After almost a month of trying, long-time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he is unable to form a new government. The move paves the way for former Army Chief of Staff and centrists rival Benny Gantz to try to cobble together a majority coalition of at least 61 lawmakers in the 120-seat Knesset, although it does not seem that he will find the job any easier.
Israel President Reuven Rivlin has not yet officially asked Gantz to try to put together a government, but the former military man said he was optimistic he will be able to do so in the 28 days allotted.
"We're going to do a day's work now," Gantz said. "We’re always optimistic, it's a way of life."
His task will not be easy. Gantz’s new centrist Blue and White party received the largest number of Knesset seats — 33 as opposed to 32 for Netanyahu’s Likud party — in the September 17 election.
But after consultations with all of the parties, Rivlin thought Netanyahu had a better chance of forming a coalition, as he had the support of 55 of the newly elected Knesset members, mostly right-wing and ultra-Orthodox. Gantz is supported by several left-wing parties. In a first, 10 members of the Arab Joint List recommended that Gantz be given the first choice to form the government. They said they would not join the government, but would support it from the outside.
All of this still leaves Gantz far short of the magic number of 61 seats. The kingmaker is Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beytenu party. The Moldova-born former defense minister won eight seats in the election, and his support would be enough for either Netanyahu or Gantz to form a government.
The problem is that Lieberman is insisting on a national unity government, which would include Netanyahu, Gantz, and himself. Netanyahu and Gantz would each be prime minister for a two-year stint.
Netanyahu, however, is facing a series of corruption allegations. His lawyers presented evidence earlier this month they say will exonerate him. It is now up to the attorney general to make a final decision on whether to officially charge him and take him to trial. That decision is expected by the end of the year.
Gantz has said his problem is not with a national unity government, but with Netanyahu. Under Israeli law, Netanyahu could remain in office during a trial, but would have to resign if he is convicted. A trial and appeal could take years.
If Gantz fails to assemble a coalition government, then Israel could be headed to its third election in less than a year. Polls show the public does not support a third election, and some Israeli analysts say it is unlikely.
“I am on record from Day 1 saying that it’s not going to happen,” Gil Hoffman, the chief political correspondent for the Jerusalem Post said in an interview. “They [Netanyahu and Gantz] are going to bite their tongues and live together at least for a short time.”
There was some speculation Likud would overthrow Netanyahu as party leader. If that happened, it would be easy to form a national unity government. But Netanyahu continues to hold the Likud in a tight grip.
“I think Americans don’t understand the importance of experience in a leader, but we do,” Hoffman said. “Netanyahu is the most experienced leader alive unless Moses or Jesus comes back.”
Netanyahu recently passed Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He has been prime minister since 2009 and many Israelis can’t imagine a future without him.
Gantz, who has no previous political experience, says he is ready to enter the political arena. He is hoping the threat of a third election will be enough to convince some of the parties to be more flexible and allow him to put together a government.