If Gantz wants to be Prime Minister, Bibi must try first

After a fraught election campaign, President Rivlin is meeting party leaders to consult on who should form a government.

The Arab-majority Joint List made history today by recommending Gantz to form the government. This is the first time since 1992 that Arab parties have made a recommendation. The rationale for this was eloquently laid out by Joint List’s leader Ayman Odeh in his New York Times op-ed.

I’ve written before about why increased political participation by the Israeli Arab minority is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, if the stated aim is to see Netanyahu replaced, it’s also a colossal strategic mistake.

If Gantz wants to be prime minister, it should be engineered that President Rivlin gives Netanyahu the first shot at forming a government. Let’s explore why:

Gantz needs a Likud palace coup to form a government

If Gantz gets the first mandate to form a government, the chances of him succeeding are slim. His options to get to 61 are few.

The ‘easiest’ way to a coalition is to add Lieberman’s 8 seats to the 57 from Blue-White, Labor, the Democratic Camp, and the Joint List. The likelihood of Lieberman agreeing to join a coalition that relies on the Joint List is, to put it mildly, not great.

Earlier today, he referred to the Joint List as “a party that is trying to destroy us from within, and in the best-case scenario, they belong in parliament in Ramallah, not in Israel.”

Lieberman went on to call the Joint List “an enemy” and that “wherever they are, we will be on the other side of the aisle”.

Without the Joint List, Gantz’ options are limited. A coalition with Shas instead of the Joint List is theoretically possible. Earlier today, Shas’ Aryeh Deri poured cold water on that idea. It’s hard to imagine Deri agreeing to sit with Lapid, Horowitz and Lieberman – and for them to agree sitting with him. Shas owes too much to Bibi to abandon him before it’s clear the Netanyahu era is over.

What this means is that Gantz can’t realistically form a government without Likud. I’ve written elsewhere that Netanyahu cannot accept being a minister in a Gantz’ administration. If he’s indicted after his hearings on October 2nd, Gantz would be obliged to fire him to stand trial.

Therefore, if Gantz wants to be prime minister, he needs the Likud to dump Netanyahu and name a successor.

Likud will only remove Netanyahu if their seats are on the line

Replacing Netanyahu is no easy task. The Likud is a party that prizes loyalty and continuity. In the 45 years since the founding of Likud, it has only had 4 leaders. Compare that with Labor, that only once in its history allowed a leader who lost an election to remain at its head.

Netanyahu has brought the Likud power and glory in his 14 years as its chairman. Many owe their political careers to him. Nevertheless, over the last few years, fewer and fewer senior cabinet positions have stayed in the party. Dissent within Likud is very real and growing.

I’ve written before on the stakes Likud lawmakers have to consider while rebelling against Netanyahu. Bibi has successfully sidelined anyone that could threaten his rule. A palace coup against him will only happen if the conspirators are certain of success. Even then, nobody wants to be seen casting the first stone.

The Likud fears Netanyahu. But they should fear going to elections more. They followed Netanyahu to elections and ended up losing 300,000 votes. There are 7 people who were Likud MKs in April and aren’t in the Knesset anymore. There is no reason to believe that a new election won’t lead to more MKs losing their jobs, and ending up in opposition.

Only when the choice is stark – dump Bibi or go to elections – will they dare.

What happens if Gantz gets the first mandate

As long as Netanyahu hasn’t failed in forming a coalition, he has the possibility to succeed. While this is the case, he’ll be able to keep both his internal and external coalitions intact. If Netanyahu succeeds in forming a government, rebels would be committing political suicide.

After Gantz fails, Netanyahu will have 28 days to form a government. As the clock ticks down on his mandate, people will start getting nervous. Maybe Lieberman can be swayed to support Netanyahu after all? Maybe Labor can be brought in? Maybe 6+ of the lower members in Blue-White can be convinced to jump ship in exchange for cushy ministries?

Before he holds the mandate, nobody will challenge Netanyahu in fear of failing and being politically buried in the party. While he holds the mandate, certainly nobody will challenge him. This means only after his mandate can the knives start coming out.

The pressure might mean Netanyahu succeeds. Even if he fails, Gantz’ chances to lead a government are slim.

Basic Law: the Government lays out what happens if a second MK fails in forming a government. Unless 61+ MKs agree on a candidate within 21 days, the Knesset is automatically dispersed. This triggers a general election within 90 days.

Those 21 days are bound to be hectic. Everyone from Gantz to Lapid to Lieberman to Edelstein to Saar will try to get the 61 required signatures. It’s unclear who will prevail in such a scenario, if anyone. The smart money would say that veteran politicians like Edelstein would have a clear advantage in this process over a rank amateur like Gantz.

Why, then, should Gantz go second?

If Gantz is second, the same fear of elections that might help Netanyahu succeed works in his favor. In this scenario, Netanyahu would already have failed. The choice for Likud members would then be either to sit in opposition, risk losing their seats third elections, or throw Netanyahu overboard.

While Gantz is working on forming a government, a Likud rebellion can spring into action. The Likud Central Committee can issue leadership primaries. In this scenario, Likud have up to 63 days to choose a new leader. This will be their only option to prevent electoral decimation.

The new leader will be able to negotiate with Gantz. The successor won’t have Netanyahu’s baggage, his indictments, or his commitments to the ultra-orthodox. They will likely be able to agree to the second term of a rotating prime ministership. Importantly, the successor will be able to guarantee Likud MKs senior cabinet posts.

This is the only scenario Likud deposes Netanyahu. Which means it’s the only scenario where Gantz is prime minister. If Gantz wants to lead Israel, he needs to let Bibi go first.

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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