It’s a Third Vote or Magic in a Bitterly Divided Nation

Jews have a venerable history as practitioners of the black arts, dating back to biblical times. Divination is specifically forbidden in halakha (Jewish religious law) and the sheer number of condemnations of the practice in the Talmud is a good indication that it was widespread. In the Middle Ages, demonology, the writing of amulets and other techniques (known collectively as Practical Kabbalah) were common, though great sages such as Abraham Abulafia and Isaac Luria condemned them.

Closer to our own day, Harry Houdini, probably the most famous magician of the modern age, was a member of the tribe (born Erik Weisz) and David Copperfield (born David Kotkin), one of the leading contemporary magicians, is also one of us.

Sadly, Jewish magic seems to be a primarily diaspora-based art. Spoon-bender Uri Geller was Israel’s great white hope in the Eighties, but his reputation disappeared (magically) after he lost three libel lawsuits the following decade. Other than the enduring fantasy that Israel was promised to the Jews by god, magic has not been a notable feature of the Israeli landscape.

That lacuna has been on public display in recent weeks, with two leading politicians – Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz – laboring to pull a coalition rabbit out of the hat without apparent success. Houdini was able to escape from handcuffs and chains while under water, but Israeli politicians, it appears, do not have the magical touch. The time might have come for those who dabble in both politics and religion to appeal to Ezekiel and other prophets of yore for supernatural assistance.

Gantz’s mandate to establish a government runs out at midnight tonight. Failing a last-minute feat of sorcery, the hot potato (excuse the mixed metaphors) will revert to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, for wizardry of a more prosaic nature.

By law, once the candidates mandated by the president to establish a government (in this case Netanyahu and Gantz) have failed to do so, all Knesset members have a 21-day period to garner a 61-seat majority and present it to the president. Alternately, the Knesset can vote to call new elections, as if did earlier this year after Netanyahu was unable to cobble together a coalition in the wake of the first of 2019’s two elections.

The latter course seems the most likely, though there are a small number of intriguing possibilities on the political margins.

The current deadlock is the consequence of two entrenched positions adopted by Netanyahu and Gantz’s refusal to accept them. The first is Netanyahu’s insistence that he serve as initial prime minister in a wide government (incorporating both Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Gantz’s Blue & White bloc) headed by rotating prime ministers. The second is his insistence that the Likud be accompanied by its current religious and far-right partners in any new government.

Neither demand was acceptable to Gantz and the three other Blue & White leaders (all but one a former general and chief of staff), thus stymieing their own coalition-building efforts as well as those of Netanyahu.

But opening the field to all Knesset members could prompt a run by Gideon Sa’ar, a prominent Likud parliamentarian who is widely regarded as Netanyahu’s only feasible challenger within the party. Sa’ar, a man of marked ambition, has been chaffing at the bit for several years already. Though he has sworn fealty to Netanyahu, the prospect of achieving his life’s goal could well consign his loyalty to the dustbin.

A breakaway move by Sa’ar would potentially split the Likud, rupture its alliance with the religious and far-right parties and give Gantz what he has been waiting and hoping for – sufficient numbers of Likud and religious seats to form a government. It would also remove the ubiquitous Netanyahu from the equation, which would be a major achievement.

At this stage, though, it is impossible to gauge the extent of Sa’ar’s likely support in the event of secession. No doubt that is the arithmetic that he himself is toiling at right now. Without guaranteed numbers, he is unlikely to jeopardize his future prospects.

Another (and probably more likely) wildcard is Avigdor Lieberman, a wily, right-wing opportunist of Moldovan origin whose eight Knesset seats (his Yisrael Beiteinu party is only the fifth largest in the parliament) have been the crux of all the post-election politicking this year. Though Lieberman’s politics are, if anything, to the right of Netanyahu’s, his refusal to sit with the premier’s religious partners has twice thwarted the establishment of a right-religious government this year.

In the absence of a schism in the Likud, Lieberman will continue to be the kingmaker, a role he has played adroitly for the past nine months. If he chooses to throw in his lot with Netanyahu (highly unlikely – he could have done so months ago) there will be a right-wing government; if he chooses to support Gantz there could be a center-left government relying on the support of Arab parties (almost unthinkable in the current Israeli context); if he chooses not to choose there will be new elections – the third in the space of a year.

Lieberman is an inscrutable politician, given to wild talk and unpredictable action. He is not known for upholding high ethical standards, though his resolute stand against religious blackmail has placed him on an unlikely moral pedestal. That said, it could be the result of canny, self-serving calculation. It’s difficult to know with him.

There are various other permutations that could potentially produce a government without a third election, though none is likely to pan out without a big dollop of magic. As things stand, and barring a supreme conjuring feat by Gantz between now and midnight tonight, Lieberman and, to a lesser extent, Sa’ar are holding all the cards.

Neither man is known to be a necromancer, though both are experienced and cunning political operators. They deal in the alchemy of hard political bargaining – self-interest, fear, ambition, mendacity and flimsy commitments.

Things are likely to get very interesting.