Defence-point.com is presenting for readers a series of observations by noted researcher Gabriel Haritos broadly entitled “The Israeli Parliamentary Elections of September 17, 2019, and the Greek Regional Factor.” These studies will be featured, over the days leading up to the election.
Gabriel Haritos, Ph.D., Researcher, The Ben Gurion Reserach Institute, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs.
Israel: The post-election deadlock is intensifying
Everything shows that October 2nd and the next few days will judge a lot of what happens in the Israeli political system. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the events of the coming days have much more to show than the ballot box of 17 September 2019 divulged.
But let’s take things from the beginning.
The solution of the rotating prime minister
Immediately after the announcement of the results of the election and after finding out what had already been predicted by the many previous polls, neither Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu nor the “Blue and White” of the trio Gantz-Lapid-Ya’alon succeeded in garnering an absolute majority of the Knesset’s 120 parliamentary seats. Without waiting for the official final results to be made public, the President of the State, Reuven Rivlin, expressed his willingness to do everything possible to form a national unity government with partners Likud and the “Blue and White” so the country does not slide for the third time to the ballot boxes and end the longest period of non-governance Israel has ever known. In essence, the consultations began the day after the election, on the occasion of former President Simon Peres’ memorial service, and President Rivlin’s photo with Netanyahu and Gantz at Simon Peres’tomb was considered by local media to be showing that unity was at the gates.
Optimistic forecasts have been dashed despite President Rivlin’s efforts to revive an important moment in the country’s parliamentary history: The formation of a national unity government many years back, in 1984, when the Labor Party and Likud controlled the same number of parliamentary seats. with neither the Right nor the Left parties being able to bring together the magic number of 61 seats that would provide them with an ideologically homogeneous coalition government. At least numerically, the current situation is very reminiscent of what had happened then. The 1984 national unity government was based on a gentlemen’s agreement, proposed by the then President of the State, and experienced diplomat, Haim Herzog. That agreement introduced for the first time in Israeli political reality the institution of a ‘rotating prime minister’ – a practice that the current legislation did not provide for. However, in that particular case, the absence of a constitutional text in the Israeli legal order proved to be a salvation, since the application of customary rules gave the President of the countrywide opportunities to maneuver, providing an opportunity to resolve the deadlock.
The rotating premiership between Labor leader Shimon Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir took the country out of the post-election impasse. Peres took over as prime minister during his first two years in office, with Shamir becoming the first “deputy prime minister” in the country’s parliamentary history. At the end of the first two years, the government was ‘dissolved’, President Hertzog undertook to ‘deal’ with Peres and Shamir, and exactly as set out in the gentlemen’s agreement, Yitzhak Shamir assumed the leadership of the ‘new’ government, with “Deputy Prime Minister” the former Prime Minister, Shimon Peres. And so it turned out that when there is a legislative or institutional gap, then the only way out is for politicians to know how to “keep their word” – which has boosted public confidence in the political system in general.
The year 2019, however, is turning out to be quite different from what had happened in that distant 1984. Rivlin wanted to repeat the success of the rotating prime ministerial experiment, suggesting Netanyahu and Gantz do the same. Rivlin went a step further, proposing to revise the formally supreme Basic Law, which sets out the process of forming a government, in order to further institutionalize the role of “Deputy Prime Minister”, with specific responsibilities and duties – so everything would not be ‘up in the air’, as was the case with the Peres and Samir cohabitation in those distant ‘years of innocence’. This proposal became known in the local media as the “Rivlin Framework” and if it were accepted by Netanyahu and Gantz, the only thing left to be agreed was which of the two political leaders would first take over the prime ministerial post and what exactly would the responsibilities be of the now statutory “Deputy Prime Minister” when he took over. Indeed, for a time it was thought that in this way, the country would escape the time-consuming process of giving the mandate, which could last until the beginning of 2020.
The “Rivlin Framework” seems to have been accepted by Netanyahu and Likud. But in the “Blue and White” there were objections, not so much to the logic of the successful 1984 political experiment, nor, of course, to any bridging of ideological differences with the Right – as expressed by Netanyahu and his party. In simple terms: In essence, the center-left “Blue and White” under its particular tripartite leadership does not differ significantly from the right Likud in terms of key issues facing the country, such as the management of the Palestinian issue, and Iranian nuclear threat, or even and on the management of economic policy. If Likud decides to show some variance in some of the points regarding the relationship between Religion and State (eg institutionalizing political marriages, faster identification process for specific categories of citizens, and public transport operation during Jewish holidays) level of local government and under strict conditions), all show that not only the ‘Blue and White’ will be able to seamlessly coalesce into a national unity government, but it could well include Avigdor Lieberman’s party as well, although it supports even more advanced positions on the gradual complete secularization of Israeli public administration.
The “Rivlin Framework” could be ideal and today Israel would have already come out of its post-election impasse. However, the main – and perhaps the only – reason that this solution has not been implemented (at least for the time being) is nothing more than Benjamin Netanyahu’s actual presence in Likud’s leadership. From the “Blue and White” ranks the statements were clear and unequivocal: Since Netanyahu is under the scrutiny of criminal justice, the center-left opposition is not going to become a ‘fountain of Siloam’ to wash away his ‘sins’. But on the other hand, Likud’s party mechanisms are clustered around their leader, and although there are many heir apparent waiting patiently for the opportunity to show themselves, they still do not dare to claim what they probably should have already had.
However, the “Rivlin Framework” has been put on the table and it can not be excluded that it will be re-introduced in the near future. And then maybe it’ll have better luck.
Netanyahu’s awkward position
The impasse stemming from the informal contacts between Gantz and Netanyahu last week essentially forced President Rivlin to follow the procedure as set forth by current legislation. On September 25, President Rivlin gave Netanyahu the mandate to form a government within 28 days – with the possibility of extending that period by a further 14 days.
As paradoxical as it may sound, in the present circumstances, the formation of a government is not the prime concern of Netanyahu. His attention – as well as that of the entire political world of the country – focuses on October 2, the day on which Netanyahu will submit his written explanations on the legal commissioner’s findings by Attorney General Dr. Avichai Mandelblit, who concluded that there were indications that there were plausible indications that Netanyahu had committed criminal acts of corruption. Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by eleven lawyers, will be called upon to refute – in writing and orally – on what he is accused of in the report. The process is expected to take perhaps more than a day and the Attorney General’s decision is expected to be made public in the coming months and certainly not this year. After considering Netanyahu’s arguments, the Attorney General will decide whether he will finally be indicted and whether the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister will eventually be brought to criminal justice – whatever this may entail for his political career.
In order to entertain impressions in the opposition local media, Netanyahu addressed the Attorney General late last week with a video message broadcast on television and social media asking him to allow television and television coverage of his oral response to the content of the finding “for the world to hear for itself for the first time, all that it does not know”.
This was not the first time that Benjamin Netanyahu has sought this method of managing the present unpleasant, for him, situation. The same request was made before last April’s elections. At that time, the Attorney General and the Prosecutor General’s Office made sure that the press had a negative view of the possibility of television coverage of the explanatory process. Now the Attorney General, in an angry and ironic statement, responded to Netanyahu’s videotaped request that “if his legal representatives had sufficiently contradicted the findings, there would be no reason for the Prime Minister to seek television.”
Benjamin Netanyahu is called upon to spend one of the highlights of his career, within such an unpleasant climate, on October 2, 2019. The process of Netanyahu’s answers can take place behind closed doors and without television cameras – however, leaks to the press are possible and as the past teaches, the country’s media community (including state-run broadcasters) is not pleased, at all. It is more than certain that much will be heard and written in the coming days about exactly what was said by Netanyahu, his lawyers and Attorney general Avihai Mandelblit. It is equally certain that the Israeli Prime Minister’s side will fight back accordingly. At the same time, however, it is easy to conclude that the circumstances certainly do not favor the auspicious end of the government mandate that Benjamin Netanyahu has already been handed since September 25.
Questions without answers
It’s no secret that by the end of last week, Netanyahu is seriously considering returning the investigative mandate to the country’s president, while Benny Gantz takes his turn to begin his attempts. But Likud’s cadres are suggesting just the opposite, believing that it should be seen in the public eye (and especially in the eyes of party voters) that Netanyahu puts the national interest above his own adventures and that his top priority is to make every effort to have a government in power for the country, as soon as possible.
No one knows what will follow the explanation process, which begins on October 2. What will be the sound of the leaks of what will come out? How will the public react? Will cracks in party discipline begin to appear in the Likud circles? Will Netanyahu manage to maintain high popularity rates? And even further: Even if the mandate passes to Benny Gantz, who is to guarantee that the resulting media leaks will undoubtedly be able to drastically reverse the deadlock created on the Israeli political scene?
Answers to some of all these crucial questions will be given to us over the next few days.