History has been made in Israel as, for the first time in a decade, someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu will be tasked with forming a government. Sort of.
On Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin gave the coveted mandate to challenger Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White Party, after Netanyahu and his Likud Party failed to form a government for the second time after elections held just six months apart.
The only problem for Gantz is that his base of support in the newly elected Knesset is even smaller than Netanyahu’s core of 55 Knesset member supporters. Prior to Netanyahu receiving the first crack at forming a government, Gantz received 54 recommendations for the top job. Yet the total was fool’s math: 10 of the recommendations came from Arab Knesset members who wished to see Netanyahu’s reign end, but who also pledged not to join a Gantz-led government even as they recommended him for the top job.
That leaves Gantz’s left-wing base with only 44 seats—well behind Netanyahu in the race to 61 mandates and a Knesset majority. So while Gantz will now have 28 days to try to form a government and officially replace Netanyahu, he is unlikely to do so.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu remains the prime minister, which is a reality likely to last beyond the next month.
The wild card in the last three election cycles has been Avigdor Lieberman and his eight-member Yisrael Beiteinu Party after he refused to recommend either Netanyahu or Gantz after the Sept. 17 elections.
It was Lieberman in the first place who started the early election cycle by resigning his post as defense minister in November and removing his party from an otherwise-stable right-wing government. Following the April 9 elections, Lieberman refused to join a right-wing government, leaving Netanyahu one mandate shy of a majority. Similarly, Lieberman again refuses to join a religious-backed right-wing government, despite being a self-described right-winger who has sat in right-wing governments with religious parties for the better part of 20 years.
Most media are calling Lieberman a kingmaker who has been calling for a centrist “unity” government that would include both Likud and Blue and White to the divisive exclusion of the religious parties. The only problem with this moniker is that there is only one man Lieberman can crown king: Netanyahu. Even if Lieberman were to throw his full support behind Gantz, Blue and White would still be a full nine seats short of a majority. On the flip side, if Lieberman would add his eight seats to Netanyahu’s bloc of 55, the prime minister could continue the longest reign in Israeli history for the next four years.
As long as Lieberman continues to rebuff his natural right-wing partners, the math dictates that Blue and White, and Likud must come together to form a government. Together, the two largest parties could govern with or without Lieberman’s seats, further diminishing the kingmaker claim.
Formulas for a rotation agreement for the nation’s top post, including an idea floated by Rivlin that would call for Netanyahu to serve first but step aside if indicted, have so far fizzled. At the same time, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is believed to be considering dropping several of the charges as part of three labeled corruption cases following a pre-indictment hearing.
Netanyahu is requiring that Blue and White negotiate with the entire united bloc of 55, which includes religious parties—a demand rejected by both Gantz and Lieberman. At the same time, Gantz refuses to serve in a government together with Netanyahu as long as indictments remain looming.
To try and figure a way past the deadlock, many on the left who would like to see Netanyahu either sail off into the sunset or, perhaps, to prison are floating the trial balloon of Gantz forming a minority government backed from the outside by the Arab parties. Yet this idea represents little more than wishful thinking.
While Lieberman continues trying as hard as possible to wrestle power away from Netanyahu, he has already stated that he will not join a far-left government—particularly a grossly unstable minority coalition that is temporarily propped up from the outside by self-proclaimed anti-Zionist Arab parties.
Should Gantz fail to form a government, or should Likud and Blue and White fail to come together on a formula to govern together in the next 28 days, any Knesset member (including Netanyahu or Gantz) can come forward with a petition of 61 Knesset members and receive a two-week window to form a government. If no government is formed by that time, Israel will head into yet another snap election cycle.
Meanwhile, the strongest horse in the race remains Netanyahu. Despite the best wishes of Gantz and the left side of the Israeli electorate, there is no possible government formation that doesn’t include at least some portion of his Likud Party. And at present, there do not appear to be any fissures in the only large party in the country whose Knesset members are actually selected by a proper democratic primary.
While Gantz is the first politician not named Netanyahu since Ehud Olmert to get a puncher’s chance at forming a government, his mandate is empty. As long as Netanyahu holds firm to his desire to remain prime minister and the largest bloc of Knesset members (who support Israel as a Jewish state) remain committed to his leadership, then he remains the most likely candidate to emerge from this protracted process in the seat of power.
Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.