Netanyahu’s chances of forming the next government fade

What happened: Prime Minister Netanyahu has less than two weeks left to form a government. His chances appear to be narrowing after he lost the vote in the Knesset on Monday over the formation of the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee.

  • Following the vote, head of the Likud faction and chair of the Arrangements Committee MK Miki Zohar said: “We understand and internalise that we are on the way to the opposition. Netanyahu will lead the opposition. We will go with our heads held high.”
  • Netanyahu’s latest effort to remain at the helm is to advance legislation for direct election of a prime minister. According to Netanyahu, “There is a solution to this situation: Direct election of the prime minister — let the public decide who it wants to lead the country. A huge majority is in favour of this and it  crosses all party lines in the Knesset. The last election proved that the public wants a right-wing government. Sixty-five seats are held by strongly right-wing; the only reason we can’t form a right-wing government is personal, not ideological.”
  • Netanyahu continued: “So we have two options: A left-wing government with a right-wing ‘fig leaf’ — Meretz, Joint List, Labour — which is against the will of the voter and against Bennett’s and Saar’s promises. The second option is building a stable right-wing government that will survive for four-years after a snap direct election for prime minister. There’s no need either to dissolve the Knesset or to have a fifth election; we need a quick referendum for the nation to decide who is going to be prime minister. I’ll accept the result, and I hope others will as well.”
  • Regarding political cooperation with the Raam, the Islamist party, Netanyahu said: “We don’t need Raam; we need direct elections to form a government. That’s how to break through the stalemate; we don’t need other solutions as well.”
  • Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who hopes to be given the mandate next, responded, saying: “The State of Israel doesn’t need another election campaign … this is not a direct election, it’s a time-wasting exercise at the expense of the public. It is time to form a unity government in Israel. It is possible.”

Context: Despite Netanyahu’s desire to reinstate direct elections, it appears highly unlikely that he has the requisite support in the Knesset or that the legislation can be fast tracked through in the next two weeks.

  • Twenty-five years ago Israel did experiment with a second ballot, direct election for prime minister, in an effort to improve governability. It was abandoned after three elections. In 1996 Netanyahu narrowly beat Shimon Peres. In 1999 he lost to Ehud Barak and in 2001, following Ariel Sharon’s victory over Barak, the one-vote parliamentary system was restored.
  • The Arrangements Committee is particularly important at this point because in the absence of a new government, it controls the legislative agenda.
  • The vote over its composition was dramatic. The Likud had succeeded in persuading Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party to vote for its proposal by promising them favourable terms.  However, the Likud were blindsided by Raam who changed mind and voted against its proposal, ensuring that the alternative composition put forward by Yesh Atid was approved.
  • Raam MK Saeed Alkharumi explained afterwards: “The Likud and Yamina changed the wording at the last minute, giving Yamina another seat on the committee. We haven’t closed the door to either side. For two weeks we have been the subject of curses from a party that is in Netanyahu’s lap and we didn’t hear a single word from the Likud against that party. That is one of the political reasons. But the main reason is the wording and the composition of the Arrangements Committee.”
  • From Yamina’s perspective, they proved their loyalty by voting with Likud but can now support a rotation agreement with Lapid if Netanyahu fails to form a government with his time left with the mandate. Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked said, “We want to form a right-wing government. We’re prepared to make every effort to put together a government. We’re trying. But I’ll repeat: We will not allow the country to be dragged into a fifth election. We will do whatever it takes to prevent a fifth election.”
  • Following the formation the Arrangements Committee, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of secular rightist Yisrael Beiteinu party, tried to replace Moshe Gafni, the ultra-Orthodox chairman of the Finance Committee. He was blocked by Ahmad Tibi from the Joint List, who has cooperated with Gafni for many years in the Knesset. The message for the ‘bloc for change’ was that the Joint List’s position must also be taken into consideration, as they also do not have a majority without support from one of the Arab parties.

Looking ahead:  Netanyahu has until May 4 deadline to present a government, but he is appearing less likely to succeed.

  • President Rivlin then has the choice to either give the mandate to someone else (most likely Lapid) or to return the mandate to the Knesset, and allow any other MK (again possibly Lapid, Bennett or someone else from Likud) to present the endorsement of 61 MKs.

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