As Israeli government formation remains stalled after the third election in a year, it appears that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frittered away the early advantage he had claimed in the aftermath of the latest election results on Tuesday. Bibi had claimed a knock-out victory though his right-wing front got only 58 seats in the 120-member parliament. Political circles concluded the Likud coalition would form the government with the help of at least three defectors.
However, as the weekend arrives there's little progress in Bibi's government formation efforts. On the other hand, the forces against him are gathering steam. In a surprising development, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has thrown his weight behind Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz. This move all but ensures that Netanyahu's stranglehold on Israeli politics would come to an end.
'Send Netanyahu to retirement'
Gantz has been trying to pass a law that would ensure an indicted Knesset member from forming a government. This effort is directly meant to thwart Netanyahu, whose trial is slated to start on March 17 on charges including corruption, fraud and abuse of power.
The unkindest cut for Netanyahu came from Lieberman, who appeared to have agreed to Gantz's plan to pass the law that disqualifies Netanyahu. "We will not let Netanyahu go to a fourth election ... Our goal is to form a government as soon as possible and send Netanyahu to retirement," Lieberman said, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Arab parties to support Gantz in forming government?
In another interesting development the Arab coalition, the Joint List, is veering around to supporting Gantz in government formation. This should come as a big surprise as no Arab party has ever been part of an Israeli government before. The Arab parties made considerable gains in the space of the last three elections, romping home with 15 seats in the latest.
Joint List leader Ayman Odeh's willingness to support Gantz in government formation might sit at odds with the Blue and White leader's past pronouncements against the Palestinian minority interests in the country but the Arabs see him as less harmful to their cause than Netanyahu. Gantz, a former military chief, had earlier talked about 'bombing Gaza back to the stone age.'
Why Gantz is lesser evil for Joint List
But, spooked by Netanyahu's ultra-nationalist stance, the Arab parties rallied their supporters under one roof, in the end dealing a deathly blow to Bibi's ambitions to extend his reign. Political analysts are certain that if the Joint List had not garnered all possible votes to win those 15 seats they won, eventually, the Likud coalition would have got a comfortable majority.
Though he failed to gain 61 seats needed to form the government, Netanyahu hang in by the skin of his teeth, raising hopes among the rank and file that he would successfully shepherd defectors to the tent and form the government.
Likud lawmakers and party officials had already started efforts to win the support of key deserters. Likud spokesman Yonatan Urich told Channel 13 earlier this week that the party was in touch with of "four to six" parliamentarians from other parties. He added that Netanyahu will form a coalition government within a few days. Orly Levy-Abecassis, Omer Yankelevich, Orly Fruman and Amir Peretz are actively courted by the Likud coalition, according to the JP.
Watershed moment in Israel politics
However, the latest reports suggest that Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz is likely to form a minority government with the outside support of the Joint List. This wouldn't have looked feasible a few days ago as Lieberman had vowed that he would not support a minority government. However, Lieberman's endorsement of the plan to deprive indicted MKs from forming the government will give a shot in the arm for Gantz's effort to form the government.
If this happens, it will also be a watershed moment in Israel politics, with the Arab parties holding considerable sway in the new government.