Israeli president's refusal could boost Prime Minister Netanyahu's grip on power

JERUSALEM (BLOOMBERG) – Israel’s president rejected Benny Gantz’s request for more time to put together a government, improving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of holding on to power.

President Reuven Rivlin took the rare step of refusing an extension on Sunday (April 12) after understanding from Netanyahu that he and Gantz weren’t close to the power-sharing agreement they committed to pursue to help the country weather the coronavirus outbreak. Unless both men jointly request to extend Gantz’s coalition-building brief before it expires at midnight Monday, then Rivlin has said he’ll give Parliament three weeks to nominate someone for the task.

Netanyahu would assuredly be that person because no one else in the Knesset can draw the kind of support he can.

Under the current circumstances, three alternatives exist, and all of them favour Netanyahu, despite his looming graft trial. The prime minister could keep trying to form a government with Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, whose leverage to extract concessions – including a stint as premier – has shrunken dramatically.

Netanyahu can try to peel off more defectors from the opposition camp after successfully wooing one lawmaker on Sunday, allowing him to build a coalition without Gantz, a former military chief.

If his powers of persuasion fall short, snap elections have become a go-to solution ever since Netanyahu first dissolved Knesset in December 2018.

“A couple of weeks ago we felt quite certain that we were going to get a government and avoid another election,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Now, ” we are back to the multiple-option waiting game instead of waiting for a government to be formed.”

If Israel heads to its fourth election since April 2019, then polls show Netanyahu strengthened enough since last month’s vote to win the election outright. Surveys haven’t favoured the prime minister this much since the inconclusive election cycle began, and now he has no serious challenger. By agreeing three weeks ago to team up with Netanyahu in government despite the bribery and fraud charges against him, Gantz broke up a broad political alliance that fought the prime minister to a draw in each of the votes.

Yoram Meital, a professor Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, gives equal odds to a unity government and another round of balloting.

“Rivlin’s decision reflects political reality: Gantz cannot form a government,” Meital said. “Prime Minister Bibi was once again revealed in his full capacity to dismantle a political opponent,” he added, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

Talks on a power-sharing deal faltered after the prime minister demanded veto power over the appointment of judges, a tool he could use to control which justices are involved in his three corruption cases. Netanyahu is accused of illicitly accepting gifts and scheming with media moguls to influence legislation to their benefit in exchange for sympathetic coverage.

The urgency to form a governing coalition and avert a fourth round of elections has grown as the toll from the coronavirus mounts. The number of confirmed cases has topped 11,000, with more than 100 dead. A near-lockdown has crippled the economy, which is forecast to shrink by 5.3 per cent this year, according to the Bank of Israel.

With the clock running down, Netanyahu supporters in Parliament have asked Rivlin to assign the coalition-building task to the prime minister after Gantz’s mandate expires. Tasking someone with indictments hanging over his head may be an obstacle to Rivlin, whose ties with the prime minister are already tense.

Former Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, whose Telem faction split from Blue and White after Gantz cast his lot with Netanyahu, urged the general on Monday to abandon his negotiations with the prime minister.

“Benny, it’s already clear that your naive intention to be drafted to an emergency government has come up against the cynical nefariousness of a fugitive from justice,” Yaalon wrote on Twitter on Monday. “It’s not too late to correct your navigational error.”

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