There is an elegant way out of the morass left behind by Israel’s poison-dripping twin elections of 2019: a unity government led by Benny Gantz with Benjamin Netanyahu as foreign minister – a position for which he is eminently suited and from which he can contribute loads with his fabled stewardship of Israel’s relationship with Donald Trump.
If indictments against Netanyahu arrive, as appears likely within a few months of his Oct. 3 hearing with the attorney general, then Netanyahu would by law have to step down as minister (unlike the more liberal arrangement for prime ministers, who can hang on for years). He would be gone without the need for any Likud rebels to show any spine; he could remain the head of the party, if such is their pitiful wish. If he is in the clear two years down the road there could be a premiership rotation; that is an issue for negotiation.
The goals of the government would be an attempt to improve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza in alignment with the Trump Administration and the Palestinian Authority, and an effort to normalize Israel’s relationship with religion.
The latter project should aim for transport and commerce in secular areas on the Sabbath, the option of civil marriage (certainly for those whom the Rabbinate refuses to marry), and a core curriculum of math, science and English in all schools that are state-funded including religious schools. This would be wildly popular across an otherwise divided land.
It is also worth considering changing the electoral system to one that will guarantee an outcome, so that the dismal experiences of recent years will not be repeated. That always becomes necessary when a country is so divided and tribal that elections become more of a census than a contest of ideas.
The alternatives are many. One is a return to direct election of the prime minister; that strengthened small parties from 1996 to 2001 when it was tried, but now there is a higher electoral threshold which should resolve that problem. Or the premiership could simply go to the head of the largest party, which would focus minds and encourage consolidation of the political scene.
If Likud refuses to join under these terms the Haredim might be drawn in by allowing them their tweaked version of the draft law, and perhaps a period of continued extortionist funding for their legion of lifelong seminary “students.”
Although Lieberman rules this out today, the option may arise of a Gantz-Lieberman government also backed by at least part of the United Arab List, the other big winner of Tuesday’s election. The Arab minority has been so disrespected that there are easy and just ways to win their tacit backing that no sane person would oppose. The trick will be the Nation State Law; they want it revoked but may accept a mere amendment that restores the status of Arabic and guarantees equality.
Why should Gantz go first as prime minister? That’s really up to Avigdor Lieberman, because if he is truly now in neither the left or right bloc then he holds the balance of power. It appears as if he cannot reverse course and again support the right-religious bloc, although Netanyahu may test him with an offered rotation as prime minister, along with some pittances for his constituency that the religious can live with. I rule nothing out; Lieberman is not one to torture himself over what is the right thing to do.
He has said he would go with the person who first proposes a unity government, and that was and is Gantz. He has suggested the largest party would matter, and that too may be Gantz. According to results published today Blue and White has 33 seats to Likud’s 32. And he appears to be gunning for Netanyahu for reasons one can only speculate about.
Either way Netanyahu is the loser of these elections, even if the electoral system does not allow that fact to be reflected with clarity. Netanyahu sought a majority for rightist and religious parties that agreed to help him engineer immunity; the question on everyone’s minds as the projections rolled in was whether those parties would get 61 seats — and they fell short by 5 or 6. In the devil’s dungeon that is Israeli politics, that’s a defeat, and defeats carry costs.
The whole thing is difficult to believe, and part of the equation is that Lieberman is such an enigma that one might suspect he is just messing with everyone all the time. That he is the deus ex machina to save Israeli democracy is a thing that borders on absurd. But there is a logic here at play; sometimes, just sometimes, logic helps to drive events.
Liberman represents a community that is overwhelmingly secular, many of whose members are not considered Jewish enough by the Rabbinate to be married. What are they doing in coalitions with fanatics trying to turn Israel into a Jewish version of Iran? He also stands for contempt for and distrust of Arabs; the right, via the occupation and settlement project, is turning Israel into a country whose population is half Arab.
This was always bound to blow up, and it appears that it finally has. For his trouble in denying Netanyahu a government after the first round of elections Lieberman has been rewarded by a near-doubling of his Knesset strength, to 9 seats, with some of the support now coming from non-immigrant sources.
The current math of the various campaign promises does not enable a majority of 61 for anyone. But if Lieberman is determined to see the back of Netanyahu, then there are ways this can be done, with or without Likud.