Exactly a week before election day, polls show a tantalizingly close dispute between Likud's ruling party and its rival, Blue and White, with the two tiles side by side.
That, anyway, is how Blue and White are talking about racing. The party presents its 30-30 seat tie with Likud as a proud victory in its own right. Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, who leads the newly formed centrist centrist team, has gone from being a political neophyte to estranging the prime minister. And only the emergence that the party can offer a viable challenge to Likud in office is in itself an electoral advantage that has a strong potential to attract voters eager to send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pack.
According to the party and its leaders, the man who marked a decade in power on Sunday is dangerously close to losing his first election since his victory in 2009, and Gantz is on the verge of a political revolution. All he needs is a final push to give more seats to Blue and White than Likud, and he will replace Netanyahu as Prime Minister, they say.
Just seven days before the national vote, the party strategy is focused on one thing: overcoming Likud.
"Our focus is on being the biggest party, making sure we're ahead when we get there on April 9," Blue and White spokesman Yarden Avriel told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
In a message addressed to non-Likud voters, but from other parties also campaigning against an anti-Netanyahu platform, Blue and White say the only way to ensure that the prime minister is toppled is to bring together the banner of his main rival . .
"Anyone who wants to see us building the coalition has to vote for us; anyone who wants Benny Gantz as prime minister needs to vote for us, "Avriel said. "When we are the biggest party, the task of building the government will be put into our hands."
There is only one problem: this is not necessarily true.
Israeli governments are not composed of individual parties, but of coalitions that rarely contain less than four parties. Therefore, the election winners are not necessarily the biggest parties, but the biggest blocs. When center party Kadima, under Tzipi Livni, won 28 seats in the 2009 election, Netanyahu, with only 27 seats, became prime minister because his Likud could count on enough party support to give him a majority in the Knesset of 120 seats.
That is why Likud is insisting that it is winning the election.
Both the party in power and its rival are around 30 seats each. But a right-wing Likud-led bloc, which has said parties prefer to see Netanyahu in power, dramatically increases to between 52 and 62 seats or more. With the support of both right-wing parties – the New Right, Union of Right-Wing Parties and Yisrael Beytenu – and the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, Likud's path to a stable governing coalition is shorter than its rival.
Blue and White's stated strategy is based on a simple calculation: the better they do on election day, the more the race will be decided by a man – President Reuven Rivlin
For Blue and White, having virtually ruled out the two Arab-Israeli parties, Raam-Balad and Taal-Hadash (and almost all excluded by them), Gantz can only comfortably rely on the support of Labor and Meretz, leaving them with a comfort of 40 to 45 seats. And only the center-right Kulanu, a member of the current coalition, and the new Zehut libertarian-nationalist party – probably with only eight to ten seats among them – suggested opening up to join Blue and White or Likud.
Gantz's ability to lead a coalition is therefore based on three interconnected factors: the possibility that several parties enter the Knesset without passing the electoral threshold, dramatically altering the balance of power between the two main blocs; The last seat record in the Blue and White Knesset; and if the parties maintain their loyalties after all the votes have been counted.
But ultimately, Blue and White's stated strategy is based on a simple calculation: the better they do on election day, the more the race will be decided by one man – President Reuven Rivlin.
There are three steps to an Israeli election: parliamentary election, prime minister presidential selection and coalition talks to form a government with a parliamentary majority.
The people of Israel have only voice in the first part. The third part usually fits, eventually.
And so, eight days before the open polls, is the second stage, the presidential selection of a prime minister, who is the great unknown of the dispute. If 61 or more MKs recommend a candidate, Rivlin will almost certainly make the candidate build a coalition. If no one reaches most of the newly elected 120 MKs, there is no clear guideline on how Rivlin should decide who to entrust to the leadership of the government, and some legal limitations.
By law, the designated prime minister could be any of the 120 newly elected MKs. She or he does not have to be the boss of the biggest party, or even the boss of a party. And Netanyahu is deeply concerned that Rivlin, a president with whom he has openly collided, may exhibit more creativity than his predecessors.
In a series of carefully chosen appearances in recent weeks, Rivlin has indeed begun to make it clear that he will not be intimidated, even if he remains painfully opaque about what he plans to do.
Delivering a civics education lesson last week to 12th graders in Beit Shemesh, Rivlin said his role was that of an emissary of the people – and no one else. "In the State of Israel, and in any democratic state, there is only one sovereign and this is not the government, but the people. There are many different views and types of people. As a general rule, the president must take into account what the people wanted in the election, as expressed in the voting results, "he told the students.
Two scenarios that Rivlin can see as "what people want" haunt Netanyahu.
First, if Netanyahu's own Likud party saw its chance to lead the next government threatened by the corruption charges that are expected to be tabled against the prime minister after the election, theoretically there would be nothing to stop Netanyahu's own MKs to recommend them. premier another candidate among their ranks.
Prior to Likud's February primary, Netanyahu explicitly stated that Likud's former Likud popular minister, Gideon Sa?, Who had just returned to politics after a break, devised a scheme with Rivlin that would see the president remove Netanyahu after of the elections and the task Sa & 39; with the formation of a government in its place. He even tried unsuccessfully to amend one of Israel's almost constitutional Basic Laws to ensure that only the leader of each elected political party has the right to form a government and not any other figure on party lists.
In the second scenario, if neither the right block nor the center-left block has a majority, the president must indicate the person he believes has the best chance of forming a coalition. And that's where it gets complicated. If, for example, more MKs recommend Netanyahu as prime minister, but Blue and White is the largest party by a significant margin, the president could argue that the will of the people calls for Gantz to get the first attempt to build a coalition. .
The fierce political battle that could take place between Netanyahu and Gantz, who would argue that they represent the will of the people, would be matched in gravity only by the arguments of constitutional scholars.
"The rule is that the biggest party has the first chance to build a government," said constitutional Suzie Navot, who teaches at Haim Striks Law School, dismissing the assumption that the number of recommendations has more weight. It is true that in 2009 Livni's Kadima had one more seat than Likud, "but that was an exception. If the difference between the two largest parties was greater, it would be much harder for the president to allow the smaller party to make the first attempt. "
Dr. Ofer Kenig, a professor at the Ashkelon Academic College and researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, said, however, that the situation would be "a definite headache for Rivlin."
According to Kenig, just having more seats, even with a big difference from the second part, does not guarantee "that you have a better chance of forming a stable coalition within a reasonable time frame."
"I think the president will ignore this calculation," he said, in the situation where Netanyahu has the support of most of the members of the new Knesset.
Rivlin himself said both options are feasible.
"The question is," he told the students in Beit Shemesh, "what does the president do when there is no majority for a single person? What should he take into account? Maybe the biggest party? It may be a question of how many MKs support a candidate, as opposed to those who support a different candidate, and whether the MK who has received the most support has the best chance of persuading others to form a coalition with him. "
Uselessly for Netanyahu, for now the president seems more eager to ask questions than provide answers.
Attack the block
But Rivlin could also face another dilemma. If the Likud-led right-wing bloc could not get at least 61 seats, and Blue and White became the biggest party, Gantz may not even need a majority to become prime minister.
The law here is also ambiguous: most MKs can topple a government with a vote of mistrust, but a government does not need majority support, and the coalition may theoretically exist at less than 61 MKs. The Basic Law: The government explicitly says that a simple majority – as opposed to a 61-seat majority – is sufficient.
This is what Netanyahu means when he warns that Blue and White will form an "obstructing block" of parts that want to get rid of him, even with those less enthusiastic about a Prime Minister Gantz. In an effort to galvanize right-wing voters, the prime minister said his main challenger is cooperating with Arab parties in an effort to overthrow Likud's decades-long rule. In fact, it has become one of the main themes of the party's election campaign.
In a recent video, Netanyahu, dressed in a used apron over a suit and tie, spills a little oil and breaks two eggs into a frying pan.
"Okay, that's what I can cook. But I know what they're cooking, "he says, referring to Blue and White. "They are cooking a leftist government, backed by leftist parties and Arab parties. They will not fool anyone. "
The subtext is obvious: a warning to Likud's Hawkean voters that the vote on the centrist blue-and-white list will give sinister powers to Arab parties, which most Jewish Israelis consider beyond the limit. Only a strong Likud will secure a right-wing coalition and will not need the support of anti-Zionist parties.
The establishment of a minority government shortly after the parliamentary elections would be unprecedented in Israel, but it is theoretically an option, say several constitutional scholars.
"It's certainly a possible scenario," said Gideon Rahat, who teaches political science at Hebrew University. "Minority governments exist throughout the world. In this particular case, the Arab parties need not actively support Gantz. All they need to do is not oppose it.
Kenig, the IDI fellow, agreed the possibility exists, but said he believed Gantz would dismiss it for political reasons. "To start the government relying on the external support of the Arab parties – publicly, it would be crucified," he said.
But Rivlin criticized efforts to deprive political parties and, in a rare display of public outrage, criticized the "utterly unacceptable speech against Arab citizens of Israel in these elections."
Speaking at a conference marking the 40th anniversary of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt last month, Rivlin said: "There are, and will not be, second-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters … We are all the same in the voting booth – Jews and Arabs, citizens of the State of Israel. "
All the same. All legitimate. All an option.
Instead of any Blue-and-White or Likud-led bloc succeeding in any of the above scenarios, there remains one final and dramatic choice at Rivlin's disposal, which he himself warned may be his preferred choice: if no candidate wins the 61 recommendations for a definitive appointment, the president may decide to force a government of national unity.
Can the president do that? Yes, with surprising ease.
"In these highly charged days, I ask everyone to follow in Eshkol's footsteps: the path of reconciliation and acceptance, seeing the other as a legitimate partner for common political action – not as the internal enemy to be fought against"
According to Kenig, it is completely within the constitutional rights of Rivlin to offer an ultimatum to Gantz and Netanyahu: to agree with a national unity government, to divide the first division by rotation, or to see his opponent have his first chance at the premier.
In fact, "it is the most realistic [scenario]Kenig said.
Rivlin's comments, delivered in a commendation last month for the 50th anniversary of the death of former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, can confirm that.
Eshkol was not just a party man. From the time he was elected prime minister, he was the leader of all Israel. When I say leader, I mean in the broadest sense of the world: a man with the power to imagine a different reality, a better reality than the current one, and the ability to make it happen. That was Eshkol, "said Rivlin, probably trying to avoid Netnayhu's gaze sitting in the front row, or perhaps finding him.
Citing the decision to bring rival party Herut to government before the Six Day War in 1967, Rivlin said that Eshkol's order to bring the remains of the revisionist icon Ze'ev and Jabotinsky to Israel "was the first and crucial step to accept Herut as a legitimate political movement. "
"And then came the second dramatic step that Eshkol took as prime minister," observed Rivlin. "Eshkol, who understood that Herut was a legitimate part of the country, was wise enough to agree to include the party led by Begin in national unity government on the eve of the war. "
At the end of his remarks, with Netanyahu now folding his arms over his chest, Rivlin finally abandoned his ambiguity: "In these highly charged days, I ask everyone to follow in the footsteps of Eshkol: the path of reconciliation and acceptance, seeing the other. as a legitimate partner for common political action – not as the internal enemy to be fought. "
Meanwhile, while their campaigns are enraged, Gantz and Netanyahu have announced that they will not sit in one government with the other – as if the choice were theirs alone.
Raphael Ahren and Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report,