Just hours before Wednesday’s midnight deadline, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz returned the mandate to form a government to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before him, Gantz was unable to form a majority coalition during the 28 days allotted to him to do so.
Now, for the first time in the nation’s history, the mandate goes to the Knesset for a 21-day period during which any of the 120 Knesset members can attempt garner 61 signatures of support and then present themselves to the president as a candidate for prime minister.
In a televised address on Wednesday night, Gantz told the country that he had tried to establish “a liberal, unity government that would serve all,” and laid the blame squarely on Netanyahu for his failure to form a unity government.
Gantz attacked Netanyahu’s insistence on bringing his 55-seat right-wing/religious bloc into any government, saying the bloc was focused on “the benefit of just one man, instead of the good of those who are sick, lying in hospital hallways.” (Israel’s medical system is undergoing a crisis, which has not been addressed because there’s no new government and no budget.) Gantz accused Netanyahu of not negotiating in good faith.
Despite the negotiating window closing, Netanyahu replied with a public call to Gantz to come and negotiate with him with no preconditions, saying, “we have historic opportunities and serious security challenges, and we cannot lose one minute.”
Sources in Blue and White have told JNS that there were two main issues responsible for Gantz’s failure to create a unity government with a rotation agreement for the premiership between himself and Netanyahu. The first relates to Netanyahu himself. The prime minister is expected to be indicted on corruption charges next week, and Blue and White refuses to join a government led by a premier who has been indicted.
The second relates to Netanyahu’s 55-seat bloc, which includes ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties. Those parties’ MKs, said the sources, would never agree to the liberal agenda Blue and White seeks to implement, making it impossible for Blue and White to work with the entire bloc.
Israel’s Channel 12 reported on Wednesday evening that Gantz was willing to agree to a rotation of the premiership with Netanyahu, but that others in his party, including Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid, had not allowed him to do so.
Despite these obstacles, some hope existed that a government could be formed with the participation of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party and its eight seats. Lieberman could have potentially joined Netanyahu’s bloc to form a government of 63 mandates, or he could have joined with Gantz to create a minority government with the support of the Joint Arab List.
But both those options were taken off the the table during a dramatic midday press conference on Wednesday, in which Lieberman strongly denounced the ultra-Orthodox parties that are part of Netanyahu’s 55-seat bloc—bashing their “extremism” and calling them “anti-Zionist,” closing the door on the possibility of sitting in a government with them. He also blasted the Joint List as “a fifth column” and said he would never work with them, thus ending Gantz’s chances of forming a government.
Lieberman was attacked from all sides. Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism called his statements “anti-Semitic.” Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, compared Lieberman to a cat that meows when it wants attention.
The attacks against Lieberman were not limited to those he had targeted.
Stav Shaffir of the left-wing and secular Democratic Union told JNS that “Lieberman boycotted the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. He poured oil on Netanyahu’s fiery and poisonous incitement. They are brothers in incitement. Our response must be to work with all our might on forming a corrective government made of secular, religious, Arab and ultra-Orthodox Israelis together. We should form a government that leaves the brothers of incitement on the outside.”
Motti Yogev of the right-wing and religious Jewish Home Party told JNS that Lieberman is to blame for the “absurd situation in which many necessary services in Israel are missing” because of the lack of a new government. “The nation of Israel wants and needs a government,” he said, “with or without Lieberman.”
Netanyahu has asked the Likud Central Committee to prepare for a new election, calling for a vote to forgo the usual requirement for primaries to determine the party list and to instead keep the current list.
With an unprecedented third election on the horizon, numerous calls reverberated from throughout the political arena for electoral reform and changes to the system to prevent this kind of stalemate from recurring.
Lieberman said on Wednesday that he still believed elections could be avoided and that a unity government could be formed. But given Blue and White’s refusal to join a government led by Netanyahu, Netanyahu’s refusal to break up his 55-seat bloc and Lieberman’s refusal to join a government including the ultra-Orthodox parties or one supported by the Arab parties, 21 days from now Israel will most likely be heading to its third election in a year, currently scheduled for March 2020.