly. On Thursday evening, reports emerged that Likud and Blue & White had indeed made a tentative agreement to begin working towards a unity government based on the framework recommended by Rivlin.

On Friday morning, the initial meetings took place at Jerusalem’s Orient Hotel in the German Colony neighbourhood, with Likud chief negotiator Tourism Minister Yariv Levin saying beforehand, "We want a broad unity government immediately.”

Addressing one of the larger elephants in the room, veteran Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin responded to an offer made by Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Liberman on Thursday morning to begin talks with Likud “without pre-conditions”, while also apparently ruling out negotiations with its partners in Shas, UTJ and Yamina. That, Elkin said, was exactly the kind of “pre-condition” Lieberman was claiming he did not have, adding that there are no plans to begin such “side show” talks at the moment. Elkin assessed, however, that the objective of forming a unity government can “be done quickly with goodwill. Every party who wants Jewish democratic state invited. Whoever says no brings third elections."

This morning’s exchanges came following a speech Netanyahu gave last night in a Rosh Hashanah toast to 2,000 Likud supporters at Expo Tel Aviv. “There are those who imagine or have delusions,” Netanyahu said. “First, they thought they could break up our partnership in the nationalist camp, but that is stronger than ever. So now they think they can break up Likud.” He then proceeded to rhetorically ask them: “Can they break up Likud? Will you let them topple the head of Likud?”

The crowd answered with a resounding “no” and began chanting “Bibi, King of Israel” to which Netanyahu advised Gantz to listen to the crowd and draw the proper conclusions.

“You need to understand something about these people who are here: We go together in fire and water,” Netanyahu insisted.

The rally and Netanyahu’s message was partially in response to statements by Gantz, Lieberman and others in the Center-Left suggesting that a government could be formed with just Likud and the Center-Left parties, leaving out the religious Right parties (as several polls published in recent days indicate the voting public wants), but Likud’s determination to stand by its traditional allies appeared to be holding in the initial round of talks on Friday.

The attempt by Gantz to hold his own line and refuse to entertain the idea of sitting in a governing coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties appeared to be a concession to his deputy, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, whose stance has hardened in recent days and reportedly set the tone within Blue & White. This has led to push back by national religious MK Naftali Bennet of Yamina, who tweeted this week his opinion that “Yair Lapid is forcing Benny Gantz to jump off a cliff to a new nadir of a third election in a year. President Rivlin’s unity compromise was surprisingly creative. Good sense has come back. Netanyahu agreed to it. Gantz wants it. The public prays for it. Lapid screamed no. Gantz, take charge.”

Despite the posturing and rhetoric, there is a sense of urgency in many of the public statements by all those at the center of this search for a way out of Israel’s current political deadlock. The sentiment most consistently expressed is that there is no time for the usual shenanigans which accompany negotiations to form a governing coalition. This could be a result of several factors which are making Israeli leaders feel like time is not on their side, including intensifying regional tensions between Iran and the US; political developments in the US, Russia and the EU; the prospect of US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” being unveiled in the near future; a rising tide of protest against the regime of Egyptian President al-Sisi; and the ever-lingering issue of Netanyahu’s legal troubles – which hang over everything.

These ongoing regional and global developments have the potential to make Israel’s post-election political chaos look like a tempest inside a typhoon, something Netanyahu and the trio of ex-IDF chiefs-of-staff at the helm of Blue & White are surely aware of. This raises a strong possibility they will indeed make concessions to enable the formation of a national unity government which would allow Israel to get set to meet these oncoming challenges sooner rather than later.

That is something President Rivlin and a very large percentage of the Israeli public appear to want very badly.


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