Unity talks stalled, Israel may head to 4th consecutive election

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival, Blue and White leader, Benny Gantz might meet later Thursday to discuss a possible unity government after previous meetings failed to yield an agreement between the two.

The move comes after a Wednesday deadline to form an emergency government in Israel passed on midnight without result.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who gave the two an extension earlier this week in order to reach a compromise, has now tasked the parliament, or the Knesset, with finding a prime minister within the next 21 days.

If a candidate does not have the 61 signatures needed in order to secure a majority, a new election will be scheduled three months from now.

Such an election will be scheduled for July and will be Israel’s fourth consecutive election after three campaigns ended with no clear-cut majority for either side.

At the end of last month, Gantz announced he would be willing to enter an “emergency” government with Netanyahu. His move led to much criticism from his political allies.

As the country struggles with the coronavirus, Gantz said he was putting his differences aside in order to help the country out of the crisis.

His party quickly disintegrated in response, leaving him to lead just his faction, 15 members, less than half of the original list.

During the following three weeks, any Knesset member can attempt to rally the 61 signatures to form a government. Netanyahu, who already has the endorsement of 59 members, can theoretically find two more signatures and form a government without Gantz.

But the two Knesset members who are believed to be inclined to join a right-wing government have said they will not defect. The Israeli premier could also look elsewhere for the coveted two signatures.

Public pressure to form a government in light of the looming economic hardship expected to plague Israel in the near future might push some members to reconsider their positions.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest serving prime minister and is considered a mastermind at political maneuvering. Gantz is a political new-comer who has little political experience.

Aside from running three rather successful political campaigns, he has held no elected office and his parliamentary experience is insignificant. An agreement between Gantz and Netanyahu would require great compromise on both sides.

According to political commentators, the negotiations are stalled due to legal matters. Netanyahu, who is being charged on charges of corruption, is trying to avoid legislation that would bar him from serving as premier in the future.

Current Israeli law does not prohibit an indicted prime minister from sitting in office, but Gantz and his supporters believe that Netanyahu should have resigned long ago regardless of the law but because of public norms.

Gantz, who has been significantly weakened by the crumbling of his party, has one weapon left in his arsenal and that is the promotion of such legislation, which has the chance of the majority of Knesset members supporting it.

Netanyahu’s trial was to open last month but has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 lockdown measures which have also taken effect over the judicial system.

A power-sharing agreement would include a rotation on the premiership with Netanyahu relinquishing power in 18 months.

“The talks are serious because Netanyahu is asking questions that go to the heart of what matters to him,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of the political science department at the Bar Ilan University. “When he asks about legal questions, that is a sign,” Rynhold said.

Netanyahu has significantly strengthened in the polls in recent days, showing a marked increase in mandates for his Likud party.

But in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis, an election in three months might not necessarily end well for him. “By the time we have elections, people might look at this differently,” said Rynhold. This leaves Netanyahu to weigh the risks and perhaps lean towards a government rather than another referendum, Rynhold said.

But Gantz is now a part of a very fragmented opposition, no longer a leading figure of it. Aside from mutual animosity to Netanyahu amongst the bloc opposing the Israeli leader, Gantz cannot form a government without the Likud.

The polls that are very favorable to Netanyahu are showing negative results for Gantz right now. “Gantz’s horizon doesn’t look good,” Rynhold told Xinhua.

The clock is ticking and Gantz has three weeks to pass contentious legislation through the various legal hurdles any law has to pass. “They both may come to the calculation that it’s better to make a deal,” he added, “But I do not see Gantz caving on the legal issues.”

“If Gantz continues to feel that he is being manipulated by Netanyahu, he will go forward with anti-Netanyahu legislation,” said Gayle Tal Shir, a scholar of the department of Political Science at the Hebrew University. “But he is on a very tight schedule and the chances of passing such legislation within the 21 days are very slim.”

Throughout his political life, Netanyahu has left a string of political colleagues who have believed his promises only to end up empty handed.

Gantz’s previous allies warned him of exactly that. Even if he agrees to leave office mid-way, Netanyahu can still manipulate his way into remaining in position.

“Netanyahu will have plenty of time and opportunity to try to undermine the rotation agreement, without being seen by the public as being directly responsible for this,” said Rynhold. “Netanyahu has no intention of leaving office in a year and a half,” Tal Shir said.

“He will find a way to lead to another election and win it. I don’t think he has internalized leaving and therefore is also looking for legal ways to prevent the supreme court from limiting him.” “The current coalition agreement has been final for several days now, the only one not ready to sign it is Netanyahu,” she added.

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