Little sign of agreement as Israel enters its final week to avoid a third election

Benjamin Netanyahu is still holding out to begins his trial as a sitting prime minister


The consensus in Israeli politics as this week drew to a close was that a third election in 12 months, formerly unthinkable, is now inevitable.

With the December 11 deadline looming, a meeting on Tuesday between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to try break the deadlock was over in just 45 minutes.

And before Mr Gantz had even stepped out of the prime minister’s office, a Likud statement was already blaming him and his Blue & White colleagues for dragging Israel to another election.

Blue & White, less experienced in spin and narrative-setting, was slower off the mark, but eventually accused Mr Netanyahu of putting himself before the country.

In the meeting, they said, the prime minister had refused to say that he would not seek parliamentary immunity from the charges of bribery and fraud now facing him.

The nub of the disagreement between the two parties remains unchanged since September’s election: Mr Netanyahu wants to remain prime minister at least for the start of national unity government’s term, while Blue & White refuses to serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges.

Likud’s latest proposal reduced the period Mr Netanyahu will remain in office to just the first five or six months of the government’s term, before effectively handing over the reins to Mr Gantz.

Mr Netanyahu claims he needs the extra time to complete a number of crucial diplomatic moves — the annexation of the Jordan Valley and a strategic defence treaty with the United States.

The prevailing view, however, is that he wants the time to ensure that he begins his trial as a sitting prime minister.

Either way, Mr Gantz is wavering. He wants to end the political uncertainty and is unhappy that Likud is portraying his party as the reason for a third election.

His colleagues in Blue & White’s “cockpit”, however, are adamant that Mr Netanyahu is not to be trusted and are pressing him to stay firm.

One senior MK in the party said this week: “I hope Gantz holds.”

But Mr Netanyahu is not the only one pressuring him to relent. MKs in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party urged their leader to consider joining a narrow right-wing government under Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Lieberman himself this week launched another broadside against Shas and United Torah Judaism, the prime minister’s Strictly Orthodox allies, but given Yisrael Beiteinu is a party so tightly controlled by its leader, it is hard to believe the MKs were acting of their own accord.

Mr Lieberman, so often spoken of as the kingmaker of Israeli politics, is now facing a much less advantageous situation. Yisrael Beiteinu’s eight seats could complete a majority needed for a narrow government headed by either candidate, but that would entail angering a sizable chunk of his voters.

A government with Mr Netanyahu and the Strictly Orthodox parties would break his key election promise to join only a secular national unity government, while one led by Mr Gantz, with the tacit support of the Arab Joint List, would be unthinkable for a nationalist party like his.

But at the same time Mr Lieberman is concerned even more than the other party leaders about a third election. Yisrael Beiteinu nearly doubled its vote between the two elections of 2019, and many of these new voters have little loyalty to the party. They could drift elsewhere next time.

Mr Lieberman’s conundrum is one of the reasons why, despite the deadlock, a way out may be found by midnight next Wednesday. He will use every threat possible to cajole Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz to somehow sit together.

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