Benjamin Netanyahu Fails to Form a Government – What Happens Next?

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While we cannot know for sure if Benny Gantz will succeed where Benjamin Netanyahu has failed, we can state with certainty that our political system of the past year has been characterized by deadlock, and this is not expected to end in the near future. Analysis by Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Netanyahu and Gantz

Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu

For the first time in eleven years, a Member of Knesset that is not Mr. Netanyahu will be granted the mandate to form Israel's government. While we cannot know for sure if Benny Gantz will succeed where Benjamin Netanyahu has failed, we can state with certainty that our political system of the past year has been characterized by deadlock, and this is not expected to end in the near future. This is exactly why electoral reform that IDI has proposed is so vital for the country's future and why a majority of Israelis now support a political system led by two large political blocs that are not open to extortion from smaller satellite parties on the right or the left.

Will Gantz be able to form a government and what challenges does he face?

On one hand the dynamics have not changed – just as Mr. Netanyahu could not form a government without Benny Gantz, Blue and White cannot form a broad stable government without Likud. Thus, the chances that Mr. Gantz will be able to form a government are not very high.

If Gantz is to nevertheless succeed, there are two options before him.

The first option is for him to form a national unity government with the Likud, though as long as Mr. Netanyahu leads the party, it would seem unlikely for such a coalition to be formed. Our data, as can be seen in IDI’s September 2019 Israeli Voice Index, shows that the majority of Israelis prefer such a unity government.

For such a government to be formed, one of the sides will have to "give in" where they have refused to do until now. At least one of these unlikely possibilities must take place:

• Netanyahu will have to agree to serve second as prime minister as part of a 'rotation' deal for the premiership. 

• The Likud will have to relinquish their partnership with the right-religious parties and agree to negotiate separately with Blue and White

• Gantz will agree to serve under a Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite the latter's legal troubles

The second option for Gantz to succeed is to form a minority government. Such a government does not need 61 votes to begin its tenure, but it could only be removed by a vote of no-confidence by 61 Members of Knesset. This would mean that Gantz could also form a “unity government” with Blue and White, Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Labor-Gesher, while leaving the door open for the Likud to join the coalition at a later stage. Such a government would necessitate some sort of unprecedented partnership with the Joint List (Arab parties).

Such a government has never been formed in Israel following an election (though governments have continued to serve during times of political crisis despite the resignation of parties and the loss of a coalition majority in the Knesset). Such governments have been formed and governed effectively in a number of European countries. There are also questions as to such a government's legitimacy in the eyes of the broader Israeli public and therefore is not very likely to happen. This means that the political deadlock is expected to continue for at least the next few weeks.

One way to perhaps untie this 'Gordian Knot' is a creative expansion of the term 'leave of absence' with regards to Mr. Netanyahu as originally proposed by President Rivlin. This would mean that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz manage to come up with a formula that both sides are comfortable with in terms of Mr. Netanyahu at least partially stepping away from his office.

If Gantz fails to form a government, what happens next?

If Mr. Gantz is unable to form a government over the next 28 days, which will be the period granted to him by the mandate, we then automatically enter a three week period in which 61 Members of Knesset can submit a letter to the President requesting him to assign the mandate of forming the government to any other candidate. This could be Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Gantz or any of the other 118 Members of Knesset.

If this would happen, this MK would have 14 days to form a new government – without the possibility of any additional extensions. If the three week period pass without recommendation for giving the mandate to an MK, or this third candidate also fails to form a government – the Knesset automatically dissolves itself and Israel will enter a third election campaign within the year. It goes without saying that this would be a negative scenario and will hopefully be averted.

Are we now more likely to towards a third Israeli election this year?

Yes, it is safe to say that a third round of elections is much more likely today than it was yesterday before Netanyahu returned his mandate to the President. Every deadline that we pass without the formation of a new government brings us closer to a new election. Sadly, this would have sounded like science fiction just a few months ago but it might soon become a reality.