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Sorry, Gantz: Israel Is Heading To A Third Election. A Conversation With Ehud Olmert

Benny Gantz has now been given the mandate to form a government, and the clock is ticking. He is pledging to form a liberal unity government and warning that the Israeli public will not forgive anyone who refuses to join and drags the country into third elections in the space of just one year.

But it’s going to take a third round of elections to allow Gantz to form his “national reconciliation government.” That’s the belief of Ehud Olmert, the last person to form a centrist government in Israel. We met on the sidelines of the Dialogue of Civilizations Rhodes Forum to brainstorm the next steps — and why it will take one more vote to topple Netanyahu from power.

First, Netanyahu’s time is over.

“The fact is, he can’t form a government,” Olmert says. “The fact is, he convenes the Likud Central Committee to create an event of dramatic support for himself… and 10% of the central committee members show up. That shows that even in his own center, he’s the past, not the future.” Note that yesterday, President Rivlin called Netanyahu “the outgoing Prime Minister.”

The problem is, Gantz doesn’t have the numbers for a government. “The only conceivable government is a unity government: Blue & White, Likud, and maybe Lieberman,” says Olmert. For now, the Likud is sticking loyally by its leader. That leaves one option for a minority government: Blue & White, Labour, and Yisrael Beitenu. But that requires Gantz to defy political gravity.

“To establish a 61-seat government, they need both Lieberman and the Arabs,” Olmert says. “You think that’s a possibility? Lieberman entering a government that depends on the Arabs’ support? Even from the outside? Or alternatively, that the Arabs will join a Blue & White government supported by Lieberman? Who said they’re not his rivals but his enemies and shouldn’t even be in the Knesset? These things might be numerically possible, but they’re never going to happen in real life.”

Another option is a Gantz-led minority government with left-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, propped up by the Joint List. But not only would the ultra-Orthodox have to decide “unilaterally” to end their “covenant of blood” with the Likud, Olmert says; they’d have to agree to sit with their sworn rival Yair Lapid. And all that, for a very fragile government: “I’m not sure Gantz will want to form a government whose survival is already in doubt because it’s a minority government, built on the support of the Arabs.”

That leaves only the possibility that the Likud will jettison Netanyahu, or, barring any surprises, third elections will be triggered automatically.

In those third elections, Olmert believes the Likud will be significantly weakened: “In the third elections—the Likud bloc already lost 11 seats; I think the Likud will lose a similar number of seats. Then it will be possible to form a coalition without it.”

Once that happens, the picture will look different. The ultra-Orthodox parties will have the freedom to end their marriage vows with the Likud. After all, there is no reason in principle why they can’t sit with Blue & White. Shas served in Olmert’s government, and he saw Kadima as “100%” a secular party.

“I also sat with the Haredim when I was mayor of Jerusalem, don’t forget,” Olmert reminds me. “They were my allies. Even today, they would sit with me in any constellation I’d be in. They’d go with me, in any case.”

The Haredi parties can make the compromises to sit in a Gantz-led government, Olmert says. “Public transport on Shabbat is something the Haredim can compromise on. If they need to, they will,” he says, adding that conversion reform will be harder to swallow. “Anything that doesn’t compel the Haredim in a way that influences their lifestyle but reflects the lifestyle of other sections of society is something they can compromise on.”

If the numbers are tight, Olmert believes the Joint List — an alliance of Arab parties — is “certainly” a partner for a potential centrist coalition, without the Arab nationalist Balad.

“I think it’s time. What’s the big deal? Do we seriously think we can run this country while disqualifying in advance 20% of the population from entering the government? It’s inconceivable.” He concedes “there probably won’t be such a government” if the Joint List threatens to topple it over any military operations, “but in principle, can they be a partner? In my opinion, yes.”

The Joint List surprised many by recommending Gantz as prime minister. But this might not signal as great a change as it seems from 2006, when they declined to recommend Olmert as prime minister.

“When I formed a government in 2006, I didn’t need them,” he says. “I still invited them for my consultations before I decided on the makeup of the coalition, and I told them I didn’t rule them out.”

Has Olmert been advising Gantz on how to navigate the political minefield? He remains tight-lipped: “I’m not his advisor.” We have 28 days to see whether Gantz proves Olmert wrong and forms a government without a third round of elections next year.

Eylon A. Levy is a news anchor and correspondent at i24NEWS.

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