How Bibi Survives

As results of last week’s election came in, analysts across the political spectrum were quick to eulogize prime minister Netanyahu.

A week later, it appears reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Netanyahu remains a shrewd politician. He will try every trick in the book to stay in power. After all, with pre-indictment hearings coming up next week, it’s personal as well as political for him.

Yesterday, I wrote about the steps Gantz needs to take to become prime minister. Today, let’s explore what Netanyahu can do to stay in power.

Who will get the mandate to form a government?

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was clear yesterday: there should be a unity government. Benny Gantz’ Blue-White and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud should rule together.

After two days of consultations, Netanyahu has 55 recommendations to Gantz’ 54. A majority for neither. The Arab nationalist Balad party refused to endorse anyone. Israel Betenu’s Lieberman was more colorful: “they can flip a coin or settle it in a fistfight for all I care”.

Rivlin called both men in for a talk and an awkward handshake yesterday. The President hailed it as a breakthrough. When the dust settled today, they couldn’t even agree who they were representing.

It’s clear that both sides mean something different when they’re referring to a unity government. As I’ve written before, Netanyahu needs to be the prime minister when the government convenes. If he’s a minister under Gantz, his former IDF commander is legally obliged to fire him once indicted. Gantz has no interest in being a minister under Netanyahu either. For one, he won the elections. Moreover, his signature campaign promise was kicking Netanyahu out.

If they can’t figure it out between themselves, Rivlin is likely to nominate Netanyahu. Before the elections, he said the most recommended person would get the mandate. By a single vote, that’s Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, then, has two options: (1) form a coalition in the coming month, or (2) wait for Gantz to fail and hope to get a third mandate.

Forming a coalition on the first try

Immediately after the elections, Netanyahu signed an agreement with the Shas, UTJ, and Yamina parties. The agreement binds them to only sit in coalition as a bloc. This bloc represents 55 seats. Netanyahu needs an additional 6 to form a coalition.

There are 3 roads to a majority: a unity government with Blue-White, Blue-White defections, or getting either Israel Betenu or Labor to join his coalition.

Upon closer inspection, none of these options appear likely to succeed.

As explained above, neither Gantz nor Netanyahu are willing to let the other lead a unity coalition. They could both agree to a rotating prime ministership. But neither would agree to let the other lead first. There is no reason for Gantz to agree before the mandate falls to him.

There might be MKs in Blue-White amenable to defecting for the promise of cushy cabinet positions. But they would be committing political suicide to defect before Gantz tries to form his own government.

Getting Israel Betenu or Labor to join appears more feasible. However, both made solemn campaign promises not to join a religious right-wing government under Netanyahu. If they talk now, they’ll undermine their credibility. They know their bargaining power will grow with time, so they’ll wait.

The bottom line here is that forming a coalition during the first period is highly unlikely.

Waiting for Gantz to fail

The riskier, but likelier, option for Netanyahu to form a government is to wait for Gantz to fail.

Yesterday’s article discussed what happens when a second mandate fails. According to Basic Law: the Government, unless 61+ MKs agree on a candidate within 21 days, the Knesset is dispersed. This triggers a general election within 90 days.

A third round of elections is in nobody’s interest. The Knesset will likely coalesce around someone. Party structure and hierarchy plays no part in this race to 61. Whomever gathers a majority of individual MK’s signatures will win. Netanyahu is a fantastic politician and has the best chances to be that someone. Using the trappings of office, only Netanyahu will reliably be able to offer positions to the MKs he courts.

If Netanyahu does get the third mandate, he’ll have 14 days to form a government. With the pressure of elections, it will be far easier to convince either Gantz, Lieberman, Labor’s Amir Peretz, or Blue-White defectors to join.

This means Netanyahu is likely to remain prime minister if 3 conditions are met: (1) Gantz fails to form a government, (2) Netanyahu is still the leader of Likud, and (3) he isn’t yet indicted.

So, what will Bibi do?

Since forming a government in the first window is unrealistic, Netanyahu will immediately start working towards those 3 conditions.

The first thing Netanyahu must do is instruct his lawyers to postpone the indictments. Netanyahu has pre-indictment hearings on the 2nd and 3rd of October. Despite the nomenclature, nobody knows when and if actual indictments will happen. Netanyahu’s lawyers will contest every statement and shred of evidence. They will muddy the waters enough to delay the attorney-general from indicting.

The next order of business will be frustrating Gantz’ attempts to form a government. He can begin doing so during his own, first, mandate. During that mandate, Bibi will make public overtures to Blue-White, Israel Betenu, and Labor. These will likely be refused. Netanyahu can then say, “I tried, but can’t form a government”. This will allow him to return the mandate to President Rivlin quite quickly, perhaps after just one week.

There are several benefits to returning the mandate early. For one, it shortens everyone else’s timetables. Gantz will have one month less to build agreements and strategy. Crucially, Netanyahu being indicted during formation becomes less likely.

While Gantz has the mandate, Bibi’s people will continue sowing distrust and disinformation to complicate coalition-building. Above all, Netanyahu will regularly meet his allies on the religious right, counseling patience.

Similarly, Netanyahu needs to prevent a Likud palace coup by playing different camps against each other. There are five important power brokers in Likud: Yuli Edelstein, Gideon Saar, Israel Katz, Gilad Erdan, and Haim Katz. All 5 will need to cooperate to bring Netanyahu down, but they don’t trust each other.

Netanyahu will publicly meet all five, shower them with praise, and promise positions in private. The goal is to sow enough distrust between them to prevent collusion.

This will be Netanyahu’s strategy: divide and conquer. He needs to sow distrust and buy time, one day at a time. For Bibi to win, he needs to be standing by mid-November. If Gantz fails and the clock is ticking, he’ll be the default choice. This is the best way for Netanyahu to survive.

About the Author
Alon van Dam is a Dutch-Israeli political analyst and journalist featured in Haaretz, Metro, NRC and other leading newspapers. A seasoned political campaigner, Alon was Head of Online Strategy for Kadima during the 2009 national elections.
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