September’s Israeli Knesset election left me with mixed feelings, but overall I think it is a sign, thankfully, that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister is nearing an end. In April, Israel held an election that was inconclusive, with neither Likud – led by Netanyahu nor his main challenger, Benny Gantz, the head of the Blue and White party, being capable of forging a coalition that controls at least a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament.
So, Netanyahu pushed for September’s election, in which his Likud party fared even worse, at 32 seats to Blue and White’s 33. Nine parties in all made it into the new Knesset, so the task before Netanyahu and Gantz has been to garner support from other parties to reach the magic 61-seat majority. Complicating matters further, when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin consulted the other parties, Netanyahu ended with 55 seats total in support, one more than Gantz’s 54.
So who won the election? No one, so far. Neither leader has commitments for enough seats to reach the 61 needed to become prime minister.
On Sept. 25, after negotiating with both men to try to get them to form a joint government in which Gantz and Netanyahu would each serve roughly two years as prime minister, Rivlin announced his efforts had failed. Rivlin then called on Netanyahu to form a government on the premise he has a better chance at success.
Ironically, the accepted wisdom has been that neither Gantz nor Netanyahu wanted to be given the first shot to form a government – on the expectation the first one who tries will fail and the second one might succeed.
I think it would be difficult for Gantz to keep his campaign promises, which included not sitting in a coalition with Netanyahu if he is indicted and not sitting in a coalition with ultra-Orthodox and far-right-wing parties. But if Gantz manages to become prime minister, we can look forward to a period of national reconciliation, respect for the rule of law and a healthy respect for relations with the Jews of the Diaspora.
However this plays out, I think we will soon be witnessing the end of Netanyahu’s 10-year stint as prime minister. On Oct. 2, his lawyers were scheduled to represent him at a pre-indictment hearing on three serious corruption charges. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decided to indict the prime minister on the charges, but Netanyahu’s lawyers were afforded the opportunity to convince Mandelblit to reconsider.
Netanyahu could be indicted as soon as November. If he forms a coalition government before an indictment, I predict his coalition would fall apart once criminal charges are filed. I would also hope there would be a public groundswell of protest seeking his resignation.
He reportedly had been hoping to score a win in this election that would allow him to pass legislation giving prime ministers immunity from prosecution while in office. Any such hopes are now also dashed.
Netanyahu has been in office for too long. He has squandered opportunities for peace and ran an ugly election campaign in which he vilified the left wing and the 20% of the population that is Arab. Now, he is saying the country needs to be brought together.
Despite the messy math the election produced, these are the final death pangs of a prime ministerial career of a brilliant man who has sunk to new depths as he seeks to cling to office and somehow save himself from capping his political career behind bars.
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.