A meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival party leader Benny Gantz ended Sunday without a conclusive plan to form the nation’s next government. The 10-year incumbent was handed the mandate following Israel’s second election this year, but failed to form a government amid a sharply divided Knesset. Consequently, he returned the mandate to Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, who then tasked Benny Gantz, chairman of the Blue and White party with succeeding where Netanyahu failed.
Gantz is poised to potentially become the first prime minister since Netanyahu took the reins in 2009, but that possibility is a continued point of debate for negotiations between both sides. One option put forward is that the two leaders could take turns ruling, but that too raises the question of who will lead first, Netanyahu or Gantz? Concurrent to their meeting Sunday, negotiators from both parties also held discussions in an attempt to reach a workable framework. While Blue and White holds 33 seats, one more than Netanyahu’s Likud, the prime minister also insists on representing a larger coalition of conservative members of parliament, totaling 55 seats, which still does not constitute a 61-seat majority.
The push for a unity deal, which both sides favor, is the last countermeasure to prevent a new election, which would be Israel’s third this year.
“The two discussed the structure of political options available,” a joint statement read following the meeting of Gantz and Netanyahu. “Another meeting is anticipated between the two.”
Although they agree a unity is required, Gantz continued to refuse to serve under a Netanyahu-led Knesset while the prime minister is engaged in a legal battle over corruption charges. An indictment is possible within the coming weeks, but the current law does not forbid Netanyahu from continuing to serve during the court battle. The Blue and White party is reportedly considering legislation to change that, which would force him to step down should an indictment be filed.
Netanyahu faces three criminal charges. In Cases 1.000 and 2,000, he is charged with fraud and breach of trust, and in Case 4.000 he is facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Netanyahu already scored an early victory in reducing the charge of the first case from bribery during pre-indictment hearings. For Blue and White to successfully pass a bill requiring the prime minister to relinquish his post, it will need a majority. Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avidgor Liberman could play a part in uniting with Blue and White to bring the votes it needs, but it may be unwilling to face the backlash that would come with it.
Liberman has maintained that he supports a unity government, but the bill would cast him in a different light. He has also refrained from criticizing Netanyahu on the basis of the charges, signaling that he it would not be an issue he would be willing to lead his party against.
However, the Yisrael Beitenu party would be a strong fit for a coalition against Likud as it is highly secular. Lieberman also has a history of opposing a Netanyahu after refusing to join his bloc following the April elections. That action cost Netanyahu a parliamentary majority and forced another election in September. Still, Lieberman also refused to endorse Gantz, a move that has put the party at the center of the government’s paralysis.
Gantz is scheduled to meet with Lieberman on Monday and other minority party leaders throughout the week.
For Netanyahu, the future is even less certain than that of Israel’s government and the process will be considerably more drawn-out. If convicted of his charges, he could certainly face jail time, but that possibility is limited. Previously, the prime minister had hoped to form a government that would pass legislation preventing his indictment, however when that did not occur, he was left to face the judicial process. There exists a recent precedent of sorts when his wife, Sara, was charged with smilier crimes. She ultimately struck a plea deal that saved her from serving prison time.
Netanyahu could look to make a similar deal if conviction appears imminent. Even if he does not serve jail time, there is the question of his political future. This year’s elections have shown that his influence is waning as Likud continued to lose more seats. Netanyahu has been a staple of Israeli politics for two decades, so there would be an undeniable void without him. However Israel has made clear, twice now this year, that it is prepared to move on. Politics is a difficult game without being a convicted criminal; Netanyahu must realize how much that difficulty would increase upon a possible conviction.
Barring a return to the office of prime minister, he could serve Likud in another capacity, such as an advisor or party official. Despite criminal convictions, he would still carry weight for the conservative faction of Israeli politics, the question is would it be willing to carry Netanyahu?