Daniel Sterman
Daniel Sterman
Electoral Math
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The November 17 scenario

Never mind the new election – if no new coalition is formed, Gantz will replace Netanyahu as premier on November 17, 2021
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020, after the new government was sworn in. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020, after the new government was sworn in. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

When Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu formed a coalition after the last election, they agreed on a date of rotation. On November 17, 2021, Netanyahu will step down and Gantz will replace him as prime minister.

That clock is still ticking. And it won’t stop for silly little political developments like an election. In fact, only one thing may stand in the way of November 17 becoming a fateful day in Israeli politics.

Some background

If you’re reading this, you probably know that Israel recently held three elections in just under a year. Each ended in a stalemate, which was only broken when Blue and White leader Benny Gantz struck a rotation deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: they would form a coalition together, in which each would serve as prime minister for a year and a half.

Neither Gantz nor Netanyahu trusted each other to uphold their end of the deal. Netanyahu feared Gantz finding some excuse to oust him early. Gantz feared Netanyahu finding some method of toppling the rotation government before he was forced to hand over power. Israel’s previous rotation government worked under the honor system; the current one required two opposing teams of lawyers who carefully codified the concept of a “rotation government” into Israel’s Basic Laws.

Therefore it is not merely by gentleman’s agreement but by actual law — by Basic Law — that Gantz will replace Netanyahu as prime minister on the scheduled date, November 17, 2021. The replacement happens automatically and immediately, with no additional actions required.

The upcoming election to the 24th Knesset does not change that fact. The rotation government and its structure remain in place until they are unseated by a new government (just as Netanyahu’s old coalition and cabinet remained in place through three elections until the rotation government was created). We could have 10 more elections; as long as no new coalition is formed, Netanyahu will remain PM until November 17, at which point Gantz will replace him.

But there is a complication. The rotation government law states that the alternate prime minister must be a member of the Knesset. If Gantz’s Blue and White list does not cross the threshold in any election between now and November 17, he will be ousted from his position.

What that would mean for the coalition is unclear. The changes to the Basic Law were written in a hurry by two opponents who mistrusted one another. They were written with an eye towards preventing potential stabs in the back, not an eye towards covering every possible contingency. While the law states that an alternate prime minister who leaves the Knesset can be replaced by another member of the same Knesset faction, it does not say what happens if that Knesset faction entirely disappears. Such a scenario was never even considered; whoever heard of a prime minister-caliber faction vanishing overnight? (cough Kadima cough) The only thing we know for sure is that Gantz will not become prime minister if he is not in the Knesset.

So, for Gantz to replace Netanyahu, at least two things must happen: Blue and White must pass the threshold in the upcoming election, and no new government must be formed by November 17.

But there’s another problem.

November 17th is just a bit too far away

Normally, a coalition is formed within two months of an election. If that fails, there are various backups and backup of backups, each with its own deadline. If all of these fail and no coalition is formed, a new election is automatically scheduled.

The election for the 24th Knesset is on March 23. If coalition building fails, and the backups fail, and the backups of the backups fail — if we stretch all of these deadlines to their absolute limit — the latest possible date that we can hold elections for the 25th Knesset is… November 9. That’s eight days before the rotation.

So, if Gantz wants to replace Netanyahu as prime minister, it sounds like his party must pass the threshold in two elections. Right?

Sort of. There’s a loophole. If you fail to cross the threshold in an election, you don’t cease to serve as an MK on the day of the election itself. (After all, how would you know you didn’t cross the threshold? The votes haven’t even been counted yet!) By law, you remain an MK until the new Knesset is sworn in – which can take place a maximum of two weeks after election day. In our case, November 23, 2021.

What that means for Gantz: he can cross the threshold in the election on March 23, then fail to cross the threshold in the election on November 9, yet still be an MK for just barely long enough to become prime minister on November 17.

A post he will hold for less than a week, until the new Knesset is sworn in. Then he ceases to be an MK and is replaced by Netanyahu again.

Putting aside the length of his tenure, which Gantz will surely not find very satisfying, it is very difficult to stretch out the coalition-building process that long. It takes a lot of effort to push the next election as far back as November 9. To name just one of the insane requirements: you not only need three prime ministerial candidates to fail to form a coalition, each one of them must also incorrectly believe that they succeeded!

So foot-dragging a failure to build a coalition is not a viable strategy. For all practical purposes, Gantz will replace Netanyahu under the current rotation agreement only if he survives the threshold twice: the 24th Knesset elections to be held in March, and the 25th to be held at any point between then and November. He must also hope (or ensure) that neither election results in a new government to replace the current one.

It’s easier than it sounds.

One thing leads to another

Though the November 17 scenario seems somewhat far-fetched, there is only one real barrier to it actually happening: Gantz must pass the threshold next month. Most polls say he will do so, but by close enough margins that there remains some doubt.

If that barrier is surmounted, it is relatively easy to overcome the remaining ones: preventing a government from being formed and passing the threshold a second time. Both are achievable, contingent on Gantz actually wanting them to happen.

Let’s look at the first barrier. A failure to form a government after an election does not require a great leap of the imagination. After all, it’s happened twice in the last two years. And this time Gantz has both the leverage and the incentive to ensure that it happens again:

  • A pro-Netanyahu coalition has failed to form for three elections in a row now. Blue and White’s mere presence in the Knesset may be enough to block it for a fourth time. I won’t go into the math here, but a Blue and White that crosses the threshold is a Blue and White that took on average a seat or two that would otherwise have gone to the pro-Netanyahu bloc. (There are a limited number of seats in the Knesset, so each party’s seats must necessarily come at the expense of the others.) Some polls show that Netanyahu might still be able to form a coalition, but the chances are pretty small and it depends on the cooperation of potentially hostile coalition partners such as Naftali Bennett and Itamar Ben-Gvir. So long as Gantz isn’t tempted to join Netanyahu himself, Netanyahu will have a difficult time reaching 61.
  • An anti-Netanyahu government has failed to form for six elections in a row now, and would be even easier for Gantz to block. It’s unlikely that the anti-Netanyahu factions will be able to put together a coalition without the help of the four or five seats that Blue and White is expected to win. But what can a Yair Lapid or Gideon Sa’ar or Bennett possibly offer Gantz, that would be worth giving up the chance of becoming prime minister?
Now for the second barrier. Gantz passing the threshold for a second time is even less difficult to imagine. After all, we are assuming that he will have already passed the threshold in March; all he needs to do is win those same voters again. He might even grow in strength if he makes November 17 the centerpiece of his campaign: “Four elections failed to remove Bibi,” he could say. “And if you vote for me one last time, it will happen automatically.”

What can go wrong?

A couple of things. Even if we assume Gantz crosses the threshold in March, he could decide not to run in the following election; he could badly mismanage the campaign; he could decide to take a low-level post in an anti-Bibi or even a pro-Bibi coalition. Some other government could be formed, using a combination of parties that nobody is expecting.

Or more interesting things can happen. Several of the anti-backstabbing provisions that Gantz and Netanyahu built into the Basic Laws expire at the end of the current Knesset. Among these is the supermajority requirement for further amendments to the Basic Law. So once the new Knesset is sworn in in March, the very rules of the rotation can be rewritten – by either side – with sufficient support.

So will this actually happen?

I wouldn’t say the November 17 scenario is likely. But I wouldn’t discount it either. I have a saying: Never take anything for granted in Israeli politics. We have seen some truly crazy things happen recently: A party missing the threshold by three-hundredths of a percentage point. Three elections in a row. The out-of-nowhere election of Gantz as Knesset speaker. The Labor party that founded the state reduced to below 1% in the polls, then bouncing back to above the threshold. The same candidate running on a list with Meretz in one election and with a representative of the Religious Zionist Party in the next.

When you work out the details of how it could happen, as we did above, the November 17 scenario is certainly less far-fetched than anything else that I just listed.

But take a step back and realize that what I’ve just described is a perfectly logical series of events, at the end of which the Prime Minister of Israel will be the leader of the smallest party in the Knesset, with only four or five seats to its name.

Maybe we’re all crazy.

About the Author
Daniel Sterman lives in Jerusalem with his wife and five children. By day he is a not-so-mild-mannered technical writer; by night he dons a cape and mask and sends strongly-worded emails to news organizations to complain about minor mathematical errors.
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