YOSSI MEKELBERG April 11, 2021
Source: Arab News
Following a marathon of meetings with party representatives, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form the next government. Since he became president nearly seven years ago, Rivlin has presided over this ritual five times, four of them in the past two years. However, his mannerism and remarks on this occasion projected a reluctance to take in the procedure, and a sense of relief that with his retirement drawing near he can bid good riddance to this charade.
By law Netanyahu has 28 days to form a coalition, and he can ask the president for a two-week extension, though Rivlin suggested he was more likely to return this privilege to the Knesset itself. When announcing his decision to nominate Netanyahu, the president remarked that no candidate had a genuine chance of forming a coalition, and as far as Netanyahu is concerned, Rivlin is probably grateful that this is the case. It is never too wise to bet against Netanyahu, who has been politically buried time after time only to pull another trick out of his sleeve and rise again. But more recently, from each election to the next, it has become less plausible and more difficult for him to gain the support of 61 Knesset members. And, for now at least, the odds are stacked against him.
Rivlin conferred the mandate on Netanyahu in the most surreal of circumstances, at the very same time that the first witness for the prosecution in the prime minister’s trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, was outlining an exchange of favors between Netanyahu and the owners of one of Israel’s most influential news websites. Rivlin made it clear that he had “moral and ethical” reservations about asking a defendant in a corruption trial to cobble together a coalition government. It is not only the nature of the charges against Netanyahu that made the occasion extremely uncomfortable for the president, but also the constant incitements by Netanyahu and his clique against the justice system, and the venomous claims and accusations that will only intensify as the evidence in Netanyahu’s trial continues to be heard and as he struggles to form a coalition. Nevertheless, despite his reluctance, Rivlin felt compelled not to ignore that the prime minister was recommended for the task by more Knesset members than supported anyone else, politicians with more flexible moral backbone than the president as long as it serves their political interests. On this occasion Rivlin should have followed his moral compass, and not those who lack one.
In the meantime, it is possible that Netanyahu’s desperation will be translated into irresponsible foreign and domestic actions, with few of his close circle able or willing to restrain him.
Two other candidates for prime minister were suggested to the president: Yair Lapid, who leads the centrist party Yesh Atid, and Naftali Bennet, who leads the extreme right-wing Yemina alliance, who were supported by 45 and 7 members respectively, compared to the 52 who supported the Likud leader. It was those who decided to sit on the fence and not endorse anyone, or in the case of Bennet whose party recommended him despite their ordinary showing in the March general election, that allowed in these extraordinary circumstances for Netanyahu to have another crack at forming a government. Gideon Saar, a former senior Likud member who formed the New Hope party just before the election, running on the ticket of a right-winger who would never sit with Netanyahu in the same government, froze at the crucial juncture of presenting his recommendation to the president and abstained from offering anyone. Instead of new hope, Saar with his 6-strong party, left Israel vulnerable to the same old despair represented by Netanyahu.
There is of course the question of how a desperate Netanyahu is going to juggle his position as prime minister with his legal predicament and the circus that he has created around each during the complex negotiations to assemble a government. The way to a government that enjoys majority support in parliament may be blocked, but that doesn’t mean Netanyahu will give up while any stone remains unturned. He is approaching his final rearguard action, facing what generals fear most — fighting on two fronts simultaneously, one to stay in power and the other to stay out of jail. For the next four weeks we can expect a Netanyahu who is mixing his experience in charming opponents, soliciting them to join his coalition, with thuggish and threatening behaviour toward those who fail to accede to his seductive offers of coveted ministries, generous budgets and governmental positions.
Here is what we can also expect: First, Bennet’s Yemina will be pressured to join a right-wing government, and will be accused of betraying their voters if they don’t join a Netanyahu administration. Raam, the Islamist party, will be courted with promises of becoming the first Arab party in Israel’s history to have influence at the heart of the establishment for the benefit of Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens. Their refusal will be, again, be depicted by Netanyahu as a betrayal of Raam’s voters. In the meantime, Likud will identify a number of Knesset members who they believe could be persuaded to defect from parties that won’t participate in a government led by a prime minister indicted for corruption. Don’t expect any semblance of civility or integrity; it is all about saving Netanyahu’s skin, and he would rather face the electorate again than not have a government led by himself.
In parallel, alternative informal negotiations are expected take place within the “change” bloc. This option is not an obvious one, and it would mainly cement the opposition to Netanyahu, but would require complex concessions, as it is bound to comprise at least seven parties, leaving its longevity shrouded in uncertainty.
In the meantime, it is possible that Netanyahu’s desperation will be translated into irresponsible foreign and domestic actions, with few of his close circle able or willing to restrain him. The country should therefore pay heed to Rivlin’s concerns, not only over the moral and ethical basis of his decision to mandate Netanyahu with forming a government, but also the president’s expressed view that “the state of Israel is not to be taken for granted. And I fear for my country.”
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelbergDisclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view