The hosts of a morning news show on Israeli public radio recently discussed a matter of terminology that over the past 10 years would have been almost unthinkable. It had to do with what to call Benjamin Netanyahu.
He has been prime minister for 10 consecutive years. That’s so long that Israelis in their early teens have no recollection of anyone else leading the country. But following Israel’s election in April, he failed to form a government – failed to build a coalition with other parties that together with his Likud party would command a majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
Rather than ceding the task to Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, his main political rival, who by all accounts would have failed too, Netanyahu pushed through a bill dissolving parliament and holding new elections in September. But Netanyahu’s Likud fared no better in September, and last week he informed Israel’s president he had failed again. So the morning radio show hosts wondered what to call Netanyahu. The outgoing prime minister?
It certainly looks like it. But that assumes there is someone else who will succeed where Netanyahu failed. On Oct. 23, after Netanyahu acknowledged he had failed, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, gave Gantz the 28 days the law permits to take a stab at the task. If Gantz fails, the law allows any member of the Knesset to attempt to command a majority in the 21 days that follow. If that comes to naught, there would be new elections.
I don’t think there will be new elections, because the voters would punish any politician who is seen as responsible for three elections in a year. Elections would not only be expensive, they would prolong a crazy situation in which the country has been run on autopilot by a caretaker government that cannot make major decisions. If there were a major crisis of some kind, even the “outgoing prime minister” would have the authority to handle it, but something as basic as a 2020 national budget might not be passed by Jan. 1, 2020.
If Gantz fails, the pressure will be on during the final 21-day period to somehow resolve the current deadlock, probably through a national unity government headed by both Likud and Blue and White. If I were betting on the outcome, that’s where I would put my money, as would many in Israel because during that final period, the pressure would really be on to avoid a third election.
But there is something else to consider – a deus ex machina – which Webster’s dictionary defines as “a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” Israel potentially has one in the form of Avichai Mandelblit, the country’s attorney general.
He announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption cases, subject to a hearing at which Netanyahu’s lawyers could try to convince Mandelblit that charges are not warranted. The hearing was held almost a month ago, and now it’s decision time for Mandelblit.
The decision could come at any time. If he decides to indict Netanyahu, which is thought likely, and if the charges include bribery, I would predict Netanyahu will resign and pave the way for a new coalition led by Gantz, perhaps including members of Netanyahu’s own Likud, but without Netanyahu.
Mandelblit, the deus ex machina, not only holds Netanyahu’s future in his hands but in many respects, the country’s. And let’s hope he makes his decision within the next month and a half, before the third round of elections becomes inevitable.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel. To read more of Savren’s columns, visit cjn.org/savren.