It has been just over two weeks since President Ruvi Rivlin assigned the mandate to form a government to Benny Gantz, and so far Gantz has had no more success than did Prime Minister Netanyahu before him. Netanyahu has held fast to his two conditions to enter a unity government – that it include all the parties in the 55 MK right-wing bloc and that he go first in any prime ministerial rotation – while Gantz has maintained his refusal to entertain these conditions. The stalemate has been impervious to outside pressures or attempts to end it, whether it be Rivlin’s proposal to create a mechanism for a prime minister to be declared incapacitated without stepping down, Avigdor Liberman’s proposal to establish a government of Kachol Lavan, Likud, and his Yisrael Beiteinu in order to pass a budget and then open it up to other parties, or various leaks from the pending cases against Netanyahu meant to sway Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit into hurrying indictments or dropping the charges altogether.
But this week saw a new proposal intended to break the deadlock that originated in the right-wing bloc, and it is one that Netanyahu has not welcomed and that in many ways appears to be a trap for him. It was a suggestion from Shas leader Aryeh Deri that rather than hold a third Knesset election should Gantz not be able to form a government before his mandate expires, Israel should hold a one-time election for prime minister. The makeup of the Knesset would not change, but either Netanyahu or Gantz would be declared the clear winner, and that would remove the obstacles that now exist preventing both from creating a successful coalition. After Deri floated the idea, a couple of other prominent right-wing politicians – Ayelet Shaked and newly elected Likud faction chairman Miki Zohar – came out in favor of it despite Netanyahu’s reported rejection of it, and Labor chief Amir Peretz endorsed the idea as well.
Directly electing the prime minister – an electoral feature that Israel tried for two elections beginning with Netanyahu’s first victory in 1996 – carries several benefits, beyond the fact that it would avert a third Knesset election in the span of less than a year this time around. If the issue of who will serve as prime minister is settled, it would almost certainly break the logjam that currently exists due to various political calculations. For instance, Liberman’s refusal to recommend either Netanyahu or Gantz is a negotiating strategy designed to elicit the most concessions from whichever is first willing to engage in Liberman’s game, but it only works because Liberman has the power, should he decide to use it, to determine which of the two men will be prime minister. Liberman could tomorrow announce that he and his eight seats are joining the 55 member right-wing bloc, or that he will support a Gantz-led minority government from the outside, and this whole episode would be over. He only gets to be kingmaker or spoiler because he has a choice; if the prime minister was predetermined, then his incentive would be to go with whomever he actually prefers as quickly as possible.
Similarly, the Haredi parties have stuck with the 55 MK bloc not only because they feel more comfortable with Netanyahu and other right-wing prime ministers, but because they are terrified of being left out of a coalition and the safest political bet is the conservative one of not making any sudden moves or big waves. If, however, Gantz were to win a direct election, the Haredi parties would be the first to jump ship and sign a coalition agreement with Gantz, doing whatever they could to ensure their inclusion in a government and the continuing flow of benefits to their community that is their overriding political priority.
But leaving aside the ways in which a one-off non-precedent setting election for prime minister would alleviate the current impasse, the fact that it is being brought up should worry Netanyahu. For starters, the voting patterns in the last election suggests that he would probably lose a head to head election with Gantz. Assuming that voters who supported Likud, Shas, UTJ, and Yamina would vote for Netanyahu, and that voters who supported Kachol Lavan, Labor, Democratic Union, and the Joint List would vote for Gantz, that gives Gantz an edge out of the gate. While Liberman’s voters are harder to gauge, the evidence suggests that some of his recent success has come from voters who do not like Netanyahu’s policies that cater to the Haredi and religious Zionist parties, and Liberman himself spent the last campaign largely positioned against Netanyahu. Furthermore, while it is difficult to envision anyone in the Gantz camp defecting to Netanyahu in a direct election given the intensity of the anti-Netanyahu voting coalition, there may be some Shas voters who are not as committed to Netanyahu as Likud or Yamina supporters.
And even if this math is incorrect and Netanyahu would fare better in a direct election than my analysis suggests, the introduction of this proposal by Deri and its backing by Shaked should scare him nonetheless. Shas and Hayamin Hehadash are widely viewed as the two elements in the 55 MK bloc most susceptible to being drawn away from Netanyahu. They are also the parties who are at the head of the list of actors who most want to avoid new elections. Shaked missed the threshold in April, leaving her and Naftali Bennett out of the Knesset, and only made it in September despite a lackluster performance by forming the Yamina technical bloc. A third election puts her and her Hayamin Hehadash colleagues at risk once again. And while Shas has had no problem making the threshold, it is unlikely to better its September performance and does not have the same command over its voters as UTJ. Deri and Shaked want to see this resolved without another full Knesset election, while Netanyahu is unmistakably pushing for the opposite outcome. That two leading members of his bloc are undermining him when his only chance for survival lies in holding that bloc together come hell or high water is a bad political omen for him.
Whether Deri’s gambit works or not, it is the first tangible sign of dissension in the ranks, and it may not be the last. Now that the seal of challenging Netanyahu’s party line has been broken by those inside the Netanyahu tent, it may make a more significant defection or revolt easier. While the idea of another election just to determine who will serve as prime minister seems a bit cockamamie and came out of the blue, it may be a harbinger of much bigger trouble ahead for Netanyahu as the sand in the hourglass of a third election gets closer to running out and the pressure on everyone to avert another vote for Knesset reaches its height.