Gantz has until midnight Wednesday to announce a government, then secure enough support in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to approve the new configuration.
If not, Israel will enter politically uncharted territory, with even the keenest of political observers saying they have no idea what might happen next — though most are betting it will set Israel on the path to a third national election in less than a year.
Representatives from his party have met numerous times with counterparts from Likud, but both sides have refused to compromise on key demands — mainly who would serve as prime minister first in a rotation and which other parties might be included in an arrangement. Netanyahu, who previously had the chance to form a government, failed on the same sticking points.
With Gantz unable so far to line up a majority of members in the Knesset, he could try for a minority government, dependent on support outside his coalition from Arab-Israeli parliamentarians.
Netanyahu launched a campaign this weekend to block such an effort, saying it would be “dangerous” to rely on Arab support. Critics called Netanyahu’s statements incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens.
At a Likud “emergency rally” on Sunday, Netanyahu, backed by a row of serious-looking ministers, appealed to Gantz and his Blue and White party not to seek an arrangement with the Joint List faction of mostly Arab lawmakers. The prime minister warned such a deal would be an “existential threat” to Israel, accusing Arab Knesset members of openly supporting terror organizations and “calling our soldiers murderers.”
“Arabs can be Zionists and support the state of Israel, but they aren’t Zionists and they don’t support the state of Israel,” Netanyahu told the rally. “To be dependent on them all the time, especially at the current time, is an enormous danger to Israel and a breach of a kind never seen before in the history of the country.”
Arab leaders filed an official complaint against him with the Knesset’s Ethics Committee, accusing him of incitement. Joint List heads Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi said they received increased death threats over the past few days.
“Netanyahu’s speech wasn’t a campaign kickoff — it was an attempt to incite a civil war,” said Odeh. “There has never been a prime minister who thrived so much on division, hate and racism. The more Jews and Arabs hate each other, the more he benefits.”
Yair Lapid, Gantz’s No. 2 in Blue and White, said Netanyahu’s actions were not befitting a prime minister, recalling the days before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination when right-wing politicians accused him of endangering Israel’s security.
“The words coming out of Netanyahu’s mouth in the past few days are incitement to violence,” said Lapid.
Political commentators and Netanyahu’s rivals say they believe the prime minister has become alarmist because he has so much riding on whether he remains in office. Staying in power, they say, would help him contend with an imminent indictment in three criminal cases of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to decide whether to prosecute Netanyahu, possibly as soon as next week.
“The wild card is the indictment, which will most likely be issued next week, adding another twist of complication into the story,” said Yuval Shany, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
If Gantz is unable to form a government by the deadline, Israel will enter a phase during which any one of the Knesset’s 120 members would have 21 days to assemble a parliamentary majority, consisting of at least 61 members. In reality, however, most believe the only two politicians who have a chance of achieving that are Netanyahu and Gantz.
“I have no idea what will happen in the 21 days. Israel has never been in this situation before,” said Tal Shalev, diplomatic and political correspondent for the news website Walla. “Supposedly it will put Netanyahu in a better situation because he already has the support of 55 Knesset members and only needs one more party.”
Shalev said the next 48 hours also depended on Avigdor Liberman, the former hawkish defense minister who resigned from Netanyahu’s government a year ago, sparking the current political crisis.
So far, Liberman has refrained from backing either Gantz or Netanyahu, repeatedly calling for a unity government between Blue and White and Likud.
At a news conference on Monday, Liberman said it was a funny day. He joked that he received three calls — one telling him if he backed Netanyahu he would be finished, another telling him if he joined Gantz and the Arabs in a coalition he would be finished, and another telling him that if there was to be a third election, he would be finished.
“We live in an exciting reality,” he said.